Dave Greene and Rebecca Brofft paced the deck, critiquing swimmers’ dives off the starting blocks at the Rockville Municipal Swim Center’s outdoor competition pool. Greene encouraged one swimmer to explode forward off the block. Brofft advised another to assume a wider stance. It was standard work for the two Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club coaches, but Greene and Brofft were not coaching their usual RMSC practice groups. This afternoon, they were guest coaches for the Sprint Squad.
Former RMSC swimmer Josh Hafkin, 24, and current RMSC swimmer-coach Nick Kaufman, 28, hope to qualify for U.S. Olympic Trials this weekend at the Swimvitational — a USA Swimming-run meet hosted at the recently-constructed Olympic Trials pool at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb. The weekend’s meet will serve not only as a dress rehearsal for USA Swimming, who use the meet as a “dry run” for Trials, but also as a final test for the Sprint Squad, an unconventional training partnership formed by Hafkin and Kaufman earlier this year.
Since January, Hafkin and Kaufman have trained every day together, in the pool and in the gym. Qualifying for Olympic Trials has been their focus.
“We’ve had each other,” said Hafkin of his training with Kaufman. “There’s nobody on deck. It’s just him pushing me and me pushing him, everyday.”
Besides occasional advice from local coaches like Greene and Brofft, Hafkin and Kaufman’s practices are largely self-directed. The Sprint Squad’s primary coach is former Olympic swimmer and coach Gary Hall Sr., who advises Hafkin and Kaufman from his home in Islamorada, Florida. Hall coaches about fifteen swimmers, including Hafkin and Kaufman, via telephone.
“Sometimes having a coach on deck is intrusive,” said Greene. “Some people need direction, need to be told what to do. But these guys probably don’t need to be told what to do.”
Hafkin and Kaufman met Coach Hall last August at a camp hosted by Hall’s Islamorada-based Race Club. Hall and his son, Olympic gold medalist Gary Hall Jr., founded The Race Club, originally named The World Team, as an exclusive training center for elite swimmers preparing for the 2000 Sydney Games. In 2006, The Race Club began to offer instruction to a wider range of athletes.
“Today, we take athletes who come to us,” said Hall Sr. “All we ask is that they make a commitment to try to be the best they can be.”
Hafkin and Kaufman were “re-inspired” by The Race Club and continued to communicate with Hall Sr. following their camp. The two sprinters found the high intensity, technique-focused philosophy of The Race Club appealing. As a result of the camp, Hafkin and Kaufman set their sights on qualifying for Olympic Trials.
“We found something that we liked, and we really bought in,” Hafkin said.
Given the proximity of a family-owned beach house to the Islamaroda pool, it almost seemed like fate called the two swimmers to embark on the new training regimen.
“It was almost too perfect,” Kaufman said.
Diving back in
Before August, it had been a long time since Josh Hafkin had been excited about swimming. The 2007 All-Met Swimmer of the Year was an age group and high school standout on the national stage when he competed for RMSC and Georgetown Prep.
“I worked very hard, but racing and practicing all came very easy,” said Hafkin of his pre-college career. “I had a ton of success, and I think a lot of it went to my head, a lot of it allowed me to cut corners.”
After an illustrious high school career in which he broke Metro and prep league records, Hafkin began to struggle. An ill-timed knee surgery forced Hafkin to miss the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2008. At the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, swimming became a detested chore for Hafkin as he failed to drop time in an aerobic, high-yardage program.
“Swimming wasn’t easy anymore. It wasn’t just coming, and that was very hard. I didn’t know how to handle it,” Hafkin said.
On the heels of a disappointing final collegiate race in February 2011, Hafkin vowed never to race again.
However, Hafkin received an invitation the following summer to compete the following December at the 2011 Pan-American Maccabi Games from RMSC coach Doug Markoff, the coach of the American delegation. The prospect of competing in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with Kaufman, who was already planning to swim in the Games, prompted Hafkin to reconsider. During the summer swim league season, he began to test out the waters at his community pool, Potomac Woods, for which he had competed in the Montgomery County Swim League and now coaches. His August trip with Kaufman to The Race Club solidified his will to pour his efforts into the pool.
Unlike Hafkin, Kaufman did not make headlines in high school. Kaufman did not train full seasons with RMSC until his junior and senior years, but raced for Tilden Woods in the summer and Walter Johnson High School in the winter. Although promising improvements in Kaufman’s sprint freestyle events during his final years of high school allowed him to be recruited by Division III schools, he did not feel that he had the aerobic base for the University of Maryland’s varsity swim team when he arrived at College Park. As a result, Kaufman elected not to walk-on to the team and put his competitive swimming career on hold. But he continued to coach for Tilden Woods and preserved his connection to the sport.
“My love for swimming comes directly from my years with Tilden Woods. It was that connection to that pool and those kids that always allowed me to dream big and keep swimming in my heart,” said Kaufman.
After graduating from U-Md. in 2006, Kaufman, a dual citizen of Argentina and the United States, moved to Buenos Aires to pursue a graduate degree in International Relations. There, he began to swim with members of the Argentine National Swim Team. Kaufman had acquired added size and maturity during college, which allowed him to keep up with Argentina’s fastest swimmers — as a dual citizen, Kaufman is eligible to compete for either country in international competition.
“I was able to train the way I always wanted to train,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman moved back to the States in 2010 and founding FINS Swimming. The year-round program, which is based out of Georgetown Prep’s Hanley Center for Athletic Excellence, appeals to summer league swimmers who are not ready to commit to the demands of daily practices with a competitive club team.
“It’s basically a program designed for kids who are multi-sport athletes, kind of like I was,” said Kaufman. “I try to bring that fun and enthusiasm that is so prevalent in summer swimming to winter swimming.”
According to Kaufman, FINS Swimming is growing, and Hafkin is among the many MCSL coaches that Kaufman employs.
Training for Trials
It was not until January of this year that Kaufman and Hafkin had the opportunity to train together on a consistent basis. But once they started, they hit the ground running, delving into weight training, yoga, spinning, and Race Club workouts. They began to talk to Gary Hall Sr. almost daily and started to realize rapid improvements in the way they swam. Through flexibility exercises such as the “ankle push-ups” demonstrated in the photograph accompanying this article, Kaufman has dropped 20 seconds in his 100-meter kick split in the past year. Hafkin, meanwhile, changed his approach to training, in and out of the pool.
“These past months have taught me how to be accountable for my swimming again,” said Hafkin. “Over time, I made these little changes, in my eating habits, in my sleeping habits. I cut out little things that were working against me. It was an attitude switch.”
Kaufman said that he and Hafkin have not missed a day of training in five months. Through lactic acid-inducing workouts and challenging race sets, Hafkin, Kaufman and Hall have managed to keep training interesting and fun.
“You can’t be predictable as a sprint coach. You have to change things up, and you have to be creative,” said Hall Sr.
Although Hall gives Hafkin and Kaufman specific sets to swim each day, he allows the swimmers freedom to design their workouts.
“It gives you room to play,” said Hafkin.
Hafkin and Kaufman have enjoyed producing swimming videos for their YouTube channel TrainingForTrials, and they have designed Sprint Squad logos and caps that feature Poseidon in a race suit.
“You have to have fun with this stuff. At our age and devoting as much time to it as we have, Josh and I at this point are brothers, and we very much try to create as fun an environment as we can every day,” Kaufman said.
At the Swimvitational, Hafkin will swim the 50-meter freestyle and 100-meter backstroke, and Kaufman will swim the 50-meter freestyle. They both hope to continue to swim after this summer and have goals beyond Olympic Trials. In March, Hafkin and Kaufman teamed up with FINS coaches and former Walter Johnson All-Mets Michael Raab and Adrian Astiz to break an 18-year-old U.S. Masters record in the 200 short course meter medley relay, touching in less than a second behind the world record for their age group (see video below). With Raab and Astiz now training seriously, the team hopes to eclipse the world mark.
“What kid wouldn’t want to break a world record?” said a smiling Hafkin.
Josh Hafkin, Adrian Astiz, Michael Raab and Nick Kaufman break U.S. Masters Swimming record
Swimming beyond their peak
Hafkin and Kaufman are grateful for the opportunities to train at a high level and progress in their sport past their college years.
“A lot of people around here, they finish college, and that’s it: you’re out of time, you’re out of the system,” said Kaufman. “But the college window might not be wide enough for guys who want to continue to swim and for guys who want to continue to be great.”
“I think that if swimmers could figure out a way to continue their careers, they wouldn’t reach their physical peak, on the male side, until their late twenties or possibly even their early thirties,” said Hall. “There is a growing demand, a need that is unfulfilled, to have a place for post grads to go train.”
Hall noted the difficulties associated with college graduates training with high school-based programs and the NCAA by-laws that prevent college coaches from coaching post-grad and collegiate swimmers simultaneously.
Hall is confident about Hafkin and Kaufman’s prospects in Omaha.
“I guess we’ll find out how well we did with Josh and Nick soon, but I am pretty optimistic that they are going to do lifetime best times,” said Hall. “They’ve done the whole program.”
Hafkin and Kaufman are not worried about their times this weekend, for they are self-assured in their training.
“No matter what the result is, we know that we’ve left no stone unturned,” said Kaufman.
Their races will be a last push in a special team effort.
“If Nick makes Trials and I don’t, or if I make Trials and he doesn’t, it’s all the same,” said Hafkin. “We’ve done this together the whole way, and a win for me is a win for him and vice versa.”
The Swimvitational will be held June 8-10.