Training a champion flyer

Training a champion flyer

Whitten, Phillip

1998 was a banner year for James Hickman. After finishing fifth in the 200 meter butterfly (1:58.76) at the World Championships in Perth in January, he set a European record of 51.40 in the 100 fly (short course) at a World Cup meet in Sydney the following week.

Two months later, he destroyed Denis Pankratov’s 200 meter short course fly world record with an astonishing 1:51.76. In September, he set a national record in winning the 200 fly at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur (1:57.11). Hickman finished the year in spectacular fashion in December by winning both the 100 and 200 fly at the European Short Course Championships in Sheffield, erasing Michael Klim’s world standard in the 100 with a time of 51.02 (swum in prelims).

Swimming Technique sat down with Hickman and his coach, Terry Denison, while they were in training camp last November to talk about Hickman’s training.

Head coach at the City of Leeds since 1972, Denison, 57, has been Hickman’s coach for just over one year, having taken over the young man’s training when Hickman left his long-time coach after a personal disagreement.

Denison first coached the British junior national team in 1973. Since 1980, he has been a member of the senior national coaching staff with five Olympiads under his belt. Among his former swimmers is world and Olympic champion Adrian Moorhouse. At the 1998 Commonwealth Games, Denison’s swimmers won 10 of the 22 medals awarded to British swimmers.


Denison points out that because he has a strong distance and aerobic back ground, Hickman finds it relatively easy to attain aerobic fitness. The coach emphasizes pacing that is specific to Hickman, lots of hard aerobic and medley swimming, and at least one quality swim every training session.

Hickman, who has been swimming since he was 6, is a very focused, dedicated swimmer who never misses a training session. He cannot even recall the last time he missed a workout.

“Sometimes I’ll want to snooze, but then I think of Denis Pankratov and I know he’s getting up, so I’d better get up. I try to remember that there’s always someone willing to work just that much harder so he can beat me. I don’t want to let that happen.”

This willingness to work hard and consistently, plus Hickman’s “natural skill in the water, his feel and his ability to sense the right depth, make coaching him a pleasure,” says Denison.

“James has always been a quality short course swimmer,” notes Denison, “but he hasn’t had the self-confidence to compete long course with the world’s best. 1998 was a great year for him in terms of building his confidence. Dropping his 200 from 1:58.3 to 1:57.1 means he’s right there with the very best in long course, and he knows it.”

During mid-season, Hickman averages 10 swim workouts per week, going about 7,000 meters per session. He does double workouts on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and single sessions on Wednesday and Sunday. Saturday is a rest day.

Following are some typical sets:

Aerobic Sets

12 x 200 fly on 3:00 (Hickman does 2:16 to 2:20)

12 x 300 fly/IM (alternate) on 4:30 2400 fly (Hickman does under

29 minutes-1:12 average/lOOm)

Quality Sets

20 x 100 fly, 1 easy, 1 hard on 1:30 (hard lOOs are all under 1:00)

Broken 200 fly (4 x 50 with 20 seconds rest; all out)

3 x ( 10 x 50 fly on 1:00; hold 28s)

5 x 200 fly on 5:00 (Hickman descends to 1:58, short course)

Kicking is a major part of Hickman’s training, and he has become a very strong kicker. He typically kicks about 58-59 seconds for 100 meters fly, 1:02 for 100 meters free. (“I’m afraid I don’t have a very strong flutter kick,” he says modestly.) For long course, he kicks about 1:00 for fly, 1:04 for free.


Denison and Hickman agree that it’s more important to swim with perfect technique in practice than to swim fast. “It’s better to slow down and maintain good technique than to power through a faster time but lose your form,” says Hickman. “I’d rather do a 1:02 with good technique-keeping my elbows high-in practice than do a 1:01 with poor form.”

Maintaining good technique is one reason Denison has reduced the distance Hickman swims butterfly in practice. “About 35 percent of my workout now is fly,” says Hickman. Under his previous coach, about 65 percent was fly, but now his butterfly yardage is of much higher quality.

A typical set that focuses on quality and speed is 20 x 100 meters on 1:30 done as follows:

4 free, 1 fly

3 free, 2 fly

2 free, 3 fly

1 free, 4 fly

Hickman tries to hold that last four fly swims at 1:01.

Both Hickman and Denison consistently emphasize quality swimming. Says Hickman: “Every training session I try to do at least one thing exceptionally well.” Denison sees these fast times in practice as confidence boosters.

Last November, training at 7,000 feet altitude in Flagstaff, Ariz., Hickman did a set of 5 x 100 meter (long course) fly, with lots of rest, descending to 54.9 on his final swim.

“That swim did wonders for James’ confidence,” says Denison. “Now he knows he can swim with anyone in the world. The only remaining question in his mind is just how fast he can go.”


Hickman has a separate coach for his dryland training, which both he and Denison consider very important. Says Hickman: “I do a lot of land training. Nowadays, to be good, you have to do all-around training.”

The swimmer’s dryland training is attuned to a nine-week cycle, which is repeated up until two weeks before major competitions:

3 weeks: aerobic circuit

3 weeks: heavy weights

3 weeks: power (combined aerobic and heavy weights)

In addition, Hickman does “lots of stretching” after every afternoon swim workout.

Hickman is known for his explosive turns-all the more impressive because at 5-11, he is smaller than most of his competitors. He attributes his outstanding turns to the squat jumps he does in dryland training. “Sometimes we’ll have squat jump contests-to see who can do the most squat jumps. It’s a great challenge, although usually I won’t be able to walk for the next two days.”


Hickman emphasizes both shortand long-term goals. He tells young swimmers: “Give yourself day-to-day goals, then make some bigger goals. Start out by trying to be the fastest in your lane, then progress to fastest in the group, then fastest in the club, the state, the nation and, ultimately, fastest in the world.”

As for his own goals, in short course he wants to continue lowering his world records in both flys. For next year, he plans to swim both butterfly events and the 200 IM in Sydney. “I want to improve my ranking in the 200 fly so that by Sydney, I’ll be No. 1. Right now, there’s six or seven guys all within a second of each other in the 200: Silantiev, Pankratov, Malchow, Taner, Yamamoto, Esposito and me. One of us should win in Sydney, and I want it to be me.”

He also sees the 200 IM as a wideopen race. “I’ve been working on my breaststroke, and I think I can get below two minutes by the Olympics. I think it’ll take under two (minutes) to win it.”

Copyright Sports Publications, Inc. Jan-Mar 1999

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.