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.

Consider last weekend at the Charlotte Arena Pro Swim Series. Hosszu raced in seven individual events. She won six: the 200 free and the 400 IM on day one; the 200 fly and 100 back on day two (along with a why-not 9th in the 400 free); and the 200 IM and 200 back on day three. It was that last double on the third day that caught many eyes. Within a sixteen minute span, Hosszu posted the top time in the world this year in the 200 IM (2:08.66) and returned after a gasp of a warm-down later with a 200 back in 2:07.79, the third fastest time on earth this year. Not bad for an in-season meet that witnessed most of the superstars in attendance plodding through some very tired, in-training swims.

Since London, this has been a pretty standard meet's showing for Hosszu. She's always entered in a bounty of events and she always tends to deliver incredible performances every time she touches water. I understand the whole Ultra-Short Race-Pace Training (USRPT) philosophy now in vogue, being popularized and questioned through the exploits of young Michael Andrew, yet Hosszu's travel-the-world-collect-the-cash training program stretches the limits of even that dubious science.

No one wants to come out and point fingers. I hope I'm wrong, and to be clear - to any litigious minded folks out there - I realize I'm trafficking in currently unprovable conjecture. But I'm not alone, and past signposts point down some dark roads.

For the last year or so, I've been immersed in writing a documentary called "The Last Gold." It's a film about the tragedy of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, when the last of the innocent days of Olympic sport were lost. A doped East German team of women appeared on the Olympic landscape and they forever corrupted the sport. Lives were altered and shattered, on both sides, and we've never viewed athletic performance in quite the same way again.

One driving narrative of our film is the failure of the press to speak up in the face of such obvious corruption. In retrospect, and even in the present tense, it was beyond obvious what was going on. We were witnessing female bodies be distorted to unnatural strength and power, and they were delivering performances that could not be explained by any rational observer. Those in the know knew what was going on, but there was no proof. So no one said much of anything. Instead, the press labeled the few brave souls who spoke out, like Shirley Babashoff, sore losers. When in fact, these were the truth tellers, the ones outraged by the ugly facts hiding in plain sight.

Nothing has changed. Forty years later, it continues to happen, in every sport, every time there's a champion who stretches plausible achievement in ways that don't quite pass the bullshit test for anyone paying attention. For years I reveled as the blasphemous bastard who loved to incense my Lance-loving friends (especially those who liked to ride bikes) by calling Lance Armstrong a liar and a cheat and the worst kind of athlete scum ever to compete in any sport. That's what he was, and is, and sometimes it's a damn shame to be right.

Secretly, every cynic hopes to be wrong.

I hope I'm wrong now. It's just that there's a distinct smokey aroma around Katinka Hosszu's performances these last two years. And where there's smoke... Hell, finish the cliché yourself. Instead, I'll share this indelicate comment made by a close friend when I first told him I was thinking of addressing this. Said he: "Being surprised that Hosszu might be doping is like going to a strip club and being surprised that the strippers have fake tits!" Apologies if that offends anyone's delicate sensibilities. Sometimes the best similes are the crude ones.

For all of Hosszu's incredible achievements there is one rather glaring omission from her resumé. She has never won an Olympic medal. Not gold, which is the prerequisite for American greatness in swimming, I mean any color medal. Curious for an athlete so utterly dominant in her sport for years on end. It also may go a long way in explaining her current status as not only the best, but the most speculated about swimmer in the world.

Last month, NBC published a story about how Hosszu emerged from depression after the 2012 London Olympics, when she placed 4th in her signature event, the 400 IM. She expected gold. In her own words, she "gave up" with two laps to go and despite having more events on her program, she admitted that "my Olympics was pretty much done. I wanted to go home."

Her spirit, she says, was shattered by the swimmer who won that 400 IM in London. 16-year-old Ye Shiwen of China, who blistered through the final 100 meters in a split so fast (58.68) that it seemed impossible for a woman - that is, without the help of performance enhancement. There was outraged talk that Ye had to be doped, some of it bordering on the xenophobic. True or not, most believed it. Did Hosszu? That's only for her to say.

Yet, here's one thing that we've learned in producing a documentary that centers around doping and the dark clouds that circle it. There is one prerequisite for athletes who dope: They must convince themselves that their competition is doing it. That is the only thing that can validate crossing this line.

In 2012, Katinka Hosszu's spirit was crushed by a performance achieved through dubious means. Ever since, she has been the one standing atop every podium.

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 4x200 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.

The breaststrokes have long been the domain of the Japanese, and that hasn't changed. This is a stroke perfected and long innovated by the Japanese. It's the stroke of Kosuke Kitajima, and the greatest breaststroker of all-time has left it in good hands. Today, their sixth best 200 breaststroker in 2014 is the current world record holder, Akihiro Yamaguchi, at 2:10.33. Yamaguchi went 2:07.01 back in the summer of 2012, soon after the London Games, but right now his event is so deep in his homeland that he's struggling to keep a spot on their National C team. They're just as good among the women, with Kanako Wananbe and Rie Kaneto going 1-2 at the Pan Pacs last week.

If once some might have considered Japan a One Stroke Pony, they've shed that label now. In addition to Hagino's top times in the IMs, they currently boast the top two ranked swimmers in the world in the 200 back - Ryosuke Irie and Hagino; and the #2 and #4 ranked swimmers in the 100 back and the 200 fly. Among the men, Team USA currently has 12 swims ranked in the top four in the world. Japan has 11.

This isn't to say that the next Duel in the Pool should be booked against Japan. The American team remains on another plane when it comes to depth of excellence. Yet the Japanese are clearly doing something right, and they're doing it in events that can't be faked: long course IMs, the 200 fly, back, and breast -- these races will always be among the most painful on the program, and they require a lot more than raw speed and great walls. They require a commitment to long course training and focus that many believe is getting lost stateside. Particularly at programs that put a premium on NCAA success over big pool excellence...

Every program would deny that, of course, but the summer of 2014 is sure to be a wake-up call for many - swimmers and coaches alike.

Time will tell if Kosuke Hagino and company continue to step up and set the pace as the stakes increase in Kazan and Rio. But for the moment, it might be time to gaze across the Pacific and take a bow towards the rising power to the west.

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 4x100 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.

The defending Olympic champ in the 200 free on the women's side is Allison Schmitt. In London, she scorched to gold in an American record of 1:53.61. She hasn't approached those lofty times since. Last week in Irvine at the U.S. Nationals, she failed to final in any event, and settled for a B final victory in her signature event, almost five seconds slower than her personal best. Like Agnel, at the Olympics she anchored her country's 4 x 100 free relay, and like Agnel, two years later she's sitting on the sidelines.

As for Tom Luchsinger, he's clearly nowhere near as decorated as those two Olympic champs. However, he's worth noting here due to his world class form last summer. In 2013, Luchsinger was the U.S. National champion in the 200 fly and at the World Championships in Barcelona, he raced to a respectable 5th place. He appeared to be the next American 200 flyer, ready to inherit the mantle from Michael. And so, he did what so many are doing these days - he moved to Baltimore and joined Bowman's supergroup. Last week in Irvine, Luchsinger raced to a less than inspiring 7th place at Nationals, almost three seconds off his best.

Is it unfair that I'm singling out these three? The NBAC supergroup is made up of a lot more than this trio. In addition to Phelps, there's also Tunisian distance legend and USC Trojan, Ous Mellouli. There's Olympians Connor Dwyer and Matt McLean and, in the summers at least, there's the best 400 IMer in the world, Chase Kalisz. Joining Schmitt on the women's side, there's open water stud Becca Mann and, most recent to emerge among the world class, future Cal Bear, Cierra Runge.

In Irvine, it was Runge who burst on the scene with the best meet among any of her illustrious North Baltimore teammates. It was largely due to a stroke of inspired coaching by Bowman. Not long ago, Runge was a good but not great sprinter. She was fast, but not getting much faster. Bowman noticed something in her stroke or temperament that spoke to a distance pedigree. And so, like the horse trainers he so respects, Bowman opted for a change of distance and tried to stretch his young filly out. Runge embraced the challenge, moved over to the D-group, and at Nationals she charged onto her first National Team in the 400 and 800 freestyles, behind Queen Katie Ledecky.

It's not all doubt and underwhelming results from past champions at North Baltimore these days. There are highlights, there always will be. So, is it fair to dwell a bit on the lowlights? Well, if you decide to post a live Twitter feed of your Saturday morning workout, you're inviting the scrutiny. And when you train a group with six Olympic champions, with 27 Olympic gold between them, you're going to get the attention, like it or not.

18 of those gold, of course, belong to one man. The elephant in the pool, so to speak. And speaking of elephants, the man has the memory of one when it comes to sets and slights. That prodigious memory of challenges and doubters, real and perceived, has always fueled Phelps. His competitive fire would seem to enhance any aquatic arena. What better example could there be for Luchsinger or Dwyer or McLean or Kalisz, or Agnel for that matter? Well, define example. Are you thinking MP circa 2003, devouring every set, never missing day, laying the foundation that would make him the greatest of all time? Are you envisioning MP circa 2010, coasting on that foundation, still able to dominate without showing up much at all, a questionable example to the worshipping young teammates around him. Or are you thinking elder statesman MP, a man with rekindled joy for the sport, a fresh perspective, and a desire to mentor his ambitious teammates? The latter, one hopes. But when comebacks begin and those being mentored become competitors once more, things can get a little sticky.

Do you think Phelps is going to like when Bowman focuses his energies on Agnel, should he decide to reinsert the 200 free into his Rio program? Do you think he'll be as generous with Dwyer or Luchsinger when he decides these are new foes that need a little head-messing? Do you think that renewed hunger can last another two years? And most of all, do you think Bowman would ever grant more of his attention to anyone else?

The question of hunger is a valid one with this group. The problem with eating it all is that it's hard to stay hungry, and there are champions in Bowman's group who have gorged at the Olympic feast. How Phelps stays hungry for more is beyond anyone's guess. But how does Ous Mellouli stay hungry? After 1500 gold in Beijing and open water gold in London, he's an Olympic legend no matter what. Allison Schmitt has her one shining moment, and it's hard to envision anything surpassing that in Rio.

It's also hard to imagine Yannick Agnel surpassing his London exploits two years from now. Which begs the question - is Yannick doing the swimming version of the Euro soccer icon, a la David Beckham? You know the drill - shoot to fame and fortune at your peak in Europe, then come over stateside to explore your options, after your place in history is secure. Agnel would surely deny this, and Bowman would never have welcomed him if he believed that, but his results in Berlin this week make one wonder.

While Phelps, Mellouli, Schmitt and Agnel have little else to prove, their Olympic resumés already sparkling, there should be no lack of hunger among the North Baltimore crew. Chase Kalisz has hinted, with his NCAA performances, that he could soon be threatening the insane standards of Phelps and Lochte in the long course version of his event. After his breakout season in 2013 and his disappointment this summer, Tom Luchsinger would seem to have something to prove in the years ahead.

Then there's Connor Dwyer, already an Olympic champion as a member of the men's 4 x 200 relay in London. Many consider him the next great all-around talent in American swimming. Many, including his former coach Gregg Troy at Florida, think Dwyer has the talent to take down the likes of Agnel in the 200 free and to contend with Lochte and Phelps in the 200 IM. His times at Nationals (1:47.1 in the free and 1:57.4 in the IM) don't put him in the ballgame just yet, but he may be sitting on big swims at Pan Pacs in Brisbane in the week ahead.

Then again, this summer doesn't matter. It's tune-up time. A midway check-in on the way to Brazil. No one will remember if it all works out two years from now. Except Phelps and Bowman, men who remember everything.



The Russians Are Dirty

And they're not alone... Doping is rife these days. Is swimming becoming "the new track & field"?  How many positive tests does it take to convince you of a country's guilt? According to the official stance from FINA, it's not many. The letter of its law states that it's four strikes and the country is out. If four athletes are caught cheating, then the whole damn federation faces a two-year ban. Except that's not really true. See, they have to be FINA-sanctioned tests. If you're caught with a positive test by your own federation, then that doesn't count.

Which is how Russian swimmers are still allowed at international competitions, despite overwhelming evidence of doping on a widespread scale. Over the last four years, sixteen Russian swimmers have tested positive. Five tested positive last year at domestic meets in Russia, and are currently serving suspensions. This year, three more are serving drug bans for positive tests - including world record-holder and reigning world champion in the 200 breaststroke, Yuliya Efimova. And last week, the latest positive was revealed: open water stud Vladimir Dyatchin, a multiple world champion and the Open Water Swimmer of the Year back in 2007.

This wave of dirty results has placed Russia "at the brink" of being suspended from international swimming competition. Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko recently told Russian media that "one or two more breaches" and all of Russian Swimming could face an unprecedented suspension. This would be particularly humiliating for them, as they're set to host next year's World Championships in Kazan.

But FINA's Grand Poobah, Cornel Marculescu, isn't worried. He expressed full confidence in his comrades to host Worlds, saying that "the facilities are amazing and FINA is receiving a great support from the authorities of the Russian Federation." I'm sure Cornel would also have been impressed by the state-of-the-art facilities in Leipzig and Berlin in the former East Germany a few decades back. But that's not really the point. The Russians are dirty, and it's starting to look a lot like back to the future.

Craig Lord, over at Swim Vortex, has always been on top of these doping matters, and speaking of the former DDR, he's reported on something particularly troubling with this fresh batch of Russian positive tests. It appears that we're not always talking about the proverbial tainted supplement, or some new juice that's one step ahead of the testers. Last summer, one of those Russian positives was a swimmer named Nikita Maksimov. Her drug of choice? The old classic: Oral Turniabol, the go-to dope of the former East Germany, in the darkest early days of international doping.

This notorious little blue pill produced astonishing results for East German women throughout the 70s and 80s. Since then, it's led to gruesome side effects and severe health problems; some of these women went on to give birth to children with birth defects as a result of their teenaged drug regime.

Athletes get older and drift away in the stream of forgotten results, but doctors and coaches, they tend to stick around a lot longer. There's a dark undercurrent that flows throughout international sport, swimming included. It's a black market of performance enhancement for sale, and it knows no borders. At the moment it appears to have infiltrated Russian swimming more than other federations, but that does not mean Russia is a rogue state of isolated cheaters.

Indeed, it's most high profile case, world record holder Yuliva Efimova, was not training inside some locked forbidden pool in Siberia. She was a member of the Trojan Swim Club, part of Dave Salo's high profile gang of breaststroke superstars out at USC. She tested positive for DHEA, and said it came from a supplement she bought at a GNC in Los Angeles. Efimova got 16-months, leaving her enough time to get legal in time for the World Champs on her native soil. Her tried and (possibly) true defense was one of ignorance. She admitted buying the supplement, said the salesperson told her it was fine, and said she'd never even heard of DHEA. Maybe that's what happened, but if you're a world record holder, a defending world champ, the face of a swimming federation under increased scrutiny for its doping violations, would you take the word of a random GNC salesperson before you ingested something that could destroy your reputation?

Of course, this is the same defense that her USC breaststroking counterpart used some years back. Jessica Hardy said the same thing - and lost a lot more for her doping offense, an Olympic berth back in 2008.

I'd like to believe that the Trojans are doing everything above board under coach Salo, however, there's sure been some smoke around certain SC swimmers in recent years. At very least, swimmers like Hardy and Efimova appear to have been woefully naive and under prepared for the responsibilities they face as elite, heavily tested athletes. At worst, well... There's no evidence of anything more than cluelessness out there, though that has to be a sin in another category.

Curiously, you don't hear many swimmers speaking up about doping these days. It's somehow become verboten. Into the grey matter of alleged doping and positive tests, a stiff upper lip of silence prevails. Swimmers are reluctant to point fingers, and fair enough; no one wants to be seen as the poor loser. But as they say about evil, all it takes is for good men to do nothing. Back in 1996, swimmers were literally pointing and laughing at Ireland's Michelle Smith, so shameless was her cheating. In 2000, there was a loud chorus surrounding Holland's Igne de Bruijn, and a collective eye roll surrounding the Italian team in Sydney, dismissively referred to as "Team EPO" after some credibility-defying swims. Now, neither de Bruijn nor the Italians ever failed any tests, and the only test Smith failed was for spiking her sample with lethal amounts of whiskey. 

It all seems like an obvious joke in retrospect. But in the present tense, sport is being cheated and gold is being stolen. Here's one swimmer who's been unafraid of speaking up: Scotland's Michael Jamieson, the Olympic silver medalist in the 200 breast back in London. These days he's taken to Twitter and spoken the dirty truth about the Russians and the increase in doping that is clouding our sport. It's Jamieson who called swimming "the new track and field" and he's vowed "not to stop shouting for the rest of my career." 

Cheers to that. Maybe a few Americans or Canadians or Aussies will pick up that righteous chorus sometime soon.

Because it's not only the Russians.

The Big Lie

The agony of Ian Thorpe and what it says about his sport, and his nation...  We all knew. At least we thought we did. We added up all the usual cues and clues and we assumed as much, despite the years of denials from the man himself.

Even after his handlers insisted he was a fashion-conscious ladies man. Even as he claimed to have that long relationship with Amanda Beard. Even when he denied it in writing in his autobiography, perhaps ironically titled This is Me. It wasn't. Since he was old enough to have the first hints of his sexuality, Thorpe denied being a gay man to himself and to the world.

This weekend, after all those years of denying it, Ian Thorpe came out at the age of 31. In a sit-down interview with Sir Michael Parkinson, Thorpe called it his "big lie." Now that he's spoken the truth, the prevailing response seems to be: Finally. Followed by a shake of the head, as we think: Poor guy, I can't imagine what you've been going through all these years.

Consider the torturous life that Ian Thorpe chose to lead over this last decade and a half in the public eye. He was a world champion at 15, and he was told he was gay soon after. In public, in the press, by everyone who 'just knew'... Meanwhile, teenaged Thorpe didn't know what he liked. All he knew was that he liked to swim, and that he was very very good at it. Coming to terms with sexuality - straight or otherwise - is no easy journey for any teen. For a famous boy wonder sporting hero, in an Aussie culture not known for its tolerance, the question of his sexuality must have filled him with a fear that's hard to fathom.

So, he hid from it. He pretended he was something he wasn't, and slowly he came apart. There was the well documented depression, the drinking, the deep mistrust of any and all journalists. And there was the early retirement. It seems unfair to say, given the truckload of achievements, but Australia's most decorated Olympian of all time may have underachieved as an athlete. He won nine Olympic medals, five of them gold. He won thirteen World Championships medals; eleven of those were gold. He broke thirteen individual world records and was the World Swimmer of the Year four times. He was, and is, the greatest freestyler to ever live.

Throughout all that, he was miserable. By the time he retired, too young, in 2006, he was a 24-year-old too old and weary for his age. He knew his body was still capable of much more, but his psyche couldn't keep pace. How could it? By the time he attempted that comeback back in 2011-12, it was too late. Years of drinking and self-loathing had robbed the champion of a return to glory. Yet, still he denied his basic nature.

These are supposed to be times of unprecedented tolerance. The shame of the closet is supposed to be gone. Pro athletes feel free to come out now, and the thought of rejecting someone for his or her sexuality feels absurd. Like the movement to legalize marijuana, it can sometimes feel as if the battle is already won. Anyone with a few basic brain cells can grasp these things. Gay marriage, legal pot? Really, are we still talking about these things? Not any thinking person I know.

Yet Thorpe's struggles reveal that we're still ages away from those liberal assumptions. Particularly in his land down under, and in countless swimming pools across the world. Maybe if Ian Thorpe had grown up in San Francisco or New York or Amsterdam, or another urban bastion of freedoms, then he might never have gone through these agonies. Instead, he grew up in the suburbs of Sydney, in a country that still hasn't gotten around to legalizing same sex marriage. Indeed, the caricature of the Aussie sports fan is not a generous one. The image of macho, chest thumping blokes who used to call young Thorpe a "poofter" to his face is too easy to picture. Forget about all those Olympic medals and world records, these blokes are enough to torture any young athlete who can't quite relate to what he's supposed to be feeling.

Sure, Aussie culture is partly to blame, but so is swimming culture. This is a sport that pretends to be more tolerant than others, congratulates itself, in fact. Swimmers like to feel superior in many ways, for our work ethics, our physiques, our higher than average jock intelligence...and yes, for the heightened acceptance we think we have. But is any of that really as true as we like to think? Based on his reported agonies, it seems a safe bet that Ian Thorpe was subjected to the same rampant homophobias that exist in so many other locker rooms and fields of play, regardless of sport or nation. Athletes are athletes, and those same fiery qualities of competitiveness and camaraderie may not serve us so well when it comes to accepting teammates who might not be attracted to the same things.

So, if we all knew all along, why does Ian Thorpe's coming out even matter anymore? There've been plenty of smug shrugs in response. Who cares who he likes, the guy's still a king, right? Well, yes. But try telling that to the talented 14-year-old swimmer in the lane next to you. The one who's not quite like everybody else, but damn is that kid fast. Yesterday, he might have quit sports altogether, too shamed and confused and frustrated to continue.

Today, thanks to one long-coming admission by Ian Thorpe, that kid may keep at it.

Under Water, Going Mad

Sydney Morning Herald calls swimming: "the worst job in the sporting world"... Here's why...  I was somewhere around my 400th consecutive lap of the morning, nearing the end of a 12,000 for time, and I was all the way around the bend. As a Brit might say, I was quite mad. Which isn't to say angry, though I was that too. But mostly, I was insane. Madness had swallowed me up on that long ago Friday morning. There wasn't a sane, rational thought left in my chlorine-soaked mind. As soon as I touched the wall, I started ranting, throwing my mesh bag, shouting at lane-mates who had surely skipped laps.

Not my finest hour.

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Chances are, if you spent your years between age 10 and 20 as a Swimmer (the "S" must be capitalized), you can relate to these madman emotions. Chances are, you've swum out to your tether of sanity. It's a point of pride. For all of us.

Yet, this is also why the Sydney Morning Herald recently ran a less-than-inspiring column entitled: Swimming: the worst job in the sporting world. Ouch. Really? And this a missive from Down Under, where swimming is damn near a religion? How dare they. Haven't they heard about USA Swimming's "Funnest Sport" campaign? As someone who has spent the better part of his career celebrating - ok, selling - the virtues of swimming at all levels, I took immediate offense. Then I clicked on the story.

Ok, the guy has a point. When viewed in a certain dark light, a case can be made that swimming is a breeding ground for mental illness. I don't mean learning to swim, or splashing around in the summer, or even swimming a few K a couple times a week as a grown-up. I mean, really swimming, like swimmers do. Swimming twice a day, most every day, for a decade or more. I mean, spending over a quarter of your waking life with your face underwater throughout your most impressionable years. To quote this Aussie columnist, Sam de Brito, "if there is a sport tailor-made for producing sociopaths and depressives, it has got to be swimming."

Well, that's a little harsh, isn't it? I'm neither a sociopath nor depressed, and I spent as many hours as anyone at that masochistic craft for a very long time. Most of us made it out sane, didn't we? At least we'd like to believe we did.

Yet many don't. The maladjusted champion swimmer is a bit of a hot topic down in Oz these days. Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett in rehab after hitting the bottle and the pills too hard; Geoff Huegill getting caught doing coke at the horse races; Scottie Miller doing hard time for dealing... The list goes on. Safe to say the Aussies might want to take a closer look at their Career Transitions outreach for departing members of the National Team.

Let's not pretend it's limited to this unfortunate rash of Aussie champs. The column calls out the "emotional maturity of a Teletubbie" with regards to many 20-something swimmers. We all hate to admit the mean accuracy of that statement, but be honest, there's more than a grain of truth there. There's also an inconvenient truth to this cold passage:

"the inherent, egocentric-sole-competitor nature of swimming coaching goes to work, cementing in the swimmer what will become the defining disorder of their competitive life – that they are central to the universe, their story is the only story that matters, yet they are also separate from the universe – there is only them and all those other people. These "built-in confusions" tend to get belted out of normal people pretty early in life, but swimmers often don't see evidence to the contrary until they are ready to retire." 

If that hurts to read, it's probably because it hits rather close to your pool.

Aussies Adrift

Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett both in rehab...  They're the two greatest freestylers of their generation, possibly the two greatest in history. They own sixteen Olympic medals between them, eight of them gold. They did it all as athletes, and they always came across as two of the nicest, smartest guys in the sport.

Now, in retirement, it appears the wheels have come off.

Earlier this month, Ian Thorpe was found drunk and disoriented on the streets of Sydney early one Monday morning. He was admitted to rehab soon after. While his managers have denied that Thorpe is suffering from alcoholism and depression, he has admitted to both demons in the past.

Earlier this week, Grant Hackett was also spotted in the wee hours one morning without his wits about him. After losing his four-year-old son Jagger in the Crown Casino hotel in Melbourne, Hackett was seen wandering the hotel lobby almost naked, shoeless, wearing only a singlet. Fortunately, his boy was subsequently found on the 20th floor of the hotel, 14 levels above the apartment where Hackett and his children were staying. Days later, Hackett was bound for Los Angeles, where he too checked into rehab. His managers also played down a problem, but reports are that a dependence to the sleeping pill Stilnox (aka Ambien) is to blame.

What's going on with these guys? When did their glory-filled lives begin to crack? Why can't these icons keep it together?

Let's take a look at Thorpe first. Always the most eloquent of champions, Thorpe published an autobiography last year that laid bare his struggles with depression, and the "artificial ways" he sought to manage his reeling feelings. He hung up his goggles young, in 2006, when he was 24. But he actually stepped away sooner than that, when he was just 21, after the 2004 Athens Olympics. By that point he was already his country's most decorated Olympian, and he'd been the best freestyler on earth since he was 15 years old. A comeback in the lead-up to London didn't take.

He grew up fast, and he grew up tortured. His sexuality was questioned since his earliest interviews. When he affirmed his heterosexuality, on camera and in writing, many refused to believe him. Not that it was anyone's business either way. Perhaps he was struggling to figure it out himself, as many teenagers do. Only he had to face these inner questions while his country's media analyzed his every move, questioning every fashion choice.

Faced with these circumstances, coupled with the yawning abyss of retirement, perhaps it's not so surprising that Thorpe sought solace in bottles and pills.

What happened with Hackett? Well, a bad marriage for one. In May 2012, Hackett faced the public indignity of an imploding marriage splashed across the tabloids. There was a fight with his then wife Candace Alley at their home. It was a bad one, featuring punched in walls, smashed pictures, and an overturned grand piano. A grim scene; alcohol played its usual role.

Then there were the sleeping pills. We know it as Ambien stateside; in Australia it's called Stilnox. It knocks you right out, wakes you up hangover free. The perfect drug for the sleepless stress of international competitions. Reports from Australia confirm that use of Stilnox is rampant among athletes. After an Olympic final, a podium, a drug-test, with more events to come early the next morning, these sleeping aids can be invaluable. A current member of the US National Team confirmed that they're just as prevalent among swimmers on Team USA. While the American team doctor can no longer supply them to athletes, it's well known that many swimmers come packing prescriptions of their own.

Though a good night's rest surely enhances performance (just take a look at those Holiday Inn Express commercials!), these drugs are perfectly legal, and make total sense during a high stress competition.

They can also be abused. Ambien can make sure you get a good night's rest, no question, but it can also give you quite a fine high if you can keep your eyes open. Swimmers aren't the most teetotaling lot. There's a certain inherent attraction to the extremes among many in our tribe. Is it so surprising that substance abuse sometimes springs up and fills the gap left by retirement?

Struggles with identity, marital wreckage, the slippery slope of pill popping, these are standard ailments in rehab. They're three of the top ranked issues that land you there. This is why rehab centers exist, not just to get you 'clean', but to help you discover what led to the abuse in the first place.

As athletes, Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett were abnormal in every way. In the pool, they were supermen, specimens that shattered our sense of the possible. On land, in retirement, they're all too human. Fighting the good fight against the ugly madness of life...

Something in the Water

As many winter sports flounder, NGBs look to American swimming for answers...  Don't let the medal count fool you. At the Winter Games in Sochi, Team USA finished second in the medal standings, five back from beleaguered host Russia. They won 28 total medals, nine of them gold. It took 255 opportunities to win those 28 medals - a rather unimpressive batting average of .109.

Of those 28 medals, a dozen came in either freestyle skiing or snowboarding, and five of their nine gold came in brand new Olympic events introduced in 2014. Translation: NBC must be immensely grateful for the X-Games... Anyway you cut it, Team USA is guilty of medal-padding, by adding American-made pseudo-events like the "slopestyles" on skis and snowboards. It's hard not to be cynical when you look at some of these less-than-universal sports, and then have to listen to the manufactured drama over national medal counts.

In the traditional Winter Olympics sports, the Americans were, to put it mildly, underwhelming. Speedskating was a well-publicized disaster, as US skaters failed to win a single medal on ice in 32 opportunities, and no, it wasn't Under Armour's fault. Ice Dancing gold aside, they weren't particularly impressive in figure skating either, winning just two medals in 13 opportunities.

But before the bashing continues, this column isn't about the failures of American Winter Olympians. It's about the outsized success of American athletes in melted ice. In the pool. See, this is about the time when leaders of National Governing Bodies in many winter sports start scratching their heads and wondering what went wrong. Then, they look to a group that continues to do it right. They ring up the folks at USA Swimming and they all ask a simple riddle: How the hell do you guys manage to be so good, Games after Games?

In 2012 in London, the swimmers of Team USA won 31 medals. Three more than the entire US delegation won in Sochi. As a Canadian Olympian who grew up in the US system and witnessed the Americans' pool domination up close, this used to be galling to me. It's always been the case. Every damn Games it's always the same. The American swimmers come swaggering in, and you can just see the look in their eyes. They know they're going to kill it. They just know. I've sat on the other side of the looking glass at international meets and watched that blind confidence just seeping from them. It's not always a pleasant sight. But this is sport, and the objective is pretty clear: You're there to compete. The evidence can't be denied; American swimmers have always been very, very good at that. Better than any Olympians, in any other sport.

So, the question is, why? I had the chance to spend a few days at USA Swimming's headquarters in Colorado Springs last week, and I got a few clues. First, I received a copy of their 2013 Demographics report. Last year, there were over 340,000 year-round swimmers in America. A 13% increase from 2012, and more than double the amount from a generation ago. That's a big pool of talent. But more importantly, they're not going anywhere. The report went on to point out that a swimmer who stays with the sport in the US past the age of 13 is almost definitely in it for the long haul. Swimmers simply don't quit if they make to middle school, and if they get the opportunity to swim in college, they'll stay with it through their early 20s. If they're good enough to rank high the world, post college, chances are they're going to stay with it longer than that.

Thanks to the Athlete's Partnership Agreement, post-college 'pro' swimmers now earn approximately $39,000 a year as a National Team stipend from USA Swimming. Ancillary income from prize money or endorsements are up to them. Now, $39K might not get you too far in New York or LA, but in college towns and smaller cities, where most elite swimmers train, this can be a solid income that can keep you in the sport through your 20s and, perhaps, beyond.

It doesn't get much simpler than retention. Have a huge, growing base, and keep your best athletes in the sport for as long as possible. That's the biggest piece of the puzzle, and it's something that speed skating and figure skating and plenty of other sports simply haven't done.

What else is there? Call it the structure of success. In terms straight out of MBA 101, it's: bring in the best, create the best possible situation for them to achieve, and get out of their way. That last bit might be the most important. If you have a huge pool of talent, and a club culture that fosters that talent, have enough confidence in the system to get out of the way. The tinkering and second-guessing at the top of so many national governing bodies, in so many countries, have proven that's not the way forward.

Of course, when faced with Olympic failure of shaming proportions, as USA Speedskating has faced in Sochi, the instinct is to do the opposite. In a less-than-classy rant, American speed skater Maria Lamb, laid her team's failures at the feet of her sport's leadership. Denial can be an embarrassing thing to behold. If it's not the suits, then it must be the bosses. Because it can't, can't, be the athletes.

Actually, it can. It always is. And if you want to fix your problems, don't start at the top. Start at the bottom. Figure out how to grow your sport. Figure out how to attract the best. (Memo to USA Speedskating: I'm pretty sure NHL players can skate fast too...) And then have the confidence to step back and let the best do their thing.

That Olympic swagger doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's the product of generations. It's the product of top to bottom faith in a culture.

It happens every day at swimming pools across the US. If you're in another lane, wearing another cap, that can be hard to accept. But it's true.

A Tale of Two Genders

The American women have never been stronger... As for the U.S. men? They're feeling some pain in a post-Phelps universe...  They accounted for ten gold medals between them. Six for Missy; Four for Katie. Setting aside the sprints, these two ladies own the long axis. When it comes to freestyle and backstroke, these two teenagers (combined age, 34) are already the two best in history. Missy doesn't yet have the 100 back world record, and Katie didn't quite break the suit-assisted world record in the 400 free, but even so, they're both already in uncharted territory.

Expect them to be the face of Team USA in Rio. Not just among the swimmers, but among the entire American delegation. Here's an early bet that it's Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky who grace the cover of Sports Illustrated in their Rio Olympic issue.

They lead a cast of American women that might be the best ever. They have the Hall of Fame veterans (Coughlin, Vollmer, etc.); they have the relay depth (winning all three in Barcelona); and of course they have the young superstars. And in Barcelona they were also missing two of their best - Rebecca Soni and Allison Schmitt. Both will be back, and now both have just a bit to prove. I doubt Soni expected to see her 200 breast world record slashed so decisively. And while Schmitt had a very rough meet in Indy, her times from London would still place her on top of podiums and on the relays.

All in all, these are sunny days for the women of Team USA. As for the men, let's just say there are a few shadows. The longest of all, of course, is the absence of Michael Phelps. It's a forgone conclusion that he's coming back. The public hedging has actually become quite boring. Not worth further words or wondering. But it's overwhelmingly clear that the American men were a bit adrift without him. I can't speak to Michael's leadership backstage on the National Team, but under the spotlight of competition, he projected such swagger, such confidence, that it had to be infectious for his brothers in arms.

Without his ubiquitous presence, the American men were absent from the podium in the butterfly. (At least in the Olympic distances. All respect to Eugene Godsoe's silver in the 50, but that event has an asterisk...) The last time there were no American guys on the podium in the butterfly was... hell, does anyone even remember? Has it ever happened? Before there was Michael, there was Malchow. Before there was Malchow there was Mel.

But Phelps will fill that fly hole as soon as he returns, so hard to worry there. Of greater concern to the American contingent has to be the breaststroke. Fair to say that in Barcelona, the short axis strokes fell far short of expectations. They never so much as sniffed a breaststroke podium. No American in the final of the 50 or the 200. In the 100, Kevin Cordes and Nic Fink finished 7th and 8th, the only two men in the final who didn't break 1:00.

Cordes and Fink, these are two big young talents with promising futures. As long as Barcelona didn't break their spirits. As Kevin Cordes returns to Arizona for his junior year, that has to be a concern for his coaches. Until last week, Cordes had enjoyed a turbulence-free ascent to top of the breaststroke ranks. His short course times last spring were mind-boggling. Many called his 1:48 200 yard breast the greatest swim in NCAA history, including yours truly. Unfortunately, his international debut on the big boys stage fell far short of expectations. No sense pouring salt into surely still festering wounds, but we'll see how he responds to this considerable setback.

The guys are well stocked in the IMs, with Lochte and the rise of Chase Kalisz, and the presumed return to form of Tyler Clary. And despite missing the top of the podium in Barcelona, the freestyle events appear plenty loaded with talent across the board. As for backstroke, Jesus, what is it about the American guys and backstroke? It never seems to miss a beat. Another gold-silver finish in the 100; another victory in the 200. Why is this specific stroke so completely dominated by generation after generation of Americans? Perhaps a subject for a future post...

But for now, back to Barcelona and the wider take aways. Long axis strokes among the U.S. women: A+... Short axis strokes among the U.S. men: C-.

Not that anyone's keeping score...

The Yanks vs. The Francs

In Barcelona, there's no one louder than the rabid French fans... And there's no one they like baiting more than the mighty Americans... "A-mer-ica! A-mer-ica!" went the chant. The four Frenchmen stood behind the blocks, ripped with arms raised, victorious again in the men's 4 x 100 free relay. The four Americans stood a lane away, stunned. None more so than Jimmy Feigen, the anchor who'd just dropped an underachieving split on the end and relinquished a four-tenth lead over the final leg. Somewhere in the stands, with a boot attached to his right foot, Michael Phelps was not smiling.

Before the race, NBC ran a feature about this relay of relays. Ever since 2008, and maybe well before that, it's been the marquee event of every Olympics and World Championships. The feature included sound bytes from Nathan Adrian and Ryan Lochte and Matt Grevers, all feeding the frenzy of anticipation. Maybe it's because this is the one relay that the Americans don't have a stranglehold on, or maybe it's just because every 4 x 100 free relay turns out to be so epic.

Whatever it is, this is the race that the biggest of the big boys want to win the most. And now the French have both Olympic and World Champ bragging rights. They're not shy about it.

Never a nation known for its humility or self-awareness, the French fans in Barcelona are sinking their teeth into every opportunity to taunt their American rivals. It's a short trip south to Spain, and they're out in full force, dominating the atmosphere with their support of their aquatic countrymen and women.

While the Americans aren't exactly known for those humble, self-aware qualities either, they can be forgiven for maybe being just a bit baffled by the big talking French. Much as I hate the nationalism it implies, take a look at the current medal counts. It's a two-horse race between the Americans and the Chinese, with the rest of the world well back from those two superpowers. France currently sits in 8th in total medals, with a grand total of 6 -- that relay; Yannick Agnel's 200 free; and four bronze, one of which was in the men's 50 fly, which isn't really an event, despite its unfortunate inclusion at Worlds.

But do the totals really matter? As those 50s of the strokes prove, all events are not created equal, and France is stepping up in the ones that receive top billing above the marquee. First, there's that 4 x 100 free relay. Then there's Agnel in the 200 free. You can debate it all you like, but I've always been of the opinion that the best swimmer in the pool is the one who wins the 200 free. This is true for both men and women. Whether you're talking about Missy Franklin or Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte or Ian Thorpe -- the 200 free is the domain of superstars. I'm not sure you can be considered truly great until you've got that one on your event card. So, score that one for Team France too.

And then there's the 50 free. It doesn't get any more elemental than that. Who's the fastest human being in water? The man who wins the 50 free. Tomorrow it will be decided in the fastest field in history. The Americans and the French own four of the top five seeds. In the middle, tied for 3rd in the semis with Nathan Adrian, is Brazil's Cesar Cielo, the world record holder.

Even without the Yank vs. Franc rivalry, this is going to be 21 seconds of pure swimming joy tomorrow. In one corner, wearing red, white, and blue, it's defending Olympic champion Florent Manadou and his former brother-in-law, Fred Bousquet, who also happens to be the former world record holder. In the other corner, also in red, white, and blue, but with a dash of stars and stripes, it's the greatest story in swimming, 32-year-old Anthony Ervin and his Cal teammate, and defending Olympic champ in the 100 fee, Nathan Adrian. And then there's Cielo, the fastest man ever, and Russia's Vlad Morozov, USC's NCAA sprint king... all of whom could race to gold.

Whew. You got all that? Good luck to the folks at NBC, trying to untangle those story lines in a thirty second tease before tomorrow's race. But why complicate it with a Brazilian champion or a speedy upstart Russian? Why not distill the race down to its base level nationalistic drama?

The French, ever arrogant, ever proud, now proving their big talk with big time performances in the biggest races... Versus the Americans, forever the world's standard of excellence in the swimming pool. It's up to two men, Anthony Ervin and Nathan Adrian, a pair of Berkeley-bred definitions of the American Dream, to silence those frenzied French fans... or be drowned out again with those chants:

"A-mer-ica! A-mer-ica!"

Breaking Badly, a Story of Meth and Medals

The drug-fueled descent of Scottie Miller, Aussie butterfly great...  He was once the most talented flyer on earth. His long flowing stroke won him Olympic silver in the 100 fly at the 1996 Olympics. He added a bronze on the Aussie's 4 x 100 medley relay at those same Games. His butterfly leg was the one that put them on the podium. Scottie Miller was one of those guys who had the world by the balls when he was 21. His talent in the water was matched by matinee idol good looks. The ladies loved him. He married a stunning blonde TV personality.

And then he began to snort and pop and smoke it all away. The downfall of this one-time champion reads like an E! True Hollywood Story. He was a swimmer's version of a child star who couldn't cope with life out of the spotlight, who found solace in very hard partying, and then drifted further into the abyss and started selling the drugs he was doing.

Miller has been playing on the shady side of the street for some time now. Four years ago he was arrested on Ecstasy charges, when police found the drugs, a pill press machine and almost a quarter million in cash at a storage facility belonging to Miller in Sydney. After a guilty plea, he somehow he got off without jail time, presumably after serving up names of his connections. He served 100 hours community service and completed a two-year suspended sentence and promised to get his shit together. He didn't.

Last month he was arrested on suspicion of dealing meth, or as the Aussies like to call it, "ice." Then, nine days ago, on Saturday night, July 20th, he was arrested again for alleged supplying meth, this time by a cop on street patrol in the Sydney neighborhood of Potts Point.

Clearly, the guy's got some problems. And this time, it's probably going to mean jail time.

How did he fall so damn far? Reading about Miller feels personal. He was born five days after me, on February 21st, 1975. We swam the same stroke, were the exact same age, for fellow Commonwealth nations. We sat in multiple Ready Rooms together. At the '95 Pan Pacific Games (where Miller won gold in both the 100 and 200 fly) and again in Atlanta, where I swam the 200 fly in the heat before him. He was always a good bit faster, but we were contemporaries, and after the big meets end, the Canadians and the Aussies tend to stick together.

That's how it was in Atlanta. After the swimming concluded, the Aussies and the Canadians could generally be found out at the same bars, up to no good, beer to beer. Miller and I didn't really know each other, beyond the recognizing nod, but everyone knew that Miller was the one who knew where the party was. Even at 21, he had that rep. He liked to hit it hard after he stepped from those podiums, but that was okay. A lot of us did. But there's a world of difference between 'hitting it hard' the way, say Phelps or Lochte have been known to do, and hitting it to the point of dealing it.

I'm drawn to dark descents and falls from grace and demons when the music stops. You probably are too. Everyone slows down to gawk at the train wreck. But when it's a guy who once traveled in your same current, swimming the same stroke at the same time, you just want to look away.

How did it all go so recklessly wrong for Scottie Miller? Probably much like Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises: "How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly."

It sounds like Miller is about to suddenly find himself behind bars. But ever since he stopped swimming butterfly, it sounds like he's been gradually headed that way all along.

The State of the Art of Distance

16-year-old Katie Ledecky and 21-year-old Sun Yang... A clinic of freestyle perfection  The two best swimmers in Barcelona only swim one stroke, and they don't have much speed. On day one of these World Championships, Katie Ledecky and Sun Yang delivered a pair of 400 freestyles that showed just how far ahead they are from the rest of the world. They won gold going away, but that's the easy part of the story. Take a look at those underwater cameras and watch their strokes beneath the surface - that's the story.

With all respect to Missy Franklin and Ryan Lochte and Ye Shiwen and any others you might think deserve that title, there are two swimmers right now that are separating themselves in historic ways from the rest of the planet: Ledecky and Sun.

Neither of them set world records today, and neither swam their best event, but that hardly matters. Actually, Ledecky did set an all-time best, if you remove those ridiculous results from the 2009 suit-silly world champs. The women's 400 record still stands from that meet, when Italy's Federica Pellegrini charged to an unnatural 3:59.15, the only other time a woman has broken four-minutes. Without "the suit", Pellegrini was probably 4:01 at best. Meaning Ledecky is now a few body lengths better than the next best woman in history in that event, which happens to be her third best event.

As for Sun Yang, 3:41.5 is impressive and all, but Ian Thorpe was a healthy second and a half faster than that thirteen years ago. It looked to me like Sun was just swimming to win. Or maybe his stroke is just so silky smooth, it looks like he's mocking everyone else. He's Alex Popov swimming longer freestyle. Remember watching Popov back in the early 90s, the way his tempo and perfect unrushed rhythm looked like he was toying with the sprinters thrashing by his side. A bit like watching Federer in his prime, or Miguel Cabrera hitting right now... Why do the great ones make it look so damn easy? Sun Yang makes it look like that. Ever seen this video of Sun's stroke on a multi-camera loop? It's like a metronome.

Ledecky looks the same way. The girl goes out hard, sure, but it's not like she's spinning her wheels. Like the great ones before her, she simply gets out there and sets the pace without fear, and says come and get me. No one will, not for a long time. The over / under right now on Ledecky's 800 freestyle later this week is 8:10. A world record is all but assured. I'm betting on 8:09. Out in 4:02, back in 4:07. Sounds reasonable, right? Reasonably insane, but reasonable.

As for Sun's mile? He's already the best ever. No time would surprise me, even as it's clear that Sun spent a good portion of his post-Olympic year on a well deserved, if not entirely appreciated victory lap. He'll win going away, even if he's in less than peak form.

And about that 'not much speed' line in the first sentence? Well, they do have a bit. These two have plenty of speed. Future world titles in the 200 free are feasible. Ledecky could soon be a player on the U.S. women's 4x100 free relay. They're both fast and young and getting faster by the day.

Let's hope that doesn't distract them from their true calling. Because right now they truly are the state of the art of distance swimming.

"The Greatest Swimmer You've Never Seen"

Meet Siddharta Belau, the world's fastest man in water... He stands six-eight in bare bronzed feet the size of small boats. His hands are larger than Lebron's and rumored to be webbed between each finger. His flexibility could make a yogi blush. He has spent most of his waking life immersed in salt water. His name is Siddhartha Belau. He is 20-years-old and he is a better swimmer than Michael Phelps. Unless you're from a slim string of pearls called the Palau islands, in the South Pacific, you've likely never heard of him.

I didn't believe it either. When stories of this young man first reached me, I discounted them as colorful fantasy. Things like this sometimes reach your Inbox when you write a blog like this one. Consider it the swimmer's version of fish tales. Fabulist folks come lurking out of the depths with absurd stories of impossible speed and grace in the water. I heard one about a 15-year-old boy from Perth who was said to have clocked 45 seconds in the 100 meter free. Turned out the pool was 45 meters long. Heard another about a 12-year-old Amazonian girl from Argentina who was rumored to go 8:08 in the 800. Typo; it was 9:08. The stories about Belau were equally dubious at first blush, but there was something more there. The reports started to add up, from various verified sources. His legend is just reaching these shores. Soon the world will know him.

I believe Siddhartha Belau is real. And that he has broken 20 seconds in the 50 meter freestyle. Long course. He first learned butterfly at the advanced age of 14, but it's reported that he's already been 51.3 in the 100 / 1:52.6 in the 200. One of his coaches insists that he would beat Lochte in the 200 IM at Worlds this summer, if only he could make it there.

"The boy has never left the islands of Palau," says the coach, who wishes to remain anonymous. "He is deathly afraid of airplanes, he will never agree to fly. You must understand - he lives in paradise and has no wish to leave."

Another source wrote that: "Sid is a very simple boy, very pure of heart. He spends his days in the water, only emerging to eat the fish that he has speared. I do not think he has ever spent less than eight hours in the water, any day of his life. He is dry only when he sleeps."

Indeed, it appears that getting Belau to race at all was something of a challenge. Fellow Palauans have spread tales of their Aquaman since he was a child. There are stories of little Siddhartha swimming ten meters deep and catching lobster with his bare hands when he was three years old. Other islanders speak of young Sid body-surfacing alongside dolphin in the island's high clean surf. But when it came to racing up and down the pool, Belau was uninterested.

"I literally had to beg him to try swimming in the pool," says the coach. "Sid couldn't see the point. Palau has just one 50-meter pool and it is not well used. Why bother with a pool when you have the beautiful Pacific all around you? But there was a group of us, we knew what we were seeing. We knew that the only way the rest of the world would believe us is if we put the boy in the pool, and timed him at the distances you folks care about."

Belau may have expressed reluctance at first, but it appears he soon found an affinity for the still waveless waters of the pool. "Sid says he likes the meditative aspect of pool swimming," reports a friend named Ohana. "He loves to race against the clock, and hear what kinds of records he would have set, but he finds things like the Olympics funny. He feels no need to prove himself in those arenas."

Why not? I wrote that back to all of them, the kind Palauans who've taken to emailing me over these last few months. How could Siddhartha Belau not care about showing the rest of the world what he can do? His friend Ohana may have summed up the Palauan sentiment best: "Because you care, does not mean he must."

I've considered getting on a plane and finding out for myself. The invitation is there. I've asked them to send videos, something that can prove these outrageous claims. They're working on it, but this is one corner of the world where lives do not revolve around iPhones or YouTube. They say they'll have something for me soon, but on Palau-time, soon is a relative concept.

So, in the absence of evidence, I went looking for something else to back up my growing irrational faith in this elusive swim god. It turns out there might be some theories to support the likelihood of such a man. We all know the stories of Kenyan runners. The Olympic world has long pondered the question - what makes Kenyans such brilliant distance runners? Turns out there are some very good scientific reasons for their running supremacy. It's a potent mixture of genes and culture. Here's a great piece in the Atlantic that breaks down the Kenyan's special sauce.

By that rationale Kenyan runners have an awful lot in common with swimmers in the South Pacific. Just as Kenyans perfected the art of running through genetic evolution and a culture of running long ways on the open African plains, these South Pacific swimmers may have developed as the most water-evolved people on the planet. It's not so far fetched. Much has been made about Michael Phelps's upbringing, where he watched his older sisters training when he was just a boy, absorbing the sport through chlorinated osmosis on the pool deck. Well, what about upbringings like Siddhartha Belau's? A boy who was raised not on a pool deck in Baltimore, but in the clear cool waters of the South Pacific? A kid who was catching his lunch with his bare hands in 40-foot waters when he was barely out of diapers... A kid who learned his feel for the water by body-surfing with dolphin...

"He's the greatest swimmer you've never seen," says his coach.

But do you really need to see to believe?

Tall Poppies, Toxic Waters

Independent review rips Australian Olympic Team... Alleges London failures of leadership and culture...  It’s been seven months since the Games ended in London and it appears some aren’t done licking their wounds. Before moving on and focusing on Rio, apparently a few countries still have some explaining to do. For the Aussies, their Olympic performance in London was deemed unacceptable. They are determined to find out why.

It wasn’t the talent. The Australian squad entered London fully loaded. They were favored to win multiple events, multiple relays. They had the fastest freestyler on earth. They had women capable of winning more than one race. They won one: the women’s 4x100 free relay. They left London with ten total medals, adding six more silver and three bronze.

That haul is an indication of just how high the standard is down under. In any other nation of 20 million, 10 Olympic medals in one of the Games’ flagship sports would be cause for celebration. Not so for the Aussies. Small population be damned, they expect to compete with the Yanks and the Chinese in the pool – and at most Olympics, they do.

So, what happened in London? Let’s see… There was pill popping and shit talking and boozing and bitterness and loneliness. That’s just the documented stuff. Details in a second.

According to the independent review, published yesterday, it sounds like a case study in a business that lost its way. The phrases “culturally toxic” and “overall leadership failure” were used. These are the kind of nasty little buzzwords that get executives fired.

I happened to read SI’s account of the report before boarding a flight from Nashville this morning. After reading it, I walked into the airport newsstand and wandered around the stacks of bestsellers. In the business section, there were no less than six featured books with the words “culture” or “leadership” in the title. These days, that’s what it’s all about. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking to sell t-shirts or win Olympic medals. Organizations with the winning mix of culture and leadership reach the top. I realize that sounds like annoying MBA-speak, but it’s true.

In 2012, the Aussies did not have that mix, and Team USA did. The proof is on the podium.

So, what were the specifics? The rumblings of bad tidings seem to have started well before the Aussies reached London. Their lead-up training camp sounds like a mess of big egos and tone-deaf leaders. At these camps, there are always the requisite bonding activities. The initiation rituals for the rookies, the team-building skits for the veterans and coaches… Having been to a few of these things with Team Canada many years ago, I know it’s a delicate balance. For the veterans, it’s easy to resort to eye-rolling jadedness. For the more mean-spirited members of the team, it’s also easy to resort to mockery and a bit of bullying.

For a few of the Aussies – specifically, it’s said, members of that doomed men’s 4x100 free relay – that involved an initiation ritual featuring the popping of sleeping pills at one of those team bonding nights in the weeks before London. Consider that for a second. The studs of the team, the guys getting all the press, the guys considered locks for gold in the marquee relay of the Games, the ones everyone looked to first… Those guys treated a team bonding night as a perfect evening for some pill popping.

Now, contrast that with what was going on across town with Team USA’s bonding rituals. They were busy making that viral sensation “Call Me Maybe” video that revealed a team of loose, laughing confidence. Is it any wonder which team was ready to step up and support each other when the Games began?

Fact is, Olympic medals are often won or lost long before any swimmer steps onto the starting blocks. The culture of a national team matters more than swimmers or most coaches might realize. If that culture devolves into one of toxic isolation, then good luck swimming fast when it matters. And if the leaders expected to guide that culture don’t recognize it and change its course in a hurry, well then, good luck leading future national teams.

Now, here’s a little nugget that didn’t make that independent review. Remember when Nathan Adrian touched out the heavily favored James Magnussen for gold in the 100 free? In the days after his triumph, Mr. Adrian received many-a-deserved back slaps from swimmers from countless countries. But he never expected to get props from the teammates of the swimmer he’d just beaten. He did. Reports soon crossed the Atlantic that some Aussies actually thanked Adrian for beating a man who may have gotten too big for his britches.

There’s a well-documented character trait among many Australians known as the Tall Poppy Syndrome. Basically, this means that it is part of the national character to want to knock down high achievers. Knock those tall poppies back down to size, back down to the same height as all the others. It’s not just limited to Australians, of course, it’s prevalent in many a nation - including Canada and the rest of the Commonwealth. (Hell, it sounds like the standard group behavior of girls in high school!) But this Tall Poppy instinct can be particularly destructive when you’re talking about Olympic dreams.

At its best, the Tall Poppy Syndrome can serve as an excellent dose of humility for those who might need it. One of the things I’ve always liked in the Aussies I’ve called friends is their self-effacing humility. No matter how rich or successful, you always tend to get a bit of the ‘I’m just really lucky’ disclaimer. It can be refreshing, especially when compared to the clueless Yankee swagger so often on regrettable display.

Yet, at its worst, you get a situation like this. The tallest poppies fail to show that natural Aussie humility, fail to set the tone in a team’s culture, and as a result, their compatriots are only too eager to see them knocked back down. Then, the leadership fails to see what’s happening right before their eyes, and before they’ve noticed there’s a problem, they have a swim-mad nation howling about an underachieving crew and wondering what’s gone wrong.

Half a year removed from the Olympics, it took an independent review to state the obvious equation: Toxic culture + lack of leadership = Poor Olympic performance.

The Church and the State

How do you judge a nation's swimming success? By Olympic medals or by broader measures like membership and revenue? With Swimming Canada at a crossroads, a case study for every nation...  When the CEO came to power spirits were low. So were revenues. At meets across the country, there was a heavy mood of doom and gloom. Leadership was being questioned and medal counts were anemic. There was the palpable sense of losing ground, of being passed by competing countries that seemed to be getting more out of their talent and resources.

In 2005, Pierre Lafontaine arrived to a hell of a task. Swimming Canada needed not only a turnaround artist, it needed an attitude adjustment. They got it in Lafontaine. With an infectious energy of relentless positivity, he began to lift Canada's sagging swim spirits. He also started generating a lot more dollars, and brought a lot more Canadians into the sport. He did what a CEO is supposed to do: He improved the business.

After eight years at the helm of Canadian swimming, Pierre Lafontaine resigned this week. He's moving on to become the CEO of Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS), starting next month. He leaves Swimming Canada in far better shape than he found it. Yet, he also leaves it at a crossroads - one shared by other swimming nations across the world, as they look to regroup and chart new courses in the next Olympiad ahead.

During Lafontaine's tenure as the top aquatic man in Canada, he held two powerful, though inherently divergent, positions at once. He was the CEO - where success is largely tallied by dollars - and he was also the National Team Director - where success is mostly about medals. He was the head of the church and the state. It's a lovely state of affairs when these two entities sail along together in happy unison, but as you might imagine, that's not always the case. The needs of the organization, the state, are not always in line with the church of competition, and its sometimes holier-than-thou pursuit of the podium.

To Lafontaine's credit, he was able to juggle these two roles with impressive dexterity throughout his eight years. On the state side, as CEO, he crushed it. In the year before he took over, in 2004, revenues at Swimming Canada were $3.5 million. In 2012, they were $8.4 million. That's a 234% increase in those eight years. If this were a publicly traded company, the shareholders would approve. Though, we're talking about a national governing body of sport, where membership might be a more important number than dollars. On that end, Swimming Canada also made big strides. In 2004, membership was around 35,000. In 2012, it was over 45,000.

Some context: There are roughly 300,000 members of USA Swimming, in a country of 300 million -- or 1% of the total population. According to the latest census, Canada is a country of 33 million - meaning that a higher percentage of Canadians are members of Swimming Canada than Americans are members of USA Swimming. (In a land that's less than hospitable to year-round outdoor pools...)

Now, across the aisle on the church side of things, let's take a look at those all-important medal counts. As National Team Director, Lafontaine inherited a 2004 Olympic squad that won a grand total of zero medals in Athens. There was nowhere to go but up. In 2008, Ryan Cochrane grabbed Canada's sole spot on the podium with a bronze in the 1500 free. In 2012, Team Canada climbed the podium three times - with Brent Hayden's bronze in the 100 free; Cochrane's silver in the 1500; and Richard Weinberger's bronze in the 10k open water. We can admit that all involved hoped and planned for more, but the progression is there. And so is the talent. Indeed, Canada's Junior Team has been ranked the 2nd best in the world, based on its performance at the Junior Worlds in 2011.

Still, just three swimmers standing on an Olympic podium in eight years, just two in the pool, and no women - this isn't the stuff of High Performance dreams. Canada knows it can do better, and it will. Thus, it seems fair to say that while Lafontaine earned glowing marks across the board as CEO, the job of National Team Director still has room for improvement. Which is why these two roles are now being split between two men. The new High Performance Director at Swimming Canada is a Brit named John Atkinson, who comes across the pond after leading Great Britain's Paralympic program. The position of CEO is yet unfilled, with Swimming Canada's longtime Director of Operations, Ken Radford, taking the reins until the new chief is hired.

Whoever it is would be wise to gaze across the border and take a look at both the model of success and the cautionary tales that have come out of USA Swimming in recent years. It goes without saying that, both on the podium and on the bottom line, USA Swimming remains the gold standard in world swimming. It continues to win the most medals, by a mile, and continues to have the richest coffers. Its church and state have been clearly divided forever. Its CEO (officially titled "Executive Director") Chuck Wielgus focuses on the big picture stuff like membership and revenues. While its National Team Director (Frank Busch) can pour his energies into those heavy medal counts without overly concerning himself with budgets. That's not to say these two roles don't intersect constantly; of course they do. But it's a matter of energies and priorities. They are two distinctly different job descriptions.

When it works, it works. The proof is everywhere you look. But when it doesn't... Well, just take a look at the festering mess left by the former 'wet side' head of Team USA, a guy named Mark Schubert. As Swimming World reported a few days ago, it appears Schubert left a scorched earth trail of irresponsibility in his wake, on his way out of USA Swimming. Before he was fired in 2010, it appears Schubert over promised the moon to rising stars like Dagny Knutson and Kate Ziegler. Then, surprise surprise, he left his former employers holding the bag to make good on his empty promises after he was sacked. It clearly didn't hurt the medal count in London for Team USA, but it left lasting harm on a few world class ladies whose careers were derailed as a result.

In a nation with such bottomless Olympic riches, this might be a blip on an otherwise successful march to another Games domination, but for virtually every other nation, this is the sort of thing that can shatter all the good work that's been planned by the State. Indeed, for this arrangement to work, the most important element is an implicit trust and appreciation for the other side.

For the rest of the world, in countries not called the US or, perhaps now, China, the margin for error is razor thin. To succeed, on both the church and state sides of the equation, you need leaders of talent and integrity in place. In Canada, Pierre Lafontaine had both. But a crossroads awaits...

Pools of Death and Invention

The perils and the powers of breath-holding: The troubling case of Shallow Water Blackout and the underwater brilliance of the world's greatest inventor...

It's peaceful down there, quiet and still. The dry land world washes by in abstract shapes above and you may as well be on the moon. The bottom of a swimming pool is an alternate weightless reality. There's nowhere else I'd rather be. This might be a problem. A life threatening one. Or it might be the ultimate oxygen-deprived source of inspiration.

This is a dangerous game, and a fascinating one.

If you're a coach or swimmer and you're not familiar with the grim realities of Shallow Water Blackout, you might want to listen up. Hypoxic sets are a part of any team, breath holding contests a part of any summer league fun, but pushed too far,  it can turn serious in a silent instant. Yesterday, Swimming World published an eye-opening piece on these "swimmer blackouts". It told the story of former Arizona State swimmer James Rigg. A breath-holding pro who died a year ago yesterday, after jumping into the ASU diving well late one Sunday night. The cause was "accidental drowning" - not exactly a cause of death you'd expect from a Division I swimmer.

We've all played this game. I remember the time my friend and former SMU teammate Blaine Morgan swam 100 yards without a breath. When he touched the fourth wall, he gave a woozy smile, wagged his finger in triumph, then blacked out and sunk straight to the bottom. He was retrieved and revived by his teammates without incident, thankfully, but the breath-holding challenge ended there. You probably have a similar story. Most teams do. It's plenty dangerous with a group watching over your head. Done for fun, late night, maybe after a few drinks - you're taking a peak into the abyss.

Fact is, a big-lunged well-trained swimmer might be more at risk of this sort of drowning than a dry lander just playing in the deep end. A swimmer knows how to hyperventilate and get rid of all the CO2 before he goes under. A swimmer knows how to suppress that gagging sensation as the throat constricts and the lungs tighten. In a sick sort of way, it's actually a pleasurable feeling. As oxygen leaves your body, the mind grows clear.

This is more than mere metaphor. This is fact. There is scientific evidence that prolonged breath-holding can heighten ideas and intelligence. Just ask the most prolific inventor in the history of the world. One of my all-time favorite characters, a Japanese gentleman by the name of Dr. Yoshiro Nakamats. The man holds the patent to some 4,000 inventions. By comparison, some guy named Thomas Edison has a bit over 1,000. A few of Nakamats's greatest hits? The floppy disk, the digital watch, fuel cells, and of course... karaoke.

How does Dr. Nakamats do it? Through his Underwater Invention Method. Please click that link and watch the video. Hold your breath and prepare for mind to be blown. "Too much oxygen is bad for the brain," he says. "On the other hand, if the brain feels a shortage of oxygen, the brain reaches maximum activity." When does this happen? Well, there's the dark line in the sand... According to Dr. Nakamats, that happens "0.5 seconds before death."

The muse, it seems, arrives right at death's door. And she doesn't stay long. That's why Nakamats invented the world's only underwater notebook - so he can scribble down his ideas in those oxygen-free moments of maximum inspiration.

"As close to death as possible," he says. "I do my inventing balancing death and invention."

File this one under Do Not Try This at Home. An eccentric death-baiting 84-year-old Japanese inventor might not be the sort of man you want to model yourself after, yet his achievements are indisputable. His Underwater Method is hard to reconcile with the scary realities of Shallow Water Blackout. You may not surface with an idea for world changing technology, but anyone who's ever spent some long minutes on the bottom is familiar with that heady rush of clarity the moment you surface.

Of course, hypoxic training has been known to improve more than just intellectual pursuits. Safe to say Mr. Phelps and Mr. Lochte won't become inventors in their next careers, yet you can be sure they spent loads of time under the surface with bursting lungs, preparing their minds and bodies for those devastating final walls when they stay under longer than anyone else.

There are secrets of excellence down there, we know it's true. Just don't forget the stakes...

The Altered States of Swimming

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 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.

The $18 Million Dollar Man

Sun Yang scores monster payday in China... How does that compare to his fellow loaded Olympic icons?  He only gets to keep $6 million, ok? After becoming the greatest distance swimmer in history in London, reports are that Sun Yang just earned $18 million in endorsement riches. But not really. Swimming China earned $18 mil, thanks to Sun's accomplishments. For their efforts on his behalf, they get to keep 66% of that rather considerable figure.

Word is that $6 mil must go to the federation itself - payback for funding Sun's Olympic journey since childhood. The other $6 mil, that's bound for the pockets of his fellow national teamers. According to Swim News's Craig Lord, if those funds are distributed evenly that means that each member of China's London Olympic swim team will receive $150,000 thanks to Sun's historic efforts. How's that for incentive to cheer your teammates!

Imagine for a moment if that had been the policy for Michael Phelps after his Beijing windfall... Estimates are that Phelps earned between $5 and $7 million annually in the years since Beijing. So, say $24 million over the course of the last Olympiad. A third to his 'mates on Team USA would be $8 million. There are 52 swimmers on the USA Olympic swim team, so divide $8 million by the 51 swimmers other than Phelps. What do you get? You guessed it, about $150,000 each, same as Sun's teammates.

Alas, Michael made that money himself, not his teammates. He has no obligation to share a penny of it. (Ok, maybe Jason Lezak, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones, Aaron Peirsol, Brendan Hansen, Ryan Lochte, Peter Vanderkaay, and Ricky Berens played a slight part in those Beijing gold... Do I have to include the prelim relay swimmers too?) You get the idea.

Not to worry, I'm not advocating socialism, communism, or any 'ism for that matter... Just comparing the financial realities of the two greatest champions from the world's top two swimming powers. Great achievement does not exist in a vacuum, and neither does the payoff. In China, where the collective is still king, the spoils of Olympic endorsements must be shared with those who helped get you to the top of the podium. Stateside, where capitalism remains the name of the game, those spoils are shared in different less tangible ways. But make no mistake, they are still shared.

The entire financial system of swimming was driven by Phelps for the last eight years. Ryan Lochte would not be raking in an estimated $2.5 million annually without him. The coffers of USA Swimming would not be remotely as full either. Other U.S. National teamers might not have that Athlete Assistance Program.

Of course, others will point to Phelps's speedy soulmate on the track, Usain Bolt, and cite the uncomfortable financial realities he's created for his sport. Before the Games, Sports Illustrated ran a feature on Bolt. They reported estimates that Usain Bolt takes up 80% of all the money in the sport of track & field. Indeed, Bolt is so economically dominant over the rest of his sport that there aren't many spoils left to go around. Has the same been true with Phelps and swimming? Clearly not, as swimming has never been in better health, while track & field continues to languish on the sick bed.

Yet, it's also true that many more swimmers had swimwear deals in the pre-Phelps era... They might not have amounted to much, but the ranks of the proverbial "pro swimmer" used to be more crowded. 'Pro' is a funny term when it comes to swimming. Does receiving funds from your federation post-college make you a pro? Does it mean you have endorsements? Or does it just mean that you're ranked high in the world and that you continue to swim for a living.

For Sun Yang and Michael Phelps, that means living like a king. And why shouldn't they? They've earned those riches. Where it all goes depends on where they come from.

Judging a Champion By Race

Rampant xenophobia fuels cheating allegations against China's medley champion, Xe Shiwen...  We can't be sure. This should go without saying. Declaring total conviction on either side of a cheating debate is foolish. To paraphrase the mighty Doc Counsilman: The only thing I know is that I don't know.

Here's what I do know: There is a very ugly undercurrent beneath the cheating allegations against China's Xe Shiwen. Certain coaches and commentators can go red-faced and deny it all they like, but there is a big dose of xenophobia behind all this. Because if Stephanie Rice or Hannah Miley or Elizabeth Beisel had gone 4:28 in the 400 IM, with an eye-popping final split, no one would be saying a damn thing. All three of those women are fully capable of going 4:28 - that is the final time to remember, not the freestyle split.

Xe Shiwen's gold medal winning times this week in both the 400 and 200 IMs are totally realistic improvements for this 16-year-old phenom. As Bob Costas pointed out last night in NBC's broadcast, these drops are consistent with Michael Phelps's drops at the same age. They're consistent with every fast improving 16-year-old. Hell, when I was 16, I dropped from 4:41 to 4:32 in the 400 IM. (Yes, Ye Shiwen kicks my has-been ass...)

It's not her times or her splits that have sparked this debate, it's the fact that she is Chinese. You can say it's not about race, it's about her country's dubious cheating history, so let's take a look at that. China brought shame on itself back in 1994 when it became overwhelmingly and disgracefully clear that they were doping their athletes in a state-run systematic way. Ye was born in 1996. The China of the 90's and the doped national team it presented to the world back then does not apply to her. Those were different times and a very different still mostly closed China.

The China of 2012 is infinitely more self aware of itself and the way it is perceived by the Western world. It has more to lose now, and it is much more willing to play the game - presumably by the rules.

No, I'm not an apologist or a denier of China's continued lack of human rights. It continues to devalue basic humanity in all sorts of myriad ways - including the way it chooses its future sports stars, identifying them as young as age 6 and removing kids from their families almost completely. This isn't ok, but neither is it for you to judge another culture's choices.

The Chinese swimmers making a major splash in London - Sun Yang and Ye Shiwen - have both spent much of their training time in Australia, working with the legendary Denis Cotterell, aka Grant Hackett's coach. Understandably, Cotterell does not appreciate these allegations against his swimmers. He's defending them all out, claiming he is 100% certain of their innocence. While this 100% claim is unfortunate (see opening lines of this column), it is also what any coach would say about his swimmers. No coach - and I mean not a one, anywhere - can be 100% certain that his superstar swimmer is clean. You don't need to come from a foreign land with a dark past to sneak away and dope for a bit when no one is looking.

When all drug tests are passed, you can only judge the results and the circumstances around it. Ye's homeland might have a shady cheating past, but her accomplishments in London pass the smell test, despite what certain folks are saying. Yes, she out-split Ryan Lochte on the last lap of the 400 IM, but Lochte finished with a time 23 seconds faster - about the same gap as always between women and men. Lochte was also fading (admittedly, after over swimming the first lap of butterfly) and probably subconsciously shutting it down once he realized the gold was in the bag.

Maybe Ye is the product of something dark and dishonest back home. There is no way of knowing for sure, and there is nothing wrong with asking these hard questions in light of her country's misdeeds a generation ago.

However, the rush to judgement reeks of xenophobia. And there is a lot wrong with that.

The Negativity of Miss Muffat

The incredible back half of France's Camille Muffat... The negative split, such a connoisseur's pleasure. To come home faster than you went out, so simple, so full of intention. You can explain it to any Dry Lander and they'll get it. But not really. It takes a swimmer to truly appreciate it.

If you're into such things, you've probably already heard about the recent exploits of France's negative splitting monster, Camille Muffat. They are swims of beauty, a swimmer's version a circus trick. Swimmers love to share those silly eye-popper splits, the absurd last laps or final 100's that stretch the imagination and make us giddy in that unabashed swimmer geek way... Remember Paul Biedermann's last 50's at the World Champs in Rome back in '09? Remember the way Janet Evans finished her 400 free back in '88 in Seoul? If not, check it out HERE.

Camille Muffat doesn't remember that. She wasn't born until a year later, in October 1989. But what she's doing these days is making Janet's swims look like quaint golden oldies. Check out her summer's greatest hits:

- Back in June at the Canet round of the Mare Nostrum tour, Camille takes out her 400 free in a leisurely 2:04.4. Then she decides to start trying. Last 200: 1:58.5. Final time: 4:02.97. That would have made the U.S. Team, just a tenth back from Allison Schmitt's winning time of 4:02.8. Of contrast: Schmitt swam her race almost exactly the opposite in Omaha, going out in an aggressive 1:58.3 and limping home in 2:04.5. Amazing, yes, but it gets better...

- At the Paris Open last week, Muffat unleashed her negative splitting genius over 800 meters. Here's how she swam the 800 in Paris: First 400 - 4:18. Second 400 - 4:04. Her final time of 8:23.60 would have been 3rd at U.S. Trials, but it's clear the total time was just for play. Her back half of 4:04, that would have placed her 3rd at U.S. Trials too. Without the benefit of the dive, after warming up for eight laps, then flipping and storming home faster than any woman in history over the second half of 800 meters.

Rather impressive. An effort that you'd think would leave a girl gutted on deck, limping her way over to a long well earned warm down... Instead, Muffat hopped out, waited for the men to swim their cute 50 fly in between, then got back on the blocks five minutes later and ripped a 1:56.2 in the 200 free. More U.S. Trials comparisons: That time would have been good enough for second in the women's 200 free in Omaha, half a second faster than Missy Franklin. (1:56.2 is pretty great, especially with zero time to recover, but it's not much for Muffat; she's already been 1:54.6 in season this year...)

We'll see in a few weeks if Muffat can translate these crazy swims into complete efforts in London. Short of a sudden bout of meningitis, there doesn't seem much doubt that she will. With these performances under her belt in recent months, she has to be the clear favorite to win three individual gold medals in London, in the 200, the 400, the 800. Incidentally, something only accomplished once in Olympic history by the great Debbie Meyer back in 1968...

Which presents a fine opportunity for would-be gamblers... Because despite these insane swims, Muffat probably won't go off as the pre-race betting favorite in any event in London. In the 200, she'll have to beat Schmitt, who currently has the fastest time in the world, and Italy's Federica Pellegrini, the world record holder and defending Olympic champ. Meanwhile, in the 400 and 800, Muffat will face hometown queen Rebecca Adlington, the Brit who won both distance events four years ago in Beijing.

Don't be distracted by past performance in years gone by... Place your bets, gamblers, here's a sure thing: the 22-year-old from Nice is going to win the 200, 400, and 800 freestyles at the London Games.

There's nothing negative about those recent splits. Only promise of the gold to come...