Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Hetland goes out with a big bang

As Aleksander Hetland (29) took his final swimming stroke of his career he also became Norway's second world Champion of all time.

This happened just 17 months after Alexander Dale Oen became the first one - both athletes being coached by Sondre Solberg at Bærumsvømmerne at the time they became kings of the breaststroke world.

The stars aligned this time for Hetland, with Cameron van der Burgh out with injury before the championships. Then when the man who took down Hetland's hope of European glory just weeks before, Fabio Scozzoli, had to withdraw from the World Championships due to illness Norwegian fans were getting gold in their eyes.

Hetland himself was worried. The time in the prelims and semifinal was not as good as he hoped for. He qualified fourth for the final and even Solberg had some doubts about his man.

"He looked a bit flat", admits Solberg, but he added the fact that throughout his career Hetland has been a finals man. A man who thrives on big occasions.

"He's a showhorse, and needs that kind of kick and adrenaline that a final setting can give."

And it did not get bigger than this. Hetland had announced this was his has last race, something he was very conscious about. It may even have helped him reach the pinnacle on Sunday night.

"As I took that last stroke I was actually thinking - this is your last stroke, make it count", said Hetland.

And he did. The norwegian finished only 0.02 seconds ahead of Damir Dugonjic of Slovenia, and 0.03 ahead of Florent Manaudou (France). He could easily have replicated his to date best World Championships performance, a bronze medal in the same event from 2010.

"I cant believe I'm a World Champion", said Hetland, standing firm that this was his final individual swim.

The title also came after a year which for Norwegian swimming has been extremely rough. The loss of Alexander Dale Oen sent the whole nation, not to say the swimming community into mourning. For the 29-year-old Hetland in particular as he lost his friend whom he had grown closer to in the last months, being united by their joint coach.

The partnership between them was a fruitful one. Hetland had his strong points, at starts and turns, Dale Oen's weaknesses. At the same time Dale Oen taught the other Alex some swimming tricks, particularly at pure swimming speed, where very few could compare to Norway's first world champion.

Aleksander (spelt with a 'k' as opposed to Dale Oen's 'x') Hetland used the knowledge learnt from Dale Oen as he missed the turn in the 50m final.

"I didn't have as good a dive as a I do at my best, and I missed the turn. I thought I had lost the race at that point. I never overtake people at the last 25", the sprint specialist said.

But that's just what he did. As he arrived back in Norway to a media frenzy at the airport he thanked Alexander Dale Oen for his help.

"Alex has a great part to play in this medal. He showed me things and techniques that I brought with me to this date", Alex Hetland said of Dale Oen.

Mind boggling in a year in which Daniel Gyurta dedicated his Olympic gold medal to the deceased Norwegian breaststroker, and Cameron van der Burgh, who at several times was in Bergen, Norway, to train and compete with Dale Oen, won the 100 meter breaststroke in London.

The contrast to Aleksander Hetland's last appearance in front of the media at the same airport was there for all to see. That was as the team landed back on Norwegian soil after the tragic incident in Flagstaff. As the oldest and most merited swimmer on the team it was natural that he took responsibility and some of the media responsibilities off the youngsters. A responsibility he did not shy away from.

Since the passing of Norway's greatest ever swimmer the focus for national team coach Petter Løvberg has been to continue the Norwegian success in the pool, and keep the spirit of Dale Oen alive.

Hetland in many ways started the revelation that has been Norwegian swimming in the late 2000's when he came fourth in the 100 IM at the Indianapolis World Short Course Championships in 2004.

Since 2006 Norway has taken 30 international medals, and since Dale Oens passing alone they've taken six, amongst them Hetlands gold and Ingvild Snildal/Sara Nordenstam's European long course titles. The Olympics might have been disappointing but otherwise Norwegian swimming has kept its level. Before 2006 the top results were few and far between. That performance culture is what the head of the national team, Petter Løvberg, wants to keep alive.

No wonder the Norwegian national team still want the 29 year old with a background of swimming and studying at SMU and university of Tampa, to contribute to the sport and especially the young athletes coming through the ranks.

Løvberg, or "Pete" as he is affectionately called, wants him to be a mentor for national team members. The Norwegian Swimming Federation sees Hetland as a good man for tutoring young athletes, both because of his swimming knowledge, but also because of the mentality that comes with being a world champion.

"We've already agreed for Hetland to be part of a training camp for our junior national team in January", says Løvberg.

At that camp Robin Dale Oen, Alexander's brother and former national record holder will also participate, to help keep the spirit and attitude brought to life by the two Alex's in particular.

Hetland will start working with branding at a major mineral water and brewery-company in Norway come 2013, so the full extent of the cooperation is not known, but Løvberg and his team want Hetland to be as involved as possible.

"I want to be a part of Norwegian swimming in the future. I want to give something back to a sport that has given me so much itself", says Hetland.

The swimming federation hopes to lure the breaststroker back in to competition. Especially for a breaststroke leg in the mixed medley relay at the European short course championships the coming year. Even if he's not fit to fight with the very best in the world he can still be an asset for the team. In and out of the pool.

"He does not have to train a lot to keep competitive. We try telling him that, but for now we have to give him peace. He deserves to have the opportunity to start his regular professional life - and I'm sure he will excel at that as well", says Løvberg.

Aleksander Hetland himself is sure he's ended on a high, but leaves a glimmer of hope for Norwegian swimming enthusiasts.

"We'll have to wait and see. Anything can happen, but now I'm having a long break", says the World Champion.

No comments:

Post a Comment