© 1996 SWIMNEWS Magazine

SWIMNEWS ONLINE: July 1996 Magazine Articles



Cecil M. Colwin

Coach John Carew of Indooroopilly, Queensland, nursed a notion that the ideal 1500 swimmer should be able to swim fast from the start and change the pace at will.

Carew's interest in the 1500 metres event stemmed from his friendship with Sam Herford, who coached Murray Rose, one of the greatest tactical 1500 swimmers of all time.

"Sam taught me a lot about stroking and coaching in general. I learned a great deal about Murray Rose's technique, and I liked the concept of relaxation within the stroke," says Carew.

Back in the 1970s Carew coached Stephen Holland as a young lad. Under Laurie Lawrence, Holland later went on to win World and Commonwealth Championships, finish second in the 1976 Olympic 1500 metres, and break twelve world records.

"Steve was one of the greatest, but he had one weakness. Although a tough, courageous athlete, he lacked early speed. In those days, the 1500 swimmer would go out slowly for the first 100, and then race for 1400."

"Steve couldn't change to a six-beat kick in the same fashion as Murray Rose. Steve had a higher body position and a faster stroke rating than Murray Rose, and could hold a fast steady pace throughout, but he couldn't shift gears."

Over the years, Carew would say to his wife: "If only I had another chance to coach a swimmer with the ability to swim the 1500; this time I'd make make sure to teach him to go out fast."

For nearly two decades, Carew sought a talented youngster to prove his pet theory. Then, one day, malleable material arrived at Carew's small indoor pool in the unlikely form of a skinny eight-year-old boy.

"When I first saw Kieren Perkins he wasn't a good specimen at all. He wasn't tall. He looked undernourished actually. He was down on one shoulder, and he was fatter on one side of his body than the other. But he was a good kid, a willing kid, and I wanted to help him. He didn't show any promise at all until he was thirteen."


At thirteen, Carew introduced Kieren Perkins to distance swimming.
"I tailored Kieren's stroking to a faster rating, brought him to a higher body position in the water, and increased his body roll a little, but still kept his head fairly low."

Carew developed Perkins' ability to go out at a set speed, and then maintain it. Carew came in for more than a little criticism because he insisted on Kieren swimming the race fast from the start. "Everybody said I was doing the wrong thing," he says.

Kieren Perkins
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Darin Braybrook/Sport - The Library

Carew taught Perkins to change pace by changing both his arm timing and kicking cadence. "I taught him to change up from a two-beat to a six-beat kick, and then down again to a two beat, until he learned to change pace as needed. Of course, you know the results of that; suddenly, the days of swimming the 1500 at one pace were over. I attribute Kieren's success in large measure to his ability to change pace. Kieren goes out from the start and he just keeps going."


Carew says that Perkins changes both stroke length and timing during the course of a race. In this way, the triceps muscles don't become too fatigued by constantly using a long push backwards.

Carew says: "Timing refers to the position of the pulling hand when the other hand enters. When Kieren is doing a two-beat kick, he advances his timing by increasing the amount of overlap between his arms so that his hands are brought closer together in front of his body." "When Kieren sprints and switches to a six-beat kick, he retards his timing by bringing the pulling hand further back before the other hand enters. When his right hand enters, his left hand will be level with his shoulder. This is the timing that Dawn Fraser used when sprinting."

"Arm timing is what I call 'the swimmer's gear box'. Distance swimmers use advanced timing, while middle-distance swimmers use semi-advanced timing. Two hundred metre swimmers use a timing between middle distance and sprint timing. One hundred metres swimmers use a retarded timing."


Kieren Perkins concentrates on relaxing within his stroke. "When his right hand, for example, pushes backwards, he kicks downward with his right foot, and allows the other side of the body to relax completely."

Carew says he has seen swimmers who pushed back with one hand, but kicked down on the opposite side of the body. "Bobby Windle, who was one of our great distance swimmers, did this. But I don't like it because it destroys your hip position which is most important to forward movement."

"Kieren's shoulders probably roll about 50 degrees, and his hips roll about 30 degrees. However, I think he should have about the same hip roll as he has shoulder roll. Getting the hips into place steadies the body for the pull."

"When Kieren does a two-beat kick, he floats his legs and crosses his ankles over as the body rolls to the other side. It's really a two-beat kick with a cross-over".


Kieren Perkins first came to national notice at the age of thirteen, when Carew entered him in the Queensland 400 meters championship. Says Carew: "I trained him like a distance swimmer for this event, and he went 4:09 in a 50 m pool. Up to this point, he hadn't shown anything at all. This was in 1987, and it was the first race that he won. It was very good, and I was very pleased with that ."

Carew believes strongly in the value of stroke drills. "I cannot see the wisdom of training and conditioning swimmers who will never reach full potential because of inferior technique. I can't emphasize enough how stroke drills aid a swimmer to get the feel of the water and set up a correct stroke pattern. For example, we practice sculling drills once a week during the season, and once a day in the tapering period."

Carew says that Kieren had developed a good technique by the time he was fourteen, but his speed was 'non-existent'. "He couldn't break 30 seconds for 50 metres. To increase his speed I set short programs of 5 kilometres duration which emphasized quality speed work. Half of his workouts were in my 20 m pool at Indooroopily, and the remaining sessions were in one of the only two heated Olympic sized pools in Brisbane."

"The total distance per session covered by Kieren Perkins was increased by one kilometre each year. The aim was to train at race pace, and faster, as often as possible, the goal being to teach the body to buffer lactate and hold glycogen stores."

1st year 5 K per session 55 K per week
2nd year 6 K per session 66 K per week
3rd year 7 K per session 77 K per week
4th year 8 K per session 88 K per week


Carew says that Kieren's maximum heart rate is 180 beats per minute, and, when he is fit, his resting heart rate is 38 beats per minute. His Heart Rate Sets range in distance from 1200 metres in the early season to 3000 metres in the last twelve week cycle.

"While doing Heart Rate Sets, swimmers should aim for a consistent 10 beats below the maximum heart rate. A period of two seasons is needed for physiological gains to occur. Sprint swimmers should do two Heart Rate Sets per week over a total distance of 2000 metres. Distance to middle-distance swimmers should do three Heart Rate Sets per week over a total distance of up to 3000 metres for the 1500 metres swimmers."

"The use of heart rate monitors is essential for the accuracy of these sets," says Carew. " The Treffene model in my opinion is the best. Test sets should be organized once a month. From these the coach is able to monitor fitness gains."


When Carew first tried to make Perkins go out fast in the 1500, he would lose his stroke rythym because he couldn't hold the pace. "But we persevered and, at fifteen, he went 15:48, and he made the Australian Team for the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch."

Once again, Carew was the butt of much joking when he maintained that Kieren would go under 15 minutes. "I came out and made this statement, and people thought there was something wrong with me, but I knew he could do it. I could just about estimate what time he would do. He finished up going 14:58."

"Kieren will tell you this himself: I've been able to tell him, within a second, what time he will swim, every time he has broken a world record. When Kieren swims certain times during the taper, I can correlate these closely to what he will do in competition. You see, I think he would have swum a 14:30 plus, 14:38, 14:39, in Rome, but he disobeyed my instructions at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria. I asked him to go out and break the world 800 record, which I knew he could do."

Carew didn't want Perkins to break the world 1500 mark in this race. "But as he went through, and knew he had broken the world 800 record, he just kept going. I can't blame him for this, I suppose, but the effect of the swim tore him down, and I couldn't give him the required work between the Victoria meet and the World Championships in Rome. There was only about five weeks between the two meets. So we got the 400 metres record instead. When he swims two fast 1500s within such a short time, his body really feels the effects."

"A top 1500 swimmer should only go for a fast time about twice a year at the most. The 1500 really tears Kieren down. This is because I don't permit Kieren to touch weights; I only allow him to use cords."

Carew says that, after the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, it took Roger Fitzgerald, the team physiotherapist, one week to get Kieren's body back into shape again. "That's how much effort he puts into it. After swimming that 14:50 in the 1500 against Hoffmann in the World Championships at Perth, Kieren didn't eat for three days . He was sort of torn down, and didn't want to eat. He puts that much effort into it that it tears him down."


Carew says that Kieren Perkins is probably one of the best athletes he has ever seen for focusing. "He can stand up on the block, and I'll tell him the plan, whatever it is: 'You've got to go through the 150 in so-and-so, and you've got to go through the 400 and the 800 in so-and-so', and he'll focus on that."

"Kieren wouldn't know who was in the race with him because I've always taught him that way. I feel that, if you start thinking about other people, then you've lost the plan. You're in there to do a job. You're in there to swim the time. So you don't want to know who's in the race with you."

Carew works on teaching concentration. "Kieren is very good at it. He just relaxes and thinks about what he has to do. What time he's going to go through in. If we are going to have a go, I never talk to him about it a week or two weeks before. I don't give him time to get nervous about it. I don't tell him what I have in mind until just before the race. I always give him his instructions just as he goes into the marshalling area. If I say 'go for it,' he knows that I just want him to swim to win."

"Kieren doesn't need a lot of time to psych up. I just say: 'I want you to go through in this time. I want you to be through the 400 in this time. I want you to be through the 800 in this time.' So he'll get up on the block, and he won't know who else is there. He wouldn't know who is in the race with him. It wouldn't even worry him. He has his plan, and he can really focus on that plan. He's nearly a complete sportsman, I feel."


What does Perkins think about during the less-than-15 minutes he usually takes to cover the 1500?

Carew says: "Well, he really focuses on what he has to do: his stroke, his turns, and, of course, he's got to focus to push himself through the pain barrier, which he can do."

Asked if he ever spoke to Perkins about the pain barrier, Carew said: "No, no, I don't discuss things like that with him. Except at the Olympic Trials last week, as he was going out on the deck, I said to him: 'I want you to take it out the way you normally do. I want you to put pressure on these people early, and let them know that you are there."

"Now, if you fail, and you start to lose at the 1000, then I'm to blame, not you. I'm the one that's telling you to do this, and you're going to have to dig deep in the energy barrel, and you'll have to show a lot of character. Just swim your normal race, and if it goes wrong, then I'm to blame, not you."

On the topic of 'giving it a go', Carew says: "When Kieren is in there, he's a racer. Like Haylie Lewis, she's a racer. And these two get in there to race, see. I don't have to give them pep talks. You know, it's something I don't have to do."

Hayley Lewis joined John Carew's program
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Darin Braybrook/Sport - The Library

"Sometimes Kieren concentrates on swimming for time, as he did in the Commonwealth Games in Victoria. I told him to break the 800 record, but he went out and broke the 1500 mark as well, and, of course, my remark to him was: 'What did you do that for?' And he said: 'Well I felt that good, I thought I'd go for that too.' And I said: 'Well, you've just destroyed our plans for Rome.' "

I suggested to Carew that perhaps Kieren had thought: 'I may not feel this good ever again, or not for a long time, I may as well make hay while the sun shines...'

Carew replied, "Well, I suppose he was right, if a world record is in the offing, he should go for it. I couldn't very well castigate him for swimming a world record. It was just that I had planned, and I've always felt -I don't think I'll see it now-but I've always felt that he would go into the 14:30s."

Carew believes that Kieren would have been able to reach an even higher peak in Rome had he used the Commonwealth Games 1500 swim as a preliminary effort on the way to a world record at the World Championships.

"I thought he could go 14:30 at Rome. With the extra work, this would have had him right. It wouldn't have torn him down; if he had just broken the 800, and then gone on from there just to win the race."


Carew says that he and Perkins never quarrel. "We have an agreement. We have a fine line; I'm the coach, and he's the pupil. And he does as I say. He calls me 'Mr Carew', which he doesn't have to do, and that to me is a mark of respect. He just keeps a fine line between us."

"I said to Kieren: 'Look, I'll become friends with you when you've finished swimming. At the moment we have a role to play. You're the swimmer. I'm the coach. You have to do as I say, but if you lose that respect for me and don't think things are right, then you have to go somewhere else.' So we play our two roles, and this is something that goes straight down the line. I play my role as a coach. He plays his role as a swimmer. He never contradicts me on anything."

Carew says that Perkins is never temperamental. "He knows me; well, he's been with me since he was eight, and he knows that if I get annoyed, you keep out of my way, and that you just don't argue with me, you just do it. He knows that I'll rationalize later on, but there can only be one boss. You can't have two."

Carew says that he is probably like a second father to Kieren. "You know he comes to me for a lot of advice, personally, and in all ways, and I think you've got to really care for the athlete; you're not a coach if you're going to use them just to get your name up there. I care for him, and so I try to do the best I can for him."

Carew doesn't know Perkins' future plans. "We'll see what happens at the Olympics. I've told Don Talbot that I think we haven't given ourselves enough time for the distance swimmers. I think we should have another month. You see, Kieren has been sick this week, and so he has only been in the water a couple of times. That's another week we've lost."

"However, I think he'll go quite well at the Olympics, as long as we don't have any more setbacks. I think he'll swim well, because he's been in the water a long time. We never get out of the water. If he goes on holidays, he's in the water three times a week. That's all in his favour."

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