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Swimmers, often underwater, have to decipher coaching signals

Swimmers, often underwater, have to decipher coaching signals

It’s a common sight at a high school swim meet. In the pool, athletes are cutting through the water
Swimmers, often underwater, have to decipher coaching signals
Swimmers like Julia Samson of Shenendehowa can't always hear instructions from their coaches when they're in the water.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

It’s a common sight at a high school swim meet. In the pool, athletes are cutting through the water as fast as possible, composed in the strokes gliding them along. And along the side of the pool, coaches are yelling, whistling, clapping and frantically waving their arms in an attempt to communicate with their athletes.

Which begs the question:

How much instruction does a swimmer, always at least somewhat submerged beneath water, really take in during a race?

“It depends,” said Shenendehowa senior Julia Samson, a six-time Section II solo champion. “Sometimes, I’m so into my race that I don’t see what else is happening because I’m so focused . . . that what’s going on at the side of the pool doesn’t faze me.”

“When my coach does his [hand] motions to kick, you can tell he wants you to go faster,” said sophomore Elaine Lipkin, one of Niskayuna’s star swimmers. “But the yelling, that’s just noise for me.”

That information could be disconcerting to coaches like Niskayuna’s Steve Hall and Shenendehowa’s Chuck Dunham if it wasn’t what they expected to hear anyway. While Dunham and Hall have each taken the time to craft their own pool-deck style, both realize their in-meet contributions are not always able to be picked up — especially at an event as big as the Section II girls’ swimming and diving championships, which take place Thursday through Saturday starting with diving on the first day at Mohonasen High School and swimming the next two days at Niskayuna High School.

“In our sport — like most sports — most of your coaching work has to take place during practice,” Dunham said.

During workouts, Hall said he uses the same verbal and physical triggers to try to spur on his swimmers while having their familiarity grow with his antics. For Hall, that means making frequent loud “Uh” calls to get his girls to go faster and a variety of hand signals that range in meaning from “Slow down” to “Get going.”

Isabel Bushway, a freshman swimmer for Niskayuna, said it takes time for swimmers to get used to their coach’s style. At a meet like sectionals, where athletes and coaches from all around Section II come together in a frenzied environment, knowing what to try to listen and look for takes on extra importance.

“Different coaches do different things, so you can pick yours up that way,” Bushway said.

“Like, Chuck, he has a great whistle. I don’t,” Hall said of Shenendehowa’s coach. “That’s been my goal for the last six years — to learn how to whistle — and I haven’t figured it out.

“But I think if I learned one day how to whistle, [my team] would be terribly confused.”

Learning his whistle was a conscious decision for Dunham. More than a dozen years ago, he yelled himself hoarse on a near-daily basis before teaching himself during car rides to whistle using his thumb and index finger.

Dunham saves his piercing whistle for meets. That way, he said, it serves as a special trigger for his athletes during competition — and it seems to work.

“You can ask anyone: You can hear his whistle, no matter how focused you are,” Samson said. “When we hear that, I know we all get this fiery feeling inside us.”

“Whenever I hear a whistle, I just go faster,” Shenendehowa freshman Lauren Ostrander said.

So, at least that coaching ploy works. At a recent practice for his team, Niskayuna’s Hall stopped senior Beca Piascik on the pool deck to ask if she understands his coaching cues. The frequent loud “Uh” calls, she confirmed, always let her know to pick up her pace.

“But,” she said, throwing her arms around wildly, “what does this, this, and this mean?”

Hall’s response was easier to decipher.

“OK, OK,” he said, flicking his hands toward the water. “Get in the pool.”

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