Swimming with... Alex Coville

March 17, 2010

GoStanford.com caught up with junior Alex Coville, who is a standout sprint freestyler on men’s swimming team. Coming from a small town in Rome, GA, Alex has embraced the Stanford lifestyle while balancing swimming with an Earth Systems major. Alex, a five-time school record holder, helped extend Stanford’s conference winning streak to 29 consecutive Pac-10 Championships in March and is looking forward to making some noise at the NCAA Championships.

Why did you choose Stanford?
I had wanted to go to Stanford since I was a kid, but I wasn't sure that I'd be able to contribute to the high powered swim program coming out of high school.  However, when I got in and met the team, the chemistry between the guys was incredible and I knew it was something that I wanted to be a part of.  Unlike some other teams, the swim team here at Stanford is a pretty inseparable family and that aspect has made swimming here just as much about developing relationships as with swimming fast.

How has the transition been coming from a small team where you swam three to four times a week to a college program where you now swim up to nine practices a week?
In the beginning, the transition came as a huge shock.  I couldn't train to save my life; most of the team would lap me three or four times in the warm-up alone, which was about as long as one of my previous practices in high school.  The first week of pre-season training camp, I seriously considered quitting, because I couldn't really see the end in sight.  Somehow, I made it through that first quarter and had some decent swims in the middle of hard training, which was the confidence boost that I needed.  Skip (Kenney) and Ted (Knapp) saw some potential in those swims, (even though I false started at my first big meet) and when it came time to rest at the end of the season, I was set up to have a respectable NCAA meet.

You have dealt with some tough injuries, especially your sophomore year redshirting with a shoulder injury. How have these trials motivated you to become a better swimmer and what have you learned from them?
Sophomore year was a pretty tough time for me.  I was getting a lot of input from several different orthopedic surgeons, none of whom seemed to be able to agree on much.  By the end of it all, I was so confused that I had to take some time off to take a step back and get some perspective on things.  Finally, I found a doctor who wasn't pushing an agenda on me who told me to go with my instincts.  He said, 'If you can't swim as fast as you used to, then get surgery.  If you can still swim fast without surgery, then don't get it.'  So with a year of rehab, I set out to prove that I could still swim well without going under the knife, which yielded pretty positive results.  It’s certainly not a a route that everyone should take, but it turned out to be a good choice for me.  It concerned me that surgery was pitched to me as a foolproof solution that would fix all my problems, so I was happy to take the year to learn a little more about the anatomy of the shoulder and make as educated a decision as I possibly could.

It is unusual for swimmers to take much time off all year, but last spring, you were a part of the Stanford at Sea program. What is the Stanford at Sea Program?
Stanford at Sea is the most underrated abroad program at Stanford.  It is offered once every two years, and students spend half the quarter at Hopkins Marine Station taking classes and then half the quarter sailing a tall ship, the Robert C. Seamans, around parts of the Pacific Ocean doing oceanographic research.  The route that it takes is different every time, but when I went last spring, we sailed from Tahiti to Hawai'i via Nuku Hiva in French Polynesia.  Life could be worse.

Follow-up: What lead to this decision? What was the experience like?
Like all people, I enjoy having a relatively balanced lifestyle.  Unfortunately, balance isn't really something that many swimmers can have when swimming 48 weeks out of the year.  However, some abroad experience is needed for my major, so when the opportunity arose to do Stanford at Sea, it wasn't something I could turn down.  I technically could have gone to Australia to fulfill my major requirement, but since that is only offered during the fall when we are in the middle of hard training; Australia wasn't an option for me.

It turned out to be one of the best things I've ever done.  I owe a lot to the teachers who were on that trip and learned more out in the middle of the ocean than I'll ever learn in any classroom.  Real world experience gets slightly taken for granted when inside the Stanford bubble, so actually getting a chance to do real field research was really the chance of a lifetime.

With your success last year as one of the top sprint freestylers in the nation, have you felt more pressure this year?
As it turns out, I've had the good fortune of flying under the radar, as far as any sort of national recognition goes.  That being said, my teammates expect me to perform, and they're really the only people I care about impressing.  In that regard, there may be more pressure this year, but Stanford swimming has prepared me well in the last few years to cope with any added stress.  We're all out there with the common goal of winning a team title, so it is not as if I'm going at it alone.  Rather than feeling pressure from my teammates, it is more like having a support group, since we're all striving for the same thing.

Tell us about the sprint group. How does it differ in training from the distance groups or stroke groups?
We train harder, longer, and with more intensity than any distance swimmer.  Kidding, that’s mostly true, but not entirely.  Sprinters have to approach swimming slightly differently than other swimmers simply because we rely mostly on explosive power and racing with no mistakes.  As such, there is considerably more weight lifting, and shorter sets with more emphasis on being comfortable at top speed.  We also have to practice being flawless; if we want that sort of perfection to transition over into our races, it means focusing on every facet of our practice.

What is the best coaching advice that you've ever received?
Learn something new from every race.  Also, Markus Rogan ’04 indirectly told me that nobody ever won by being nice.

As the school record holder in the 50 yard freestyle, you have the privilege of contributing on a lot of relays. Do you get more psyched up for relays or individual swims? What has been your favorite relay moment?
Unfortunately I can't claim to be the school record holder in the 50, only a school record holder; it is a title that I share with Ben Wildman-Tobriner who set it first back in 2007.  Anyway, I approach relay swims and individual swims in a similar manner.  The way I see it, in both cases, I'm swimming the best I can for my team.  Even so, for whatever reason, I tend to swim a little better in individual events rather than on relays.  I guess I'm a bit of a head-case when I swim; it messes with my head if I don't jump off the blocks at the same time as everyone else, whether or not I'm ahead or behind.  Last year saw some really fun relays that came down to a tenth of a second or so, but I think my favorite relay was the 200 freestyle relay my freshman year at NCAAs.  Even so, this year promises to have the best relays yet.

--- Paul Kornfeld for GoStanford.com---

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