|The Flag is Tatooed Over His Heart|
By the time he retired from world-class swimming, Alex Baumann had won two Olympic gold medals, set many world records, had taken home numerous trophies and honours, including Athlete of the Year and the Order of Canada.... And Alex Baumann was only 23 years old!
Before becoming a fulltime coach, Alex took time out to collaborate with his former coach, Lena Tihanyi, on a book about swimming. Called "Swimming with Alex Baumann: A Program for Competitive and Recreational
Swimmers". It is also aimed at coaching. It was something that Alex found quite different at first.
"I started by doing some coaching with the varsity team in my hometown of Sudbury, Ontario, in 1989. I enjoy it, but it is a lot different from being in the pool. You have to become quite inventive and make up different workouts to keep the swimmers alert and interested."
Since completing the book Alex has become a fulltime coach at Laurentian University, Sudbury.
"I was very fortunate to have Dr. Tihanyi as my coach for 14 years. He guided me along by getting the best out of me, instilling in me how to set goals for myself and disciplining me. Studies have shown that sometimes a coach has more influence than a parent or a teacher at a certain point in an athlete's life."
Good coaching and hard work are the keys to success in the water, Alex has learned.
"Eleven years of training before the first big signs of success means a large part of your life must be spent in the pool. It means getting up at 5
a.m. every morning, whether you feel like it or not, swimming up to 12 or 13 kilometers a day. Five hours of grueling effort. It can become very boring because it is repetitive. That's why I'm glad we had competitions. We got to travel a lot. See the country. My friends were swimmers too so there were some healthy rivalries that developed and I'm sure that had a lot to do with my success."
Then, at the peak of his career in 1981, a shoulder injury forced Alex to retire.
"It was a time of physical and psychological torment for me, thinking all the time that I might not ever swim competitively again."
Through long and arduous hours of rehabilitation and training, Alex regained the strength of his shoulder and continued to prepare for world record times.
Alex won his first international race in 1978, then went on to win medals and break records that still stand today. The culmination of years of hard work came at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles where he brought home two gold medals for the 200 meters and the 400 meters, Alex told me.
"It was a tremendous feeling walking into that stadium with 90,000 people cheering. Even the Americans gave me quite a lot of applause. I guess, saluting their neighbour from the north. The cheering got my adrenalin flowing and ready for the competition. There was a lot of pressure on me to win because I had two world records going in so after the first winning race was over I felt a lot of relief The second one was easier after I had won the first."
It was a real coup for Alex because no one from Canada had won gold medals in swimming since 1912 when George Hodgson of Montreal struck
gold in two events. In addition to winning the gold medals, Alex Baumann was considered the fastest individual medley swimmer in the world.
Interestingly enough, Alex did not at first take to water like the proverbial duckling.
"As a small child I liked the water all right, but I didn't want to work at swimming. I was more interested in splashing around and having a good time than in learning strokes. My mother had been a successful competitive swimmer in Czechoslovakia in the 1940ís but she didn't teach me to swim until I was five years old. I think she was wise in not pushing me at an earlier age. She just let me enjoy the water."
Another thing Alex learned to enjoy was being a Canadian. Although born in Czechoslovakia, he came to Canada with his parents at a very young age. One way he wanted to show his pride in Canada was to get a flag tattooed on his chest!
"It started in 1978 when Bill Sawchuk and Graham Smith got tattooed because they were proud to be Canadians and are world record holders. When I broke the 200 meter world record in Germany in 1981 I went out and got my tattoo. I was going to the University of Indiana at the time and that made it very plain where my loyalties were."
What advice does Alex Baumann have for young swimmers and for anyone who wants to succeed?
"It is essential to set short term goals for yourself. Once you achieve those goals you can move on to others and climb up the ladder that way. I think if you take life one day at a time you get a lot of satisfaction out of it.
"Also, Dr. Tihanyi taught me to visualize myself in action every step of the way from the start, to turns and finish. You really see yourself in those positions beforehand. And that really translates into anything you plan to do in your life. ďAlex Baumann. . . a gold medal Canadian Achiever.
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