We take pride in working hard

Legends coaching legends: Frederic Vergnoux (FRA, Swimming)

FINA Aquatic World Magazine Correspondent (FRA)

By Christina Marmet 

Frederic Vergnoux has had a fairly unusual path so far as a swimming coach. Originally from a small town in southeast France, his name likely does not ring a bell to most of the general public in his home country, where the likes of Philippe Lucas, Lionel Horter and Denis Auguin have often hit the headlines and been the talk of the town since the golden years of French swimming in the mid-2000s and up to this day.

After retiring as a competitive swimmer, Vergnoux has indeed spent most of his coaching career abroad, but his skills and hard work are undoubtedly recognised amongst his peers around the world. He was named Coach of the Year numerous times in Great Britain and Spain, and has coached a swimmer to an international medal every year since 2002 – Alena Popchanka, Amaury Leveaux, Kirsty Balfour and Kris Gilchrist among many others. His most recent accomplishment was to guide Mireia Belmonte to gold at Rio 2016 in the 200m butterfly, which made her Spain’s first and sole female Olympic champion in swimming.

After the U.S., Great Britain and brief stints in clubs in France and Spain, Vergnoux has been serving since 2013 as Spain’s national team head coach and is based at the Centre d’Alt Rendiment (C.A.R.) Sant Cugat in Barcelona.

“I had no salary but I simply wanted to learn from the best nation”

Why did you decide to become a coach in the first place?

I swam pretty much my entire life, from a very young age to pretty late, but I also did a lot of different competitive sports in school. To be honest, I was a pretty bad swimmer, but I loved the ‘swimmer’s life’ and what goes with it. I had the opportunity to experience the life of a pro swimmer in the Racing Paris club during my military service year. It was a great opportunity, and from there I started to coach professionally in the same club. I swam until I was 26 years old; in my last season I was already coaching and also finishing my university studies, so I started to coach when I was 25 years old. I decided early on that I would go into coaching. I knew I wouldn’t be a good swimmer but I wanted to become a great coach. Since I was a teenager, I had the influence of many coaches and I guess they passed on to me the passion for coaching. Before going to university, I took one year to study for the coaching diploma, which is compulsory in France, so it would allow me to start working early on with different age groups. I think coaching all categories, from beginners learning how to swim to Masters, has been instrumental in my development towards coaching elite swimming.

How long did you stay in France before heading to the US? What were you looking for there, and did the American coaching method shape you into the coach you are today?

I coached there for three years and I went to the US for two years after the 2000 Olympics. The story is that I sent 82 e-mails to various programmes in the States and the only answer I received was from number 82! I quickly learned that in order to achieve your goals, you have to be persistent, and that it will be a tough process. I had started to travel to Florida in the 90s to be there for the summer camps with Peak Performance. Nick Baker, the owner, has had a tremendous influence on my career, but he has also helped me to be an efficient decision-maker. Then one summer I decided to quit my job in France and to spend more time in the US. It was risky; at that time I had no salary but I simply wanted to learn from the best nation. I left my club and for almost two years I was a club-less coach visiting programmes and other coaches. I’m very thankful to all the coaches who helped me at that time, especially the likes of Gregg Troy and Paul Bergen who allowed me to be on deck with them. I suppose the influence has come from those coaches too, especially in realising the fact that we work with athletes, and not only swimmers. I always had a strong focus on land work, and they proved to me that it’s a must-have. The work outside of the water that I witnessed there was really impressive.

A few years later and after coaching swimmers to the 2004 Olympics, including Alena Popchanka and Darian Townsend, you eventually found your way to Scotland. How did you end up there, and how was your experience?

I coached the national training centre in Edinburgh in Scotland from 2004 to 2008. It was a club but it was funded by British and Scottish Swimming to work like a performance centre. It was probably the best four years of my coaching career so far. After the Olympics, Bill Sweetenham [the National Performance Director for British Swimming at the time] invited me to attend a camp of junior swimmers while in France, and told me to apply for the head coach position. Being under his leadership was amazing. It wasn’t easy every day but he got the best out of us, both coaches and swimmers. We were very competitive among ourselves, and I think we were successful because everyone had the same mentality. My set-up in Edinburgh was a dream situation for a swimming coach. I had an assistant coach, Chris Jones, who later became an Olympic coach himself, a team manager, a physio, sports science support, etc. It was very professional and focused on performance. My swimmers were all students, and it’s so rewarding to see that many of them are professional coaches nowadays. I started to work with the likes of Tim Kerrison, Jodi Cossor and Bob Treffene, and it was a fantastic learning experience.

“Being able to help those guys was simply fantastic”

And you were eventually named as the head coach for Great Britain’s men’s team for the 2008 Olympics, right?

Yes, in 2006 I was named as the men’s Olympic team head coach for the 2008 Olympic preparation. It was probably the most rewarding job in my career so far. Being able to help those guys was simply fantastic; the coaches were already experienced and helped me a lot. It was a natural task and things went really smoothly.

Did you wish you could have stayed in Great Britain a bit longer or were you always planning on heading back to France after?

I would have loved to stay in Edinburgh, but the pool was shutting down for major refurbishment, which I knew when I signed my contract. A huge thanks to Scottish Swimming as it offered to move me to Stirling and be based at the national centre so I could still work in Scotland, but I decided to take the job in Paris, and some swimmers came along.

You stayed in France for a little bit before moving again to Spain this time. Can you talk about your decision to go there and join the club CN Sabadell? How was that transition?

After the 2008 Olympics I came back to France to become the head coach of the club where I first started coaching! It was a really interesting project, especially having a professional sports science team supporting us. We actually did various studies, including one on the hormonal reactions due to fatigue in training and also in competition. Unfortunately, the programme was shut down after two years due to financial reasons and I had no choice but to look for another position. This is how I ended up in Spain. The CN Sabadell club was looking for a technical director and I sent them my CV. The transition was actually pretty challenging. Spain was only a five-hour drive from home but I had to learn another language and understand a new system of working. I was really lucky to be recruited by Sabadell, the best club in the country, where I was immediately able to work with a great group of swimmers, and I had a very professional staff of coaches.

“Fred, I want to win gold in Rio”

How was your working relationship with Mireia Belmonte when you first started? Did you always believe she could become an Olympic champion?

I only knew her results prior to arriving there, but I didn’t know much about her background and her way of training. She immediately showed a very clear focus about her goals and she was performance-driven. Her mindset is something that she developed over the years and it’s probably what made the difference in her career. Basically, she knows what she wants. We radically changed the weights and fitness programme, and she was really excited about it. We also slowly increased the volume in the water, and when we realised that she could also race distance events, we started to change her racing programme.

In 2012, she earned two Olympic silver medals, 200m butterfly and 800m freestyle. Did you expect such a result was possible after coaching her for only about two years?

Yes, because ours was a two-year plan. It wasn’t like she trained for two years non-stop, and she still had some time off during the summer and over Christmas, but we clearly decided to engage the preparation over a two-year time frame. During those years, she broke her personal best pretty much at every meet she raced, had immediate success at the first major meet that we prepared for, and the progression was leading her to aspire to an Olympic podium. Sometimes, I think we started to work together two years too late, but that’s just life.

How did you motivate her for four more years after London?

I didn’t have to motivate her. She actually motivated me. We were still at the Olympic Village in London, and she asked to talk to me and basically told me “Fred, I want to win gold in Rio”. I had less than a second to think, assimilate and reply. It was amazing how by a single look into her eyes, we committed to our next four years. We knew the struggle would be guaranteed and the success is not necessarily possible, but it was a commitment that we made together.

“In Spain, the facilities are incredible”

What have you learned from each of your experiences in all these different countries and working with so many different coaches and swimmers?

I have learned a lot from every place I went to, and each of the swimming cultures helped me a lot in understanding the sport better. I was, and still am, very impressed by the land work that they teach at an early age in the Eastern countries, and it is still something that we should learn from them. I was so impressed also by the quality of the technical work they can achieve. Those coaches have a really high understanding of skills, and they know how to teach that. In Great Britain, I felt more part of a bigger project. We had constant workshops and we were involved in a lot of decision-making. We all worked toward the same project. In France and in Spain, it’s more being part of a system and focusing on your own squad, and there are many competitive clubs and a couple of national training centres. In France, swimming has become a popular sport since the results from 2004 onwards, and the number of swimmers has increased a lot. In Spain, we have fewer swimmers, but the facilities are incredible, and the clubs are actually pretty much all private, which means that they own the pools. Also here, we can use the best altitude training centre in Sierra Nevada, so having this next door has been determinant to our results. Saying that, I have to say that unfortunately here in Europe, the professional situation for a swimming coach is far from that in the US for example. Some coaches that I know here have to take two jobs to make a decent living; we don’t have much personal time during the week, and professional development is not an easy task.

In 2013, you were named Spain’s national team head coach. How did you react when the federation offered you this position?

It was a great opportunity for me to work with a reduced number of swimmers in a national training centre with perfect working conditions. But I was also a bit sad to leave the club where I had a really good relationship with my staff and the swimmers. I think I made the right decision. Coaching in a club requires being on site all the time, but [my swimmers and I] did a lot of camps and competitions abroad, which is why the federation wanted me, so I could be fully involved with the national team preparation.

“If we do something, we do it well”

How would you describe yourself as a coach? Do you have a specific coaching philosophy?

I try to get the best out of each swimmer that works with me. To achieve this, I strongly believe that a coach must be supported by a staff of competent people. Here in Spain, I work closely with a sports physiologist, a biomechanics specialist, a physiotherapist, an osteopath and a mental coach. I have worked with those guys since 2010, and as someone told me once, “all you need is a few good people to be ready to follow your path”. I’m also very lucky to have great support from our federation. I can run the planning of training and competition my way, and it is really positive for a coach to have that freedom. My swimmers know that the preparation will be their main factor for confidence, so we take pride in working hard. We have a saying that goes “if we do something, we do it well”. As a coach, I focus on what I can control, and I always keep a very honest attitude with my swimmers. They know what I think because I tell them.

What are a few keys to being a great coach in your book?

With Nick Baker we always talked about the ten keys to success, and with Bill Sweetenham we always argue that there are only nine keys! I sincerely don’t know how many keys a coach should use, but for sure a coach has to be passionate, must be willing to work hard and do extra hours all day long, and understand quickly that this is a competitive world. A coach must be surrounded by experts, always ask questions and learn constantly. The sport evolves rapidly, and we as coaches must be having a constant learning approach and mentality.

What is the greatest achievement of your coaching career so far?

Outside of the medals and the records, which actually is all pretty rewarding especially being the actual coach of the only Olympic champion of Spain, I think it is being able to work with athletes from many countries and to witness them grow in the sport, from a lower level to winning Olympic medals… It’s something very special. I feel really proud to tell the stories of my swimmers, especially the ones involving Michael Jamieson, Kris Gilchrist, Gregor Tait, Darian Townsend, Henrique Barbosa, Damian Blaum, my wife Alena Popchanka, and more recently the likes of Mireia Belmonte, Judit Ignacio, Esther Nunez and Conchi Badillo. They basically all struggled to make it to the top and had to leave their comfort zone, which seems to be a common aspect that we have. I guess the famous sentence “it’s not about the destination but about the journey” is making more sense to me now than ever before.

What do you think is the hardest thing about coaching swimming at the elite level? How do you stay motivated to continue?

For me, coaching has never been hard. I have seen and understood other people’s realities and situations, so when you wake up early to go to a swimming pool and work with athletes, it’s not that hard. Obviously it’s not an easy task, because many coaches are doing a great job producing results and we face many challenges trying to win at the highest level. But my passion has been the same since day one. I feel fortunate to do this job, and every single morning when I enter the pool, I make sure to remind myself of that. I have the best support from my wife Alena, who went to four Olympic Games and understands my involvement, and I work with top swimmers, so the motivation is something natural. We actually strive for that as a group. I also do believe that it’s exactly the same for the swimmers… Training hard twice a day, representing your country, travelling the world to compete, it’s not hard!