Cap & Goggles

Only a Swimmer Knows the Feeling

Category: Swimmers

Michael Turns 30

Michael Phelps always swore he’d never be swimming at age 30… He is. 

A man’s entitled to change his mind. A kid’s expected to change his mind, plenty. As both a young man and a teenage kid, Michael insisted over and over that you would never catch him on the starting blocks when he was 30 years old. At times he said it with a note of disdain, as if yeah right, I’ll be long gone by then, when I’m, like, old. A few years ago, in the wake of London, he said it with a note of relief. He was sick of the sport in 2012, ready to move on with his life, and he did. Or he tried to. But when you’re the best ever at something it’s not so easy to swim away. You realize the view’s a lot better from the top of a mountain.

And so, Michael Phelps did what most expected him to do. He came back. He picked up where he left off – at the top of the world rankings, the straw that stirs the drink of USA Swimming. His arrest and subsequent suspension for drunk driving last fall left some wondering if the comeback trail would dry up, but in the time since the man has professed to do some soul-searching. According to Bob Bowman (aka the Great & Powerful Oz behind the curtain), he’s also been putting in the work. Something that Bowman hasn’t proclaimed since, oh, around 2008.

It’s been a redemptive few months for Team Phelps. His recent results at the Santa Clara Arena Swim Pro Series were encouraging. His deck side demeanor has been downright jovial. His press conferences on point. It’s all about the love of the sport and the peace of mind these days for Michael, and caps off to that. It feels a far cry from the grumbling put out champion who approached London with a heavy load of obligation. Retiring after the bounty of Beijing was never an option, there was too much riches at stake, but it was apparent that Phelps was going through the motions in that long Olympiad between ’08 and ’12.

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The Smell of Smoke

Katinka Hosszu is the best all-around swimmer on earth right now… What everyone is talking about, but no one wants to say… 

There is no proof. There never is, not when it matters, not when it’s needed most. So, this is what happens: the coaches grumble; the experts roll their eyes; the athletes offer lukewarm congrats at the end of each eye-popping race. Everyone talks, but no one speaks up. Because only amateurs fail drug tests, and without that proof positive test it’s all just jealous hearsay.

Except the chatter is often true, and the visual evidence – on the body and the scoreboard – generally doesn’t lie.

Our latest Exhibit A: Hungary’s “Iron Lady” Katinka Hosszu. FINA’s reigning World Swimmer of the Year; three-time world champion; holder of five short course meter world records; and the woman who, last fall, became the first swimmer ever to surpass $1 million earned solely in prize money in the pool. She did this, of course, by globe-trotting the World Cup circuit and swimming a superhuman number of races at almost every stop.

This has resulted in a considerable amount of fawning press from the world’s swimming media. “Iron Lady” has a certain brand-name ring to it, and Hosszu keeps the headlines pumping. No one competes, consistently, at a higher level than she does. Repeat – no one, ever. Not Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky and certainly not Ryan Lochte, who’s always tended to look like a beaten slow sack of chiseled flesh when he races while immersed in heavy training. But not Hosszu. Her consistency, her ability to recover, and her never-flagging form continues without breakdown, regardless of when or where the race is going down.

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The Process of Courage

Jeff Julian – Friend, Coach, Cancer Survivor To-Be… 

You’re sitting in a doctor’s office. Something’s been bothering you, a pain in your back and neck that just isn’t getting better. You’re fit, not yet 40, a former champion butterflyer who knows his body the way only swimmers do. Your days are spent active, on your feet on a pool deck, under a warm Southern California sun. The pain has been progressing for a few months now, but Advil usually takes care of it. Whatever it is, there must be an easy explanation. It’s probably just one of those nagging signs of aging, the aches and pains of creeping middle age.

But then one night you’re out to dinner with your wife and the pain becomes too much to ignore. You contact a doctor. The next day you head to the hospital.

And then, after a whirlwind of tests, you hear the unthinkable. The C-word, says the doctor. It’s lung cancer, he tells you. It doesn’t get more serious.

How would you react?

If you’re Jeff Julian, head coach of Rose Bowl Aquatics and former All-American at USC, your response is the very definition of courage. You announce your diagnosis on Facebook with unblinking candor and a fearlessness that’s hard to fathom. Then, you end your note to your stunned readers with this line: “I wanted to share this with you one time, before I put my head down and get ready to kick some ass.”

Hear that, cancer? Prepare yourself for a beat down.

Picture the polar opposite of a lung cancer sufferer. That is Jeff Julian. Never a smoker, a world class athlete, a wise coach with perspective and patience, possessed of a singular So Cal laugh that never fails to send out positive vibrations. The last man you’d expect.

Soon after his diagnosis, his team at Rose Bowl created #TEAMJeff – a site where you can support his fight and join his legion of friends and family across the swimming universe. Through the CaringBridge website, you can follow his journal, and at his site at YouCaring you can offer financial support to help fund the battle.

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The Boy Behind the Wheel

After a second DUI arrest, a hard look at Michael Phelps on dry land… 

This time it’s different. It’s already being lumped in with his past two public transgressions, but those two past offenses belong in a separate category. A dumb decision at 19-years-old, getting behind the wheel after a few too many? Not okay, but not the end of the world either. You and a million other dumb-ass teens have done the same thing, and you hope it’s lesson learned. You hope you recognize how lucky you were that no one got hurt. Transgression number two: getting caught smoking from a bong at age 23. It’s hard even to dignify this with an ounce of judgement. If you have a problem with a kid in his early twenties smoking weed at a party, well then, less power to you.

But this time, for Michael Phelps, it’s a different story. He didn’t get caught making a teenager’s mistake, and he didn’t get caught puffing on something that’s soon to be legal in every state any way. This time, Michael Phelps did something deserving of judgement and the harshest of words. He got shit-faced, climbed into his Land Rover, and sped almost 40 miles per hour over the speed limit, charging through the Fort McHenry Tunnel, going 84mph in a 45mph zone, swerving over the double lines as he did it. Then, when stopped, the officer immediately noticed Phelps was plastered. A sobriety test proved it: it’s been reported that his blood alcohol level was almost twice the legal limit.

Then he was arrested, charged, released, and sent sulking home in shame and fear, as Michael Phelps, Inc. spun into Code Red.

Before making clear why this time it’s so different, a note to the moralizing masses: I don’t think Michael Phelps has a drinking problem. I don’t think he’s off the rails or out of control in any get-this-kid-to-rehab sense. I don’t judge him for getting a DUI at 19, nor for unwinding with a bit of weed. And I certainly don’t judge him for enjoying a few drinks. Lord knows I enjoy bending an elbow too. I’ll be as permissive as you like when it comes to recreational drug use, as well. You can judge me for that, I’ll accept my choices, and others’ too. But here’s where unflinching judgement is due:

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The Rising Sun

In an underwhelming midterm year, Japan is ascendant… 

Pop quiz: Who is the best all-around male swimmer on earth right now? No, it’s not Phelps or Lochte. No, he’s not from Australia. Or anywhere in Europe. Clue: He owns a single Olympic medal, a bronze in the 400 IM. Until this week, he’d never stood atop a podium at a major international meet.

Give up?

His name is Kosuke Hagino of Japan, and he just turned 20-years-old. It’s really not even close when you look at the world rankings. He’s as easy a pick as Katie Ledecky is for the women, though not nearly as jaw-droppingly, staggeringly dominant as Ms. Ledecky, who is the story of the year. But that’s a story for another time. I’m still trying to digest a 17-year-old old girl going 15:28 in the mile…

Back to Hagino, who has developed an all-around versatility that can only be termed Phelpsian. Check out his best times and his current world rankings: He is presently the #1 ranked IMer in the world, in both the 200 and 400 IM, posting times of 1:55.38 and 4:07.88 this year. Backstroke is his best individual stroke, where is currently ranked #2 in the 200 (1:54.77) and #4 in the 100 (53.08). He’s no slouch in the middle distance freestyle either. In 2014, he’s #7 in the 200 free (1:45.89) and #4 in the 400 free (3:43.90).

At the just-concluded Pan Pacs in Brisbane, Hagino out-touched Phelps in the 200 IM by .02 and out-raced Tyler Clary and Chase Kalisz in the 400 IM. In the men’s 4×200 free relay, he dusted Connor Dwyer on the lead-off leg in a race where Japan came dangerously close (.13) to pulling off a shocking upset.

Two years from Rio, Hagino leads a Japanese team that has forced the world to sit up and take notice after their performance in Brisbane. At Pan Pacs, their men won twice as many individual gold medals as the American men. In addition to Hagino’s medley victories, Daiya Seto won the 200 fly, while Yasuhiro Koseki swept both breaststrokes. This compared with three individual golds for the men of Team USA – Phelps in the 100 fly; Clary in the 200 back, and Connor Jaeger in the mile.

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Trials of a Supergroup

Bob Bowman’s NBAC crew might be the most talented group of swimmers ever assembled… But is there such a thing as too much talent in one pool? Recent results raise questions… 

It’s all about the long term, the next Games. Let’s not forget that. Bob Bowman’s thoughts and plans remain focused two years down the road. He’s been thinking Rio since the flame went out in London. This summer is the halfway point, nothing to get worked up about, he’ll be the first to say. No argument there. Yet, when we’re talking about highly delicate egos and bodies as finely tuned and fragile as a Triple Crown contender, it can be easy to get wrapped up in the present tense.

This can’t be an easy time to be running NBAC’s supergroup. Because this summer has not exactly gone according to plan. Just ask Yannick Agnel and Allison Schmitt and Tom Luchsinger

Two years ago, Agnel was the most impressive swimmer in London. He won double gold, while his stature was perhaps most enhanced by the memory of Michael Phelps imploring his teammates to “get me a lead” before he anchored the 4 x 200 freestyle relay against the towering Frenchman. Phelps fears no swimmer, yet in London he knew he was no match for Agnel. Soon after those Games, with Phelps in retirement, Yannick rang up Bowman and crossed the pond for Baltimore. Even after Michael’s comeback, he has reportedly embraced Bowman’s program. Though he might be doubting that right about now.

Agnel is in the midst of an underwhelming campaign at the European Championships in Berlin. In the 400 freestyle he failed to final. The French coaches left him off the gold-medal-winning 4×100 free relay, and today he raced to bronze in the 200 free, a whopping three and a half seconds off of his lifetime best. This from the reigning Olympic champion in that event.

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