The alchemy is complicated, the possibility for error great. But when the stars align correctly, when the mind and body are united in one goal, incredible things do happen in a pool.
"Swimming is a combination of science and art," assistant U.S. Olympic coach Jon Urbanchek says. "The art is--how do we interpret the science and make it workable, enjoyable and fun for the athlete?"
The length of time between major swimming competitions varies, typically spanning about eight months in the winter and four months in the summer. Within these time periods are four distinct training phases: overdistance, interval training, tapering and peaking.
The best coaches interlace these training phases with the skill of a Navajo rug weaver. But this is only part of the puzzle. Just as a weaver needs high-quality wool to produce a fine product, a coach must have an athlete with talent and dedication to create an Olympic champion.
Early-season training typically involves very high-yardage swimming, at a low level of intensity. World-class distance swimmers will swim as much as 10,000 yards per practice, twice a day. Middle-distance swimmers and sprinters will swim less yardage, but still a significant amount--typically about 6,000 yards a workout.
The purpose of these early-season workouts is to build a strong endurance base, the foundation upon which the rest of the season hinges. Most of the work during this period is done at aerobic pace--that is, a pace that allows a swimmer to avoid using more oxygen than he or she is breathing in. Staying away from "oxygen debt" does relatively little to build "wind"; instead, this training phase focuses on increasing strength and perfecting stroke technique.
Once an endurance base is established, the second and longest phase of conditioning--interval training--becomes dominant. During this period, swimmers focus on a series of swims of set distances, with a short rest between each repeat. An example of an interval training set: 20 swims of 100 yards, starting every minute and ten seconds. A strong swimmer can finish each 100-yard swim in a minute or so, leaving about ten seconds of rest between repeats.
In interval training, a swimmer tries to increase the speed of each repeat, while decreasing amount of rest between swims. This type of training has a powerful impact on cardiovascular conditioning. It also quickly tears down muscles. Rather than back off in the face of pain, championship-caliber swimmers press on, expecting the muscles to rebuild despite the strenuous workouts.
This breaking down and rebuilding of muscles is important; most swimmers experience it repeatedly throughout a training season.
Interval training helps top swimmers develop an almost-meditative state in the water, when pain is transcended and a mental nothingness rules. This euphoria helps drive swimmers to return, day after day.
"I just get a big satisfaction about killing myself in workout and dying and coming back and doing it again the next day," says the goateed, five-foot-nine, 130-pound Olympian Carlton Bruner, whose specialty is the 1,500-meter freestyle.
By the end of the interval-training phase, a swimmer should be nearly exhausted. Times in races will be relatively slow compared to lifetime bests. Frustration runs high; some swimmers retreat from the painful edge.
UCLA swimmer Byron Davis characterizes this period, and his method for getting through it, eloquently. "During the dark days of the soul, I go back to my touchstones," he says. For Davis, one touchstone is simply an inner voice that tells him he hasn't yet accomplished his best.
Davis did his best in March, but narrowly missed--by three tenths of a second--becoming the first African American to qualify for the U.S. men's Olympic swimming team. He faltered in the last ten meters after leading the 100-meter butterfly at the Olympic Trials.
Learning to understand and work through the cycles of tearing down and regeneration helps prepare a swimmer for the final phases of the season: the taper and the peak.
During the taper, yardage is reduced considerably. Quality swims become the goal. Simulating racing conditions, perfecting starts and turns and feeling fast in the water are emphasized. Typically, after several weeks of tapering and getting far more rest than they are used to, swimmers will go from feeling great to feeling, actually, awful.
The "taper funk" is part of the strange chemistry of swimming. Swimmers may feel uncoordinated; their repeat times can soar. Sometimes panic will set in as they feel very slow in the water with major competition only days away.
But this disjointed state is precisely where the swimmer wants to be.
If all goes well--and here is where magic comes into play--the funk will suddenly vanish. In its place, speed surges with powerful, jarring, exhilarating force.
Sometimes the funk will disappear overnight. Sometimes it will depart during the middle of a practice. Sometimes it happens at the start of the race.
And sometimes it just lingers on, a peak never coming.
"This is a discipline sport," Davis says. "You train all year for a hit or miss on the taper."
On race day, in a final moment of mental and physical preparation, swimmers "shave down." Shaving hair from the arms and legs reduces resistance in the water and provides a powerful psychological boost.
U.S. Olympic coaches are counting on swimmers to hit their peaks when the games begin next month. The relatively slow times of the last year, coaches say, mean nothing.
"All the rankings go out the window once you get to the games," says Urbanchek.
When shaved-down, psyched-up American swimmers take the blocks in Atlanta, they will have one more advantage over the rest of the world--the home pool.
"There is no way you can swim slow with 16,000 people cheering you on," says U.S. Olympic coach Mark Schubert.