Through the Decades, Out of Darkness

by Casey Barrett

There once was nothing.

I don’t mean that in any figurative, profound sense. I mean, literally, there was nothing. If you were a promising female high school swimmer and had the desire to swim after the age of 18, sorry, nothing for you. There was no women’s college swimming whatsoever. If you were a still-improving male swimmer who longed to keep going after age 22, nope, nothing for you either. Even if you won a basket full of gold medals while still in school…

This wasn’t that long ago.

On Saturday at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles, I attended an event called Swimming Through the Decades. It was a sort of kick-off to Golden Goggles weekend, a gathering of past USA Swimming legends, one for each of the last five decades, on a panel moderated by Rowdy Gaines. I have to admit, I was skeptical. It had the smell of a U-S-A cheerleading session, a mass ego-stroking for a few of the all-time greats. As one of two Canadian Olympians in the crowd, I felt typically suspicious. I was way off. There was plenty of flattery, to be sure. (Not that the folks up there hadn’t earned every bit of it…) But the vibe emanating from the stage was one of sincere collective humility. These five put a whole lot into perspective.

From the 60’s, there was Debbie Meyer, the first woman to win three individual gold medals at one Games. She was 16-years-old when she did it, back at the 1968 Mexico City Games. From the 70’s, John Naber, most decorated man on the most dominant American team in history – the 1976 men’s team in Montreal. The one that won every event but one; Naber took home four of those gold. From the 80’s, Matt Biondi, greatest swimmer of his generation, winner of seven medals in Seoul, five of them gold. The 90’s: Summer Sanders, the golden girl of the ’92 Barcelona Games, where she won four medals, including gold in the 200 fly. And from the ’00s, it was Ryan Lochte. Resumé still in progress, you know the highlights… Not a bad murderer’s row.

(Of course, there were two conspicuously absent. The two greatest Olympic swimmers in history. Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps. A shame these two couldn’t make it, but as soon as the questions began, their absence was forgotten.)

As the elder stateswoman on stage, the other four tended to defer to Debbie Meyer whenever she had something to say. And there was plenty of wisdom in her replies…

ROWDY: How were things different back in your respective eras?

MEYER: (I paraphrase) Well, um, everything was different. College swimming for women didn’t exist back in my day. There was nowhere for us to swim after high school. There were barely any opportunities for female swimmers in high school!

Come again? This was 43 years ago. A long time, yes. But Meyer is younger than my parents, and she could pass for 43. Hearing this from a pioneer, who looks and talks more like a peer than a grandma, was jarring. Did. Not. Exist. No women’s college swimming, full stop. This was five years before Billie Jean King won the “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973. It was four years before Title IX was passed, opening the door for collegiate sports for women. Meyer was a full Olympiad before all this. Three gold medals at 16 is plenty impressive, enough to call it a career, but one has to wonder what Meyer could have gone on to accomplish if she’d had a full ride waiting to any school she pleased, and an apparel deal from Speedo waiting after that…

ROWDY: John, how about you? What was different in the 70’s for men’s swimming?

NABER: Well, unfortunately, I knew with certainty that no matter what happened in Montreal, I would go back to USC after the Games, finish my college career and that would be that. There just wasn’t anything for swimmers after college. Nothing at all.

Even the mighty Spitz retired at age 23. Naber, who you could say was the Lochte of his era, was done right out of school, couldn’t even consider anything else. Ryan Lochte completed his college swimming career at Florida in 2006. Safe to say he was just getting started…

ROWDY: Matt, you and Tom Jager were the ones who ushered in this new era of professional opportunities for swimmers. How did things start to change?

BIONDI: (Again, paraphrasing) It happened slowly. I remember in 1988, I got to know Germany’s Michael Gross. He was sort of the ‘other one’, the greatest swimmer in Germany, and we were the ones really celebrated as the best all around swimmers. I remember feeling like I had more in common with him than my American teammates. It was very lonely, being in that position.

Even back in the early 90’s, there was almost no one who stuck around after college. The opportunities just weren’t there. But by the mid 90’s, that all started to change. By this time, women’s college swimming was a fact of life, funding the educations of thousands of promising young women who finally had other pools waiting for them after high school. And when they graduated, there was more waiting for the very best. Swimwear companies started to sign the now-profitable faces of the Games. The notion of the “pro swimmer” had become a reality.

There’s been plenty of pessimism written about the state of college swimming, and about the new reality of professional swimming opportunities after that. I’ve written a lot of dark missives about it myself. But as Debbie Meyer and John Naber and Matt Biondi were answering Rowdy’s questions, I was watching Ryan Lochte’s reactions. Lochte has always come across as the most grateful of champions. But as he listened to his forebearers speak, he had the quiet overwhelmed look of a kid who’s just been told he’s the heir to a massive trust fund.

Which of course, he is.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone…