Life is a Carnival

by Casey Barrett

Go Blue… Check out Michigan’s Water Carnival…

Swim meets are boring. Sorry, but you know it’s true. There are moments of incredible, intense excitement. There are races you came to see, swimmers worth the price of admission, even if they’re only in action for 47 seconds of a many hour affair. But the overall event? The prelims and the processions and the podiums? The waiting. The waiting and the waiting for the few heats you actually care about… It can be brutal.

This is coming from a dyed in chlorine swim addict.

Of course there are exceptions. The U.S. Olympic Swim Trials were as exciting as any sporting event I’ve been to, this side of the World Series. Every March, the NCAA Championships are packed with six sessions of edge of your seat drama. Plenty more to be sure, you don’t need the world’s best to be there for the meet to be great, but c’mon, as a rule swim meets aren’t exactly Must See TV.

There must be better ways of staging these things. You’ve heard that before, right? Well, it’s nice to hear someone is doing something about it. Cheers to Mike Bottom and his crew at Michigan. This Saturday, October 6th, they’re hosting the first annual (sure to be a tradition) Water Carnival.

The centerpiece will be a tri-meet between Michigan, Minnesota, and Oakland, but that’s just the beginning – or the end. Before that, it’s a five-hour celebration of aquatics, the sort of stuff you do on those few and far between fun days at practice.

– A 200-meter showdown with fins

– 16 x 25 relays

– 3 on 3 water polo

– Underwater dolphin kick races

– And of course, a diving show

The Michigan marching band will be there, cranking out their iconic ‘Victors’ fight song and a “Friars singing group” will also be on hand. Not exactly rock n’ roll, but at least it’s live… And of course, there will be loads of “audience participation” – ie sorority swim groupies wooing it up.

Sounds like a fine way to spend an afternoon. Or in any case, a lot more fun than a spectator-free dual meet against Stanford in the rain.

There is precedent for this sort of swim-flavored carnival. Back in the late 30’s and 40’s, an impresario named Billy Rose staged swimming shows called the Aquacade. Rose was a song and dance man who loved his swimmers. He married 1932 Olympic backstroke champ Eleanor Holm, aka the Champagne Girl. Holm was a free spirit who got herself kicked off the U.S. team on the way to the Berlin Games in 1936 after she got caught boozing it up with journalists as their Olympics bound boat crossed the Atlantic. At Rose’s Aquacades, Holm was joined by fellow Olympic swim champs Johnny Weismuller and Buster Crabbe, along with the incomparable Esther Williams. It wasn’t about racing, it was about celebrating the sport.

It’s a bit grainy and dated, but check out this clip of the Aquacade at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. If we’re all on board with raising the profile of swimming and expanding the sport beyond its walls and lanes, these are things worth revisiting.

Michigan’s Water Carnival is a big stroke in the right direction.