Borders writ in water

Australian coach Cotterell has left his country’s officials fuming by working with Chinese swimmers. 

iN the eye of a storm: Denis Cotterell has been training Chinese swimmers for the London Games at the Queensland facility.The Olympic speech is nearly ready – not the victory speech Denis Cotterell plans to give after the big race in London, but the pep talk he plans to give to Sun Yang before the big race in London.

Cotterell hopes to deliver it in Mandarin, a language he is struggling to learn at age 62 but which is ever more the lingua franca of the practice sessions he runs at the Miami Swimming Club in coastal Queensland.

One of Australia’s leading coaches, Cotterell now works with Sun and other Chinese swimmers, as well as the eight Australians on his elite squad. Though such arrangements are no longer unusual in a sports world where power is shifting and borders continue to blur, Cotterell’s move has not gone unnoticed in Australia.

Heavy demand from China for raw materials continues to lift the Australian economy, but heavy demand for Australian swimming expertise remains a sensitive subject in a nation where swimming – the sport of Murray Rose, Dawn Fraser and Ian Thorpe – is embedded in the cultural DNA.

“They are not really happy in Australia,” Cotterell said last month, explaining that Australian swimming officials whom he considered friends had even suggested that his government funding might be at risk.

With his shaggy hair, lean build and weathered, leathered skin, Cotterell looks the ageing surfer he is. But though the good waves and strong currents of the South Pacific are within easy reach of his beachfront apartment, it is the much more circumscribed domain of the 50-metre pool that has defined his career.

He has been patrolling the deck at this local club since it opened without a pool heater in 1976. He has refined enough strokes and drawn up enough smart training sets on the white board to earn a reputation as an innovator with an emphasis on distance freestyle and all of its lung-taxing, spirit-sapping demands.

It was here at the Miami club, with its two Olympic-size outdoor pools, that Cotterell molded Australian Daniel Kowalski into a two-time World Championship medallist in the men’s 1,500 metres. It was here that Cotterell went a step further by molding Grant Hackett into a two-time Olympic 1,500 champion and national icon.

Now, with some help from a translator, Cotterell is sharing his insight and energy with Sun, a tall 20-year-old with a devastating finish who broke Hackett’s 10-year-old world record in the 1,500 last year in a time of 14 minutes 34.14 seconds to win the world title. Sun, who also won the 800 in Shanghai, is now one of China’s most prominent athletes.

“I saw his potential, and it’s my arena, and it’s very reaffirming, that you can work with that and you can produce a result that can interest the world,” Cotterell said. “It inspires you to keep doing it. I’ve been doing it for 41 years. If I don’t have some inspiration, I could easily just drop back a level or two and kick back and not have to wear the pressure of a billion people and what they might want for a result.”

The pressure is not only from China. It is coming from Cotterell’s own country of 22 million, a traditional swimming superpower that has been not so super lately despite the emergence of the freestyle sprinting star James Magnussen. There are concerns for the future, including the London Games this summer. And there are concerns about top coaches like Cotterell helping China, which finished second in the overall medal count behind the United States in Shanghai, bumping Australia into third place.

“We don’t want them preparing people to beat our people at the Olympics,” Leigh Nugent, Australia’s national head swimming coach, told The Australian newspaper in November. Such concern is not without irony considering that Australia’s biggest swimming star, Thorpe, who is in the midst of a thus-far deflating comeback, has been training in Switzerland under a foreign coach, Russian Gennadi Touretski.

But Nugent certainly understands the economics at work. Cotterell is not the only prominent veteran coach with retirement on the horizon who is working for foreign swimmers in Queensland. Ken Wood, based up the coast in Brisbane, split with the Australian swimmer Jessicah Schipper after the 2008 Olympics because she was upset that he had sent training programs to Liu Zige, her Chinese rival. Liu ended up beating Schipper to win the 200 butterfly in Beijing. Another Queensland-based coach, Michael Bohl, is working with Park Tae-hwan, Sun’s freestyle rival from South Korea.

Australia does have well-paid coaches focusing exclusively on Australian swimmers at its Institute of Sport in Canberra and elsewhere. But Cotterell, Wood and Bohl are independent club coaches, and though the Miami club does receive some government funding, Cotterell said he was making only about 50,000 Australian dollars, or $52,800, annually until four years ago. He has now augmented that income considerably.

“What they offered me for a month, I could live on for a year,” Cotterell said of the Chinese. Cotterell’s Chinese connection began in 2007 when he started coaching freestyler Zhang Lin on a part-time basis. That was the same year Hackett, then the world’s leading distance swimmer, decided to split with Cotterell after 21 years and train for his final Olympics under Ian Pope in Melbourne. Hackett ultimately faltered in 2008, finishing second in the 1500. Zhang took a silver in the 400, with Cotterell working as an assistant on the Chinese swim team.

The Chinese have relied extensively on foreign coaching in their rise to Olympic powerhouse. In Beijing, to cite just two of many examples, Frenchman Christian Bauer coached Chinese fencers, and Australian Tom Maher coached the Chinese women’s basketball team.

It has not been a one-way transfer of knowledge. Chinese-born coaches have also worked for other nations, including Australia, in sports like diving and table tennis. In the United States, where foreign swimmers routinely compete and prosper at the university level under American coaching, the internationalisation of the sport is a given. But Australia lacks an equivalent to the NCAA system, which governs US college athletics.

Cotterell’s answer to Australian concerns is that, unlike some of his colleagues who have left to run other nations’ programs, he remains based in Australia and still coaches Australians, even if they are now in the minority. Cotterell said he had recently begun receiving retention funds from the Australian swimming authorities intended to encourage him and other top Australian coaches to stay in the country. “It definitely has got better,” he said.

But he emphasises that the Chinese connection is not only about money. “I’m inspired by trying to compete with the best at the highest level,” he said.

Cotterell has received offers to coach elsewhere but chose to remain at Miami in part because of the Gold Coast lifestyle and surf and his own independent temperament. “I don’t think Denis is the sort of personality that can be sort of easily institutionalized,” said Shannon Macdonald, president of the Miami Swimming Club.

“He could have been anything in the world of swimming, really, in international terms. He could have had top jobs in the States and all over the place because he’s a guru, a bit of a mad professor, and you pay for that freedom sometimes down the track.”
Cotterell insists he has no regrets about his path. He has relished the challenge, the cross-cultural connections, the travel and the latitude to pursue his craft to the point of obsession.


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