“Don’t create expectations, create strategies.”
If there was an overriding theme to Fernando Possenti’s open water master class for athletes and coaches on the penultimate day before the FINA World Junior Open Water Championships, the long-time coach of Brazil’s all-conquering star Ana Marcela Cunha it was with these five succinct words delivered before the class transitioned to the racecourse in Beau Vallon Bay, Seychelles.
The coaching master class is the first time the championships had a master class as a prelude. More than just imparting information inside the mind of Possenti, a seven-time FINA Open Water Coach of the Year recipient (2014-2019, 2021), the emphasis was on exchange.
“We are here to listen to you, to hear from you, the coaches and athletes, to talk about how we can grow and enhance our sport of open water,” Possenti said. “I don’t want this to be me just talking: we’re here to exchange knowledge and experiences in open water.”
Added Possenti: “It takes a whole team to help Ana Marcela achieve her gold medal dreams.”
While the master class focused on refuelling strategies during race time, the principles in play can carry over into other areas for those looking after the margins and details that define success.
As Possenti put it, “It’s the details we need to focus on to make our athletes as complete open water racers as possible.”
Strategy in the Approach
Moving into Beau Vallon Bay, Possenti and Cunha began by emphasizing the strategic component of feeding mid-race. “You have to make a decision before the feeding pontoon,” Possenti said, before elaborating on why it may make sense to put in a quick sprint to lead the pack into the feeding zone, hang tight in the pack or even lag a bit off the pace.
Whatever strategy the athlete chooses at a particular moment in a race, one universal rule applies: Be calm at that moment; be smooth at that moment.
In the feeding zone melee, dropped bottles and thin sips of carbohydrate-infused drinks can all be avoided with the correct technique, according to Possenti.
To bring the classroom to practice, Cunha did several rounds through the feed zone that showed the subtle movements of an experienced professional. She didn’t reach for the drink, but rather went slightly past the drink, before turning to her side and only then reaching for her beverage.
Following several big gulps of beverage and two single-handed backstrokes, Cunha was back into her marathon pace. A couple blinks of the eye and you could have missed it. The current Ferrari pit stop crew could have picked up a few pointers watching Cunha.
Just as there are rules of fair play out on the course in the pack, these definitely apply in the feeding area. Teams use colours and flags on their sticks and bottles to make it easier for their athletes to find their drinks, Possenti pointed out how important it is to get one’s bottle but no disrupt a competitor's race by incorrectly grabbing their bottle, or knocking them from their cage into the water.
While emphasizing he’s not a nutritionist, Possenti noted how the course air and water temperature played a factor in when – and with what – Cunha drank different races. With the sweltering heat at last summer’s Tokyo, everything down to the type of sodium Cunha consumed in her bottle was well thought out and tested in practice before race day.
With so much focus on getting things right, Possenti stressed to the younger athletes that motivation plus attention to detail – no matter one’s situation.
For the two months leading to the 2017 FINA World Championships, Cunha was primarily confined to training in a tiny apartment pool filled with 32-degree water. The preparation environment might not have been ideal, but Cunha and Possenti focused on what they could control.
When the world championships rolled around, Cunha took three medals in three races in Lake Balaton. One of those was gold; the 25km, the event where getting one’s refuelling and rehydration strategy right is of the utmost importance.
In the words of Possenti: “If you don’t get the little things right, you’ll never do the big things right, either.”