On 3/13, I had the pleasure of interviewing competitive swimmer, Haley (Cope) Clark!
Haley’s incredible career accomplishments include 4 National Championships, 8 World Championship medals, a silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in the 4x100m medley relay, and a world record in the short course 50m backstroke in 2000.
Now retired from competitive swimming, Haley owns the Water Sprites Swim School in Chico, CA. At the time of this interview, Haley was kind enough to take the time to meet with me, despite being 8 months pregnant and still teaching all day. Here she shares her thoughts on what it takes to achieve the elite level in competitive swimming.
JM: At what age did you start swimming, when did your competitive career begin, and when did you recognize you had the potential to swim at an elite level?
HC: I could swim before I could walk. Chico summers are hot, so my parents always had me in the water. I could always just swim. I didn’t start swimming competitively until I was 11. That was the first time I ever even knew there were 4 strokes or tried to be on a team. And by the time I was 12, I was nationally ranked. I think I was 5th in the 50 backstroke in my age group. So it was pretty much within a year. Swimming was my life and I was never going to back to anything else.
JM: Is 11 a late start?
HC: It is. It’s not unheard of, but it’s perfectly common for kids to start on a swim team when they’re 4, 5, 6 years old. So 11 is not on the early side of that curve.
JM: At that point, when you knew you were headed for high level competition, what was your approach to training?
HC: I come from Chico. We don’t have the greatest facilities, (or) giant programs with a lot of money. There was no hurry exactly. I never trained doubles, twice a day, until I was 13 but even that was only in the summers. It really wasn’t until I was 15 and had Senior Nationals, which is like the top 1/2 percent in the country, where I started doing doubles in the school year when I was in high school and things like that. (It was a) fairly slow, reasonable progression. At least with the AquaJets, their general philosophy has always been (to) get better slowly–have a more enjoyable career. You watch the Olympics or World Championships, and you will see the younger 15-, 16-year-old girls on the team, because physically, you can do that but then you’re done by the time you’re 18 or 19 and you don’t have anything left. As a team, growing up with the AquaJets, they have a nice progression. You feel better about yourself if you can just get a little bit better all the time versus trying to hurry up and hit your peak and hang on as long as you can. So, nationally ranked at 12, Junior National at 14, made Senior Nationals at 15, got to go off and swim at UC Berkeley in college. Didn’t make a world championship team until, I think, I was 21. Made an Olympic team at 25. Kind of slow and steady.
JM: I imagine that was beneficial for your mental health.
HC: There are, of course, periods there when you aren’t getting better and that’s always hard as an athlete to really deal with that. It’s almost even harder mentally to deal with being really good.
Specificity of Training
JM: So you achieved your greatest success in backstroke. At what point in the development of a competitive swimmer is it important to specialize?
HC: The best swimmers never do. We swim everything. I swam backstroke. I also swam freestyle at a world class level. I can sprint butterfly at that level, too. Breaststroke is the only really bad stroke I have and even in that I have Senior National cuts. In swimming you train everything. Usually you have one thing that you’re known for, that you’re going to be top 3 in the world for. But all of those people usually have one or two other strokes at least. No one cuts down and just swims freestyle.
JM: So if you’re going to be competing at a World Championship level, if your training is kind of focused on a variety of events, do you spread yourself thin with that approach? At a certain point do you have to emphasize certain events, for example backstroke?
HC: No, not at all. It all complements each other. Why would you do cross training or anything else? I couldn’t just swim back and forth in the pool. That isn’t even conducive to one’s overall athleticism and physical capabilities, to do one repetitive thing. The same applies within strokes as well. You do everything.
JM: Talking about cross training, how important is strength training in the development of a swimmer?
HC: Everyone has such different degrees to which they like to do things, and to some extent, the strokes you swim or the distances you do will significantly impact what you do outside of the water. I certainly wouldn’t feel complete if I didn’t get to do all of the strength training stuff that I did along the way.
JM: What kinds of things did you do for strength training?
HC: You always have time in the weight room. You have circuit resistance kind of stuff. We did everything from jump roping to ballet to yoga to Pilates to doing some basic tai chi or karate type stuff to running stadiums like everyone else. Personally I love jump roping. I think the biggest thing that almost all swimmers could improve on is definitely their kick. Those giant muscles suck a lot of oxygen. Anything you do that works on leg strength and endurance is super great. I always love jump roping for that kind of stuff.
JM: Were you also doing power lifts like squats and deadlifts?
HC: Yeah, it kind of depended on what your coach’s theories are and who they have in charge of dry land programs or what they want to try that season. It’s not like you just have that same routine in the weight room for 6 years straight. They get tired of one thing and try another. They’re not very scientific about things. They’re coaches. They just go by feel, most of them. Chico literally had one of the more scientific and methodical coaches of all time with Ernie Maglischo (at Chico State and then he went down to Arizona) who’s written a number of books. He was a really high level coach who thought it was great to experiment on his swimmers and really keep good records and track everything. He played with things a lot but he was very analytical with the things he did. I don’t think most coaches are that methodical at all. And certainly as an athlete you’re not the one in charge most of the time. So you don’t have a lot of input.
JM: Kind of follow the program…
HC: Yeah, you do what you’re told. That’s how teams are run, somewhat like being in the military. You just show up when you’re supposed to and do what you’re asked.
JM: Don’t ask a lot of questions.
HC: Most coaches don’t appreciate that, no.
JM: So in a short distance like 50 meters, I would imagine athletic power is important. If you loosely define power as a combination of strength and speed–you mentioned some of the things you do for cross training–but what would you do to develop power for a short distance like that?
HC: It’s so funny, because we all try to get stronger and we think it’s gonna help us, but some of the best swimmers are just super long. They’re just born that way. I don’t know how else to describe it. It kind of develops as you work on it over time. We all try to spend time in the weight room and move things really fast and a lot of weight really fast. When you look at the best sprinters, I’m not sure that all that extra strength training really has so much of an effect.
JM: So being physically gifted and having technique are more important?
HC: (laughs) Yes!
JM: Can you give me an idea about some of your nutritional practices? Were there certain types of foods you ate for specific purposes? Did you focus on eating for size or body composition or was it more about eating to meet energy demands?
HC: It varies, of course, throughout. The more I trained, the more conscious I’d have to be about having a steak and making sure you have enough protein in your diet. I think sleep was more important than what I ate. Before the Olympics, I had pretty much cut out all the stuff that’s bad for you (laughs). Frozen grapes were…an after dinner treat. But so much of that was just about, “I have to stand up in front of the entire world in a swimsuit” more than I’m really worried about what’s going into my body is affecting my training right now. You burn through so much as long as your body is nutritionally getting what you need. I don’t think it’s that important. But I also come from a family with fairly high metabolisms where weight gain isn’t a problem for us. I still eat 3500 kcal a day when I’m not pregnant and I’m a perfectly normal healthy weight without struggling to maintain that at all. There isn’t a huge amount of exercise I have to do to maintain weight. It’s personally something I’ve never had to micromanage. You can’t be all girly and just eat some chicken once in a while. You had to EAT! That was it.
JM: So you didn’t have people giving you strong nutrition advice, you know, eat certain types of foods, pre-event nutrition…?
HC: They can tell you that all they want but you figure out what works for you. And I think everybody’s different. I like to have my coffee before I compete. I get so nervous, I can’t eat foods. I just can’t. Before meets, I can’t eat. I just throw up. I get nervous. No, I don’t think anyone ever had to sit down and tell us what we could and couldn’t eat at certain times. It’s just ridiculous. You kind of absorb some general advice, of course. Personally with any nutritional issues I’ve ever had, I’ve never found the advice of dietitians to be especially helpful. With pregnancy I tend to be diabetic and they’re like “Oh, put some avocado on there, some good healthy fats,” and I’m like that’s not enough calories for me. I have to eat to keep my blood sugar down. I mean I’m eating like sticks of butter just to get enough calories to maintain weight and not lose weight. When you’re an elite level athlete, and I’m not saying I’m the be-all and end-all of elite athletes, because clearly I’m not. I’m just on the really good side of things. There are things that are just physiologically different about you than everybody else, just inherently. I think those things come into play with the super elite level athletes a lot more than anyone wants to admit.
JM: When you were competing in World Championship and Olympic events, I imagine your physical condition was at its peak. At that point how much of your time is devoted to conditioning and physical development and how much is devoted to technique?
HC: Oh gosh, I would have no idea. It’s pretty easy to say you spend about 7 hours a day training, usually about 4 in the water and 3 doing other stuff. For me, personally, I’ve always been much more of a technique-based athlete. I’m not the person who leads the lane every time. There are people way slower than me but they can train way harder than I can. I’ve never been able to just hammer through things the way some people can. Me, personally, what I’m good at is thinking about what my body is doing and being really aware in the water of where the water is and how much of it I’m pulling and how much I’m letting go. When it comes down to me, that’s a different story. It’s not just the training, thank God. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been very good at all.
JM: When you’re competing at the highest level, as you did, I imagine it’s really important to have a handle on the mental aspect of competition, especially in shorter distances where an error can cost you…
HC : (laughs) tell me about it…
JM: So what was your psychological approach to competition?
HC: I used to get horribly nervous when I was young and then it got better for a while. I’m always jittery. I would say my best performances are always when I’m just excited to see what I can do not when you feel like “oh, I gotta swim really fast here.” When you start putting those kinds of demands on yourself, it’s hard to get into that sweet spot where you do swim your best, at least for me. (I had) total anxiety attacks before the first World Championship team I was on. I mean you have to represent your country, that’s just freaky. It’s not just you. That’s a whole other level of pressure. And then you learn to deal with that and you get better at dealing with it as you get older. The people who always do best in competition are the people who, at least from my perspective, are either a) too stupid to know any better–and that’s a good portion of athletes (laughs)…
JM: They don’t overthink it.
HC: They don’t overthink it. They do what they’re told and then they do great. I’ve always been super envious of those people. And there are those people who’ve been really good for a long time and just, the experience builds on itself, and they’re able to keep getting better as they keep getting older because they learn to manage everything so much better than everybody else. But those are the people who are in it for the really long haul. In swimming you’re gonna look at, like, Gary Hall, Jr., who was in it forever but he’s just the master manipulator of races and ready room atmosphere and all that stuff. He’s got that down to a science. Or you look at Jenny Thompson who was on a million Olympic teams but continued to keep getting better. You still train hard and do all that but those improvements in time and consistency are coming from experience at some point, not just the little girls can out-train you. It’s kind of like Pele in soccer. He got older but he was still just awesome because, after a while you have so much experience to draw on, and things don’t set you off your game as much and you have that much more of a presence around all the other athletes around you. That affects the game, of course.
JM: Can you think of a specific anxiety coping strategy you used if you were particularly nervous before an event? Is there something you thought about or some relaxation technique?
HC: No! I think all athletes are superstitious. You have your routine and you settle down into that. For me, I have coffee, I have blue PowerAde, and I eat Cadbury cream eggs.
JM: That’s a ritual.
HC: My coach, she would tell you, she makes sure all of those things are packed in her bag when we were going to World Championships and Olympics. You don’t take any chances. That’s stuff you just take with you so you can have your routine. And that helps to a great extent.
JM: So having that consistency helped you.
HC: Yeah, yeah. Some people have the same warm-up before every meet, same yardage–you know, it depends. It varies from person to person
JM: Last question for you. What was your most significant or memorable experience as a competitive swimmer?
HC: In terms of in the pool? Oh, it’s so hard. I guess there are probably two. I can’t narrow it down to one. When I was 14 and finaled at Junior Nationals, I think I got 5th or 7th or something. That was the first time where I really realized I was good. I felt like I was really good at something. That overall was a pivotal point in my life in terms of how I view myself versus the world. Very different from my mother and my sister. I would not say I’m a big gambler. I don’t like to take chances on things, but I will put everything on the line because I think I can pull it off. I’m not afraid to put myself in the position. At that point in my career it had such a big impact on my life and how capable I viewed myself as being and the challenges I think I can get through. I think that was really big.
JM: So that kind of set the tone or set the stage…
HC: …for everything else, which is not to say I don’t fail or everybody does. I expected to make the 2000 Olympic team. I didn’t (laughs). That was, you know, ok, three or four shots of tequila, rest a day, come back…and then you wait another 4 years for another chance. Not to say that you don’t fail but you still know what you’re capable of–ok this didn’t work out. Let’s work this out and try again.
The second really big one was my world record. That’s always awesome, right? Any day you set a world record, that’s a good day! I tell little kids this story all the time. The first swim meet I ever went to I won my heat. I was a good swimmer. It only took me a year to be nationally ranked. Naturally, I just swam. It’s my happy place. It always has been. I won my first event and my mother said, “OK, you know there’s always someone in the world who’s faster than you.” That’s her setting you up so you don’t get disappointed and fall apart, which I still do by the way. I get totally disappointed and fall apart when things don’t go right. I just put myself back together at the end. But you know that made such a huge impact. It was like, uh, you don’t believe in me. Like, I’m so excited and proud of the things I’ve done and she only sees that like that’s gonna make it worse next time when it doesn’t happen. And then she got to be there when I broke the world record, and she wasn’t at very many swim meets ever. But it was one of those things where I got to run up in the stands and say “You were wrong. You were so wrong! You said there would always be someone in the world who could beat me. And no, today the answer is no, no one has ever!” So that feeling is pretty good.
JM: What an amazing experience.
HC: I have some interesting theories. My husband and I are trying to put together a talk because, like I said, the nutritionist I never found to be very helpful. To a certain extent a lot of the prevailing theories about how you want to approach (things) and the way you want to set things up as an athlete or a coach can get in the way sometimes. Everyone talks about goal setting and thinking about what you want to do and then you have your short-term goals and your long-term goals and–I think those things are all very helpful for getting you in the direction of what you want to do, but when it came to actually breaking the world record, I didn’t know what the world record was in that event. I didn’t know what the time was! I wasn’t going into that event thinking I’m gonna swim this fast and the seconds and the hundredths that I have to do. I touched the wall and other people were telling me what it was. So in terms of that I think it’s very different.
JM: So in a situation like that, clearly you want to do as well as possible…
JM: …but you’re not aware of what the ultimate is in that case. So are you more focused on the process (what do I need to do to perform at the highest level) rather than trying to reach…
HC: Right! You’re just in that zone where you’re just excited to see what you can do and you want to beat everyone else and you’re feeling good and you just go with it. So those are the two big (experiences).