Michael Andrew Becomes a Man

The greatest age grouper in history ages up to the big leagues...  For most teenagers, turning fifteen is a bit of a shrug. It's a birthday before the big one, the one that comes with driving privileges and all that open road freedom of the imagination. But for swimmers, aging up to fifteen is a passage into adulthood. From that point forward, you're no longer an age grouper, cozily collected into comfortable age brackets at most meets. At every meet from here on out, now you have to race with the big boys, age be damned.

Last Friday, April 18th, Michael Andrew celebrated his 15th birthday. However, thanks to a clause in the swimming rule book that stipulates that your age when a swim meet starts is the age you will be, for record-keeping purposes, throughout the competition, Andrew had one last shot to shatter a few more National Age Group records. He did. Of course, he did; for the last few months it feels like the kid has crushed another NAG record every time he touches water. His last one may have been the most jaw-dropping of all: 46.95 in the 100 fly. Sweet Jesus.

Obviously, Andrew will set many more NAG records in the years ahead, in the 15/16 and 17/18 "age groups". (Hell, his 46.9 in the 100 fly is already faster than the 15/16 record in that event...) However, those are really age groups on paper, not in practice. In competition, you turn 15 and it means you compete against all ages, or in the case of Junior Nationals, every other fast 18 & under out there.

So, at the dawn of this rather significant swimmer's birthday for Mr. Andrew, it seemed a fitting time to take a look at the mass destruction he spread across damn near every event. As a 14-year-old, Michael Andrew now holds every National Age Group record, with the exception of the 200 breaststroke and the three distance freestyles. He's the fastest age grouper of all-time in ten of the fourteen events. Take a look at this mind-boggling roll call:

50 Free - 19.76; 100 Free - 43.90; 200 Free - 1:38.31; 100 Back - 47.83; 200 Back - 1:43.15; 100 Breast - 53.88; 100 Fly - 46.95; 200 Fly - 1:46.29; 200 IM - 1:45.29; 400 IM - 3:52.08.

Most of those records annihilated the previous marks. No 14-year-old swimmer had ever broken 56 in 100 breast before; Andrew went 53. No 14-year-old had ever broken 1:48 in the 200 IM; Andrew goes 1:45 low. Olympian Ricky Berens held the 200 fly NAG record for over a decade. His time was 1:48.24. Andrew dusted that one by almost two full seconds.

These times for a 14-year-old are almost impossible to fathom. Michael Phelps never came close to yards times like this at that age, and Phelps was breaking world records and swimming in Olympic finals soon after he turned 15. They're so hard to fathom, in fact, that his success has prompted some nasty defamation. I've heard the unfortunate chorus on more than a few occasions: He must be doping. Or, more precisely, given his age: Someone must be doping him. 

Now, just to be totally clear: I am not making any accusations of the sort. Nor am I spreading any rumors. These aren't rumors or whispers, these are the cynical knee-jerk responses of those who can't get their heads around things so far beyond our sense of the possible. That's what happens when you reset the record books. Not everyone is going to believe you. That's sport these days.

Ten months ago Michael Andrew turned pro by signing an endorsement deal with a "performance nutrition" company called P2 Life, and thus tossed aside any future prospects of swimming in college. Last June I posted a story entitled The Boy in the Bubble. I was critical of this decision; I called it "wildly inappropriate and premature." Despite Andrew's stunning success in the year since, I still feel that way.

But to quote a dead man much smarter than I: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

Take a look at Michael Andrew's best times as a 14-year-old. It doesn't get much weirder than that.

Shattering age group records is plenty impressive, and no one in history has ever been a better age group swimmer than Michael Andrew. But 'turning pro', by definition, means joining the big leagues. It means being among the best on earth. Not being the best on earth, for your age.

While the media out in Mesa breathlessly chase the exhaust of yesterday's Michael, maybe it's time to look in the other direction. The one named Andrew just turned 15. Which happens to be the same age Phelps set his first world record. At age 14, Michael Andrew was in another universe, light years faster than any other kid his age, ever. But age group swimming is really just a warm-up. Now NAG records no longer impress.

To keep pace with the greatest of the great, it's time to start wondering if world records are on the horizon.

Biondi, But Better

Meet Caleb Dressel, the next great American sprinter...  He's always been the fastest. Every year, since he was 11-years-old, he's been the fastest 50 freestyler in America for his age. Click through USA Swimming's Top 16 Archive and see for yourself. At 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, there's Caleb Dressel at the top of the 50 rankings,  the fastest boy in the land. Now he's 16, and he's not just the fastest among his peers, he's accelerated into a new orbit. No 16-year-old has ever been faster.

Caleb Dressel's times last week in Irvine, CA at the Speedo Junior National Championships make one thing very clear: In three years, this is a kid who is going to be a member of the U.S. Olympic Team in Rio. He'll be 19 then; the same age as Anthony Ervin back when he won gold in the 50 at the 2000 Sydney Games. Dressel could do the same in Rio.

Take a look at his current best times at age 16: 50 Free - 22.39 / 100 Free - 49.28 / 200 Free - 1:48.64 / 100 Fly - 53.31. With the exception of the fly, every one of those times is a NAG record by a large margin. His 50 free knocked 4-tenths off the old mark. In the 100 free, he demolished Joe Hudepohl's old record by almost a full second. (That record stood for 23 years; Hudepohl you might recall was a teenage Olympian himself, a member of the men's 4x100 free relay back in '92, in Barcelona...) In the 200 Free, he slashed about a second off of Ian Crocker's mark, set back in 1998.

With that arsenal of events, does he remind you of anyone? There's only one, really, who should come to mind. His name is Matt Biondi. He's arguably the best freestyler in American history. He was inarguably the world's best swimmer of his generation. At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, those were his events: the three freestyles and the 100 fly, plus all the relays. In Seoul, Biondi owned the 50 and the 100 and all three relays for five gold. In the 100 fly and 200 free, well, he should have won those too. In the fly, he famously coasted into the finish and allowed Surinam's (and Florida's) Anthony Nesty to charge past him in the final stroke, to take gold by one 1/100th. In the 200 free, he dominated for 180 meters, until his considerable draft allowed a smart racing Aussie named Duncan Armstrong to sweep by him for gold. Biondi grabbed the bronze in that one, rounding out an Olympic campaign that has been surpassed by only two men - Spitz and Phelps.

For most of his young swimming life, Dressel has been making his mark mostly as a pure sprinter. But this year, he evolved with the range of a new Biondi in the making. His 1:48.6 in the 200 free might have surprised him more than anyone. It also surely had every top college coach salivating. As if they weren't already. When Dressel arrives on some lucky campus in the fall of 2014, he will bring the potential for rare dominance at the NCAAs. Only two men have managed to sweep the 50, 100, and 200 free at NCs. Biondi is one; the other is Michigan and Brazilian great Gustavo Borges.

Gus, like Caleb, came from Bolles, down in Jacksonville, Florida. That's where I graduated high school, so the bias is extreme. But so is the evidence. It's the best high school swimming program on planet earth, and that's never been more evident than this year, when Dressel was just one of a collection of superstars, including Ryan Murphy, Joseph Schooling, and Dressel's buddy and close rival, Santo Condorelli.

In Irvine at Juniors, Dressel battled the 18-year-old Condorelli head to head in the 50 and the 100. Dressel got him in the 100, but in the 50 final, he added a few tenths onto his record-breaking prelims time, and Condorelli took the Junior title.

That misstep in finals showed that Dressel still has some learning to do. In both the 50 and the 100, he was faster in prelims. In the 100, it appears he swam a bit recklessly over the first half. (If you flip in 23.1, you really should be under 49...) And in the 200, he reversed that prelim-peak trend. He swam too leisurely in his 200 heat and wound up in the B-final -- where he smoked the field and broke the meet record, with a time that would have easily won the big final.

But so much for that. Juniors is the time and the place to learn from these mistakes. And he will. Or he better. Because now the pressure's on. Dressel is not just an age group record-setting phenom anymore. He's raced his way into Olympic conversation.

Hell, a blogger is already making wild comparisons to Matt Biondi.

The Boy in the Bubble

Michael Andrew, child swim star... A "pro" at age 14...  I always followed the kid by the numbers, the times. Those cartoon crazy swims he posted when he was 10, 11, 12, 13, and now 14 - they've always been eye-popping. I didn't know anything else about him, but the numbers were enough. He was a swimmer on the rise. Perhaps the Next One. Maybe in our desperate, impatient search for the next Phelps, the kid was already upon us. Maybe Michael Andrew will go on to win nine gold medals at some far off Games and make Michael the official sacred name of swimming royalty. Maybe he will... but let's hold up for a second: He hasn't done anything yet.

By anything, I mean a World Record, I mean an Olympic berth, I mean a top world ranking. I mean the things that lead a young phenom to turn pro because he is so good, so young that he feels it's impossible to resist the opportunities on the table. Phelps was a World Record holder and already a seasoned Olympian when he turned pro at 16. Missy Franklin collected five Olympic gold medals in high school, and she decided not to turn pro. Michael Andrew has set eleven National Age Group records in his short career, and yesterday his parents decided that this was promising enough for their son to turn pro.

Let me now say what the rest of the swimming community is apparently unable to utter publicly: This is a wildly premature and inappropriate decision. It's deeply messed up. It reveals so many layers of American madness that one hardly knows where to begin. But before we do, let's get one thing clear up front: Michael Andrew, the 14 year old boy, is in no way being judged or criticized for this decision. The kid is 14. He lives at home in Kansas. He goes to school at home. He goes to practice at home, in his backyard, two-lane swimming pool. His father is his coach. His mother, his teacher. He is a fantastically talented boy trapped in a bubble of his parents' ambition. I used to be in awe of his age group times. Now that awe remains, along with a heavy dose of sympathy for the position this kid's parents have put him in.

Let's get to the layers of madness:

First, that this is even a decision at all. The fact that a brilliantly talented young athlete should even have to choose between an education and an endorsement is beyond absurd. Does anyone care if Michael Andrew, or anyone else, makes a few bucks from a random supplement company as he trains for greatness? Would that be so against the ideals of the holy NCAA? This is so marco mad that it hardly warrants further ranting. We shouldn't even be having this discussion.

But since we are, let's dig a little further into the company at the heart of all this. Michael Andrew is now a "pro" swimmer because he accepted an endorsement deal from a company called P2 Life, a "performance nutrition" company founded less than two years ago. Its founder and CEO is a guy named Tim Shead. He's a Masters superstar, with 43 Masters world records to his name; his corporate bio also states that he's a "past US National Head Coach", but I can't seem to find where or when this occurred. That corporate website also states that "40% of the U.S. Men's Olympic Swimming Team were active users of P2 products." If this is the case, I'd love to know who they are, and why they aren't signed up for lucrative endorsement deals with Mr. Shead.

In the absence of those actual Olympians, P2 signed a 14-year-old age group record holder instead. Presumably because the upside was so great, and they were getting in on the ground floor... which in start-up language means cheap. Whatever they paid the Andrew family, one can be fairly certain it does not add up to the price of a four-year college scholarship. Though that's clearly not a priority for young Michael. In his webcast interview with Garrett McCaffrey today, Andrew appeared to brush off the issue of higher education. He's being home-schooled after all, so high school competition isn't even a thought, and on the subject of college, he indicated that his mom was just finishing up some online courses, and that path sounded just fine to him right now. (Again, no judgement on young Andrew, he's only doing what he's being told, what he knows...)

How about another layer of American madness? If you're great at something, all bets are off. Everything is permitted. When I first read this news this morning, I tried to find some relatable analogy in other sports. The comparison with Todd Marinovich, the boy in the bubble USC quarterback, is too easy and dated. It was twenty-five years ago, and sure the kid had some similarities - ie boundary-less fathers intent on building their sons into the perfect athletic specimens in their favorite sports. But at least Marinovch had the chance to go to college -and win the Rose Bowl - before he unraveled with too much freedom and blow and weed and punk rock.

A better analogy is what's going on in surf and skating. Friends who follow these sports quickly pointed out that signing young groms and skate rats is standard practice these days. I was fed names like Kolohe Andino and Kanoa Igarashi and Jack Robinson and John John Florence -- young rippers who were sponsored and successful in their early teens. Maybe Michael Andrew fits in that mold, I thought. Maybe swimming's just far behind the cooler 'action' sports, where young studs aren't bothered by silly things like NCAA eligibility. This would be nice. I wish I could believe it. But here's the difference - there is visual value in watching young surfers and skaters do their thing. It's exciting to see, and companies like Billabong and Quiksilver righty recognize the value in getting their gear on these kids. But is that true with young swimmers? I watched Michael Andrew's latest NAG record on SwimSwam - a blistering 23.4 in the 50 free at some meet in Iowa - and it was impressive enough, but would I watch it again? Probably not. Would I rather watch a 14-year-old rip up a high blue wave? No question. And this is coming from a confirmed swim geek who doesn't surf without getting pinned to the ocean bottom after two wobbling seconds atop the board.

I'd love to know P2's business plan when it comes to their newest sponsor, young Andrew. I'd also love to know of any other companies lining up with potential deals in the works. Because if Michael Andrew is as insanely talented as it seems, here's the best case scenario three years from now: He makes the 4x100 free relay in Rio. He places 4th or 5th or 6th in the 100 free at 2016 Trials in Omaha. That's about as good as I can see for the kid who'll be 17 by that time. It would be an incredible accomplishment. I'm fairly confident in stating that he'd be the youngest member of that prestigious relay in history. It would set him up for a huge Games four years later in 2020, in a city yet to be named. If he manages to do that, then that might be a fine time to roll the dice and turn pro. But to do it now? Three years before that big maybe? It defies reason.

Of course, this isn't about reason, is it? It's about parents smelling greatness in the bedroom across the hall. The kind of greatness that means a free ticket to travel the world. The kind of talent that forces you to believe the hype and sign on the dotted line...

Here's hoping that it all works out for the amazing Michael Andrew. Here's hoping that he hasn't been sabotaged before he's even begun.

Kids These Days

Forget the NCAA champs, this has been the finest month in age group swimming history...  The man knows a few things about fast age groupers. After all, he's the coach of the greatest college recruit ever. That would be Missy Franklin. And the man in question, of course, would be Todd Schmitz. Earlier this week, Coach Schmitz made this observation on Twitter: I bet last week was the fastest week in age group swimming ever in the USA. Look how many NAGs went down. 

Well, the astute folks over at Swim Swam jumped on that particular tweet and they followed up on it. Turns out, Schmitz was dead on - and even underestimated the excellence. After reading that fine bit of reporting, I was inspired to do a bit more. There have been some truly crazy swims this month, and this season. So far, there's been 27 NAG records set in March 2013 - 23 in a crazy seven day stretch from March 12 - 19. This season, 78 NAG records have gone done - out of a total of 196. That's around 40%. Not since that artificial year of 2009 and the era of the super suits have so many records been left in shreds.

So, what's going on? We know it's not the suits. There's nothing artificial about this onslaught. We also know it's not limited to a certain region of the U.S. Back in the day, elite swimming was more or less the domain of California and Florida, with a large percentage of the U.S. National Team coming from those two states. No longer. These age group records have been falling everywhere from Maryland to Minnesota to Washington to Texas, and of course, plenty in Florida. Swim Swam also notes that California hasn't even held its high school championships yet, meaning we can expect quite a few more before the short course season concludes.

Check out a few of the highlights, thus far: A 10-year-girl named Regan Smith became the youngest ever to break a minute in both the 100 fly and 100 back for two of her four NAG records. A 12-year-old boy named Reece Whitley became the youngest guy ever to break a minute in the 100 breast. 14-year-old Becca Mann crushed the NAG record in the mile, going 15:54.46 - a time that would seed her 4th at the women's NCAAs this weekend. Then there's the crew of 14-year-old boys. In this particular age group, a whole slew of records has been slashed, led by young Ryan Hoffer who went 20.0 and 44.8 in the 50 and the 100. The 13-14 backstroke records now stand at 48.7 and 1:45.7 (Thomas Anderson and Benjamin Ho, respectively.) And my personal favorite - the 1000 free. Last weekend, a kid named Matthew Hirschberger clocked a 9:02.3. Yes, you read that correctly. These are 14-year-olds.

In the upper age groups, the names are more familiar. It comes as no surprise that Katie Ledecky annihilated the 15-16 NAG records in the distance frees. (4:31 / 9:22 / 15:28) It's also not much of a surprise to see other bold-faced names like Missy Franklin, Ryan Murphy, and Jack Conger appear among the 18-year-old record setters. Those three make up what is quite possibly the best recruiting class of all time this year. However, the crop of recruits in the years ahead appear to be no less astounding, when guys like Caleb Dressel, Andrew Selisker, and Dylan Carter start considering their college choices. Check out some of the times from that trio of 16-year-olds: Dressel - 19.8 / 43.2 in the 50 / 100 free; Selisker - 53.2 / 1:54.8 in the 100 / 200 breast, plus an eye-popping 1:44.0 in the 200 IM; and Carter - 1:35.2 in the 200 free.

How is this happening? Well, great coaching for one. 14-year-old distance phenoms Becca Mann and Matthew Hirschberger are teammates at Clearwater Aquatics, coached by Randy Reese. Caleb Dressel and Ryan Murphy are both products of the Bolles machine. Out of Minnesota, Coach Kate Lundsten must now be considered among the top rank of club coaches in the world. A year after graduating Olympian Rachel Bootsma, Lundsten coached three 15-year-olds and one 14-year-old girl to an insane 1:40.6 in the 200 medley relay. And of course, you have Todd Schmitz and his Franklin-led Colorado Stars.

However, let's give the lion's share of credit where it's due - to this incredible crop of young swimmers moving through the club ranks. USA Swimming has always done an almost eerie and disheartening (to the rest of the world) job at replenishing its talent coffers through each Olympiad. Yet, it's fair to say there was just a bit of apprehension out in Colorado Springs when Elvis left the building. Regardless of the talent in the wings, the retirement of Phelps left the single biggest hole ever, on any national team. Sure, Lochte capably fills a large piece of that, but he's still Steve Young to Phelps's Joe Montana.

But today's NAG record setter is tomorrow's Olympian. Based on this barrage of records this season, Team USA's roster in Rio could be packed with plenty of new faces with the talent to climb plenty of podiums.

Preteen Kings

Michael Andrew and the curious case of 12-year-old greatness... I still turn to those back pages of rankings. Back in the day, I used to be obsessed with them. Seeing my name listed there in Swimming World, in that tiny 8-point font among the NAG Top 16, that was the highest honor a 12-year-old swimmer could hope for. I still have those issues, stacked somewhere in some moldy basement box.

These days I scan these same rankings with a mix of nostalgia and professional interest. Here at our team in New York, we have swimmers just as obsessed with making those same lists. And every one of them knows the name of one kid at the top of virtually every list in his age group. His name is Michael Andrew. If you follow age group swimming at all, or if you're a parent of any swimmer under the age of eighteen, you've heard of him.

Of course, the dry land world has already made its easy comparisons to you-know-who. Last spring, SI.com ran a piece about the inevitable comparisons to that other Michael. Andrew dutifully recited the Phelps party-line, as if Bob Bowman were whispering to him from the wings. Said Andrew: "I would be more than happy to be as great as Michael Phelps, but I'd like to be the first Michael Andrew."

Yeah, we've heard that before, back when young Phelps was referring to that guy named Spitz.

That's all lovely and absurdly premature, but those of us who live inside the swimming world know that there are other comparisons to be made first. To guys that only swimmers remember. Guys by the name of Chas Morton and Danny Ott and plenty of others. Guys who were once like Michael Andrew -- the greatest age groupers on earth.

None of them became Phelps. Or Lochte. Or Clary. Or, well, you get the idea... In fact, few National Age Group record-holders at twelve go on to make U.S. Olympic teams at all. That's not to say that their precocious preteen success resulted in sad burnout. Most went on to perfectly respectable All-American careers at top colleges -- in Morton's case, at Stanford; in Ott's case, Auburn. But their slowed acceleration through the ranks does give you pause, before you start handicapping Games many years from now.

In Michael Andrew's case, it's very easy to get carried away with such things. As a 12-year-old, Michael Andrew broke seven National Age Group records, and finished his last preteen year ranked first in the nation in a staggering 13 events. He was the top ranked swimmer in all four strokes; the only stroke where he didn't break a NAG record was backstroke. Those records are now held by someone whose acceleration has not slowed a bit as he's charged through high school. His name is Ryan Murphy. Backstroke can fairly be called Michael Andrew's worst stroke; he's not far off the times posted by Murphy when he was 12.

While Andrew is clearly the ultimate all-around age group swimmer, his future might lay in the sprints. His 50 and 100 free at age 12 are hard to fathom: 21.85 in the 50 / 47.95 in the 100. The next best kid in those events was a full second back in the 50, and almost three seconds behind in the 100. According to that SI story, Andrew was also 6-foot-2 with size 15 feet by the time he turned 13. His hands, to borrow a Phelps phrase, are the size of dinner plates. Not bad specs for a budding sprinter. Even if he stops growing tomorrow, size shouldn't slow him down.

This wasn't the case for guys like Chas Morton and Danny Ott. Both were big, early-developing kids - and both seemed to reach their full height by high school. At 12, they too were ranked first in damn near every event. They were men among boys in the most literal sense. That's the problem with putting too much stock in early age group success. If you're lucky enough to reach puberty a few strides ahead of your peers, it's almost unfair to race alongside the ones still on the soprano side of the choir.

Sooner or later, the rate of development ceases to matter and the true talents come out in the wash. The rest of the boys in Michael Andrew's generation have a hell of a lot of catching up to do, and he might be the second coming of Phelps (or the first coming of Andrew) by the time we reach Rio. But to all those guys swimming in Andrew's considerable wake right now, you can take heart in two notable facts:

1. Even Michael Andrew was not able to break two of Chas Morton's legendary national age group records, in the 100 fly and 200 IM, set way back in 1984. Morton's career peaked as a Pac-10 champion at Stanford; nothing to scoff at, but he never sniffed at making an Olympic team.

2. The guy who holds the world record today in the 200 IM? That would be Ryan Lochte. He never set a single national age group record growing up.

Tearing Down a Temple

Greedheads, land grabs, and the sad demise of the Phoenix Swim Club...  May, 1996. This place was the center of the swimming universe. It felt like every country's Olympic team was there. Every team that mattered, in any case. It was an unshaved showcase for the Atlanta Games on the horizon. It was the Phoenix Grand Prix, hosted by folks who cared about the sport more than anything else. It was swimming at its very best, and it's the most fun I've ever had at a swim meet. The stands were packed, the deck buzzing, gold watches for the winners, hell, the finalists in the 50 free didn't march out, they rode out in eight Go-carts.

That's the first thing I thought of when I heard the news. Oh boy. That temple of swimming, the home of the Phoenix Swim Club, is about to be no more. This fall, right after the high school championship season, the entire complex will be demolished.

In a desert city lacking in soul, this place had swimmer soul deep in its chlorinated bones. And what will soon stand in its place? The very definition of American soullessness: another cookie-cutter housing development. 

It seems to be a story of good old clueless greed and mismanagement. When the story was first published by Swimming World three weeks ago, it produced a hysterical thread of 88 comments. Read through them and you will find an ugly display of disgruntled finger pointing. Many appear to think the Board of the club deserves to be drowned in the deep end. Others rally to the defense of the coaches. Still others point to the property's owners, Brophy College Prep, the Jesuit boys school that bought the complex a decade ago.

The whole ugly saga seems to follow the plot of Caddyshack II. Housing developments are more valuable than golf courses. And as it happens, much more valuable than swimming pools.

This much is clear: All involved failed to run a sustainable swimming business on a site that is tailor made for swimming success - both financial and competitive. In addition to the world-class 50-meter competition pool, there is a warm, shallow teaching pool, perfect for a profitable lesson program. (One of the world's greatest learn-to-swim programs, The Hubbard Family Swim School, started there...) There is also a weight room, a track, and a basketball court, all spread across 10 acres in a perfect suburban location. The club itself has about 500 swimmers, almost 300 of which are young age group and high school age kids. The other 200 are Masters swimmers, who as we all know tend to be both passionate about their pool time, and come loaded with a bit of disposable income.

All of the above adds up to a private equity dream scenario: A mismanaged asset with all the ingredients for a big time turnaround. This site doesn't need to be razed and replaced with a housing development. It just needs a bit of business sense, and a management team that cares deeply about sustaining a shining example of the sport.

Anyone who's been to any high level meet over the last two decades is familiar with the Phoenix Swim Club. Just look at the list of A-list coaches who have graced the deck: Dennis Pursely, Pierre La Fontaine, Mike Bottom, Eric Hansen... The list goes on. In the pool, Gary Hall, Jr. is the most prominent swimmer to emerge from these waters, but he's also joined by Klete and Kalyn Keller, a long list of Olympic Trials Qualifiers and a host of international Olympians who made the club their home base at various times through the years. Indeed, this was the original home of the Hall family's Race Club, before relocating to South Florida.

Through the Halls and Pursely and Pierre and Bottom and many others, this facility and this club showed the sport how it was done in so many ways, for so many years. I'm not alone in my affection for those Phoenix Grand Prix meets in the late 90's. I've heard Misty Hyman and many other former swimmers share the same fond memories.

When another soulless housing complex goes up on the ashes of this swimming temple, here's hoping a chlorine-fumed poltergeist haunts its homes.

The Recruit

Bolles backstroke king, Ryan Murphy, chooses Cal... Was it the right decision?  It's a nice problem to have. Universities lining up, begging you to join them, offering you an all expense paid education, assuring you that as a Bear, Gator, Cardinal, Longhorn, or Tiger, you will win many NCAA titles. Girls will be lining up to meet you. Whatever campus you choose, you will be a big man on it. Champagne problems indeed...

But it's still a hell of a choice. And despite what they say, you can indeed go wrong.

The bluest of the blue chips this year is a young man from Jacksonville, Florida named Ryan Murphy. Also commonly known as The Next Great American Backstroker. His age group and high school career to this point have been pretty much perfect. Young Murphy placed 6th and 4th respectively in the 100 and 200 back at the U.S. Olympic Trials last summer. Many thought he had a great shot to make the Team. Four years from now, he will. Whether he will be on the podium in Rio has a lot to do with where he swims the next four years.

Yesterday he chose the defending champions, Cal Berkeley. If gold in Rio is indeed his ultimate goal, not everyone is convinced this was the best call.

To be clear - Murphy is going to have an insanely decorated career as a Golden Bear. In his freshman year, he will likely win both backstrokes at NCAAs. (His times from Junior Nationals last year would have already put him in the hunt in the A final...) But beyond the back, Murphy is a complete swimmer, the perfect college point machine. He's going to be a sub-20 50 freestyler and a 43+ 100 freestyler before he's out of high school, meaning he'll be on every sprint relay. He's also already a 1:45 200 IMer, meaning he'll score big points in his third individual event.

Dave Durden is busy building a dynasty out at Cal, and it's possible his Murphy-led Bears may win NCAAs every year he's there. The kid is going to go down as one of the greatest swimmers in NCAA history. Barring injury or an absurd shift in character, this is all but assured. (Ryan also has a 4.4 GPA at Bolles, so safe to say academics isn't a worry either...)

But that's not really the point, is it? NCAAs is the small pool minor leagues. A warm-up for the big pool, where the big fish swim. If that's where Murphy's ambitions truly lie, a case can be made that he just made a big mistake. Because many out there are asking - why didn't he go to Florida? Wasn't it obvious? If a young backstroker wants to be on an Olympic podium, he would be wise to put on the blinders and head straight for Coach Gregg Troy. It goes way beyond Lochte. Take a look at this quick list of recent Gainesville-based backstroke greats: Elizabeth Beisel, Gemma Spofforth, Ben Hesen, Omar Pinzon, Rex Tulius, Sarah Peterson, Teresa Crippen, Arkady Vyatchanin... To name a few.

Murphy probably wouldn't win as many NCAA titles at Florida. The relays he'd be on wouldn't be as fast. But again, is that the top priority? That's not to say that Durden can't shepherd Murphy to the top of the podium in Rio. He certainly did the job with Nathan Adrian in London. But it's worth noting that he's never done it before, not with a backstroker. Coach Troy, on the other hand, has a resumé of Olympic medalists that needs a few pages.

Did Murphy's choice come down just to those two schools? Not at all. At various times, I heard he was leaning towards Stanford, that he wanted to swim for Eddie Reese at Texas, that Brett Hawke made a huge impression at Auburn. Every suitor was rolling out the red carpet and Murphy owed it to himself to walk down each one.

Of course, if you're talking about a kid with a 4.4 GPA, it can't just be about the athletics. With the possible exception of Stanford, academically, Berkeley's a cut above the others. Isn't life after swimming the real top priority? Ha. Good luck convincing a 17-year-old stud recruit of that. Maybe Murphy has a lot more perspective than I did at that age, when a big part of my college choice was based on the attractiveness of the student body, but I'm guessing he put more stock in the team than he did the classroom.

The team - that appears to be Durden's true budding genius. He's all about celebrating the collective, getting everyone on board, and winning as one. These are lovely qualities, and terrific lessons for a young man to learn from a coach.

Problem is, at the Olympics, on top of that podium, you're all alone.

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 SI.com wrote: "another embarrassing turn for a sport that has taken steps over the last two years to combat widespread claims of sexual misconduct."

Then the Schubert story gets crime novel crazy. The suit alleges that Schubert and Jewell were the less-than-masterminds behind Sean Hutchison's downfall at FAST. Word is that Schubert hired a private investigator to take pictures of Hutchison engaged in sexual activities with one of his swimmers. (An adult swimmer, it's worth noting...) Schubert then apparently took the pics from the P.I. and used them to blackmail USA Swimming to the tune of $625,000 to keep the compromising photos under wraps. If you believe all this, you're about as bright as the guy being sued. But the facts, whatever they are, are just part of the problem. Regardless of how this lawsuit ends, this is yet another blow to the image of our sport.

Think about it: Rick Curl and Mark Schubert. A pair of Hall of Famers. Their characters aside, these are two of the most successful and celebrated swim coaches in history. When parents looked for the very best programs for their children, when former swimmers chose to stay in the sport and become coaches, these two used to be the examples. The ones you turned to as pillars of the profession. Now they seem to exemplify an on-going sickness that still isn't cured.

Here's something else that remains deeply ill: the state of men's college swimming. How many Olympic medalists in London were the product of NCAA programs? 30, by my count, but feel free to fact check. Florida, Michigan, Cal, Northwestern, USC, and Georgia each produced individual Olympic champions in London. How many other international athletes were at the Games after developing their talents at U.S. universities?

Of course, that's all good and well, but Olympic medals don't pay for college athletic budgets and men's swimming remains at grave risk at dozens of schools. Gratefully, the women's programs appear to be well protected under Title IX provisions, but the growing ranks of young male swimmers are going to want some place to continue racing after they turn 18. Let's hope enough college teams can stick around to serve them.

It's easy to get wrapped up and warped in these extremes. Olympic triumphs, coaching sex scandals, college programs being cut... These are the Heavens and the Hells of a sport that continues to carry on day after day, lap after lap, in countless pools all over the world. Most of you will never experience any of this. The highs might inspire you and the lows might enrage you, but do they really change your own daily swimmer's reality? A reality that is drenched in chlorine and early mornings and worthy dreams.

When you're under water and on an interval, all this stuff ceases to matter. All that exists is that pure altered state of swimming.

Joy in Mudville

Todd Schmitz and the Art of Play It's Sunday morning. You're 16-years-old. You're in incredible shape, you swim over twenty miles a week after all, but right now all you want to do is sleep. When you decide to wake - late - you just want to relax, waste away the day on Facebook, far from the pool. Who can blame you?

Some coaches understand this basic need for balance and step-away sanity. Others don't. There's a school of thought that says young swimmers should be in the water everyday. Seven days a week, 365 days a year, for years on end. Physically speaking, there is a lot to be said for this. It works. Constant contact with the water, never losing the feel for your strokes, ever, not for one day throughout your teenage years... This path produces champions. Long term sanity not included.

Todd Schmitz, aka Missy Franklin's coach, is firmly in the first camp. He wants his swimmers to step away. Often for entire weekends. What they might lose in feel will be make up for in fun. Because, come Monday, his kids will want to be back at the pool. You can't tell me that's the case for those kids who were forced to swim a few grand on Sunday.

This week the Wall Street Journal ran a terrific profile on Schmitz. It's say-no-more headline: How Not to Ruin a Swimming Prodigy. The piece reveals a supremely grateful coach. A guy who recognizes that all top coaches, at their inception, have to be insanely lucky. In Schmitz's case, he was fortunate enough to find 7-year-old Missy Franklin in his Starfish group during his first ever coaching job. He's not the first coach to find himself in the right place at the right time with the right swimmer, and while that might make plenty of other coaches crazed with jealousy, he deserves huge props for not screwing it up. Which is all too easy to do... Just take a look at the National Age Group records for 10 & Unders -- how many found themselves in Missy Franklin's position seven years later?

The Colorado Stars are like a lot of clubs teams across the States. It's a rag tag operation that jumps from pool to pool wherever the team can reserve practice time. Fact is, it's a stepping stone job. A team where an up and coming coach produces some big talent, gets named to a few national teams, and then rides his phenom's wave to a more high profile position... Except, it seems Schmitz isn't interested in taking that next leap to the so-called big time. He seems more interested in having a good time with the group he's got. How refreshing is that?

In that Journal story, the reporter writes: "Even when it comes to improving form—something other coaches regard as a strict science—Schmitz believes in the art of play."

Yes, the Art of Play -- perhaps the most powerful concept in all of education today. This is something that's being studied with all seriousness by child psychologists these days. The findings are in the process of turning early education on its head. For this reason: Playing works better than working.

In the recent best-selling book "Imagine, How Creativity Works", author Jonah Lehrer writes about a study of four-year-olds divided into two groups for a year of education and observation. One group was given a classroom full of "unstructured play" - that is, plenty of time to explore on their own, follow their own imaginations, and have fun with the way they chose to learn. The other group was given a more traditional classroom experience full of phonetics and memorization, you know, the usual ways of "learning" found in most schools. After a few months, the researchers did some preliminary tests to see how these two groups were learning. Here's what they found: the first group, the one given all that unstructured play was uncomfortably far ahead of the 'traditional' group in every measure of intelligence and learning. Uncomfortable because the educators found it unethical to continue the study -- because of the disservice they were doing to the latter group.

That study was with a group of preschoolers. While it's undeniable that kids need more structure as they enter grade school and beyond, the power of play can't just be tossed aside like an outgrown pair of old shoes. Teenagers need it too. Especially ultra-dedicated teenage athletes who already spend a huge portion of their lives staring at a black line at the bottom of a swimming pool.

Because, when you step up to the plate, with all the pressure in the world on those young shoulders, there needs to be joy. Without it, what's the point?

Forgotten Architects

The Coach and the Credit... Breakthroughs are coming. Lifetime performances on that one-fine-day when it all comes together... At Olympic Trials throughout the world over the next few months, certain swimmers will stand up and do the things they've always dreamed of doing. They will be the chosen few. The ones who peak at just the right moment, who swim best times beyond their wildest goals, and earn their place on the Team. When this happens, they will weep and throw pumpers and thank the many fine folks who helped them get there. They will likely start with their coach. But which one?

There has long been considerable complaint from the club coaching ranks about this sensitive issue of credit. You know the story: After coaching a kid through years and years of growth, bringing him to the cusp of greatness at 18, the swimmer goes off to college, a prized recruit for some lucky coach. A year or two later, after weights and maturity and a great new training group, this swimmer takes the next step into the big time. Trials roll around and there he is, racing for a spot on the Team. In recognition of his swimmer's achievement, guess who gets named to the Olympic coaching staff?

Yeah, one can see how that might lead to some bitterness...

Problem is, that club coach, the one who leads his senior elite squad of high school kids? There might be someone else thinking the same thing about him. The swimmer's age group coach - the one who taught this kid the right way to swim from the beginning, who put that whole foundation in place.

Sure, it takes a village, we get it. And yes, there's always going to be an element of trickle-down ego bruising. Everyone wants to be recognized for their contribution. It's human nature. But is this also an example of backwards priorities in the coaching ranks?

Last week, I wrote a story about the "myth" of Michael Phelps' talent. The basic point, supported by a growing body of books disproving the primacy of talent, was that Phelps' greatness has a whole lot more to do with his perfectly designed "deliberate practice" when he was a kid than it does with his daunting natural abilities. Specifically, it can be attributed to the work he did with Bob Bowman between the ages of 10 and 15. The time when he never missed a day, when he set the foundation for the ultimate Olympic career.

If that's true, and there's a lot of evidence to support it, then the most important thing to observe should be exactly what Michael was doing in those pre-teen and early teenage years. And just as importantly - who was teaching him back then? The answer, of course, was Bob Bowman. The same man who's teaching him today. (NOTE: "teaching" and "coaching" are synonyms...) In this, Phelps is immensely lucky and so is his coach. The athlete never had to interrupt his progress learning a new system and the coach never had to consider sharing an ounce of credit.

The great majority of swimmers are not so lucky. They usually have three coaches, minimum. The age group coach, the head club coach, and the college coach. You can guess the order of prestige. But if we can admit that the root of Phelps' greatness can be found in those early years, shouldn't we question that pecking order of the traditional coaching ranks? Because what that age group coach is doing might set up the swimmer for future greatness in ways that his 'elders' simply cannot.

This should not come across as a criticism of the head club coach or the college coach. They earned their positions of authority for a reason - and they came up through the ranks, probably spent a few years themselves as overlooked age group coaches. Nor should it belittle the work they do with the swimmers they receive along this path. It's all a progression, and in plenty of cases, the work of a coach involves getting a swimmer back on track - because the coach before him badly screwed up.

Yet, when viewed from afar, how can the age group coach not be viewed as the cornerstone of all future excellence? How can this essential piece of the puzzle receive so little credit at the moment of truth?

Here's one swimmer who doesn't seem to have that problem dishing out the credit to his all-important age group coach. As it happens, he's the second greatest swimmer ever, and the one guy who's ever been able to dethrone the mighty Phelps. Ryan Lochte followed that three-coach formula growing up. He also happens to follow the perfect model of development for those in the "talent myth" camp. See, Lochte was groomed since birth for swimming greatness. His dad, Steve, is a lifelong coach who made sure his son was put on that path early. But who was Ryan's age group coach growing up? That would be his mom, Ileana.

At the Golden Goggles Awards last November, a slightly swaying Lochte stood behind the podium after being named the Athlete of the Year for the third year in a row. He dutifully thanked Coach Troy, the man who's guided him since he arrived in Gainesville nine years ago, he thanked his teammates, thanked Michael for always pushing him to more, but then he saved his biggest thanks for his mom. Maybe it was just for being, you know, his mom.

But maybe it was also for being the not-so-forgotten architect of all that success to come...

Just Kids

Letter from Junior Nationals... When Did These Kids Get So Fast? Maybe it's time to drop the "Junior." Can we just call them "18 & Under Nationals?" Because what just went down in Austin, Texas last week was anything but junior... Sure, the kids were all in high school, or even younger, but the times they posted - scratch that, the times it took just to get there - were stunningly accomplished. Some didn't seem real, not for kids born a decade and a blink ago in the late 90's.

Take a look at the times, right HERE. (Take special note of Mr. Ryan Murphy, soon-to-be Olympian, age 16, from the Bolles School: 20.02 50 free; 1:45.77 200 IM; 46.72 100 back; 1:40.90 200 back -- all NAG records... And take a closer look at the men's relays from Bolles: 1:19.82 in 4x50 Free; 1:27.77 4x50 medley; 2:56.94 4x100 free -- No high school seniors on any of these relays...)

There was a time when U.S. Juniors used to be a springboard to Senior Nationals. That was the point. For swimmers burning with ambition and a bit of talent, it was a way-station, a brief stop on the path to greener pastures. Problem was, for swimmers perhaps lacking those two essential qualities, it was also a plateau, a meet where once improving guys and girls decided they'd reached their station in the sport, and decided to stop dreaming and graze contently right where they were. The meet was fast. But not really...

Not like now.

Looking at the cuts just to make the meet in 2011, one thing seems clear -- if you make Junior Nationals in high school, you're swimming at a U.S. university. Very likely a Division I school, probably on scholarship, especially if you're a girl (given the extra scholarships...) It's not a springboard now but a calling card. One that says: I am among the very fastest teenage swimmers on earth. Oh, and it doesn't mean you're necessarily American. Some of these teens blazing crazy times carry different colored passports (aka Singapore's / Bolles' butterfly phenom Joseph Schooling), but they're as welcome at the next swimmer to tear it up at Juniors. Like NCAA's, this is a meet that has become an international showcase of short course yards at its finest. Just with kids a few years younger...

The analogy to NCAA's works on a number of levels. Now, if you make one fast cut, you can swim two more individual events, just like at NC's. Now, swimming the time standard in a given event means you're probably going to get a second swim at night. And now there's even some overlap -- the times Ryan Murphy posted in the backstrokes would already put him in the big finals at NCAA's!

A few weeks back, I wrote about the slow stalled cuts that it takes to make U.S. Olympic Trials nowadays, how they're mostly the same, or even slower, than they were twenty years ago. The idea is inclusion, for promising young talents to race alongside the likes of Phelps and Franklin at the biggest domestic meet there is. Fair enough. But curiously, the exact opposite has evolved with U.S. Junior Nationals. What was once an expected rite of passage for 15 and 16-year-olds at club teams across America is now a brutally difficult standard. In the 200's of the strokes, the cuts are four full seconds faster now than they were 20 years ago.

Trials stay the same, Juniors go insane. Go figure.

Full disclosure: I'm not exactly unbiased here. The team leading this youth brigade, the Bolles School, is my alma mater. I have an immense amount of pride in the House That Troy Built, and one of the only reasons I'm still scrolling through these Juniors results so intently is because these Bolles kids are so damn good these days. In the summer of 1992, I arrived as a Bolles border in Jacksonville, FL and quickly bought in. All in. The school records were the national records in many cases; the expectation was to go all the way -- whatever that meant for you. (Note: dreams are for the deluded, goals for the real...)

With this attitude, cuts become incidental. Whatever they are is what you have to make. Make 'em whatever you want, kids will figure out how to get there. That was Coach Troy's attitude, and it's one reason he's now the head U.S. Olympic coach, coaching the world's best swimmer, and a major reason he left a legacy at Bolles that continues to perpetuate itself 13 years since he left for the University of Florida. Ryan Murphy might list Sergio Lopez as his coach of record, but he's swimming deep in a tradition that has set a sky high bar across all of pre-college swimming.

Once upon a time, when you made a U.S. Seniors cut, you couldn't swim that event anymore at Juniors. No more. Now, when a 16-year-old superstar crushes a Junior National record, you can expect to see him again next year, eager to lower that mark further still. Fact is, this meet is more exciting than most "Senior" Nationals, and is a meet of more consequence.

How exciting is it to watch tired National Teamers swim beat up in-season times at Winter U.S. Nationals? It's always great to get any airtime at all from NBC, a nice way to promote the stars of the next Games, but even those bold-faced names will admit that it's kind of a joke to trot out the cameras and air them racing in competitions that are, essentially, glorified workouts.

Instead, swim fans, take a look at the current state of Junior Nationals. It's an event that's evolved in fits and starts. It used to be two meets, East and West, back in the day. Then, it was canceled altogether, briefly, around the turn of the century. Then, it was united and brought back, with time standards that prevented any too-soon plateaus. I still love the idea of Juniors as a graduation meet, a time when you earn your ticket to the next level. But there's a reason things like March Madness remain more compelling than any NBA Finals:

There's nothing like that first flush of success.

Boys Beating Girls

Here's the pitch: Awkward high school boy longs to swim. The only sport he's good at, the only thing that makes him feel good about himself. But, sigh, there's no boys swim team at his school. So, what does young Eddie (let's call him Eddie) do? He sucks up his pride and joins the girls team. See, thanks to gender equity laws, no one can stop him. Girls can join boys' teams, right? So, why not the reverse, if the same opportunities aren't offered to the guys? Girls reluctantly welcome him on their team. Heart-warming hilarity ensues. Thinking Michael Cera as the lead...

Anyone want to buy the rights? I'll bang the script out in no time. I'm in LA all week...

Actually, this is no pitch. It's the story on the front page of the New York Times Sports section today. Their terrific swimming writer, Karen Crouse, reports from the gender-blending world of Massachusetts high school swimming, where around two dozen boys are now members of their girls teams, since many schools don't have boys swim programs. As you might imagine, this has created a bit of grumbling. Particularly when a man-boy with bodily hair and unfeminine muscles stands up and smokes the ladies in the 50 free, and breaks the "girls" sectional record.

As the father of a daughter, I could not let this happen without some righteous ranting. I would very likely be like the father quoted in Crouse's story. After watching his daughter get beat by boys at the girls conference meet, the dad sneered "Good job beating the girls" to the guys as they walked by. He was asked not to attend the next meet. I'm just surprised he was so polite.

This feels like fiction. In fact, it would not surprise me if my pitch above was taken seriously by would-be producers... But beyond the utter insanity of this very notion, something else disturbed me in reading this, something not touched upon by Crouse.

That is: Why do so many high schools have only girls swim teams? We understand the plight of men's college swimming; the cutting of programs has been well documented. But does the problem extend all the way down to high school? Apparently so.

This makes for an ironic dilemma with regards to the current state of the sport. On one hand, we have the most famous swimmer in history in our midst. Thanks to Michael Phelps (with a growing assist by Ryan Lochte), swimming has never been quite so cool for guys to be a part of. And by cool, I mean in that superficial but essential high school way - ie, can you get girls by being good at it? On the other hand, you have diminishing opportunities across the country - in both high schools and colleges - for guys to take part at all.

This poses some scary long term scenarios. It might not show up for a generation or two, but with the balance increasingly out of whack between men's and women's swimming, you have to wonder where future men's national teams will be drawn from. After so many years of inspiring growth, will swimming shrink back to a regional pastime, only celebrated in seaside hotbeds like California and Florida? Looking at the sport in a macro way, this seems like the most likely result at the moment.

But it is reversible. Because there are legions of guys out there who want to swim. So much so that some are willing to emasculate themselves by joining the girls team, knowing full well the jeers that will be coming their way from their peers and the self-righteous dads of daughters. As bizarre as the situation is at these schools in Massachusetts, these guys need to be acknowledged for the courage they're showing by taking part. It's the schools that are failing them - and failing this sport.

Swim teams can be expensive propositions that offer little financial return. We know this. We know a big part of the men's swimming crisis (can we capitalize it and call it a Crisis yet?) comes down to money. But a bit of resourcefulness could easily solve the men's swim team shortage at these Massachusetts schools. A high school senior quoted in the story came up with one obvious solution: "It infuriates me that they can't combine two schools' boys to create one team," said Sarah Hooper of Needham High. Would that be so hard? Sharing resources, splitting costs, increasing opportunities? Much thanks to the wise Ms. Hooper, for doing administrators' jobs for them...

You could also take a look at those water-filled money pits and start figuring out a way to generate some revenue out of them. Revenue that could then fund the school's team. Like say, renting out blocks of hours to outside programs that actually turn a profit. (Full disclosure: I have direct experience with this one. There is a school in lower Manhattan whose swim team is funded directly by the lease our swim school pays to hold lessons at their pool.)

These are not complicated solutions, but they do require folks who care about the sport to speak up. Men's swimming is one half of the sport of swimming, and its presence is diminishing. Not because it lacks popularity among male athletes. In fact, it's never been so popular. It's diminishing at so many schools because it is viewed as expendable.

To get a race in Massachusetts, the boys need to suck it up, drown out the jeers, and go beat the girls.

Anyone have Michael Cera's phone number?

The Storyteller and the Torturer

Lessons in Motivation... Orlando, FL   The view from room 761 of the Disney Swan Hotel is disorienting. Adrift neck deep in the land of make-believe, this is what I see: A green-canopied expanse of Florida palms and citrus trees, eleven hotels dot the horizon, a water tower with Mickey Mouse ears off in the distance, a faux New Orleans complex of time shares on the banks of a new canal, the parking lot below circling with Disney buses, depositing stroller-pushers into the hands of the Disney army, whose customer service is dispensed with relentless good cheer. A long way from home...

We're here for the annual United States Swim School Association conference. I spent a good deal of time preparing my German partner, Lars, whose only American homes have been in Berkeley, CA and the East Village of New York City, for one of his first real tastes of soul-free Americana. As we approached the hotel entrance yesterday afternoon, he admired the "frozen yogurt architecture." I asked him what he meant. He pulled an imaginary frozen yogurt dispenser, over and over, each imagined swirl exactly like the last. I got it.

The first presentation of the conference, which we'd just missed, was from the keynote speaker, a Disney executive talking about "Building a Business Through Storytelling", something I wholeheartedly embrace. I was sorry to miss it, and the reviews we heard from fellow swim school owners were all glowing. It's long been Disney mantra, the power of the story to sell anything at all. Our environment was proof. A sweltering central Florida wasteland transformed into a money-gushing machine of make believe, built of the backs of Mickey and Goofy, Snow White and the rest. I've never much liked these stories; truth be told, I've frequently found Disney's essential existence offensive. The story as sales pitch. Without apology, inauthentic and phony being the actual point.

Fortunately, I remained absorbed in the Book - the Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. The same one I plugged last week, for those of you following along... Not that Harbach needs the plug for the swimming audience; his novel currently sits comfortably on the New York Times best-seller list at #9. But this Book is becoming something of an obsession with me with each passing page. It could be viewed as the anti-Disney tale. Something that asks questions so hard and deep that it couldn't possibly be distilled into a theme park ride or blockbuster film. (Though it wouldn't surprise me if one of Disney's many tentacles has already purchased the movie rights...) As our flight descended over Orlando International, I read a (another) page that stopped me cold, a paragraph that might just distill the very essence of coaching. And as providence would have it, yes, it was all about storytelling...

Coaches, please read carefully:

"All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph... People loved to suffer, as long as the suffering made sense. Everybody suffered. The key was to choose the form of your suffering. Most people couldn't do this alone; they needed a coach. A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you. A bad coach made everyone suffer in the same way, and so was more like a torturer."

In the fourteen nomadic years that my life was consumed by butterfly, I was lucky enough to swim for a wide collection of world-class coaches. While my career started at the same spot as Michael Phelps, North Baltimore, mine was not a path of one coach-swimmer relationship, forming the ultimate age-group to Olympics bond. It was dotted with stops -- from NBAC to Badger to Bolles to USC to Pacific Dolphins to SMU... Each stop run by men who knew how to tell these stories. At their best, all made your story epic, and each at his worst was no more than mere torturer.

As Harbach notes, the key is in choosing the form of suffering. Because when suffering makes sense, we truly do love it. If we didn't, no sport would exist. For that matter, nor would any successful business. Sacrifice hurts, it's often a pain in the ass. It's never, ever, fun to wake up before dawn, but as the Chinese proverb goes: No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich.

The men and women who've built this often horrifying edifice of Disney understand this. Walking a faux Atlantic City "Boardwalk" with an ESPN Zone at one end and fake carnival barkers along the edge of a fake body of water, these things might make me suffer without sense, but for many millions, the escape makes all the sense in the world. The story they wish to hear does not include doom or flaws or obstacles, but the complete imagined absence of such things in the world. That's a powerful sales pitch, and the stories of talking mice and dwarves do the job.

But where sport is concerned, especially swimming, the story must have darkness. It needs pain and sacrifice to make sense, to make it worth it. The balance is never easy, and I realize there's a whole lot more to coaching than weaving inspiring, personal tales for each athlete. Like, say, the actual scientific and artistic knowledge of the sport itself... But ultimately, like everything else, it's a sales pitch. How do you make your swimmers buy into being the best they can be? By selling them a story.

The Spell of Perfection

Extreme Expectations and the End of the World Standing behind the blocks, the winner was already obvious. Eight 10-year-old boys stood twitching and nervous behind their lanes, waiting to be summoned to the start and released into the water, racing one lap of butterfly down this 50-meter pool at a college in the Bronx. The one in the middle did not belong among the others. If not yet a man among boys, then certainly a thoroughbred among ponies. A head taller, shoulders broader, an impassive mask of focus locked down his lane... A Swimmer, capital S required.

Four seconds and two strokes into the race, he'd opened a body length on his nearest "competitor." The lead continued to widen, astonishingly so, until about 32 seconds later, when his two hands plowed into the far wall and stopped the clock. Five slow seconds after that, the second place finisher arrived one lane over. Among timers and coaches and officials and parents, there was considerable buzz for this young flying phenom as he climbed from the pool. Then a strange thing happened:

This 10-year-old newly minted Junior Olympic Champion burst into tears. Goggles were thrown. Pats on the back brushed off and unacknowledged. The walk back to his coaches was spent weeping unashamed and devastated. He'd swum his lifetime best, but missed a 20-year record by a tenth, and that was all that mattered. Winning meant absolutely nothing to him. He failed to reach his goal, one that would have required a perfect race. And in this particular breed of athlete, short of perfection meant total inconsolable meltdown. It was the end of the world, and in this state of irrational mania, he did not want to hear otherwise. This wasn't the first time.

Because this swimmer was one of our own, the star of our young New York City club team, this reaction provoked a curious mix of confusion and dismay among his teammates and coaches. Where there should have been high fives, there were shrugs and averted eyes. Coaches from other teams looked our way with bemused sympathy. Parents in the stands looked for the boy's mom and dad, assuming parental pressure must be the root. Unfortunately, as a former confirmed goggle-thrower who threw tearful tantrums well past the age of embarrassment, I recognized this behavior too well. We were one of the same tribe. That's written without pride, and an awful lot of half-suppressed shame.

Why do some athletes succumb to this spell of perfection? This need, and it is a need, to reach their sky-high goals with absolute perfect performance... How do they get so worked up, so obsessive about reaching these extreme expectations, that anything less is utter devastation? Why does it matter so MUCH?

It's not healthy, we know this. We know even in the midst of meltdown. But no, we don't want to hear it. We believe, and in part we are right, that this consuming passion for excellence is what makes us successful, what separates us from the ho-hum cheerful jokers in the next lanes who can actually get happy with a mere best time. Problem is, that ho-hum joker sometimes becomes the what-me-worry Ryan Lochte standing on top of Olympic podiums, long after the fire-breathing head case has burned out and faded away.

In my case, my 11-year-old self ended up on a shrink's couch, trying to explain to a kindly bearded child psychologist why things like state records and top sixteen times felt like a matter of life and death. He didn't give me many answers, but he did give me a small wax figurine of a mouse, about three inches tall. He told me to keep it in my bag at competitions, and when I felt the rage coming on after a race that went less than perfect (all of them), I should take it out and pour out my feelings to the mouse in private. You know, rather than publicly weep on deck while throwing my goggles and stomping away from coaches. So, instead I became the nut bar who mumbled furiously to a wax mouse in the locker room. It helped a little. I also crushed that mouse into a wax ball the size of a golf ball.

Gradually, you learn to hide this madness. You're still cast under its spell; you still need that perfect race, that far off goal time. But when it doesn't happen, you learn to channel the crushing disappointment, or at least you learn to take an extra long warm down until you get a hold of yourself. But deep down, you know you're right, that the world really is coming to an end.

In a terrific new novel called The Art of Fielding, author Chad Harbach shows us just how the universe splinters when perfection cracks. It's the story of a college baseball prodigy, a shortstop named Henry Skrimshander, with a glove poetically, and perfectly, christened Zero. As in the number of errors Henry's ever made in his life... When he makes his first, with a disastrous throw to first, the demons descend and the fates of those around him veer darkly in new directions. The truth might be stranger than fiction, but the best fiction is a whole lot more true than any reality.

Thinking of Henry and his glove Zero, envying Harbach's close to perfect novel, and hoping I can figure out some way to guide our driven young butterfly prodigy, you start to realize how absurd this doomed quest is. You start to take pathetic cliches like 'nobody's perfect' to heart. You hope not just for brilliant flawless all-your-dreams-come-true success, but for something like satisfaction...

And so, from his tearful triumph at Junior Olympics, our young flyer traveled a few weeks later to Eastern Zones, still deeply under the spell of perfection, for his last meet as a 10-year-old. His last chance to break that elusive record. I texted back and forth with his mom, praying he'd succeed, but praying just as much that he'd come out of the meet without cracking up in a fit of flawed despair. On the third day of the meet, he took his marks in the 50 fly... where he proceeded to demolish that record by a second and a half, posting the fastest time in America. His 50 fly was faster than Michael Phelps when he was 10. It was perfect.

Screw satisfaction. Perfection was possible after all, and long live its spell.