Coaches Corner Interview: Felix Sutanto

Felix is our featured guest for today’s edition of Coach Corner. Felix is a retired Indonesian swimmer, who specialized in individual medley events. At age 15, he joined the Indonesia National Swimming Team. He represented Indonesia, along with his twin brother Albert, at the 2000 Summer Olympics. Felix accepted an athletic scholarship to attend the California Baptist University in Riverside, California, and later received a total of sixteen All-American titles at the NAIA Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships, while studying in the United States (*Cal Baptist University has been promoted to NCAA Division 1 in 2018). Because of his tremendous career in college swimming, Sutanto was named the 2002 and 2003 Most Outstanding Male Swimmer of the Year by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), before graduating from the University in the spring of 2004.

At age 32, Felix retired from the national team, and he started focusing on his own swimming club, Millennium Aquatic Swimming Club (MNA), that he built with his former Olympian teammates back in early 2000. The club has transformed to be the number one swimming club in the nation, producing great talents for Indonesian National Swimming Team. He and his twin brother, Albert, have become not only distinguished coaches in the country, but also figures whom junior athletes look up to.

Why did you start swimming in the first place?
I’ve always loved playing by the pool side when I was a kid. And my next door neighbor happened to be a national swimmer, her name was Pauline. She offered my parents private swimming lessons for me and my twin brother, Albert. She was also the one who encouraged my parents to put me and my brother in a swimming club. At that time, the swimming club was called Hiu Surabaya.

What was the Olympic Games like?
Well, it is the biggest sports festival in the world. I was very proud and moved by the fact that I was in there because to qualify for the Olympic benchmark itself was super hard. Knowing that I qualified was an amazing feeling for me.

You went to the U.S to study and swim at college level, what made you decide to go to the U.S? When did that option come up?
Before I actually went to college in the U.S, I was selected twice to be one of the few to train in the U.S. The first time was when we were preparing for 1990 Asian Games – I was 15 at that time. We spent 3 months training at Chaffey College, CA. The second one was another 3 months to prepare for the 1993 SEA Games. Those were really some ‘eye-opening’ experiences to me. And then the national federation sent me to a community college in Huntington Beach, California, called Golden West College, to continue studying and training there. I decided to transfer to a 4-year university because I wanted to get a Bachelor Degree and not stop at Associate of Arts – the degree you get from going to a community college. Moreover, I got scholarship offers from various universities. So, I thought “why not?” it was my only ticket to achieve the degree from a U.S university.

A lot of world-class swimmers are or have gone to U.S colleges and done college swimming, what’s the most significant factor from college swimming that helps them reach to their maximum capacity?
I think it is because of the system that they have. We know that the U.S is the strongest country in swimming. For example, on the last Olympic, the U.S produced 16 gold medals from swimming only. They have this system that combines sports and education altogether. This system allows universities to attract swimmers from around the world with scholarship money, producing a much more competitive atmosphere within the university league. For example, NCAA Division 1 swimming has a tremendous competition with a very high level. It benefits every swimmer who participates in it. This type of competition is the only way for athletes to truly develop and reach their potentials. Not only American athletes, but athletes from other countries like Brazil, and european countries also choose to go to U.S universities to swim and continue their study in the U.S. This systems works really well. Compared to the one that we have in Indonesia, there is no university that fully supports their athletes and provide the proper facilities for them.

It is interesting to see how swimming federations send their athletes to study and train abroad. Has our government raised their support towards developing our swimmers?
The old approach was more focus on the process, and today’s approach is more focus on the bonuses, and. Of course, there are pros and cons in both . In the old days, the government would pick a handful athletes (not only swimmers) and send them abroad to train, or send them to U.S universities to study and train at the same time like myself. What they were trying to give was the experience or even the education, hoping the athletes could make use of it and ultimately develop their swimming. The upside was the athletes got exposed to world-class training and good education. The downside, however, because of personal reasons and the fact that the approach was kind of a ‘gambling-style’ approach, some athletes did not use the opportunity to the fullest and abandoned the chance to be great. It turned out that some of us became great athletes, and some failed. Today’s approach would be choosing a few swimmers who can guarantee medals in multi-events and give them huge incentive and solid monthly allowance. So for those who can reach top achievements, they get huge bonus from both the national federation and their respective province federation. Huge incentives or bonuses are good to attract more athletes to strive to be the best swimmer and actually make a living out of it if they get selected to the national team and win in multiple events. It gives a peace of mind and a settled life, at least in the short-run. The downside of it is that it creates ‘money-oriented’ swimmers. It gives them the mindset of ‘I swim for the money’. They wouldn’t think about using their swimming to get a scholarship to continue their study and improve their swimming, and make a bigger impact when they return to Indonesia with a college degree that they can get the benefit from in the future. In other words, it holds them back from being a ‘future-oriented’ person at some point.

What’s the story behind Millennium Aquatic (MNA)?
MNA was first formed by me and my swimmates in the national team like Richard Sam Bera, Wisnu Wardhana, and my twin Albert Sutanto. We felt like the swimming clubs in Indonesia back then were implementing outdated training methods. So since we had the experiences training in around the world like in Germany, China, the U.S, we were convinced that it is our call to build a swimming club that actually produces higher level athletes that can contribute to the national team. We wanted to stand out among the crowd.

Now that MNA is really standing out in the nation, who’s the up and coming junior swimmer at MNA who is showing a great potential? And what’s the next 1 or two years goals that MNA is aiming to?
I see so many 10-13 years old kids who are showing great potential to make an impact in the future. We also have maintained to contribute more than 50% of the national team rosters since the 2013 SEA Games. On the most recent one in 2017, 60%-70% national team swimmers were MNA swimmers. To mention a few, there were I Gde Siman Sudartawa, Glenn Victor, Sofie Kemala, Resa Kania Dewi, etc. And for the target, of course, we are focusing on sending our swimmers for the next 2019 SEA Games in the Philippines in November. But, our main goal for now is to send swimmers to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. The closest one for now is I Gde Siman Sudartawa, but we are also aiming to send one woman swimmer because there were very few women swimmers from Indonesia who qualified in the Olympic Games

What advice would you give to junior swimmers in Indonesia?
I personally believe that every kid has the potential to be great. That potential, however, is different from one kid to another, depends on their own talent. The most important thing for every swimmer is to enjoy swimming. They have to be happy with swimming. There should be no one forcing you to train. I always tell them to train hard, never give up, and to do their best in every training session. Another thing that I always tell them is that to keep education in the picture. They need to keep going to school. They shouldn’t stop their education to solely  focus on swimming. And to be a swimmer doesn’t always mean you have to be an Olympian. You can keep swimming as your regular sport because swimming helps keep your body healthy. It keeps you away from bad lifestyle habit and your body is trained to stay away from activities that would ruin your body. I also hope that these kids can set their own dreams and life goals. I always tell them to set their own goal everyday. It can be your goal for today’s training, or your goal for today’s race, small race or big race it doesn’t matter as long as it is aligned with their own targets because swimming is an individual and measured sport, and these athletes know their own time records. They need to try to improve everytime. And to improve, they need to be discipline and to be consistent. Commitment is a crucial thing for every athlete to excel.

When an athlete starts to swim competitively when they are 7 – 9 years old, once they hit 11, 12, 13 years old, they tend to start questioning, “is it worth it to keep swimming?” because it is quite a grind to train and balance with the school in Indonesia. Have you encountered with parents whose kids were unmotivated to swim? What did you tell them then?
Of course. Parents tend to compare their kids to other kids. I always gave them an example from my own experience. Me and my twin brother, Albert Sutanto, did almost everything together. We started swimming together, we competed together, but I got selected to the national team before he did. It took him another 3 years until he finally got selected to the national team. What can we learn from that? Even for us, twins, our development stage can be different. Imagine this, my twin brother and I, we ate the same food, took the same vitamins, had the same training schedule, living in one roof with the same parents, but our progress happened to be different, let alone the kids who are from completely different families. Their development must be different as well. So it is not the wisest thing to do for parents to compare their kids progress with others. So the most important thing, like my parents always told me and my twin brother, is to never stop trying, and to never compare your progress with others because swimming is an individual sport, you have your own target, you swim your own time, everything is evolved within your own self. And unlike other sports, like soccer or basketball, where there are only two teams playing, one wins and the other one loses, swimming is a sport that is measured by your own time. When you break your own personal best time, you win. Many top swimmers actually wouldn’t feel satisfied when they swim slower than their personal best time, even though they’ve won the race.

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