Local swimmers Janet Hu, Willa Wang and Lauren Hine got a scare on Halloween.
Not from ghosts or ghouls, but from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which let them know what they would be in for as they advanced through the ranks of elite swimming competition — namely, routine invasions of privacy in the interest of clean competition, and a harsh testing system.
They got some treats, too, such as the chance to spend time with U.S. Olympic medal winner Margaret Hoelzer, who told them about her experiences as she progressed through the national team system.
The trio — Hu, 13, Wang, 14, and Hine, 15, — were among the 60 attendees at USA Swimming’s 2009 National Select Camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs this past weekend. The camp, nearing its 10th anniversary, is designed to provide a crash course in senior elite swimming to promising young athletes on the cusp of making their first junior or senior national teams.
Scott Ward of the Eagle Swim Team in Owings Mills, Md., was the assistant men’s coach. Machine Aquatics’s Paris Jacobs served as women’s national team manager.
“It was really exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time,” said Wang, a home-schooled high school freshman who trains along with Hine under Scott Armstrong at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. They let us know, “Now we’re in the pipeline for the national team.”
The opportunities to break through for young swimmers can be scarce as the sport’s top athletes remain in the sport longer and longer. Gone are the days when national teams were largely refreshed after every Olympic cycle. With athletes routinely competing into their late 20s or beyond, USA Swimming officials have been striving to ensure increased competitive opportunities and maximum preparation for their young stars. The National Team Select camps essentially represent the first step in that education process.
Jacobs said she has watched rising stars Elizabeth Pelton, Elizabeth Beisel and others move in the last five years through the select camps, which include girls from 13 to 15 years old and boys from 16-18. Peter Clark, USA Swimming’s sports development consultant for the eastern zone, said 62 percent of the athletes who have attended these camps have later won spots on U.S. youth or senior national teams.
Each invited athlete is permitted to bring a personal coach to ensure that the coach has the same access to information about the elite swimming world, including seminars on such topics as tapering and swimsuit rules. Neither Hu’s coach at Curl-Burke Swim Club, Pete Morgan, nor Armstrong attended. (Morgan has already coached Olympic gold medal winner Ed Moses; Armstrong works under Michael Phelps’s coach Bob Bowman.)
“It really is the first step to learning how to travel, to be in a room with roommates, to work together as a team unit and to experience workouts in formats maybe you’re not familiar with,” Clark said. “We try to give a very highly motivated send-off, so they go back to their clubs and share what they have learned.”
The weekend’s twice-a-day workouts were memorable because of their frequency, their high level and the amount of pain they caused. Wang and Hu said the combination of Colorado Springs’s high altitude and the speed of their temporary training partners left them exhausted and exhilarated.
“Everybody is really fast … and everything we are swimming is fast,” Hu said by cell phone Saturday from the camp.
Sandwiched between the 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 5-7 p.m. workouts were classroom sessions. Hoelzer and Alex Vanderkaay, an NCAA swim champ at Michigan and the younger brother of Olympian Peter Vanderkaay, spoke about their personal experiences. There were additional lectures on goal-setting, nutrition and anti-doping. Wang and Hu said they found the presentation by USADA, which governs the Olympic anti-doping movement in this country, the most informative and daunting.
Officials hammered home the point that elite athletes are responsible for what they ingest regardless of circumstances surrounding it, bringing in swimmer Kicker Vencill, who more than five years ago received a two-year ban after consuming a vitamin supplement tainted with a steroid.
That, however, wasn’t the only element of the presentation that left both girls apprehensive.
It was also the revelation that, once in their sport’s top tier, they would be subject to knocks on their doors at any time by drug-testing officials who would be required to watch them produce urine samples.
“There’s been a lot of information thrown at us,” said Hu, who attends Luther Jackson Middle School in Fairfax. The drug-testing “is kind of scary … and probably kind of awkward.”
At least, now, they can brace themselves for what is to come.
“It’s really exciting, knowing more of what’s ahead,” Wang said. “It motivates you to keep going.”