Jun 28, 2016
If you want to be an Olympian, here is the hardest possible path: Try qualifying in the American men’s 100 backstroke…
You’re 30-years-old. Your second child just arrived. Your wife is in med school. You’re one of the best swimmers in the world, but that doesn’t mean you’re flush. Things are tight. The stress is real. It’s not like the supposed stress of the college kids in the lanes around you. They’re on full rides and in that four year haze of pre-life. The weight on your shoulders is something else. It can be crushing. It can cause a man to question just why the hell he’s doing this.
Because it’s the Olympics, that’s why.
That’s a title for life. Olympian. You like the sounds of that. It’s a suit that will always look sharp, come what may.
But first you have to make the Team. It so happens that what you’re best at also happens to be what your country is best at. The men’s 100 backstroke. There is literally no harder way to become an Olympian – no matter what sport, country, or gender. There’s never been a single Olympic event so owned by one unending line of champions from the same country.
Think about this for a second. For 40 straight years, the best 100 backstroker on earth has, arguably, been an American man. Most of the time it’s been inarguable. John Naber to Rick Carey to Dave Berkoff to Jeff Rouse to Lenny Krayzelburg to Aaron Peirsol to Matt Grevers to Ryan Murphy and David Plummer today. Now, I realize that ‘best’ can be disputed. They haven’t won every Olympic gold medal over that time. They’ve won almost all of them, but in 1988 Dave Berkoff was upset by Japan’s Daichi Suzuki. (Though Berkoff kept the world record.) In 1992, Jeff Rouse was upset by Canada legend Mark Tewksbury. (Rouse also kept the world record. But here’s a note about Tewsbury’s epic swim: Before that day in Barcelona he had never broken 55 in the 100 back. That night he went 53.98. Skipped the 54s altogether at the one moment it mattered most…) These days I realize that Australia’s Mitch Larkin is the reigning world champion, but he’s now fallen to third in the world rankings. Plummer’s semifinal time of 52.12 is first, while Murphy gets the honor of Trials champion, in 52.26.
Today I’ve been trying to get to Omaha to see this spectacle for myself. Alas, the flight was canceled and I’ve spent the last nine hours at Newark Airport trying to figure out a way there. The upside: I ran into Lenny Krayzelburg at the gate, on board the same interrupted flight with his family. Lenny and I have been friends since our long ago days at USC and we got a chance to catch up while we dealt with travel hell. The delay was heartened by the fact that we could now watch day three’s finals on NBC from a terminal TV. Fitting that it happened to be the night of the men’s 100 back…
We talked about the legacy of this event. When I told him I wanted to write about it, he offered this quote: “I couldn’t help but be proud and honored to be part of the rich history of this event that we have dominated for the past four decades. It certainly looks like this tradition will continue. I really believe both Ryan and David should be faster in Rio now that they’re on the team.”
Spoken like a member of one of the world’s most exclusive clubs. Ryan and David just posted two of the fastest times in history. They’re ranked first and second in the world right now. But to 100 back royalty, the first thought was that they should be faster at the Games.
There’s a reason this legacy exists. It’s called high standards. If you’re an American guy that swims the 100 back you don’t just aim to make the Team. You don’t just hope to end up on the podium one day. You dream – no, you’re expected – to be the best on earth. It’s been that way for 40 years, since John Naber started it back in Montreal in 1976. There were four months in 1988 where a Russian named Igor Polyansky held the world record, and there were seven days in 2009 where Spain’s Aschwin Wildeboer snatched the world record from Aaron Peirsol before he took it back.
Let’s put that another way: Over the past 14,600 days, a series of six American guys – Naber, Carey, Berkoff, Rouse, Krayzelburg, and Peirsol – have owned the world record in the 100 back for 14,473 of those days.
Now it’s Ryan Murphy and David Plummer’s turn. Murphy has been the chosen one to continue this legacy since he was a kid. It’s a helluva lot of pressure to be anointed in that company, but Murphy has embraced it every step of the way. He’s never missed a beat. The guy defines this 100 back legacy in every way.
But David Plummer is different. He’s not a super talent like John Naber and Rick Carey. He’s not a change agent innovator like David Berkoff. He’s not the Pac-10 stud the way Jeff Rouse and Lenny Krayzelburg were. He’s not a wunderkind like Aaron Peirsol or a beast like Matt Grevers. He’s a normal-sized working-class dreamer from Oklahoma. He’s past 30 with two kids and a wife with med school debt.
He took the hard road and he made it.