Summer Workouts: This is the fifth installment in a summer-long weekly series that highlights the offseason conditioning — from cardio workouts to weightlifting and diet — for some of the area’s top returning high school athletes. In swimming there is no offseason. It’s a year-round sport unlike any other which requires swimmers to devote themselves to grueling hours in the pool staring at a line of black tiles on the bottom of the pool day in, day out with months between meaningful meets. A season starts with fall training in September and ends with summer championships in August.
It’s a grind.
Andrew Seliskar, the 2013-2014 All-Met Swimmer of the Year and a rising senior at Jefferson, embraces that grind. He loves knowing that he completes workouts each week that few swimmers, even at the elite level, would care to attempt. He takes on special sets and extra workouts beyond even what the rest of his elite practice group is doing in the water. That willingness to push himself has him poised for a berth on the U.S. national team next month and it could propel him to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Seliskar, 17, is the top male recruit in the class of 2015 and has been on every major college program’s radar since he finished 18th overall at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in the 200-meter individual medley. Since then, Seliskar has only gotten better.
He trains with Nation’s Capital Swim Club at the Tyson’s YWCA under the direction of Coach John Flanagan. The group includes first-team All-Mets Janet Hu, Laura Branton, Megan Byrnes, Kylie Jordan and John Shebat. In the summer, they split their hours between ‘the Y’ and East Potomac Pool at Hains Point – a 50-meter long-course pool.
The sets Seliskar performs with Flanagan are staggeringly difficult and he does them with splits that prompt his coach to take photos of the sets, whether written on the practice groups’ whiteboard or on a random sheet of paper when Seliskar is given a special set just to himself, and send them to his friends in the coaching world.
They are always impressed, and have drawn coaches from the University of Florida and California, two of the elite men’s programs, to the small pool in Tyson’s Corner to watch Seliskar perform his daily grind.
They’re never disappointed.
“We like an audience,” Flanagan said. “We do things here that not a lot of other programs do.”
In particular, Flanagan’s group devotes itself to developing powerful underwater kicking and precision in the 200 and 400 individual medleys – events that require the swimmer to perform all four strokes in succession – as they do freestyle.
“The way we’re set up, it allows for swimmers to swim the 800 [freestyle] and mile and for the sprinters to go fast in the 50; and everything in between.” Flanagan said.
“Most programs have freestyle as their base. “We think of ourselves as an IM program; not a freestyle program. We pay equal attention to IM and freestyle, and that’s not really typical.”
Nor is Seliskar’s ability to perform at the highest levels in every event. Entering next week’s U.S. Nationals in Irvine, Calif., he’s ranked No. 1 in the country in the 200 butterfly, the event that will likely carry him to the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships in Queensland, Australia, in late August and to next year’s FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia. He’ll also contend for one of two spots in the 400 IM – an event he won at Winter Nationals in December – and aim to finish in the top eight in the 200 breaststroke and 200 IM.
To prepare for nationals, Seliskar puts in about 10,000 yards per day during their three-hour swim workouts and averages more than 60,000 yards per week, or roughly 37 miles in all – a weekly total that wouldn’t be out of place on a runner’s marathon training chart. That distance isn’t atypical of an elite youth program, but it is when you consider the heavy emphasis on IM and kicking, which take longer and are more taxing on the body, and that practices are single session and not broken up into hour and a half doubles like most teams in the area.
“[In practice] I’m not going to focus on any one stroke,” Seliskar said. “I’m going to spend time each day working butterfly, back, breast and free at that 200 and 400 length to get that endurance up and that easy speed in all four strokes.”
At last summer’s FINA World Junior Championships in Dubai, Seliskar won gold in the 200 butterfly and finished fourth in the 200 IM. In butterfly, he surged in the race’s third 50 with a blistering split that put him out of reach and allowed him to cruise on the final length to a championship record (1:56.42). In the 200 individual medley, he became the first 16-and-under U.S. swimmer to break the 2-minute barrier and lowered his own national age group record, which was previously held by Michael Phelps. He did so with a punishing third 50 during the breaststroke leg of the race.
The second part of Seliskar’s success is due to his impressive underwaters – a noticeable advantage for Flanagan’s swimmers during the high school season.
“The way the sport is going, kicking underwater has become a huge part of every race, especially in short-course swimming, which is what we do in high school and the collegiate season,” Seliskar said. “We’ll kick lengthwise of the pool; we’ll do 20 or 30 sprint kicks for about 15 meters on each side, which really helps us work the breakouts off starts and turns.”
Each practice, Seliskar kicks sets with a monofin – a training device that resembles a mermaid’s fin and allows swimmers to concentrate on the dolphin kicking motion. He also does timed underwaters off the block, records his best times and challenges himself to break those times throughout the season.
At a practice on Tuesday, Hu, a Stanford-bound graduate of Oakton, split 10.6 seconds off the block in a 25 entirely underwater. Her best is 10.1, which, considering her fastest time in a 50-yard freestyle is 21.82, is not just fast, but really fast.
Flanagan was inspired four years ago when Bob Gillette, who coached Misty Hyman to a gold medal in the 200 butterfly at the 2000 Sydney Games, worked with former All-Met Swimmer of the Year Kaitlin Pawlowciz leading up to the 2010 Junior Pan Pacs. Gillette made use of a monofin in the sessions and Pawlowicz saw immediate benefits in her underwaters. Flanagan promptly ordered a set for his team and it has been an advantage for his swimmers in recent years, most notably by Seliskar and Hu, who was able to neutralize Natalie Coughlin’s world-best underwaters at U.S. Winter Nationals in December during the 50 freestyle final.
“As a program we’re always trying to stay head of everyone else,” Flanagan said. “The monofin, the underwater work was our advantage the last few years, but now everyone else has caught on. But you can just watch a race and see that Andrew and Janet are in a class of their own in underwaters. That’s the monofin.”
Underwaters was also a signature difference for Michael Phelps in totaling 18 gold medals over three Olympic Games. Seliskar is nearly on par with Phelps in that regard.
This week, Seliskar is on taper for next week’s nationals. It’s the period where an athlete reduces training yardage in an attempt to allow the body to rebuild and recover after months of grueling training and store up energy for an upcoming championship meet.
Seliskar started to come down on Friday with a 9,000-yard workouts and hit just over 5,000 yards on Tuesday, the distance he’ll most likely hold until he gets to Irvine on Sunday.
“Andrew has to have a base that will last him four weeks,” Flanagan said. If Seliskar makes either the national, he’ll have to plunge back into high-yardage practices before coming down a second time for either Pan Pacs.
Before taper began, Seliskar was put through a brutal few months of training to prepare him for the extended four-week period.
One set in particular from last month, went like this: 8×500 IM. The first 200 meters were butterfly, a stroke that taxes the arms and legs, before heading into two race-pace 100s of backstroke and breaststroke before finishing with freestyle.
“The freestyle could have been whatever pace since the set was focused on going fast in middle, but I know I tend to die in freestyle in my 400 IM, so I was going hard during the freestyle to try to help improve that part of my race,” Seliskar said.
That level of focus might be a deciding factor at nationals next week.