Spain Doesn’t Tolerate Its Swimming Genius

Rafa Muñoz
Rafa Muñoz after the 50m butterfly final at the last Worlds in Rome, when he won bronze. Photo by Kerim Okten, EFE.

Spain Doesn’t Tolerate Its Swimming Genius
The federation leaves its star, Rafa Muñoz, off the team for the World Championship over 15 hundredths of a second
España no tolera a su genio
Diego Torres reporting from Madrid June 13, 2011

“I don’t want to train,” they heard him say; “I don’t want to train.” He was swimming in the luxurious Top Training natatorium in the first week of October 2010. The best swimmers on the Spanish team had just come together, but the most famous of them was showing symptoms of depression. Neither the luxurious installations nor the marine air of La Caleta had sufficiently stimulated him. Rafa Muñoz, probably the most gifted swimmer Spain has ever produced, was having one of his melancholy days that left him a little hydrophobic.

The technical director of the federation, Luis Villanueva, who in practice acts as an administrator of the Superior Sports Council, is famous for the jealousy with which he guards his dignity as chief. According to witnesses, when Muñoz confessed he was going through personal difficulties, instead of offering his support, Villanueva dispatched him as if he were cutting nets with a machete: “Then get on a plane and go back home.”

Muñoz was expelled from the training at Tenerife. It was the beginning of the end. Six months later, he was left off the roster for the World Championships in Shanghai which begin this July 14.

Inspired by the International Amateur Swimming Federation (FINA)’s 2010 ranking, Villanueva established objective criteria for selection for Shanghai: he set a minimum qualification time for swimmers in every event at the Spanish Open in April. For the 50 butterfly, Muñoz’s specialty, the coach decided that 23.62 seconds, the 15th best time of 2010, would be a sufficient guarantee of quality.

Muñoz touched the wall in 23.77s. He was fifteen hundredths of a second over the limit, and Villanueva erased him from his plans although the swimmer is currently ranked 12th in the world. When the coach was asked if he would be flexible, he said he wouldn’t be. Since then, Villanueva has not deigned to argue about his decision. Like a typical government functionary, he has limited himself to citing the regulation…the regulation being the list of times which he decided himself and which is keeping his most gifted swimmer from participating in the World Championships, marginalizing and depressing him as he begins to prepare for the 2012 London Olympics.

Joan Fortuny was Muñoz’s coach from 2006 to 2008, the swimmer’s first years under the aegis of the federation. “Rafa could have fought for a medal in the 50 butterfly at the worlds,” said Fortuny. “The problem is that the Olympics don’t have trials for the 50, and I don’t know why he isn’t training for the 100 for London. The 100 is very different from the 50 because you have to work more on resistance. But how can a swimmer be motivated when he races so little against Phelps, especially now that he can only compete for the Spanish championship?”

In 2008 and 2009, the most spectacular years of his career, Muñoz trained in the Circle of Swimmers at Marseille. Since he returned from France and began training under Villanueva, he has lost several kilograms of muscle. In 2009, FINA opened a doping case against him, but in 2010 he was absolved. During that time, his 50 butterfly time regressed from 22.43s to 23.15s. His deterioration was more dramatic in the 100: he dropped from 3rd in the world in 2009 to 54th in 2010. Yet training in Spain made him more exhausted than before. Since the 100 demands more dedication, he decided to concentrate on the 50. The coach who trained him daily at the CAR, José Antonio del Castillo, a subordinate of Villanueva, chose not to answer our newspaper’s questions.

Fortuny, one of the most experienced coaches in Spain, defended the swimmer: “He’s in a class by himself. What he needs most is motivation. Leaving him out of the Worlds over a tenth of a second is not the best way to stimulate him. Spain isn’t Australia or Germany. Those countries have to set minimum times for selection because they have a quantity of swimmers that would be inconceivable in Spain. Even so, the Australian coach has made exceptions for swimmers that didn’t make the minimum. A swimmer like Rafa appears in Spain once every 20 years. Our outlook for men’s swimming for the Olympic Games is worrying.

Muñoz’s gold medal in the 50 at the European Championships in Budapest last summer vindicated him. Since he broke the world record (22.43s) in 2009 with a now-prohibited swimsuit, he’s been the standard-bearer for the national team with the support of the national institutions and most of all Villanueva. Thanks to the ADO grant, a subsidy from Córdoba City Hall, awards from FINA and the Spanish Federation, investments in the swimmer, and aid from the Andalusian Olympic Foundation, he is assured of 50,000-100,000 euros per year. Not a bad start for a 23-year old. But just when it seemed like things were turning in his favor, he felt melancholy in Tenerife. And Villanueva got tired of him.

Javier Noriega, a veteran Spanish speed swimmer who swam with Muñoz in the Spanish Open in April, had this point of view: “The federation hasn’t motivated Rafa to be a Michael Phelps. In his specific events, the 50 and 100 fly, Rafa could be at Phelps’s level. Not all the blame is on the federation, but they’ve given him so much pressure and such high expectations that they’ve actually harmed him instead. The technical director’s opinion weighs on the swimmers a lot. With a swimmer of this talent, you should have enough emotional intelligence to understand his circumstances and be capable of motivating him from wherever he is in his life. In 2009, he took the laurels for them, and now they’re treating him like he’s just another guy.”

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