Aug. 24, 2004
Air Force Academy women's swimming coach Casey Converse knows a thing or two about the Olympics. He was a member of the USA's 1976 Olympic team as an 18-year-old, placing ninth in the 400 freestyle. An NCAA champion in the 1,650 free as a freshman, he was the first to break the 15-minute mark in the event (14:57.39), and later that same year set an NCAA record in the 1,000 free. He took a few minutes to talk with special correspondent Bob Schaller about the Olympics, the future of the sport, and what it is like to coach at a military school in this week's 20 Question Tuesday.
1 What was most memorable for you watching the Olympics this time around?
Casey: The men's medley relay was spectacular! The whole idea of Michael Phelps letting Ian Crocker swim the last relay made it all the sweeter in terms of the team.
2 What did you see from the women's team that sticks in your mind?
Casey: The women who have been there for so long - Jenny Thompson, Amanda Beard. Amanda was awesome, being the best she's ever been, because she started out as a little girl and has become a woman and had to learn to swim in a woman's body - those women really care - beyond themselves - to make the entire USA women's team strong.
3 What did you notice from the men's team that made an impression?
Casey: Larsen Jensen. To drop 11 seconds (in the 1,500), at the level he's been at for so long - at the Olympic Games when it really counts - is really something. I think we're coming out of the doldrums in the distance events, a new era with a lot of enthusiasm and younger talent.
4 What does someone like Michael Phelps do for swimming nationwide?
Casey: The impressive thing to the guy sitting in the living room just watching the TV is Michael's sincerity. He never came across as in your face, or too good to be true. He is competitive, and that came across, but he just wants to be as good as he can be. I thought Natalie Coughlin and all the others came across really well also.
5 Training at such a high altitude - more than a mile high - does that affect how you practice with your team?
Casey: Yes, we never swim as fast as we would at sea level in a workout situation! We do have to adjust for that.
6 Also, coaching in Colorado Springs, does the weather - dry and cold - influence your training?
Casey: I think our swimmers are healthier because it is so dry here. I grew up in the SEC, and it was so wet down there.
7 What are challenges you face in recruiting someone to come to the Academy?
Casey: They are training to be officers, not just swimmers, not just doctors and lawyers, but to be officers in the United States Air Force. That's a good challenge, but it is a challenge.
8 What did you make of the whole fiasco over the Japanese kicker's alleged foul in his breaststroke kick?
Casey: It's one of those calls that's just really hard for an official to make. It's subjective, and you have to decide in your heart if some advantage has been gained - though I know the rule isn't written that way in the book. But to base the whole race on that is a tough call. It's the same thing with Aaron Peirsol's turn, you have to make the same sort of judgment call. Did it make a difference in the outcome of that race - I don't think it made any difference in Aaron's case. That's a slippery slope, but that's the reality sometimes.
9 Who is a swimmer out there today that you would like to have coached?
Casey: Erik Vendt. He reminds me of a little boxer - though he's not that little! A welterweight boxer. If you go to the gym and you can take that kid out, you've done a yeoman's job.
10 Who is a swimmer you noticed at the Olympics that you would've liked to compete against?
Casey: Ian Thorpe and the Australians - they have a great "freestyle heritage." And of course Michael. What won America for Michael Phelps is when he wanted to swim the 200 free. He didn't have to, but he wanted to. He won me over, then. It's not even his best or primary event. Absolutely that's impressive. We have all these prima donnas in other sports. Then you have this young man who wants to go head to head against the best just to measure himself. Awesome.
11 Saying the sport has changed in the nearly 30 years since you were an Olympian is obviously a huge understatement. But what is one of the more notable or drastic changes you have seen?
Casey: This is my 20th year (coaching), and I would say it's how much smarter we train. It was trial by fire back then. If it didn't kill you, it was thought to make you stronger. But some people it did kill. We just train so much smarter now, and the science is so much better.
12 Decades ago, it wouldn't have been out of the ordinary to see a swimming Olympian from one of the military academies. Yet now it's almost unheard of. Will we see one again someday, and why or why not?
Casey: I think you will. I really do. The thing that goes on at the academies is that you cannot live a life that is out of balance in any one area. To be a great swimmer, you have to have your life a little out of balance, and you don't have that while at the Academy. But I think we will have a great athlete who will make it, but as a post-grad in the (military's) World-Class Athlete Program.
13 You've seen Wyoming's Scott Usher at meets - he competes in the Mountain West Conference, as do your Falcons - did you see him as an Olympian a year or so back or did he come out of nowhere?
Casey: My counterpart at the Academy is Rob Clayton, our men's coach, and Rob is the best coach of breaststroke I know. And Rob told me last fall that he thought Scott Usher was something special, that (Usher) is on the steep climb, he is still getting better every three months. Rob told me that, so that is how I saw him coming.
14 What has changed in distance swimming now compared to back when you did it - is it the stroke, dry-land work, or training method that has seen the most advancement?
Casey: I notice that hardly anybody is doing a "two-beat" kick any longer. Everybody is kicking six beats the whole way. In terms of training, the thing coming back is we swam really fast - our distance work - in the old days. So they are doing the longer distances in practice faster again.
15 Obviously each swimmer is unique, but could you see someone like Michael Phelps or Natalie Coughlin doing as well, or even better, in the 2008 Games?
Casey: Their challenge is to not believe their own (press) too much. Natalie has been there quite a while, so she probably knows. I think Michael's challenge is to remember his roots and how he got there. And frankly, it's hard to maintain for another four years.
16 Another tough question: Could you see a Michael Phelps or Natalie Coughlin sticking around all the way until the 2012 Games?
Casey: I wouldn't be surprised at all. I don't know if Natalie's personality is that she'd want to keep doing it. Michael does seem more along those lines - I wouldn't be surprised to see him in 2012.
17 Who is a male swimmer who will be an even bigger star in 2008 - someone from these Games or someone we haven't heard of yet?
Casey: I will go with Scott Usher. I think he will only get better and better. And Tom Johnson honestly is one of the best coaches there is. Laramie (where the University of Wyoming is located) is a tough place to coach and recruit, and what Tom's done is nothing short of a swimming miracle.
18 How about the next great female swimmer?
Casey: I'm not sure, but I think it could be that kind of taller, athletic woman - what we're seeing more of. It is acceptable - as it always should have been - to be a tall athletic woman...so maybe Katie Hoff or someone like that , and that is the wave of the future.
19 What are your thoughts on 31-year-old Jenny Thompson's final go-round?
Casey: It is absolutely incredible. She is one of the greatest champions we have ever had. I don't know her well now - I knew her better when she was a younger kid. But she's a great person.
20 What's the next big advancement in swimming - suits? Technology? Workouts?
Casey: I think we're going to get better underwater - I think everyone will be underwater longer because we know we're faster there. There's a price to pay for being underwater. But if you can train it, and that price doesn't hurt you too badly, you we could take off some time there.
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