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Biomechanics, psychology, physiology & chocolate milk: All part of swim coach Bob Smartt's recipe for success

Head coach Bob Smartt (center) sits alongside assistant coaches Bailey Jackson (left) and Heather Christensen at the 3A State Swim and Dive Championships in Gillette on Friday. Head coach Bob Smartt (center) sits alongside assistant coaches Bailey Jackson (left) and Heather Christensen at the 3A State Swim and Dive Championships in Gillette on Friday. Tribune photo by Breanne Thiel

When one thinks of the sport of swimming, chances are the words biomechanics, psychology and physiology are not what typically comes to mind. But for Powell High School swim coach Bob Smartt, that is exactly what comes to mind first.

Smartt said the “hierarchy of importance” for serious swimming is:

1. biomechanics (technique)

2. psychology (mental control and intrinsic rewards)

3. physiology (conditioning)

“Our Ultra Short Race Pace Training (USRPT) helped us do a good job with physiology, but we were less successful with our biomechanics and our mental approach to the sport,” Smartt said.

Smartt introduced the USRPT training method to the team this season, which focuses on intensity versus yardage and helps in patterning the neuromuscular pathways for race pace.

“Honestly I don’t think I would have gone as far as I did without him,” said PHS senior Sydney Horton, who qualified for state for the first time this fall.

Smartt started coaching the Powell High School girls swim team this season because he was looking for a challenge. He’s been coaching high school swimming for a total of 22 years — the last 17 in Boulder, Colorado, where the girls swim season is in the winter.

“I think it’s a miracle that somehow we got one of the best 5A coaches from Colorado to come down and coach our little town,” said Aspen Aguirre, a senior swimmer at PHS.

“He invested a lot time in us,” said Horton. “He spent his own money, spent so much of his own time researching.”

Smartt’s efforts included asking Liz Smith Amuchastegui, a 12-time All-American swimmer at Stanford, “to design a dry land training program for the team.”

Assistant/dive coach Heather Christensen added Smartt “puts a lot of research into [swimming] and isn’t afraid to try new things and is very competitive in his strategies to make them the best they can be.”

Christensen went on to explain that Smartt researched the science of swimming and on how the swimmers performed in the past to know how they could improve their strokes and which stroke would be their best.

“He’s done a fantastic job with them,” Christensen said.

Some of the science into the sport included buying chocolate milk for the swimmers throughout the entire season.

“There is a 30-minute ‘Glycogen Window’ after intensive practices when, if the body has received the correct nutrition, the liver will go into overdrive and use the blood stream to replenish depleted levels of muscle glycogen for our athletes,” Smartt explained of the chocolate milk purchase. “The proper post-exercise nutrition is 400-600 calories with a 1:4 ratio of  protein to carbohydrates. Chocolate milk has the exact 1:4 ratio that the athletes need.”

Smartt has also done extensive research on the proper technique or form for the different strokes on how to limit the drag resistance from the water and to create better buoyancy.

PHS senior JuliaKay O’Neill said this season was much different from what she would have imagined and that at first it was “different to get used to a new coach, but I think it was a really good season and a really good learning opportunity.”

“[Smartt] is all about 25s and sometimes 50s,” O’Neill said, referring to the yardage of the drills. “And just getting that speed that you want in a race was really new to me.”

“I think it’s good to be always practicing how you should be racing,” she said, adding, “I just think that’s a good strategy to get girls better at swimming.”

At state, the Panthers placed third this year, with seven individuals and two relay teams placing in the top six. The team also set five school records.

“I think his workouts helped us a lot in order to get third place this year and he really has a good attitude about the team and has really good information to help us get faster,” said PHS junior Caitlyn Miner, who earned All State honors in the breaststroke.

This season, there were fewer injuries from seasons past and Smartt said that could have been a result of “the high intensity training that we do is lower in yardage than years past.”

“Swimmer’s shoulder is a repetitive strain injury so fewer yards swum may produce fewer injuries,” said Smartt.

As for the research into the athletes on the team, Smartt scheduled a rope training in Worland for Emma Karhu, who was struggling with her dive.

“As a diver attempts new and more complex dives, sometimes it is difficult to overcome deeply established neural pathways,” said Smartt. “For example, highly trained gymnasts often become accomplished divers, but it takes time and effort for gymnasts to learn to land head first. The ropes apparatus in Worland helps divers to quickly establish new neural pathways required by new more complex dives.”

“I had a brain block with my reverse dive which is a required dive in an 11-dive meet,” said Karhu; not being able to do the required dive would have left her unable to help the team or make it to state.

“I felt like I was defeated because I couldn’t do that dive,” Karhu said.

But, after getting the help, she learned how to do the required dive and placed fifth at the state meet. Smartt setting up the rope training “was really awesome,” she said

“He’s a really dedicated coach,” said Karhu, a freshman. “He’s the best coach that I’ve ever seen. He’s really dedicated and does a lot for his team ... and does so much on his own time to help the team.”

Smartt also purchased suits for the the entire team with his own money, explaining that “the Powell athletes should be afforded the same level of suit technology that our team uses in Colorado.”

The Powell athletes used four levels of swimsuits throughout the season.

The first were old suits which Smartt said “work fine for practice.” The second was the official team suit which “is good for photos and early season swim meets,” Smartt said.

As for the third, the team used “a ‘semi-fast’ knee suit for meets when athletes are trying to achieve important state qualifying standards,” said Smartt.

Finally, at state, the Lady Panthers used “carbon fiber suits which provide the top level of buoyancy and compression,” the coach said. “Two of our athletes used the carbon fiber suits at the conference meet in an attempt to record Hall of Fame performances with strong results.”

“These suits, when purchased in bulk, do not cost much more than the official team suits,” Smartt added.

Those two record-setting athletes were Caitlyn Miner in the 100 breaststroke and O’Neill in the 100 backstroke.

“That’s something I definitely never saw [coming],” O’Neill said of making the Hall of Fame Board. As a young swimmer, O’Neill always thought it would be cool to have her name on the record board but never really thought she would make it, she said.

“I would definitely attribute that to his coaching strategy,” O’Neill said of Smartt. “But you also have that background. Swimming isn’t something that you can just do in a season.”

With the PHS swim season now completed, Smartt headed back to Colorado on Saturday to begin his swim season there this week. The Colorado swim season officially starts Friday.

As for his plans with the Lady Panthers, “I would love to come back next year if I receive a vote of confidence from the athletes, their parents, and the school administration,” Smartt said.

His athletes expressed appreciation at the final meet of the season.

“[Smartt] puts in hours of research just hours and hours of research and I don’t think we could ever thank him enough for that, because he really just turned this team around competition-wise,” Aguirre said.

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