The Altered States of Swimming
by Casey Barrett
As we enter the post-Phelps era, the sport finds itself reeling between robust health and on-going sickness…
A new Olympiad has begun. Michael Phelps is gone. Ryan Lochte is becoming Derek Zoolander. Missy Franklin continues to resist millions so she can swim in college. That’s the narrative of the big three, anyway. The three short hand stories of the sport that have spread into the mainstream. That’s what your friends in the dry land world know about swimming. They might have also heard about some dark sex scandals, involving coaches and teenage swimmers, but we’ll get to that in a bit…
Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of this blog. It was started last September with a piece entitled The Phelps Effect. It detailed the ways that Michael Phelps’s dominance may have killed off the depth and ambition in American swimming. There was evidence of that back at the World Championships in 2011. At the Games in London, the symptoms of this ‘Phelps Effect’ appear to have been killed off. Just ask Tyler Clary, Matt Grevers, and Nathan Adrian – three American guys not named Phelps or Lochte who raced to individual Olympic gold this summer.
Seventy-five stories later, this site has managed to piss off, provoke, and hopefully entertain and enlighten many in the swimming community. Just what I’d hoped for… And so it seems like a fine time to take a step back and examine the sport in its many altered states.
The contrasts are dizzying, like a too-heavy trip that throws your mind from transcendence to terror and back again. At the peak, an Olympics with grace and greatness on display at every turn. At the depths, scandal that threatens the foundation of the sport itself and delivers crushing blows to the reputation of coaches everywhere. So much to love, so much to hate.
First, the health… By damn near every standard, the sport of swimming has never been in better shape. Sure, Micheal the Meal Ticket has left the table, but he has left a feast of riches. The competition in London was as good as any Olympic swimming in history. Across the board. Thrilling upsets, epic relays, all-time moments every night. And despite the unfortunate tape delay by NBC, more viewers tuned in to watch swimmers than ever before.
At the age group level, there has never been more kids taking part in this sport. In the U.S., there are currently 362,700 registered competitive swimmers and almost 3,000 member clubs. That’s a 17% increase from four years ago, and remember, four years ago was its own high water mark after Phelps’s Beijing bonanza. Across the world, it’s safe to say that the ranks of young swimmers in France and South Africa and Brazil are also swelling as we speak, thanks to overachieving performances in London and a Rio Games on the horizon. This is a sport on the rise, and not just within American borders.
The sport also appears to have finally turned a corner when it comes to diversity. Sure, it remains embarrassingly too-white at every meet. But that’s changing – at the top, with the likes of Tony Ervin and Cullen Jones and Lia Neal – but also at the ground level, as grassroots programs like Make a Splash are reaching scores of young athletes who might never have been exposed to the pool.
Phelps did indeed change the sport, but he wasn’t alone. The tide has been rising for a long time, well before he took the blocks as a teenager in Sydney, and it will continue to rise in the Olympiad ahead.
Now, the sickness… Swimming has an image problem. (And no, I don’t mean Seth MacFarlane’s mean-spirited mockery of Lochte on SNL last week.) Today, Rick Curl was banned for life from USA Swimming. Two decades too late, some might say. His namesake team, Curl-Burke, was renamed Nation’s Capital Swim Club. Or NCAP for short. (One friend from the area quipped: “Does that stand for ‘No Coitus After Practice’?”)
On Monday, Mark Schubert was hauled into the ugliness, facing a lawsuit from a former assistant for unlawful firing. Basically, she accuses Schubert of Paterno’ing – that is, not doing anything after he was made aware of sexual abuse allegations against a close coaching colleague, Bill Jewell. Not doing anything except fire the whistle blower, that is. As SI.com wrote: “another embarrassing turn for a sport that has taken steps over the last two years to combat widespread claims of sexual misconduct.”
Then the Schubert story gets crime novel crazy. The suit alleges that Schubert and Jewell were the less-than-masterminds behind Sean Hutchison’s downfall at FAST. Word is that Schubert hired a private investigator to take pictures of Hutchison engaged in sexual activities with one of his swimmers. (An adult swimmer, it’s worth noting…) Schubert then apparently took the pics from the P.I. and used them to blackmail USA Swimming to the tune of $625,000 to keep the compromising photos under wraps. If you believe all this, you’re about as bright as the guy being sued. But the facts, whatever they are, are just part of the problem. Regardless of how this lawsuit ends, this is yet another blow to the image of our sport.
Think about it: Rick Curl and Mark Schubert. A pair of Hall of Famers. Their characters aside, these are two of the most successful and celebrated swim coaches in history. When parents looked for the very best programs for their children, when former swimmers chose to stay in the sport and become coaches, these two used to be the examples. The ones you turned to as pillars of the profession. Now they seem to exemplify an on-going sickness that still isn’t cured.
Here’s something else that remains deeply ill: the state of men’s college swimming. How many Olympic medalists in London were the product of NCAA programs? 30, by my count, but feel free to fact check. Florida, Michigan, Cal, Northwestern, USC, and Georgia each produced individual Olympic champions in London. How many other international athletes were at the Games after developing their talents at U.S. universities?
Of course, that’s all good and well, but Olympic medals don’t pay for college athletic budgets and men’s swimming remains at grave risk at dozens of schools. Gratefully, the women’s programs appear to be well protected under Title IX provisions, but the growing ranks of young male swimmers are going to want some place to continue racing after they turn 18. Let’s hope enough college teams can stick around to serve them.
It’s easy to get wrapped up and warped in these extremes. Olympic triumphs, coaching sex scandals, college programs being cut… These are the Heavens and the Hells of a sport that continues to carry on day after day, lap after lap, in countless pools all over the world. Most of you will never experience any of this. The highs might inspire you and the lows might enrage you, but do they really change your own daily swimmer’s reality? A reality that is drenched in chlorine and early mornings and worthy dreams.
When you’re under water and on an interval, all this stuff ceases to matter. All that exists is that pure altered state of swimming.