Hanscom civilian's swim club propels triathlete to Beijing

  • Published
  • By Capt. Geoff Buteau
  • 66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Dig Deep. It's one of those athletic buzz words we hear in post-game reports and interviews used to describe an athlete or team excavating their inner motivation and pulling something out that helps them win the race, make the game winning catch, or score the title-clinching goal.

This year's Olympic Games in Beijing saw a plethora of instances where athletes dug deep. There was Michael Phelps's half-stroke charge to the wall in the 100-meter butterfly to win the race by one one-hundredth of a second, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt's jaunt to the finish line in the 100-meter dash (having dug deep enough the first 90 meters of the race), and American swimmer Jason Lezak's improbable comeback in the anchor leg of the 4x100-meter freestyle relay to win the Americans an elusive gold they hadn't donned for the event since 1996.

Going beyond the competitions, even the media had to dig deep to bring out the personal side of the athletes' journeys. Without the compelling stories of grit, adversity, failure and triumph, the Olympics becomes just another athletic competition.

Digging even deeper, there are stories from those that provide the environment for great athletes to flourish into Olympic athletes: parents, spouses, friends and - of course - coaches. It was the ability of one member of the Hanscom community to dig deep that created the opportunity for a local triathlete to compete for gold at Beijing.

Rich Axtell is a trainee in the Electronic Systems Center's developmental program currently working as a contract specialist in the 66th Contracting Squadron. He also has a love for coaching swimming, so much so that he coaches the Minuteman Masters Swim Club, a master's program operated out of the Hanscom pool primarily composed of adult athletes with goals spanning from competition to general fitness.

Mr. Axtell is also an Olympic-level swim coach.

Professional triathlete Jarrod Shoemaker qualified for the Olympics this year in September 2007 at the World Cup in Beijing, making him the top qualifier for the American Olympic triathlon team. His two coaches are run and cycle specialist Tim Crowley and swim specialist Mr. Axtell.

Mr. Shoemaker has been training with Mr. Axtell and the Minuteman Masters Swim Club since the Fall of 2004 for the swimming leg of his triathlon races. In 2005 he won the Under-23 World Championships and declared himself a professional triathlete. Between then and in 2007 when Mr. Shoemaker qualified, the goal -- since reached -- had been the Olympics with Mr. Axtell driving his swim-training program.

It hasn't always been successful Olympic athletes and trips to Beijing for Mr. Axtell. As with any accomplishment there is a foundation that has to be built, and Mr. Axtell started by mowing the lawns outside the Hanscom pool.

"I thought to myself that working inside the pool would be a much more desirable job than working in the heat outside," he said about his over-hire position working for the 66th Civil Engineering Squadron at Hanscom.

Reacting on his hunch and starting as a lifeguard, Mr. Axtell eventually worked his way up as a manager of the pool through the 66th Services Squadron here. It was during this time that his love for swim coaching began to cultivate and crystallize.

In the 90s Mr. Axtell coached for three different age-group (youth) swim clubs in Massachusetts. While enjoyable and rewarding, he wanted something where he could continue to coach and endure a less hectic travel schedule.

"When I learned about the master's swimming community," he said, "I realized I could provide a service to adult athletes and take back my weekends." Armed with the support from his employers and the mentorship provided by the coaches he served under, he felt ready to go at it alone. He founded the Minuteman Swim Club in 1998 at the Hanscom pool.

During the first three years of the club, membership and participation increased steadily -- until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. After that, Hanscom became a closed installation to the general public, which limited the opportunities for those without base affiliation to use the pool facilities, and in turn, participate in Mr. Axtell's promising master's program.

After "digging deep" and holding the team together by having practice at pools around the area, and eventually back at Hanscom, Mr. Axtell was able to build back the team, pool time, consistency, participation and membership growth to 2001 levels by the middle of 2004.

Meanwhile, a former NCAA national level runner from Dartmouth had just graduated in May of 2004 and was searching for a way to build up his swim abilities to augment his running for triathlon competition.

The athlete's name was Jarrod Shoemaker, and he found everything he was looking for in Mr. Axtell's swim club: a welcoming, motivating and competitive group environment, access to 50-meter pool and proximity to his home in Sudbury, Mass., Mr. Axtell said.

A year of training followed by vast performance improvements allowed Mr. Shoemaker to compete, and win, the 2005 U23 World Championships. Mr. Axtell described Mr. Shoemaker's rise to the elite of the triathlon community as, "unknown ... then world champion."

Mr. Axtell developed, supervised and implemented the swim-training program all the way through to the Olympics in Beijing, where Mr. Shoemaker finished in the top third of the field, at 18th place, about two minutes from medal contention.

While the swim portion of the triathlon comprises one third of the skill set required to compete in the race, the distance covered during the swim only covers 2.9 percent of the Olympic-distance course. For that reason, the swimming is often overlooked or viewed as a third priority, said Mr. Axtell. "When he gets out of the water, though, he has a need to be in the lead pack or the first chase pack," he said, in order to be competitive. Swimming has traditionally been Mr. Shoemaker's weakest leg of the three, with running being his strongest.

"The whole [Minuteman Masters Swim Club] has been a part of this [Olympic experience]," Axtell said, referring to the motivation the team provides in such an individually focused sport.

Reflecting on the Olympic training experience and his time in Beijing, Mr. Axtell views the buildup to the Olympics as an overall experience that started when he was on the outside of the pool, mowing the lawns, looking in.

"To go through ups and downs, especially 9/11, it was very special and an absolute dream come true to attend the Olympics as Jarrod's club coach," he said. "But to represent the United States was just really awesome."

Phelps, Bolt, Lezak dug deep this Olympics. Add one to the list: Axtell.

Olympic triathlons are composed of a 1500-meter (.93 mile) swim, a 40,000-meter (24.8 mile) bike, and a 10,000-meter (6.2 mile) run. Mr. Shoemaker returned to Minuteman Masters Swim Club practice on Sept. 3. His next race is the U.S. National Championships in Portland, Ore., on Sept. 20. Messrs. Axtell, Crowley and Shoemaker are planning a training schedule for an Olympic bid in London, 2012.