Swimming the Seas
Jan. 12, 2010
By Larry Watts
Vinny is destined to swim with the fishes. And this Purdue University freshman from Tampa, Fla. will be doing it willingly, without any assistance from the mob.
It was four years ago, shortly after Vinny Donnelly switched swim clubs and joined the Blue Wave in nearby Brandon that he became interested in distance swimming.
"My other swim club had lost its coach (Dave Gesacion) and it was taking a long time to replace him, so I decided to make the move," he says. "When I started with Dave, my freestyle stroke was terrible so I wound up swimming a lot of butterfly. Then one day he threw me into the mile and I did really well, so I started training for more distance events.
"When I moved over to Brandon, Peter Banks was really known for training distance swimmers. He was Brooke Bennett's coach."
At the age of 16, Bennett won her first gold medal in the 800 freestyle at the 1996 Olympics. Among the swimmers in that field was the legendary Janet Evans, who was competing in her final Olympic race. Bennett returned to the Olympics in 2000 to win gold in both the 400 and 800 freestyles.
"When I went over to Brandon, I was a little better than most of the other swimmers my age," Donnelly says. "Through working with two good training partners and Peter, I really started dropping my times."
One day during the summer of 2005, Donnelly was browsing some online sites and found out about an open water race in Fort Myers.
"I told my parents I wanted to do it," he says. "None of my coaches went with us and when we got to Fort Myers, we found out it was a USS national meet and open water swimming had just been voted into the Olympics to replace baseball. It was a 10K race and I finished something like 18th and then I came back to do it again the following year, but it was more competitive and I didn't do as well. But I still had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to pursue open water swimming."
According to Donnelly, open water races usually consist of 5K, 10K (Olympics) and 25K lengths. The course, usually done in 8-10 feet of water, is four loops (think hexagon) with 1,000-meter straightaways on each side and three buoys (125 meters apart) forming a triangle at each end.
"The danger is there could be shark attacks, but I haven't seen one yet," he says. "In one race, one of the swimmers cut his foot pretty badly on coral or a rock.
"This has been a lot of fun. Open water swimming fits my stroke. There's often a lot of contact, but officials do try to travel behind the lead boat to eliminate as much of it as possible. There's still a lot of kicking and elbows; I got a black eye once, but swimming in a pack of people drives me to do better."
Being basically new to the sport, Donnelly is still going through some of the growing pains. There was one race in 2007 where he was fifth at the halfway point, but he made the mistake of failing to hydrate and soon dropped off the pace.
"I died in the next fourth of the race," he says. "At the end of each lap there is a feeding station for a coach to stand on and give you a cup of water or Gatorade. The transition usually takes fives seconds, but I was too stubborn and paid for it."
Swimmers also tuck away a packet gel, which is like a Power Bar, in the back of their suits. About once or twice during the race, they will flip on their backs and eat the gel for more energy.
Earlier this summer, Donnelly participated in a qualifier in Fort Myers for the World Championships in Rome. He led for the majority of the race until the final straightaway, when nine swimmers overtook him.
"The second and third swimmers were drafting off me and I was the one who was using all the energy," he says. "I was disappointed in my strategy, but I also knew for seven-eighths of the race I was leading. I just need to work on that final eighth.
A couple of months later, at the USA Swimming 5K Open Water Grand Prix at Angle Lake Park in SeaTac, Wash., Donnelly brought home the championship. That victory has further fueled his fire to earn a berth on the U.S. Olympic team for the 2012 Games in London.
"I think an Olympic berth is within reach," he says. "I've learned a lot in a short time and Mio Vasic (Banks' assistant coach) has been a big help through his own open water experience."
At Purdue, Donnelly will concentrate on distance swimming, but it will be nothing like the distances he swims in open water competition. His longest race will be the 1650, but that race will only be contested two or three times before the Big Ten Championships.
"(Head coach) Dave (Ross) and (assistant coach) J. (Agnew) both understand what my ultimate goal is and they're not going to change my stroke, but they are hoping to make it more efficient," he says. "I am going to have to improve on my turns though, something I don't have to worry about in the open water.
"I do very little work in the weight room, mostly dryland training consisting of sit-ups, pushups and work with the medicine ball. The way I swim, if I do weights, it would hinder my stroke and make it shorter."