By Julia Galan
When UK-based open water swimming coach Roderick Hart decided to include a dry land component to his swimming sessions, he had no idea that, in just a few short years, he would be leading an entire system of open water coaching. Based in the seaside resort town of Brighton, Swimmergy – run by Rod Hart and Andy White – offers a unique combination of pool or open water swimming sessions and land-based training, using the Vasa Swim Ergometer.
Swimmergy’s unique integration of the Vasa Swim Erg into open water training, as well as their individualized approach to coaching, left us keen to learn more about how Swimmergy started, what this coaching system offers, and what motivates these talented coaches to do what they do!
We are very excited to learn more about Swimmergy, the specialized open water swim coaching business that you are running in the UK. What’s the story behind the creation of Swimmergy?
Rod Hart (RH): My initial idea in launching Swimmergy was simply to create a dry land training branch of the open water swim coaching I had been pursuing for many years. So, Swimmergy really started out as my individual work with clients, using the Vasa Swim Ergometer and other forms of dry land conditioning that were geared towards open water swimming. When the dry land portion of my coaching became ever more popular, I increased the number of swim benches we had, taking advantage of the power meters on the Swim Ergs to run group classes. Some of these classes would emphasize learning the proper technique on the Erg, while others would serve as the equivalent of spinning classes, with participants working together on intervals and distance, using Ergometers in lieu of bikes. I even started conducting some video analysis using the Ergs. When I met Andy about a year ago, we found that we shared the same coaching philosophy and decided to partner up. Between the two of us, Swimmergy really start to grow and word spread about our services quite quickly. Eventually, I integrated my open water swim coaching into Swimmergy and it became the open water “system” as we know it today, with Andy and I as the lead coaches and a third coach, Vicki Linton-Crook, assisting us when we have large groups of swimmers.
What are Swimmergy’s current offerings and what levels of swimmers do you coach?
RH: Since we are primarily geared towards open water swimming, Swimmergy focuses on the freestyle stroke. We open our classes to all levels of swimmers, although we do like our swimmers to know how to swim before they start working with us. Many of our swimmers are triathletes, or open water enthusiasts who want to learn to swim in a group setting so that they can feel safe and comfortable when they venture into the open water themselves.
We offer one-to-one classes, as well as group or “squad” sessions. The group sessions are limited to 8 swimmers so that we can provide every swimmer with the individualized attention they need. Separate sessions are geared towards beginners. These classes can include sea swimming clinics during the summer months, or stroke clinics at the pool, but our favorites are the “surf and turf” courses, which combine sessions on the Vasa Swim Ergometer with pool or open water sessions. We’ve just finished a full eight-week progressive course, where we have the swimmers alternate between pool-based technique emphasis and spending time on the Vasa Swim Erg.
What is the most rewarding and motivating part of coaching individuals, whether they are beginners or more advanced swimmers?
Andy White (AW): The most rewarding experience for me is watching a swimmer learn, understand and implement a specific concept into their swimming stroke. As we’ve said, we use the Vasa Swim Ergs to teach concepts – whether it’s a technique or a specific skills. Seeing someone take a concept they learned from the Erg or from a drill and translate it into their everyday swimming, and then tell us the following week how much they feel that their swimming has improved thanks to learning that concept, gives me the most satisfaction. Helping someone to do something that they’ve never been able to do before is really the most rewarding experience there is, for me personally.
RH: Seeing the improvements in our swimmers is certainly what we’re all about, and in addition to that it is extremely rewarding to be able to inspire our swimmers in their long-term goals so that they will stick with the sport in the long run. Andy and I are both very passionate about swimming ourselves, and it has been a constant factor throughout our lives. Being able to transfer that passion on to someone else is very rewarding.
In addition to coaching, you are also both very experienced open water swimmers yourself. When did you first start swimming and what have your proudest personal accomplishments been so far?
AW: I’ve always enjoyed swimming for the passion of the sport as opposed to competing in races. I enjoy open water (sea) swimming and have completed several swimming challenges. I recently completed the English Channel Swim as part of a relay and am hoping to complete the solo swim in a year or two. Another grueling challenge was swimming 24 miles in a pool over a period of 24 hours. On a semi-swimming related note, my proudest accomplishment was paddling across the English Channel on a surf rescue board, which was probably one of the most difficult swims I’ve done! We have a great crew of sea swimmers here in England and I’m grateful for the opportunity to train simply for the love of sea swimming.
RH: I’ve been swimming since I was a kid, and have always stayed with the sport for fitness, so it has really been an important part of my life. Any of the cold water swims I’ve done here in the UK have been my proudest accomplishments, because of the challenges of keeping up with the sport of open water swimming during the winter. I’ve done some 25K swims, which were my longest distances, in France and here in the UK, and have done some open water events run by the British Heart Foundation and Triathlon England.
Can you tell me more about the individualized approach you take in regards to swim coaching and how you apply this coaching philosophy to your athletes?
AW and RH: We strive to get to know each and every one of our swimmers. At the start of our courses, we ask participants what their individual goals are, whether it is to complete a 400-meter swim in a specific amount of time or swim a mile. Keeping these goals in mind, we try to cater our training and our drills as much as possible for each individual participant’s needs and, during many of the sessions, our swimmers wear headsets so that we can actually instruct them as they are swimming. We place a heavy emphasis on technique, but we also work on developing training plans for each of the athletes according to their goals and informing them of the variety of competitions that are taking place in case they want to take part. Every individual is different and although the easiest way to coach is to get your qualifications and apply the same form of instruction to every swimmer, we know that it doesn’t work that way. In order to get results, you have to know your swimmer as a person, and know what’s best for them as an individual.
A significant amount of your training method includes the Vasa Swim Ergometer. In your opinion, what distinguishes Vasa’s products from other dry land equipment and how do you incorporate training on the Vasa into your clients’ routines?
RH: I first discovered the Vasa Swim Erg about eight or nine years ago as a swimmer when a friend of mine recommended the company. I practically lived on the bench for about two weeks, and saw such significant improvements when I got into the water that I was completely hooked. So when I began coaching on a permanent basis, the idea of implementing the Erg into my swimmer’s sessions was a really high priority for me. Although other forms of dry land equipment have their own purposes, the Vasa Swim Erg really isolates the swim-specific muscle groups, such as the lats and upper back. I also love the elegant design of the Ergs – they’re so simple to use, easy to put together and thus, easy to take to other locations with you.
We incorporate the Swim Ergs into our clients’ routines in two ways. Firstly, as I mentioned earlier, we run swim sessions that include the use of the Erg pool-side. And in the summer, we run open air circuit classes, setting up the Ergs right beside the sea and giving our participants some rather fiendish sessions on the Erg that are led by Andy, followed by an open water swim in the sea. These circuit sessions are intense and emphasize core work and core stability, in addition to providing open water swimming opportunities. It’s also a great balance because while I specialize in technique, Andy can give the intense conditioning sessions that the swimmers also need. The athletes always come away pleasantly exhausted from these sessions!
Another aspect to our Vasa Swim Ergometer training is helping our swimmers learn how to use the Erg. Maintaining proper technique on the swim bench is so important in order to avoid reinforcing bad habits, and we want to ensure that our swimmers are using the Erg properly, from learning how to use the hand paddles, to maintaining proper form on the machine. We recently traveled to Norway to assist one of Andy’s swimmers with Erg set-up and coaching, and I have another swimmer in Oregon who I will be helping out with her recently purchased Erg for winter training.
Can you share a drill or routine that you use with your athletes on the Vasa Swim Erg? Any other tips or drills that you would like to share with others on how to use Vasa products effectively?
In using the Erg, we break the freestyle stroke down into its component parts. Our first emphasis is on body position, to ensure that the swimmer is engaging their core and lower back on the bench. We then work on the front of the stroke to enforce the early vertical forearm, which avoids putting too much pressure on the shoulders when using the Erg. Once we’ve reinforced these elements, we then move to the other parts of the stroke – the pull, the finish, the timing of the stroke. The time frame in which the swimmers learn these elements depends on the individual – it might take weeks, or it might just take one session, but we allow the swimmers to move at their own pace.
I really like using a catchup-style drill on the Erg. It’s a great drill for ensuring that the swimmer avoids dropping their arm immediately after entering the water. The catchup on the Erg allows the swimmer to achieve a proper reach prior to entering the pull phase of the stroke.
What are your current and long-term goals for Swimmergy?
RH: We hope to keep letting the business grow organically, as it has done over the last few years, while at the same time continuing to maintain the same high-quality, individualized approach to coaching that we use with each of our swimmers. We want each of our athletes to feel that they’re on the right path while working with us. Additionally, we’re so grateful to Rob Sleamaker and Karen at Vasa for all of the support they’ve given us along the way, and we are excited to continue providing our clients with excellent dry land training on the Vasa Swim Ergs.
Thanks for your time, Rod and Andy, and we wish Swimmergy continued success!
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