Veterans exercise leadership at U.S. Paralympic Swimming Team Camp

June 23, 2008, 6:30 p.m. (ET)
Erin Popovich (Silverbow, Mont.) was one of the last Paralympic swimmers to finish eating dinner at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. on Friday night. The rest of the athletes had already left for a team building exercise.

She carried her tray to the cleaning rack and left the dining hall as if it was no big deal. It's not like she's preparing for her third Paralympic Games or anything.

Popovich, a seven-time gold medalist at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, was going through the motions for the third time. But she attended last weekend's 2008 Paralympic Games Team Camp as if for the first time - excited, nervous and willing to work hard.

The purpose of the camp was to bring the U.S. Paralympic Swimming Team together, since the athletes normally are dispersed throughout the country while training.  All 38 swimmers share the same dream, and bringing them together let them know they are not on an individual path.

U.S. Paralympic Swimming Coach and Team Leader Jimi Flowers has conducted a number of camps over the years, and thought last weekend's was one of the best yet.

"It was a perfect step. It was perfect timing," Flowers said. "They got all of the aspects - team building, they looked good in the water, they got pictures of what to look forward to."

It was a chance to bring everybody together and realize that their passion for swimming can really make something out of their lives. Their backgrounds didn't matter, because they all realized that they have the opportunity of a lifetime in front of them, and can rely on each other to help make it a success.

 "I think the cool thing about this camp was it wasn't just another camp," Flowers said. "I personally think they had a good time. I think they really came together. We're still eleven weeks out of the Games. That's not much time. We leave in eight and a half weeks. They all know that now. But with that said, they know it can be very special."

Of course, the skills Flowers saw in the water were the most exciting part for him, but others who have been in this position before, came away from the weekend with different thoughts on their minds.

 "It's great to see everybody and kind of catch up with how the rest of the team is doing," Popovich said about the camp. "I'd met everybody briefly, but this is the first time I got to spend a longer period of time with them."

Because for Popovich, being comfortable at the Games means knowing your surroundings.

"I think the best part about this camp is it kind of helps get all the pre-meeting and getting to know each other jitters out of the way," Popovich explained. "You don't have to show up at the Games and be like ‘Oh hi, I'm so and so.' "

Team building activities were a success at camp because the dynamics were exceptional between the veterans and the newcomers.

"I think they're aware of what they need to do," Flowers said about those who have never been to the Games before. "I think there are some anxieties, which are understandable. I think the younger ones that have not had the experience know that there is someone there for them to help with those anxieties."

Popovich enjoyed getting the chance to play the veteran role and offer advice to her younger teammates. She believes they should get the overall feeling of how to prepare for competition both from the coaches perspective and the athletes' perspective.

"We all throw in tidbits from our experiences," Popovich said about those who have competed in the Games before.

Popovich, who turns 23 next week, has been swimming for 10 years now but still gets the jitters before major competitions. Naturally, she is nervous for Beijing, but feels confident the U.S. team is the best one she's been a part of so far.

"I think this team is by far the best that we've ever sent to Worlds or a Paralympic Games," she said. "If you look at the rankings and the depth of the team, it's so much stronger than in 2006 and in 2004, just with the ability to reach out to more kids and get everybody involved, and get more resources to them in order to provide them the training environments that they need in order to get to that next level."

Meanwhile, at the age of 56, Grover Evans (Little Rock, Ark.) will be competing in his fourth Paralympic Games. And for Evans, the excitement he had going into his first Games in Barcelona in 1992 is still present.

"You have people from all parts of the country, and to see what they're doing compared to what you're doing, and to see how they're training, I think it's great," Evans said.

Despite being the oldest one on the team, Evans classifies himself in the same pool as the rest of the swimmers.

"Age is nothing but a number," Evans said. "When you lose the kid inside of you, that's when you begin to age."

Evans may discount his age, but he doesn't forget about his experience in the pool. At camp, he felt that he should help teach the younger ones how to prepare for the competition of their lives and how to deal with the pressure.

"I'm trying to tell them ‘act like it's practice, don't worry about the other guy,' " Evans said. "If you just do a personal best, and maybe you don't medal, (you) still are successful in an event."

Evans echoes Popovich's sentiments when it comes to the depth of the team.

"This is a strong team," Evans said. "I don't think many of the younger ones realize how much strength they really have."

In addition to Evans and Popovich, Flowers has seen others mature quickly as well.

"You've also got Jarrett Perry, who was elected team captain, who's a gold medalist from Athens, and Dave Denniston who's not been to a Paralympic Games but he's been on several national teams," Flowers said. "So with that knowledge and experience from both sides, I think they could really help our younger guys really do something good."

Although some of the athletes have been coined ‘veterans,' they are just as excited as the rest of the team for the Games.

Flowers said "the veterans got excited about Beijing," last weekend. "They've been to Games, they've been to villages that may have been not so conducive to training and to competing, (but) this is going to be a good situation."

At the conclusion of the camp, Flowers knew he did his job when he saw finally saw the team come together.

"Both the men's and women's team are a team," Flowers said. "Even though they are said men and women, they all know they are USA."