The Phelps Effect

by Casey Barrett

Is the cupboard bare for Team USA?

Beneath the superstar surface, all was not well at the World Championships in Shanghai. While Phelpte, the two-headed headline monster, was not so quietly collecting twelve medals between them, there was a curious void among the rest of the American men. Yes, Ryan Lochte was the new king, we read all about it. And yes, Michael Phelps was back, re-motivated and back to his astonishing self. But where were the rest of them? Not on the podium. Not in the breaststrokes, nor the sprint frees, nor the distance events, not even in the 100 back – for decades (yes, literally decades) the single most dominant event in American men’s swimming. Where was that devastating depth, for so long the hallmark of Team USA?

Aside from Tyler Clary, who collected a silver and a bronze behind Mr. Lochte in the 400 IM and 200 back, and Tyler McGill, who claimed bronze in the 100 fly behind Mr. Phelps, no other American men appeared on the World Championships podium in an individual event. Perhaps most tellingly, the men struggled mightily to win the race that has always been a foregone conclusion – the 4 x 100 medley relay. With pedestrian mid-pack splits on the front half, it was up to Mr. Phelps to deliver a crushing fly split that supplied Nathan Adrian with enough of a lead to hold off the charging Aussie James Magnussen on the end. The two-tenth victory was their slimmest margin for gold ever in a major competition; it was also almost five full seconds slower than the world record (albeit a tainted suit-assisted record from ’09…). It’s dangerous to read too much into one meet, but it’s also hard to ignore a wider trend here.

Call it the Phelps Effect. Wherein the talent and ambition of fellow countrymen is drained and daunted in the face of insurmountable dominance… Well, insurmountable for all but one, it seems. Ryan Lochte hasn’t been daunted, and now, as this is typed, he has surpassed Phelps as the consensus top swimmer on earth. Not by much, to be sure. But there is no one else even remotely in the running. Which would seem to make Lochte the exception that proves an uncomfortable rule…

In a terrific Sports Illustrated profile on Lochte in the lead-up to Shanghai, Bob Bowman gave credence to this Phelps Effect. “Michael has destroyed a lot of people psychologically,” said Bowman. “There are a number of swimmers who came up against Michael, found it impossible to beat him and just gave up. But Ryan was never fazed.”

No one on the planet has witnessed that as up close as the Great One’s own coach. While Bowman is hardly objective in his assessment, he’s not wrong. And he’s not the only one to voice it. One of Phelps’ former training partners at the University of Michigan has personally told me as much. “He just broke spirits,” said this swimmer. “He certainly did it to me.” This from a former National Team member and multiple time All-American at Michigan. He went on to tell me about glancing underwater off of turns in workouts and watching Phelps’ utterly depressing superiority. “He’s just so much better, so much more efficient, it makes you question what you’re doing.”

While talent can’t be faked or willed into being, it’s confidence that has always separated the very good from the great. Unshakeable, blind, smiling, eternal confidence. The sort embodied by Ryan Lochte. Of his many admirable traits, it’s that unshakeable self-confidence that allowed Lochte to surpass, for now, his mighty rival. And it was certainly given a good hard shake – to the tune of a couple dozen head-to-head defeats in major competitions.

A few years back, on the bottom of the world, another theory of talent drain was floated by a swim-obsessed Aussie media. Back then it was the Thorpe Effect, as the Australians wondered aloud whether or not Ian Thorpe’s prodigious achievements had scared away the next generation in his wake. Predictably, there were howls of protests from the coaching quarters. That’s ridiculous, they insisted. Not my swimmers, they snorted. If anything wouldn’t Thorpe have inspired and motivated, rather than discouraged? Well, yes and no. No one was denying that, long term, Thorpe raised the standard of excellence for his Aussie torchbearers, challenging those who came next to dream that much bigger. But what of his contemporaries, swimmers the same age or just a bit younger? Among this group, there appears to be evidence that the Thorpe Effect was all too real. That is, until it was cured this year.

In the years between Ian Thorpe’s retirement and recent comeback, the Aussie men seemed to regress. Indeed, in 2010, there was not a single Australian man ranked in the top six in the world in any freestyle event. It was as if Thorpe, along with compatriot Grant Hackett, had snuffed out the will of their immediate heirs apparent. A few years had to pass before it was ok for Aussie freestylers to ascend the podium again. In 2011 at the Worlds, they shook off the Effect with some statement-making swims. Led by 20-year-old James Magnussen and his 4×100 free relay teammates, the Aussie mates rediscovered their mojo. We all knew it was temporary, but that doesn’t mean the Thorpe Effect didn’t exist.

At least for the men. It must be noted that this strange will-sucking ailment does not appear to cross gender lines. It appears to have an inverse effect among the women. As the Aussie men struggled over the last five years or so, the Australian women surged. Just as a growing crop of American women, led by the incredible Missy Franklin, appear to be shaping up as Team USA’s deepest women’s squad in over a decade.

Deny it all you like, coaches, but the same thing is now happening stateside. Consider Team USA without the Phelpte monster for a moment. Who would be the face of the franchise? Before your next-best knee-jerk reply, let’s acknowledge that a face of the USA Swimming franchise should probably be a world record holder who is expected to win gold, as the clear dominating favorite… Meaning certain would-be champions in waiting still have some (im)proving to do. Sure there are insane talents on the rise, who will surely be an international presence soon enough. (Yes, watch out for David Nolan, Ryan Murphy, et all…) But those phenoms still have a few years to ripen. Until then, get ready for symptoms of the Phelps Effect to worsen before they get better.

Unless of course Ryan Lochte would care to share the vaccine.