Twas the morning before Christmas … and the Tigersharks are training |

Twas the morning before Christmas … and the Tigersharks are training

Dave Price

Twas the morning before Christmas, so what were the Carson Tigersharks doing? They were at the Carson City Aquatic Facility practicing, naturally.

Tuesday was no ordinary run of the mill workout, either. To give you an idea, coach Jim Puleo left a note on the board for his swimmers beforehand: “This is the workout … Ho, ho, ho.”

Here’s how it shaped up. The young Tigersharks were in the water at 6 a.m. for a session that lasted exactly 3 hours and 20 minutes. It broke down to 10 repeat distance swims, all done in 20 minutes or faster. These were not leisure swims, either. Since the practice is divided up into 20-minute blocks, swimmers were only allowed to rest for the amount of time they finished under the cutoff. If they finished the swim in 19 minutes, the rest period was one minute before the cycle started again.

How far were the distances? Three of the Tigersharks — Justin Barber, Lauren Costella, and her brother, Ryan Costella — swam 1,650 yards during their 20-minute blocks. That’s one mile. Ten times. In a span of 3 hours, 20 minutes.

Ho … Ho … Ho … Have a Merry Christmas.

“This is something I’ve traditionally done with my distance people,” Puleo said. “And the way we’ve done it is that the odd repeats — 1, 4, 5, 7, 9 –are easy recovery swims. And then we descend; Nos. 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 are progressively faster, so No. 10 is going to be your fastest time.”

This ladder is not easy to climb, as anyone familiar with swimming or endurance sports will recognize.

“I had a T-shirt a long time ago that said, ‘It’s not supposed to be easy. If it were, there’d be a helluva lot more of us doing it,'” Puleo said. “This is so they know it’s something they can do. That’s the challenge in athletics and it doesn’t matter what the sport is. Our job as coaches, besides being performance critics, is to challenge them beyond what they think they’re capable of doing.

“One of the things we say … If you get knocked down nine times, you get up 10. When you stay knocked down, that’s when you’ve lost.”

Remember, this is a coach who had had two special heroes when he competed: Dan Gable, who was 182-1 during his prep and collegiate wrestling career and won an Olympic gold medal in 1972, and Mike Burton, who set seven world records, became the first swimmer to win two Olympic gold medals in the 1,500 freestyle (1968 and ’72) and became the first swimmer to break 16 minutes in the mile.

“I think a lot of it had to do with their work ethic,” Puleo said. “Burton was just an animal in training and I think Gable may have been on the maniacal side of that. I mean, when he would wake up in the middle of the night and start doing pushups because somebody on the other side of the world was up training to beat him, I don’t expect my guys to take it to that extreme, but there’s a reason those guys became the best in the world at what they did. They were the best in the entire world, and they were there for a long period of time.”

The Costellas and Barber are blue chip athletes in their own right. Lauren Costella, a Carson High School senior who has already signed with Stanford, has won two national championships in the 1,500. Ryan Costella, a Carson graduate and now a junior at Villanova, finished 12th in the 1,650 freestyle with a time of 16:28.19 at the Princeton Invitational on Dec. 8. Barber, a Carson senior who has signed with Notre Dame, was a junior national in the 1,500 freestyle and qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2000.

The good news for these elite swimmers, is that they get a break from the two-a-day training regimen they normally follow.

“They’re swimming 16,500 yards and that’s a pretty good chunk of yardage, but it’s not that great of a physical challenge for these guys,” Puleo said. “It’s monotonous, but it’s something they can say they did. I’ll give them just one practice on Christmas Eve, they’ll get Christmas Eve afternoon off. I’ll give them Christmas Day off, being the nice guy I am, and then we get back to doubles the day after Christmas.”

The 10-mile practice session is indeed a challenge.

“It’s a long swim and there’s not very many swimmers in the country who do that workout,” said Ryan Costella, who is home for Christmas but will join his Villanova teammates for a training trip to Puerto Rico after New Year’s Day. “There’s not many swimmers who even want to do it, but it’s neat to do. Just knowing that you’ve done 10 miles in 3 hours and 20 minutes. That’s pretty good. When you get up on the blocks, you pretty much know nobody else has done that, so it’s a confidence builder, for sure.”

While the workout isn’t particularly fun at the time, the sense of satisfaction afterward is special.

“It’s not the best when you’re doing it, but afterwards, you’re pretty excited,” Barber said. “It’s a challenge, and you’re tired, but you’re psyched that you got it done.

“We also have a Christmas party afterward, so that will be fun. A little.”

Fun? No way.

“I’ll guarantee you, the words distance training and fun have never crossed my lips in the same sentence, ever, in 30 years of coaching,” Puleo said with a chuckle.

So, do the Tigersharks regard coach Puleo as Scrooge or Santa Claus?

“He calls it his bah, humbug workout, so I guess that should make him Scrooge,” Lauren Costella said, smiling. “Anytime you do a really long workout like that and you know no one in the country is doing that same workout — I’ve only talked to one other girl who did 10 1,650s, and it took them a really long time to do them — so for us to do them in a short time span and we’re doing 10 miles, that feels fantastic.”

It’s a ladder these young swimmers hope will take them to the stars. Lauren Costella will compete in Long Beach, Calif., next month against most of the top milers in the country. She has also been invited to compete at the World University Games at the end of next summer. In between, there’s the U.S. short course and long course national championships. The spring nationals will be held in Minneapolis and the summer nationals in College Park, Md.

“Boy, I’ll tell you what, you have to be a real special person to do what our kids are doing, day in and day out, and I’m really proud of all of them,” Puleo said. “Not just the fastest; anybody who’s in my group has got to be pretty darn tough.”

Tuesday’s practice will in part explain why Carson Country has sent numerous swimmers to Division I college programs across the country, to national championship meets, even international meets.

And it certainly didn’t happen by accident.

Dave Price is a sports writer for the Nevada Appeal