Interview #5 – Heidi Gan

 

We got the opportunity to interview Heidi Gan Malaysia’s only representative in Open Water Swimming at the Olympics. Even though due to her hectic schedule she still managed to answer our questions. well here goes……

 

Azhar: Hi Heidi how are? And I would like to thank you so much for making time for this interview.

Heidi Gan: No problem – happy to share my experiences with the rest of Malaysia!

Azhar: Why OWS?

Heidi: In 2009, I reached a plateau in my pool swimming career. I wasn’t enjoying pool swimming anymore and although I was training really well, I was making very little progress in my pool racing times. I tried a few OW races here in Perth and absolutely loved it. And the rest is history.

I particularly enjoy being out in the open sea and the natural environment – I spend enough time training in the chlorine it is nice to get out and enjoy the sun and beautiful beaches/lakes/rivers!

I also enjoy the pure racing aspect of OW. In the pool, it is always about times and PBs and records etc. In the OW, time does not count for anything and it is all about placing which to me is the purest form of racing you can participate in. I am a competitive person by nature so being able to race other people, irrespective of times is a great motivator. I also enjoy the tactics involved in OW racing and over time have come to realize that I have a very good aerobic capacity and my body is more suited to the longer marathon distances than the shorter speed/pool events.

Azhar:  When did you start to switch to OWS and thought yeah this is it for me?

Heidi: I began doing some shorter OW swims in 2008. In Perth, we are very fortunate enough to have local swims organized by surf clubs pretty much every weekend during the Summer season. They range from 1.6km swims to 5km and 10km races all with a bit of prize money on them. I decided to do a 5km OW race in 2008 as a dare with a friend and as an alternative to a 7km+ training session. Even though my cap fell off at 2km and I struggled with very strong chop, I really enjoyed it.

In 2010, my coach thought I should try the Aus OW National Champs out because I had some experience in doing OW swims, although they were much shorter. I completed my first ever 10km swim at the Champs and placed 7th overall. In the 5km the day later I placed 5th! I was really surprised and very happy and my coach said from then on I would be training OW only!

Azhar: For OWS there are so many other techniques and skills involved such as Sighting, drafting, turning and some stroke variations. Was it tough adapting to OWS or was it a natural progression for you?

Heidi: You’re right, it’s very different to pool swimming but this is what has really attracted me to OWS. Like I mentioned earlier, I had already done some shorter surf swims and was also part of a local surf club in 2008, so I had been accustomed to these techniques already. However it does take some time to develop these skills for longer OW races, say a 10km race, but it is what I really enjoy about OW – particularly because it is so different to pool swimming. One of the things I disliked most about pool swimming was that, no matter how hard you trained, if you messed up one turn or your start in a pool race, it could mess up your whole race and end your entire swimming season. In OW, if you change your breathing pattern half way through or miss one sight, it’s not a big deal and you have the rest of the race to make up for it!

Azhar: At the moment you are based in Australia and how is the training like over there?

Heidi: Australia is probably one of the most ideal places in the world to train for OW. Our beaches are beautiful and the sun (particularly in Perth!) is usually always out, even in Winter! In the cooler months, the temperature is cool enough to acclimatize to colder conditions but not too cold that you cannot train in the sea at the time as well (unlike Europe).

I am training with a really good squad at the moment. My coach Matt Magee has a very good OW program running and I train with 3 other OW-specific boys who are all elite Australian surf life saving and/or OW athletes in their own right. Training with only boys is also an advantage for me because I have to keep up with them all the time and they definitely push me! My coach does not make allowances for me because I am a girl anymore, so I have to keep up with the boys or I lose out! Matt also has a very good idea of where the future of OWS is headed and I have complete trust and commitment in his program.

Azhar: You are with a swim squad that concentrates only on OWS or is it mixed with pool swimmers and maybe even some triathletes?

Heidi: Our entire squad is made up of both pool (sprint and middle distance) and OW athletes combined. However, our sets are always split 3 ways: sprint pool, middle distance pool and OW. We don’t train with triathletes however – Matt has a strict policy of only allowing elite-level (national at a minimum and international as a target) athletes into our program and they have to be pool or OW swimmers only. He has only ever let 1 triathlete train with us and he was 3 time Triathlon World Champion!

Azhar: What’s a normal training week like for you?

Heidi: A normal training week for me is 9-10 pool sessions, 2 x circuit (land based – weighted + cardio) sessions, 1 x gym (strength and conditioning) session, 1-2 surf/OW swims or races on the weekend during Summer, and 1 x physiotherapy/massage session.

We average about 7km-8km/session in the pool with our heavier training phases reaching around 80km/week in the pool. Our main sets are typically 4-6km long!

Azhar: How many OWS races do you do per year?

Heidi: Over the Summer, I will race almost every weekend in shorter OW races (1.6km-2.5km races). We will do about 3-4 x 5km races over the season and about 2-3 x 10km races only, depending on our racing needs. However, we are entering a high volume phase in training at the moment where we are doing 10km straight swims in the pool on Saturday mornings for 10 x weeks, focusing on various different pace variations each week. We do these continuously without stopping, often all in the same lane.

Azhar: Last year you did the SEA Games 5km and the 10km OWS race and won both races, was it what you had expected and how was that experience for you?

Heidi: Racing in putri island was a fantastic experience. We didn’t know what to expect because it was the first time OW would be run at the SEA Games. So I did not know what competition to expect or what the conditions would be like. In the end it turned out to be quite a difficult and challenging course. The water was very hot (30 deg) but bearable and although the view was spectacular, there was a very very strong current wrapping around the island which pushed us way off course and very quickly too. Which is why my overall time was 20 minutes slower than the time I went in London and more than half an hour slower than the course in Portugal! While the female competitors didn’t prove too challenging for me (I won the 10km by 14mins) I was able to race against the men in the 5km and that was great racing!

Azhar: For the Olympics you had to qualify in Portugal if I’m not mistaken, was it a tough event for you to qualify for the Olympics?

Heidi: It was a very tough event for me. It was only my 2nd international race and my first with such a world class field. The conditions were also quite difficult and certainly different to what I was used to. While there was a strong current pushing us in the direction of the course, the water was also very cold (about 16deg) and I struggled with the temperature towards the end of the race. The competition was also very fierce and I got pushed under the water a lot, stuck on the turning buoys

with people swimming on top of me, and kicked in the face a lot too (losing a contact lens in the process!) I also missed my last feed because it got knocked over by another swimmer when I went to take it. But these challenges are what makes OWS and I was so happy that despite all those challenges I was still able to qualify for the Olympics.

Azhar: How was the whole Olympics experience for you?

Heidi: The 2012 London Olympic Games was an absolutely incredible and unique experience like no other. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in London and knew going into the Games that I wanted to make the most of my experience whilst also ensuring that I maximized my preparation in the lead-up to my race and performed the best I could to my ability on race day. And in my mind, I did exactly that. I was thrilled with the final result, coming 16th overall after going in to the race ranked about 24th. After taking a bit of tossing around in the first few laps and losing a contact lens (again!) as a result of getting kicked in the face, I stuck to my race plan and was thrilled to discover I could keep up with the lead pack for what ended up being 5 out of 6 laps, before just dropping off the pack in the last lap. The stand out thing for me in London was probably having my family, boyfriend and many friends and teammates from Australia there to watch me. I actually had about 15 friends from Perth who happened to be in London at the time who all came down to Hyde Park and watched my race donning “MALAYSIA” tee shirts and screaming at the top of their lungs for me in Aussie accents! It meant a lot to me to have my family and friends who had seen me through the tough times also see me at the pinnacle of my sporting career.

Azhar: You think in Malaysia they should look into OWS as a potential sport and start developing it throughout whole Malaysia, and do you think SUKMA would be a good platform to start with for OWS?

Heidi: I definitely think Malaysia should look at developing OW. Malaysia has some of the most beautiful beaches and I think people need to be encouraged more to be active, enjoy the outdoors and not be scared of swimming in the sea! It is a very rewarding experience and I feel OW is not very popular yet because people are generally quite afraid of the open water. This is obviously very different here in Australia where the beach is a popular past time which is reflected in the high level of participation in all sorts of OW events here. SUKMA is definitely a good platform to

introduce people into OWS. I believe our fear of the open water is brought about because we are sheltered from it when we are young and warned not to go in too far or not to get over exposed to the sun. Showing younger kids that swimming in the OW can be safe and enjoyable is both good for the sport and good for water safety in general in Malaysia.

Azhar: At the moment there are 2 OWS races in Malaysia the Kapas-Marang OWS and the Labuan OWS, have you done any or both of them?

Heidi: I have not yet done either of the OW races but I am targeting the Kapas-Marang Swimathon in 2013. Once the official dates get released, I hope to fly back for the swim (provided it does not clash with any current competitions I have in Perth) and hope to bring some of my Perth swimming teammates with me too!

Azhar: Most memorable moment in OWS?

Heidi: Representing Malaysia in the 2012 London Olympic Games

Azhar: Past achievements?

Heidi: 2 x gold in 2011 SEA Games (5km, 10km) Various National Malaysian and SUKMA Records

 

FAST FACTS

Age: 24

Current Coach: Matt Magee

Hobby: Baking, shopping, hanging out with friends, going to the beach.

Club/Team/Association: Perth City Swimming Club, Perth, Western Australia

Fav Food: A good muffin + great coffee

Fav drink: Coffee!

Years doing OWS: 2

Website/blog: Website + blog coming soon. Follow me on twitter: @HeidiGan

 

Azhar: Any shout outs or anything you want to add or say about yourself?

Heidi: Always believe in yourself. 3 years ago, I had chronic fatigue and was only able to train 3 x 0.5hr sessions/week. I convinced myself I hadn’t given everything I could in my sport and worked really hard to get back to where I was in terms of my training and health and beyond. I trained exceptionally hard, prioritized swimming above everything else, and in the end I showed those that doubted me that I was capable of surpassing my past achievements and went on to compete at the highest level in sport 3 years later – the Olympic Games.

I could not have done it without the support of my family foremost, my coach, teammates, friends and general supporters. For everyone else out there that doubted me, I have let my achievements speak for themselves!

Azhar: thanks Heidi was cool interviewing you!! :)

 

 

 

Some addtional Questions by participants of the recently held Open Water Swimming Coaching Course in Bali(7-11 November 2012)

 

1) How do you manage you studies and your OWS training in Australia?

Heidi: Time management skills. I also work part-time at a law firm which means my days are usually very busy and I work off a very strict time schedule. The most important thing for me is to manage my recovery while fitting in work, study and training. Recovery for me is particularly important because I had chronic fatigue a few years ago and also because long distance training is very taxing on the body. Therefore, I make sure I prioritize my recovery by making sure I eat well so my body has enough energy to recover and keep going during the day, as well as making sure I see a physio every week, have regular massages, and get lots of sleep. I find sleep is the best way for me to recovery from work/training/study and without enough sleep I will not be able to be in the best physical condition for my daily schedule. Learning to prioritize your body’s needs is a very important skill for athletes and is something which I did not learn until I was much older. If you can learn to balance your sport with your study, work and family/friend commitments while understanding how to prioritise your needs above all (e.g. like recovery), then you are on the right track.

2) How about your nutrition during training and OW racing?

Heidi: During training, I mainly stick to water or sometimes electrolyte drinks like powerade. I also make sure that I eat a light snack like a muesli bar or a banana before training and usually a protein shake after training.

During races, I usually have 2-3 “feeds” throughout a 10km race. The contents of these feeds usually changes throughout the race depending on how far into the race I am at each feed. Generally I will put a mixture of electrolyte fluids, carbo-gels and sometimes caffeine depending on how far into the race I am at that point.

3) In the 26th SEA Games OWS in Indonesia, I () was one of the referees in that event and saw that you have good stamina during the race, you can swim stable with velocity and power. How do you prepare your performance prior to the race?

Heidi: I leave my training planning up to my coach. But in summary, open water swimming involves a lot of km’s in the pool. Our average training sessions are 7-8km long and I train 9 pool sessions a week.

But OWS is no longer about who can swim the longest but now is more focused on who can swim the fastest for the longest amount of time. So in our main sets, we practice a lot of “maximum sustainable speed” pace and sets where we need to hold that pace for up to 4-5km at one time. (Although the main sets can be broken down further into sets of 200s, 400s, 800s etc.)

4) You are still young and have a lot of talent a Malaysian OW swimmer, how about your targets for next years season?

Heidi: 2013, my main aim is the World OW Championships which are being held in Barcelona in July. Prior to that, I have the Australian National OW Champs in February, Australian National Surf Life Saving Titles, and I also plan to compete at a few FINA World Cups after world champs, probably in Shantou (China) and HK. At the end of the year, there is also the SEA Games in Myanmar. Although there is no OW, Malaysia may require me to swim an individual distance freestyle pool race or a relay place – this is yet to be confirmed.

5) How important is turning at a buoy during a race for you?

Heidi: Turning a buoy can be a very crucial part of a race. Here, the pack can either string out as people fight for the best position around the buoy or it can bunch the pack up together as people have to go slower to go around the buoy.

It can also be very dangerous if you get stuck on the inside of the pack and get pushed into or under the buoy by the rest of the swimmers on the outside. This happened to me in Portugal at the Olympic Qualifier – my transmitter watch got stuck in the ropes holding the buoy down and I was pushed under water as other swimmers swam over the top of me. It was very scary and very tiring experience. So I try to go wide on the turns now so avoid getting crushed into the buoys.

6) where do you see yourself in 5 years time in OWS?

Heidi: In 5 years time, I hope to have qualified and swam at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. I also hope to have competed in the World OW Champs and placed top 10 in the 10km event.

I think long term, I would also want to swim the English Channel Solo and be the first solo Malaysian woman to complete the swim.

I am hoping that the Asian Games will also be including OW in the future so that I may represent Malaysia against the other Asian countries in these events.

7) If your werent doing OWS you’d be doing……….?

Heidi: I would probably be a lawyer. My joints are naturally very loose which makes me very good at swimming but also very prone to injury on land! So I cannot run very well which rules out a lot of sports. But besides being a lawyer, I would probably have a go at triathlons or iron man events because I am too competitive to give up sport completely.

 

 

 

 

 

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