Young Jesse Washington will be vying to make Rio his first Games. *Photos by Ras Mykkal
Young Jesse Washington will be vying to make Rio his first Games. *Photos by Ras Mykkal
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WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 15: The London Games are over but the preparation for the Rio Olympics are well under way. The Bermuda Sun will begin a series of articles looking ahead to 2016 and who might be suited up in red and blue for the island in Rio de Janeiro.

Don Burgess spoke with national swim coach Ben Smith about the prospects of having more than one athlete in South America at the next Olympics.


 

Smith said the Bermuda Amateur Swimming Association said two-time Olympian Roy Burch, who set the Bermuda national record in the 50 free in London, would be back at trying to make it for the third — something no other Bermuda swimmer has done.

Two-time Olympian Kiera Aitken, who narrowly missed out on qualifying, has retired from the sport, but other 2012 hopefuls remain in the pool for 2016.

Lisa Blackburn — the ageless wonder — as well as Julien Fletcher, Rebecca Sharpe and Nick Patterson.

Newcomers who should be making a push include Rebecca Heyliger, Ashley Yearwood, and Jesse Washington.

He said BASA is looking to have people who qualified rather than relying upon wild cards. 

“We were able to do that this time and we were close by a couple tenths of a second with two other athletes.” Smith said having athletes involved in various overseas programmes “and what we’ve been able to do at home, is building athletes that will get us there.

“We’re pretty confident that we’ll have more than one person (for Rio).”

He said in the past, Bermuda’s best swimmers would leave and join swim teams at colleges in the US and Canada but now they are leaving at younger ages and attending boarding schools. Smith said this is a key as at younger ages they will face stiffer competition which should help Bermuda produce more world class swimmers.

“Now kids are leaving at prep school time to prepare for college so we’re losing them earlier, but it gives them an opportunity to compete against higher level athletes in practice and in meets on an ongoing basis.”

He said the junior levels of major competitions like the World Championships and Pan Ams, was another key as the swimmers face a higher quality competition.

“This is another step up for them.”

Smith said he will be looking at finding a level of competition in between the regional championships and at the world levels “because it is a significant jump. The depth within the Caribbean is good, but we need to be striving for even more.”

Smith said one of the problems facing Bermuda swimmers after they graduate from college is finding a US programme for them to compete at in a professional, semi-professional level.

He said what happened in the lead up to the Olympics is both Burch and Blackburn did not get the full exposure as those US teams were now training competitors to the American swimmers

“It’s a bit of give and take because they want us there as it gives them a bit of depth to train against, but I’m not sure they want to show us everything.

“When we got into the last six months before the Olympics, they were not given all of the preparations that the top US athletes that they were training with were given.

Smith said the biggest challenge for Bermuda’s swimmers after they finish university is making ends meet as a professional.

“In order for you to do any of these sports and reach the level that’s expected, you have to do it full time. There is no room to doing what happened in the past by going to work and then being expected to train.

“They are training so much, they are physically exhausted when not training. They are resting so they can prepare for the next practice. In order to do that, it has to be a job. The people that they’re competing against, that’s the way it’s being handled.”

He said both Burch and Aitken received a stipend, which helped them to meet their expenses, but more will be required as Bermuda gets more top athletes on the world stage.

“We saw the benefit of that by having Roy produce the kind of time he did at the Olympics.

“That’s what all the athletes in Bermuda are up against. Everyone who reached those finals, are professional.

“They have to give up so much, and at the end of the day, how much can they continue to push themselves and give up a regular life? At some point they have to settle down and get a job. They have been putting it on the backburner. It’s a tough spot to be in.”

Options

He said one of the options for Burch in the next four years is to compete in Europe where the money is a bit better for making the finals and winning medals.

“And it gives him an opportunity to race against some of the better guys.”

Smith said BASA is in a great spot with one of its finest group of younger swimmers coming in behind the veterans.

“We have people who have been around and gone through all the struggles and right behind them, we have a young group that is competing well and showing promise.

“We just need to continue to get the support and push them to be where they need to be.”

As one example, he said Washington has already proven he can compete with the top swimmers in the world.

“It doesn’t matter how much work I give him here, and whether we have a 50 metre pool for him to compete and train in, He is going to need to be training against somebody else that’s at the same level as him or better.”

He said that means having money to send him away to a prep school now, in order to further his Olympic development.

“I’m not sure we have that money out there to send him to a prep school and all the training camps to continue to have him be at the level he is now.

“We’ve got him to the point where he’s in that top 10 per cent but we need to keep him in that top 10 per cent in order to produce the athlete that everybody wants. That becomes the difficulty.”