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 Sharks Circle

Missy Franklin is turning pro in ten months... Top agencies hungry for their piece of the biggest fish in the pool...  She's the most marketable Olympian alive. Across every sport, Summer or Winter, Phelps and Lochte included, you won't find a more appealing athlete for endorsements in the lead up to Rio. Two years out and Missy Franklin is already the confirmed face of the 2016 Olympics.

Much was made about her decision to forgo the pro path after London and attend college at Cal, including by yours truly (Why She Went to College), but let's be honest - that was always a halfway commitment. Missy, and her parents Dick and D.A., who are highly active behind the scenes, never had any intention of swimming through the full four years of her collegiate eligibility. She longed for the college experience, and she's getting it, but the time has come to start talking dollars and sense.

This four-time Olympic champion is a sponsor's dream. She may not have the 8-gold epic-ness of Phelps in her future, and she may not have the twinkling-eyed model smirk of Lochte, but Franklin has something neither of those two man-childs possess. Actually, quite a few somethings. She is that rare transcendent athlete who is also relatable, down-to-earth, and somehow, retains an accomplishment-defying humility. She might be a mutant of physical excellence, like all highest-tier Olympians, but she possesses an unaffected star power that seems rooted in appreciation.

This sounds like I'm among the agents pitching her these days. She and her parents have clearly been hearing much of the same from many quarters. In this week's Sports Business Journal, the trade reports that meetings have begun in earnest among top agencies trying to woo the Franklins to their star athlete stables. (I'd include the link to this piece, but it appears you have to be a subscriber to access SBJ stories online...)

These agencies include CAA (home of Lochte); IMG (Lindsay Vonn); The Legacy Agency (Lolo Jones, Kerri Walsh); and of course, Octagon, where Phelps has resided since he turned pro way back in 2001. Safe to say she'll be just fine at any one of these hot spots. Each will come flooding into her orbit with big ideas and big promises and big-time endorsement contracts. In less than a year's time, Missy Franklin will be a multi-millionaire.

Those new representatives will also get theirs. Anything an athlete makes in endorsement income, the standard is that the agent keeps about 20 percent. A $5 million deal with Kellogg? Lovely! The agency will collect a cool million for their trouble. That's just one example, probably ample. As the deals continue to spin, and the potential earnings add up, one can see just how valuable a commodity Franklin has become.

Her refusal to turn pro right after London may have actually helped her in the long run, and not just for the two blissful college-years she's in the process of enjoying. Provided these years proceed without any real hiccups or injuries, her value continues to soar as she sits on the professional sidelines. She's already a proven quantity on the Olympic stage; she's a proven quantity as an athlete with her priorities refreshingly in order; and she's yet to endorse a single thing. All of which adds up to the Sports Business Journal calling her "the most sought after Olympian for agencies in more than a decade."

Indeed, the sharks are circling. But first they'll need to swim past Missy's father, Dick Franklin. See, Mr. Franklin has spent much of his career as a sports business executive, working for Reebok and Head tennis. Agent Evan Morgenstein, who is quoted liberally in the SBJ story, but knows he can't sign her himself, points out that Dick Franklin will likely act as "the point guard" in the team that assembles around Franklin beginning next spring.

Reading all of this in the works, can you blame her from wanting this last gasp of campus normalcy? Just two years to indulge in the fantasy that you're a regular college kid, just like all your friends. But Missy Franklin isn't normal; she's so abnormal in fact that there is a growing line assembling in front of her, just waiting to pour millions into her bank account the moment she says so.

The irony is that what makes her most valuable is the fact that, despite all those heady money clouds on the horizon, she remains motivated by all the right stuff.

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.

The Afterlife of Perfection

Misty Hyman and the business of inspiration...  Because I'm an eternal swim geek, with a self-absorbed soft spot for 200 flyers, Misty Hyman's magical race back at the 2000 Sydney Games has always been a swim of deep fascination for me. Forced to name my favorite all-time Olympic moment, that's my pick. It was more a miracle than Lezak's anchor in Beijing; it was harder to fathom than Phelps's impossible touch in the 100 fly at those same Games. Argue that all you like, that's the beauty of comparing such moments. There are no right answers, only frozen-in-time memories.

Maybe it's because I was there, seated at the elbow of a squealing Rowdy Gaines in the broadcast booth. I was a PA for NBC Olympics, assigned to scribble notes and splits for the most colorful voice of our sport, just two years removed from competition myself, and deeply conflicted over the pale, out-of-shape network staffer that I'd become.

Or maybe it's because she was swimming my event. (Or, more accurately, I had swum her event...) I had the same dream, visualized it daily for years on end, and had come up short. Three long distant seconds short in Atlanta, to be exact. The vicarious envy surely runs deep.

But who needs navel-gazing personal connections to remember a moment like that? It comes down to one thing: I was inspired. And if you have a pulse, and any interest in the Olympics at all, so were you.

Misty Hyman's 200 fly in Sydney falls in a select category of performance that can transcend the performer's life. Call it the Afterlife of Olympic Upsets. You won't find a Phelps or a Franklin or a Coughlin at this particular party. Those were favorites who did what was expected of them. And good for them. Their talents are outside the realm of relation, and so their inspiration is not the same. They're not one of us, and there's no point pretending they are.

The Upset Club exists on a different level, at a height where it almost feels possible to reach. That's also an illusion, of course. The Misty Hymans and Jason Lezaks of the world were also filled with otherworldly talent, but on the big Olympic stage, they were more David than Goliath. And so, when they step from that stage and hang up the goggles, we want to hear about it. A lot. Folks will line up and pay for the privilege to hear how they did it.

It can become a career in itself.

This has always troubled me. Does achieving something so magnificent, so epic, mean that the rest of life can become a frozen recitation of that moment?

I caught up with Misty recently and asked her about it. When we spoke on the phone, I brought up the example of Billy Mills - one of the founding members of this select club. Back at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Mills ran to gold on the track in the 10,000 meters. It was such a stunning upset that the first words he heard when he crossed the finish line were: "Who are you?" The nearest official had no idea who Mills was; no one had given him a second thought.

I explained to Misty how I used to have that "Who are you?" quote up on my bulletin board while I was training for the '96 Games. I went on to mention how, years later, when I worked on an NBC profile of Mills, I was disheartened to discover that his life since seemed to be one of endless repetition, sharing his Olympic triumph ad nauseam with countless audiences. I trailed off and asked Misty if she thought there was something just, I don't know...

"Tragic and sad?" she asked with a laugh. "Yeah, maybe. But there's also a lot more to it."

We proceeded to talk about her own journey into the business of inspiration. Each year she delivers over 30 talks to a wide variety of audiences - from elementary schools to nursing homes; from corporate leaders to women in prison. She shares her story, her moment, and tries to relate it to the lives and the dreams of her audience. She is there to inspire them. There is nothing sad or tragic about it. But at first, it didn't feel that way.

"Back in 2002 or 2003, I was almost embarrassed to be doing it," she remembers. "I told myself 'you're singing Glory Days, it's time to hang it up and move on.'"

And so she did. She went off and got her MBA in hospitality and hotel management. She spent some time working in the 'real world'; she gained some perspective far from the pool. But folks still wanted to hear her story. Like it or not, it remained her public identity. So, instead of fighting it, she embraced it. She joined the National Speakers Association and learned about the industry of inspiration. It started to feel like a lot more than Glory Days.

"Now I have eight to ten vignettes," she explains. "Things like Teamwork and Goal Setting and Innovation. The Underdog Story and how sports is the best illustration of human potential. I usually pair three or four of these, based on the audience, and all have adult and kid versions."

There's no shortage of schools and teams eager to hear from her, but she says her most fulfilling talks have come at an unlikely place: inside the walls of Arizona's Perryville Women's Prison.

"Before I spoke to these women, the Shawshank Redemption was about as close to prison as I'd ever got," she says. "I had no idea what they would think of me, this Olympian from Scottsdale, but the moment I walked through the gates, I just relaxed. They were so receptive, so kind. And so many of them had gotten there just through bad luck, or the wrong man."

After her first appearance, she became involved in a non-profit called Gina's Team, an organization devoted to providing education and self-sufficiency to incarcerated women and men throughout the country. She's been back to prison numerous times since. "The kids on swim teams, they're usually already getting the messages that I talk about," she says. "But in prisons, these are women who aren't getting those positive messages. The distance they can move up is so much greater."

Of course, pro bono talks to prisoners don't help you pay the rent, something that Hyman has learned to balance through her involvement with the Speakers Association. "You learn that you need to have a certain quota of events you'll do for free," she says. "Then you need to mix it with paid appearances."

Unsurprisingly, the best paid gigs tend to come from corporate appearances, often the hardest audiences to reach.

How do Olympic athletes, who've barely worked any real jobs, relate to corporate types, I wanted to know.

Turns out most just want to hear her Olympic story. But through her years away from the pool, she says she's found new relevance in such seemingly mundane corporate priorities like sales and marketing.

In the end, it's all storytelling - a lesson that applies to every business under the sun. It helps when your personal story to tell happens to be a do-you-believe-in-miracles moment before a billion people at the Olympic Games. Is it tragic to repeat that tale thousands of times, to make a living off of it? Well, that depends on what kind of storyteller you are.

"The farther you get from it, the more perspective you get," says Hyman. "There's a richness there. It takes on a mythological feel, even when it's something that happened in reality. It feels like something that happened outside your own reality."

What's more inspiring than that?

Third No More

David Plummer, Liz Pelton, and post Olympic redemption...  They're a part of a fraternity that no one wants to join. They've endured a circle of swimming hell that you wouldn't wish upon your worst enemies. They're the third place finishers at the U.S. Olympic Trials. You'd rather place dead last. Hell, you'd rather false start and never get wet than have to feel that particular oh-so-close pain.

Or maybe not. Maybe there's virtue in that kind of cruel heartbreak. What doesn't kill you and all... Always hated that cliché.

David Plummer and Elizabeth Pelton know how this feels all too well. Last summer in Omaha, this pair of backstroke badasses placed 3rd - three times. With Plummer feeling the pain in the 100 back and Pelton getting a double dose of third, in the 200 back and the 200 IM.

In the men's 100 back, Plummer raced to first last place in Omaha, missing the Team by .12. The guy who got his hand on the wall that much quicker, Nick Thoman, went on to win silver in London behind teammate Matt Grevers. That's how it goes in the 100 back in the U.S. With disturbing regularity, this has to be considered the deepest, hardest to make event in all of American swimming. If you make the team in the 100 back, chances are you're going to be standing on the podium at whatever international meet comes next.

Pelton faced a similar scenario. In the women's 200 back, she missed London by half a second - and the ladies who finished 1-2, Missy Franklin and Elizabeth Beisel, went on to own the Olympic podium. Yet, her third in the 200 IM was probably even more painful. In that one, she missed the Team by .25, and seemed to have her spot sewn up before Ariana Kukors managed to charge past her in the closing meters in Omaha.

I doubt Mr. Plummer or Ms. Pelton care to read those salt in the wound recaps. And nor should they. Because in the case of those two, it appears that old cliché is true. Trials heartbreak didn't kill them, and they've emerged stronger than ever.

A few weeks back at the World Champ Trials in Indy, Plummer got his hand on the wall first, ahead of those long arms of Matt Grevers, and reclaimed his spot on the U.S. National Team. If tradition serves, he'll soon be standing on a podium in Barcelona.

As for Pelton, it's clear that her third places in Omaha have already been long forgotten. At Cal last year, she took her strokes to a new level, breaking the American record in the 200 yard back at NCAAs. In Indy, she posted times that place her in some stunning company. Her 2:06.29 in the 200 back ranks her 2nd in the world right now (behind Franklin) and is the 4th fastest swim ever, not in one of those silly super-suits from '08-'09. Pelton also posted a big time 100 back, cruising well under a minute, with a 59.27, a time that puts her 4th in the world heading into Barcelona.

You know you love these stories. Everybody loves a comeback. But these aren't exactly comebacks. These two never left. They just refused to lie down. To get so close to fulfilling the ultimate swimmer's dream - an Olympic berth - is crushing on the psyche. There's no way around it. Somewhere in the core of their beings, there is a scar, and that scar isn't going away.

Yet with one year down and three to go before Rio, these two are doing right by all those other Third Placers out there. The ones who bravely shoulder swimming's version of a Purple Heart.

I wouldn't wish third at Trials on anyone, but I know who I'll be pulling for when they take their marks in the years ahead.

The Best Swimmers Are In The NBA

It's true... Too bad the spoils will never lure them to the pool...  Describe the physical gifts of your perfect swimmer. He's gotta be tall. Huge hands and feet. Must possess both explosiveness and a light touch, or feel for the sport. Oh, and he must be hyper competitive. Sound like anyone you know? Maybe the stars of last night's Game 7 of the NBA Finals?

Much has been made of Michael Phelps having the ideal swimmer's physique. As Bob Costas intoned in this NBC feature from 2008, 'if you were to build the perfect swimmer, the finished product would look just like this.' Ok, fair enough. No arguing with the results. But what if his opponent was nine inches taller; had even bigger 'dinner plate' sized hands; size 16 feet; and a childhood of equal aquatic immersion.

Like, say Tim Duncan? You probably already know the story about how Spurs' legend Tim Duncan was a swimmer first, growing up in St. Croix. If not, here's a quick refresher. He was a very good one. A 200 and 400 freestyler who had serious Olympic potential. His sister, Tricia, was an Olympian in 1988. But then Hurricane Hugo destroyed his swim team's pool, and the 14-year-old Duncan turned to hoops. Safe to say he made the right choice. Over the course of his 16-year NBA career, Duncan has amassed a net worth of around $200 million. Phelps is a rich man, but he will never get anywhere close to that figure. In fact, by NBA standards, he's paid somewhere in the range of a bench-riding role player.

Is that just? Well, if swimmers could fill arenas 82 times a year, their earning potential might be a different story. But that's not really the point. The point is that many NBA stars could very likely translate their physical gifts into world class performance in the swimming pool. And the few who spent much time on swim teams growing up have proven that conclusively.

Here's another: Kris Humphries. Until last month, Humphries was the National Age Group record holder in the 10 & under boys 100 freestyle. That record was eclipsed by young Winn Aung of the Redding Swim Team back in May, and Aung again lowered it this week. But Humphries' time of 1:02.39 stood for 18 years, since 1995. He was born the same year as Phelps, and he was a faster freestyler when they were both record-setting boys. Last year, the Brooklyn Nets power forward earned $12 million. Unlike his marriage, it appears Humphries made a wise choice in sport.

Like Duncan, Humphries also had a sister who went on to compete in the pool at a world class level. His sister Kaela was a standout swimmer at Texas during her college years. But alas, their brothers would be bound for bigger crowds and bigger salaries in the big time world of the NBA.

And just to round out the trend with a third example, does anyone remember sharpshooter Kiki Vandeweghe? Back in the 80s, he was a 20-point a night star with the Nuggets and Trail Blazers, even a few with the Knicks towards the end of his career. Vandeweghe was also recently the head coach and GM of the New Jersey Nets before their move to Brooklyn. But before that decorated NBA career, Vandeweghe was a NAG-record setting young swimmer. For many years, Vandeweghe was the National Age Group record holder in the 10 & under boys 50 butterfly. He went 31.70 in that event when he was 10 - back in 1968!

Unfortunately, swimming's loss was basketball's gain. He swam for the Santa Monica Swim Club and the Culver City Swim Club in L.A. through the late 60s and early 70s, and he was a stud in the pool right up until high school. In this long ago story from the Harvard Crimson, here's what Vandeweghe had to say about his decision to switch sports: "I left swimming for several reasons. One of them was the limited number of scholarships available in the sport. I decided early it was my own responsibility to pay for college, and I thought a basketball scholarship might allow me to do that. My parents encouraged us to do our very best in our chosen sport, so rather than become just so-so at both. I decided to concentrate on basketball."

Again, wise choice. But it is rather tragic to consider all the immense talent that has fled the pool over the years for more promising, or more lucrative futures in richer sports.

It's a beautiful thing to watch Tim Duncan play basketball on the biggest stage of all. But how beautiful to consider what it might have been like to watch him win untold gold at some long ago Games... If only for Hurricane Hugo.

Michael Phelps is Coming Back

Is it a rumor? Yes. Is it probably true? Also, yes.  Well, that didn't take long. It's been less than a year since London. A year of luxurious victory lapping on golf courses and at poker tables across the world... One could get used to that life of competitive leisure. Or maybe not. Maybe it doesn't take all that long to get bored of such diversions. Because here's the word:

Michael Phelps is about to launch a comeback. He'll soon be returning to training; in fact, he's rumored to be arriving in Colorado Springs, at the Olympic Training Center, in the next few days. Maybe he won't show. Perhaps he'll read these publicized rumors and get spooked and insist that he's still happily retired on the links. The man has nothing to prove to anyone. He's the greatest Olympian of all time, regardless of whether or not he ever touches chlorinated water again.

However, these rumors didn't just come out of thin air. The upper reaches of the swimming world are swirling with the chatter. It's like the CIA intercepting red flag chatter across Islamic websites. It might be nothing, it might be just talk, but when there's enough of it, you have to take it seriously. That's what's going right now in swimming's version of the CIA. The folks in-the-know, the top coaches and swimmers, the ones just a degree or two removed from Phelps himself, they're all talking about it.

If I hadn't confirmed the likelihood of these reports, I wouldn't be writing about it. This isn't April Fool's Day again. It's May 17, 2013, just ten months removed from Phelps's final race in London.

After that race, Phelps did indeed file his official retirement papers. Many don't. Aaron Peirsol didn't, back when he hung up his goggles. Plenty of "retired" former greats leave the door open that way. It means they can return to competition anytime they damn well please. Phelps wasn't like that. Last summer it seems he really did truly believe he was done. Or maybe he knew no one would believe him until he made it official with FINA. In any case, because he filed those retirement papers, he won't be competing anytime this summer. He'll need nine months to give birth to this comeback. That's how long it takes to come out of retirement, before you're allowed to compete in any USA Swimming or FINA sanctioned competition. Plenty of time for those comeback notions to gestate.

It's easy to forget how hard it is to live and train like an Olympic champion. Who knows, Phelps may indeed come back next week. He may try to be quiet about it, and slip back into competitive waters to see how it feels. And he may scratch that itch for a month or two before he realizes how satisfied he was in repose, on the links and at the poker table. Then it will be back to caring about making par and hitting the flush on 5th Street.

These are nice pastimes. Sometimes, with just the right shot or luck of the draw, there will be moments when that spike of competitive adrenaline feels almost as good as the real thing.

But can anything ever really compare to gold around your neck and a national anthem played in your honor?

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.

How To Stop Time

The Moment and the Career of Jason Lezak... At 37-years-old, four and a half years removed from delivering the most dramatic moment in swimming history, Jason Lezak announced his retirement this week. It concludes one of the longest ever careers in American swimming - 13 straight years on Team USA's national team, from 1999 to 2012, one year longer than Michael Phelps's tenure. Yet he will be remembered for just 46 perfect seconds.

Lezak, of course, will live forever in Olympic lore for that out-of-body performance in Beijing, on the anchor leg of the men's 4 x 100 free relay. It was The Swim Heard Round the World, every bit on par with any do-you-believe-in-miracles finish in any sport, ever. Click on that link and watch it again. I defy anyone not to get chills all over again. We all know the context - Phelps's epic 8-gold quest on the line; the French unbeatable on paper; diving in a body length behind the world record holder... And then. And then the angels descended (American angels, in any case) and lifted Lezak to the impossible.

You know the rest. But that all-time Moment isn't what this story is about.  It's about what happened before - and after.

Here is a brutally honest history of the Before: Jason Lezak was a good but not great age group swimmer growing up in Southern California. He swam for Dave Salo at Irvine NOVA and, like many a talented sprinter, he stood out for his laziness. In college, he swam for the University of California, Santa Barbara, where again he was a good but not great swimmer. According to the Gauchos' own athletic website, Lezak was thrown off of the UCSB swim team his junior year due to a "poor attitude and sportsmanship." When he returned, after a written apology to his teammates, he managed to finish his collegiate career on a high note, with All-American honors in the 50 and 100 free.

Then something odd happened. At a time when most swimmers of his achievement level hang up their goggles and move on to professional careers on dry land, Lezak turned pro as a swimmer. Something seems to have clicked for him in the summer after graduation, when he raced onto his first National Team and competed at the 1999 Pan Pacific Games in Sydney. That meet was a showcase for the coming Games, held in Sydney's brand new Olympic pool. With six Olympic spots up for grabs in his best event, it only made sense to keep going another year. He was 24 years old and just finding his stride.

What followed was an unprecedented post-grad career punctuated as much by disappointment as by ever improving times. Lezak soon became the go-to anchor of American sprint relays. It was a dubious honor. His ascent to that lofty position coincided with Team USA's descent from the top of the podium. When Lezak made his first National Team in '99, the American men had never lost that relay. Ever. In the first seven years of the Lezak era, they lost their grip on it. The Ian Thorpe-led Aussies out-touched them at home in Sydney; in Athens they were flat-out smoked, settling for bronze after an Ian Crocker lead-off leg left the squad impossibly behind.

Lezak has recounted these disappointments countless times in the years since Beijing. It's clear that the losses were personal and that they played a major role in  his Beijing heroics. Until he dove in the water that August morning in China, his was a proud career filled with bubbling-over bitterness. He'd been called a "professional relay swimmer", a cruel dig implying his lack of success in individual races at international competitions. The dig cut deep; there was truth in it. Four years previously in Athens, Lezak had entered the Games as the gold medal favorite in the 100 free, after an American record swim at the '04 Trials positioned him as the man to beat. He did not advance out of prelims.

In Beijing, it looked like he was in store for more of the same. Another minor medal on the relay, another mid-pack finish in the individual 100 free. That is, until he turned for home. At that moment, time stopped and Lezak entered an alternate reality. 46.06 seconds later, Lezak was reborn. He was suddenly an Olympic legend for all-time. A man who summoned something outside himself at the very moment he needed it most. Then he followed it with an encore bronze medal in the individual 100 free. That one, so personal and demon killing, may have meant even more to him than the relay.

Then came the After: When American Olympians do something stunningly special, other Americans want to hear about it. They want to hear these athletes recount the moment - over and over and over again. Cue the "Motivational Speaking" circuit. Aka Groundhog Day for Olympic greats...

In the fall of 2008, at a swimming conference in Mexico City, I got to hear Lezak relive his Moment for the assembled coaches, swimmers, and swim school owners. It was delivered with a curious mixture of inspiration and weariness. Of course it was inspiring. The man did what every swimmer dreams of, what every coach wants for every athlete. As a budding motivational speaker, his Moment supplied motivation in its purest form: I did it - and you could too. Lezak, the good but not great club and college swimmer. Lezak, the swimmer who refused to hang it up, who kept dropping best times, year in and year out, right into his 30s. Lezak, the relay fixture who persevered through loss after loss on the biggest stage, and finally came through in the ultimate fashion. Folks will line up and pay to hear such things. I paid in Mexico City.

Yet, already, there was the weariness. There was an awareness even then, so soon after the Moment itself, that this was now his life. Recounting and reselling the same 46.06 seconds, ad nauseum. Time had stopped indeed. And now it was his job to share that frozen moment, endlessly, in the name of motivation.

Even then he refused to stop swimming. Perhaps because he needed to know that there was more ahead, that the clock continued to move when he entered the water. By this time, Lezak had become the lone wolf of the National Team. He was a man without a team, without a coach. He trained by himself, in So Cal isolation, surfacing for the big ones, maintaining his spot for four more years of international competitions.

In Omaha, he backdoored his way onto his fourth and final Olympic team, after Ryan Lochte bowed out of the final at the U.S. Olympic Trials and left the door open for Lezak, who had finished 9th in the semifinal. He seized the opportunity and earned his trip to London with a 6th place finish in the final. It was enough to give him a spot on the prelims squad, but not enough to put him among the big four in the final.

In London, he watched from the stands as Lochte dove in with the lead, the new anchor, with a seemingly safe body length ahead of the French. He watched as France's Yannick Agnel ran down Lochte in a stomach-turning twist of fate. He watched as his relay mates stood, once again, a step down on the podium and listened to someone else's national anthem.

What was he thinking in those moments? It should have been me on there... I would have held off the Frenchman... He'd done something much harder before. He'd spent the previous four years describing how it was done to one and all.

Sitting there in that crowd in Mexico City, I remember thinking of Keith Richards playing "Satisfaction", on yet another tour, five decades after writing the riff in a drugged out haze. I remember thinking of Jimmy Buffett playing "Margaritaville" for the millionth time to swaying packs of Parrotheads, loathing that goddamn lost shaker of salt. I wondered if Lezak would someday feel the same way about his defining moment. Ever grateful and eternally proud, to be sure, but also bone-weary of its repetition. Like those iconic overplayed classics, Lezak delivered something timeless, a greatest hit on the all-time Olympic soundtrack.

But the body of work goes much deeper than those 46 time-stopping seconds.

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.

Will He Be Back?

Considering the comeback chances of Michael Phelps...  I think he'll be back. So does Rowdy Gaines. So do many others... Is this a selfish instinct? A refusal to admit that swimming's meal ticket has really left the table? Probably. It's hard to imagine an Olympics without Phelps in the pool. It hasn't happened this century.

No one in swimming wants to consider this. There's an undercurrent of panic swirling around Phelps's departure. The guy achieved his ultimate goal: he changed the sport. In remarkable ways that couldn't be conceived a generation ago, swimming is appreciated by a much wider world. And it is practiced in ways that were inconceivable back when Phelps burst on the scene in 2000.

Just take a look at the guy who beat Phelps in the 200 fly, Chad Le Clos. The South African is a direct descendent of the Phelps gene pool. He swam the same events as Phelps in London because he was imitating his hero. Ryan Lochte would never have attempted that brutal program if Phelps hadn't done it first. Same goes for Missy Franklin and her seven-event London campaign.

NBC airs swimming beyond the Olympics now, at the World Championships, the Pan Pacs, the U.S. Nationals, the Dual in the Pool, because of one guy. Like it or not, that's why they're there. Question is, will they stay now that he's gone? Fortunately, they probably will, thanks to the folks he inspired - with Lochte and Franklin at the top of that list.

The sport will be just fine. Phelps has left it in great hands. However, make no mistake, he has not left for good.

Here's why:

In the immediate aftermath of Phelps's last race, Michael Jordan was the first person he thought of. Teared up, he couldn't quite get Jordan's name out, but he alluded to His Airness in his on deck interview with NBC's Andrea Kremer. A little while later Phelps expanded on that sentiment in his studio interview with Bob Costas. Seems Michael always wanted to Be Like Mike. And he was. They're both the greatest ever. (Note: They have more in common than that. Take a look at this piece posted last January: The Two Mikes)

As we know, the first Mike came back. He couldn't stay away because he couldn't get enough. Nothing else compared. The first thing Phelps mentioned when asked what he was going to do with his time was golf. He spoke of the game in that way of superstars who are baffled on the links, who are determined to prove that it can't be that hard. Hell, have you seen how out of shape some of those guys on the Tour are? Yeah, Jordan thought the same thing. Thought the same thing about cards too. These competitive vices fill the hole, sure. But when you're only mediocre at the games, it's hard to get the same buzz. No matter how much you wager.

Phelps will realize this. It will take about two years. About that time, the 2014 Winter Olympics will be getting started. The Olympic theme will suddenly be ubiquitous again; Phelps will be bombarded with a million media requests. He'll probably head over to Sochi, Russia to watch some of the action in person. (His agent, Peter Carlisle, got his start in winter sports and Octagon represents a load of Team USA's greatest Winter Olympians, guys Phelps is friendly with...) This will get the comeback juices flowing.

Back in early 2006, I got to know and work with Erik Vendt, while he was a few years into a first retirement of his own. He hung up the goggles after a second 400 IM silver in Athens and moved to New York. Joined us teaching at Imagine Swimming. At least until he heard that Olympic theme playing on NBC as the Torino Winter Games began in February, 2006. He was back in the water at Michigan by spring. His training partner, the guy who convinced him to come back? That would be Phelps.

Don't underestimate that siren's song. John Williams's score, the one that NBC plays eight million times every day in and out of commercials, it does something to these guys. It's like your coach's whistle from the deck. When you hear it, you respond to it. It's involuntary and as irresistible as your kid calling your name.

Over the years, Phelps has gone out of his way to state that he's never wanted to be swimming at age 30. Never wanted to be one of those old guys out there... This is a funny little hang up of late 20s American men, global Olympic icons or not. There's something about turning 30 that twists guys up, makes them think they're supposed to be doing something else, something grown up and moved on by that point. When Phelps mentions that turning 30 line of demarcation, he's expressing the same am-I-no-longer-young? fear that everyone else feels at his age.

But here's the thing. That feeling vanishes about 30 seconds after you turn 30. You stop giving a shit about your age, about entering some new decade, and you get on with it. If Phelps can stay away through 2014 and the call from the Winter Games, he will be back in the water sometime in the late summer of 2015. He'll be 30, he'll be getting a little bored, and he'll know that he still has it. He will.

In Rio, Phelps won't swim a Phelpsian scorecard of seven or eight events. He'll stick to the ones that come back fastest: the sprints. Here's my prediction: Phelps will be back and he'll swim the 100 fly and the 100 free at U.S. Trials. That's it. He'll be top two in the 100 fly, and be a threat to win again in Rio. In the 100 free, he'll be top four at Trials and join another U.S. relay. A relay with unfinished business. A relay that he will badly want to steal back from France. He won't worry about any revenge in the 200 fly; he'll leave that to his protégé Le Clos. But he's gonna want that relay back.

He'll go to Rio with three races, two relays and one individual, where he'll happen to have a chance to make more absurd history - win an event at four straight Games. Right now he's the only guy to win three straight, but two women did that before him - Australia's Dawn Fraser in the 100 free and Hungary's Krisztina Egerszegi in the 200 back. Phelps isn't real big on tying, in case you haven't noticed. Just one more carrot for Coach Bob, one he's surely already considered...

Of course, all this speculation is pure selfishness. Putting it out there because I want it to happen. It's not like he needs one more never-been-done accomplishment to add to that unprecedented resumé.

Or maybe he does.

Raising Flags

The medals for top swimming nations: Gold - USA / Silver - China / Bronze - France... Others in the mix: South Africa impresses, Aussies underachieve...  The Games ended in the pool as they always do - with Team USA taking the men's medley relay. How could they not? The Olympic champions in the 100 fly, back, and free are all Americans. Their weak link only won bronze in the 100 breast. Doesn't get much more overwhelming than that. Team USA's women were almost equally loaded: Gold medalists in the 100 fly and back, silver in 100 breast, and Olympic champ in the 200 free on the end.

It was quite a showing for the Americans. Always is, but this one stuck out for the sheer diversity on the medal stand. Five different women won individual events, in all four strokes. Five different men won individual gold too; the guys missed the top of the podium only in breaststroke. Needless to say, the preeminent swimming nation remains Team USA.

But despite the continued dominance, the rest of the world continues to close in. No one can be surprised that China is down breathing now the Yanks' throats. They have the greatest medley swimmer on earth in Ye Shiwen and the greatest distance freestyler ever, in Sun Yang. (Disagree with the ever? Hard to argue after that 14.31.0 (?!), but maybe he needs to sweep the 400 and 1500 again in Rio first...) Their women's butterfly corps aren't looking too bad either, with the Olympic champ in the 200 fly and the silver medalist in the 100.

Then there's France, the most overachieving nation in London. They must have surprised even themselves. With apologies to Nathan Adrian and the absent Aussies, France must now be considered the top sprint nation on earth. They took the 50, with a shocker from Laurent Manaudou. Yannick Agnel owned the 200. And of course they snatched the men's 4 x 100 free in that table-turner from Beijing. They also have the Olympic champ in the women's 400 free. Camille Muffat can scratch it out in a steel cage cat fight with Allison Schmitt for the title of best middle distance freestyler in the world.

Much as I loathe the nationalistic medal counting, these numbers are hard to get around. Team USA won 30 medals in London, triple the total of China. France was 5th in the national medal counts, however, their gold medal totals easily elevate them to the bronze spot on the country podium. Japan was actually second in the swimming medal count, with 11. However, none of those were gold and eight were bronze. No disrespect to a great showing by the Japanese, but reaching the top of the podium has to be worth three or four of the "minor" medals.

Tied for third with China with ten overall medal were the Aussies. A decent haul, but let's be honest - they didn't show up in London. They won exactly zero individual gold medals. The last time that happened was at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, when the Americans won all but one of the men's events and the doped East Germans won all but won of the women's races. That's some dubious history for the Aussies, who entered London with a loaded crew of contenders.

The Aussies did take the women's 4 x 100 free really on day one, and they had an excellent showing from Alicia Coutts who swam away with five medals, including two of the individual variety - a bronze in the 100 fly and a silver in the 200 IM. But mostly it was a mess for the Aussies. Their Missile, James Magnussen, failed to launch. If he'd swum to his Aussie Trials best in the 100 free, he would have flat out smoked Nathan Adrian. And his no-show lead off leg in the men's 4 x 100 free set up a shocking no-medal finish in an event they were overwhelmingly favored to win.

Their Commonwealth brethren, South Africa, did show up. The sent out two stunning men's champions: Cameron van der Burgh in the 100 breast, and in the race of the meet, Chad Le Clos in the men's 200 fly. (Note: What is it about the 200 fly that makes it the event of legendary upsets? There was Australia's Jon Sieben taking down Germany's Michael Gross in 1984. There was Misty Hyman taking Susie O'Neill in Sydney. And now there is Le Clos over Phelps in London. All three must rank among the all-time Olympic swimming upsets. In fact, they may be the top three ever, in any event...)

Making it all the more special for South Africa, both van der Burgh and Le Clos are homegrown talents. Neither left for American universities as soon as they got good, as so many do. van der Burgh is currently studying at the University of Pretoria, near Johannesburg, while Le Clos lives and trains in his hometown of Durban. The pair's success has ignited calls for increased funding for South Africa's Olympic swimming hopefuls. As it stands now, only those considered a "serious medal contender" can receive funding. Both van der Burgh and Le Clos qualified and received funding in their Olympic pursuits, however, it's hoped their success will spur a new tier to be created - to help fund those on the rise.

Their homegrown success is also going to reverberate overseas, in other countries where it's still touchy when top talents leave home and head for scholarships in the States... Canada's two medalists in London - Brett Hayden with bronze in the 100 free and Ryan Cochrane with silver in the 1500 - are both homegrown too, but loads of other top Canadians have found their way to American universities. Same goes for plenty of Aussies, Germans, Brazilians, and South Africans, for that matter. Their previous world-beating champions, Penny Heyns and Ryk Neething, both attended college in the States. But who can blame swimmers who leave and head for the U.S.?

As witnessed in London, it remains the mecca of swimming.

Fearless Minds

Ledecky, Franklin, and the fearlessness of youth...  We knew one was coming. Missy Franklin's world record performance in the 200 back might have been the least surprising swim at these upset heavy Games. We expected her to jump in and dominate and that's exactly what she did. In one week, she has gone from the Next One to just The One. The girl swims without fear.

The next next one, Katie Ledecky, no one saw that coming. At least not to that extent, not yet. It was common knowledge that 15-year-old Katie Ledecky was a rising distance star. A fast rising star... She finished 2011 ranked 55th in the world in the 800 free, the 13th fastest American. Her time was 8:36.05. She dropped over 21 seconds this year. (Note to the president of ASCA and others: Has anyone raised one eyebrow over Ledecky's awesome improvements? As you have about Ye Shiwen, who improved far less in 2012 than her fellow teenage Olympic champion...)

Like Franklin (and Ye for that matter), Ledecky doesn't seem to know what fear feels like. She swims from the start with ice cold confidence. Was Ledecky aware of the moment she stepped into? A moment she instantly spoiled for the home crowd from the very first 50. This was the race that the Brits had been anticipating more than any other. Their hometown girl, Becky Adlington, was the defending Olympic champion and the world record holder. She was their best - and only - real hope for individual Olympic gold at the pool. And Adlington was clearly on. She won bronze in the 400 free earlier in the week, with a faster time than her gold medal performance back in Beijing. She was ready to defend her crown. Ledecky put an end to that right quick.

She was out in 1:59.9 at the 200. Out in 4:04.3 at the 400 -- her lifetime best time! (She was 4:05.0 at U.S. Trials...) If anyone expected her to die on the back half, that wasn't happening. She widened her lead until she touched with a never-in-doubt four second victory. Missy Franklin was surely somewhere cheering her on louder than anyone else. She knows exactly how it feels. Or maybe how it doesn't feel.

In the lead up to these Olympics, Time magazine ran a piece about the psychology of choking. Why do some athletes, no matter how well prepared, fail to get it done when it matters most? It has something to do with your prefrontal cortex, that area of the brain that processes information. When you think too much, when you go over every last detail of your race behind the blocks, your prefrontal cortex is flooded. When that happens, it is stealing precious energy away from your motor cortex - the part of your brain that executes. The part that athletes depend on most.

If you've ever wondered why certain athletes sound like, um, not exactly deep thinkers when interviewed, this is a big reason why. You can be a genius in one cortex, the motor side, and less-than-flooded with thought on the prefrontal side.

Clearly this simplistic explanation of brain function does not explain Missy Franklin. Her prefrontal cortex is doing just fine, thanks. She's whip smart when speaking, the best interview on Team USA. Katie Ledecky's post race interviews with NBC's Andrea Kremer were also composed beyond her years. Which makes their fearless performances that much more impressive. Somehow these teenagers are able to shut off all thought behind the blocks and focus on the task at hand.

It turns out that clichéd phrase "in the zone" is quite literally true. When athletes step up and deliver all-time performances at the moment of truth their brains have entered a quiet zone of memory-free execution. It is a beautiful thing to behold.

To put it as your coach would: They just stand up and race.

The Art of Mojo

Ryan Lochte's London campaign... A study in confidence.  On Sunday they called him King Ryan. He was on the cover of every newspaper in the world, but the New York Post said it loudest as usual. On one side of the tabloid, there was a defeated Phelps; the headline beneath him read "Phlop!" And on the other side, there was King Ryan, breaststroking out at you, the crown passed from the front to the back page.

Twenty-four hours later, the Post was calling him a choker, and worse, a guy who refused to stand up and take responsibility after that ill-fated relay. That's how it goes with the tabloids... You can't believe the hyperbole, whether they're anointing you or tearing you down the next day.

The harsh swing from aqua god to relay goat clearly took its toll on Lochte. This is a champion who thrives on swagger, who's always been having too much fun to be intimidated. But now the My Time script had changed and doubt descended.

It carried over into the next day, as Lochte swam a good but not great 200 free, an effort that left him just out of the medals in 4th. Even with an all-time performance, he wasn't going to beat Yannick Agnel that night, but with just a bit more of that signature mojo, you had a sense he should have won a hard-charging silver.

He claimed he got it back the next day. After he and his relay mates delivered a dominated gold in the 4 x 200 free, Lochte told NBC's Andrea Kremer that he'd woken up that morning feeling like himself again, feeling like the "jokester Ryan Lochte." It sounded legit, and the next day he threw down a couple of strong semifinals in the 200 back and 200 IM.

His confidence appeared to be restored. Rowdy Gaines told us that the next night would define Lochte's legacy.

Let's hope not. He is much better than he showed tonight. This is a champion who does not get passed with 25 meters to go in his best event. He's not a guy who loses an IM on the backstroke leg either. Yet that's what we watched go down.

It's a testament to Lochte's awesome talent and ambitions that we watched these races with a sense of tragic disbelief. The guy was completing the second hardest Olympic program ever attempted. He won a bronze and a silver in his 12th and 13th swims of his Olympic campaign. These two medals brought him into a three way tie with Mark Spitz and Matt Biondi as America's second most decorated male Olympic swimmers. Yes, Phelps has double the medals than the next guy, but Lochte has put himself in all-time company.

But he lost two races back to back that he was in shape to win. No disrespect to Tyler Clary, he swam an incredible fearless race and certainly put in the work to become a worthy Olympic champion. (Just ask him how much harder he worked than Phelps!) Yet, Lochte is the superior backstroker. He should not have lost that one.

When he marched out for the 200 IM 39 minutes later, you could see it in his face. Good 'ol relaxed what-me-worry Ryan Lochte was not around. In his place was a shaken swimmer. The late money at the betting windows was pouring in on Phelps. This one was effectively over halfway through the backstroke leg. To beat Phelps, on any day, there can be no weakness.

What is mojo? The dictionary defines it as "magic charm." The Urban Dictionary, which of course would be Lochte's preferred reference point, defines it as "self-confidence, self-assuredness. As in basis for belief in ones self in a situation." Meaning this is a word that has always personified Lochte.

It certainly did on Saturday, when he stood glowing and grinning with the stars and stripes grill atop the podium. But it seems France's Yannick Agnel swiped it away the next day. This wasn't just a hard-fought silver in a relay. This was losing a lead in the closing meters in a race that had massive meaning for both countries. Lochte felt that in his bones, you know he did. And it seems he couldn't shake it.

Twitter, in all its brainless mob mentality, is already jumping on the Lochte-was-overrated bandwagon. He wasn't. He is every bit as good as advertised, and he leaves these Games with five medals, two of them gold, tied with past icons with the second greatest medal haul in U.S. Olympic history. But we all know the story is going to be: what went wrong?

It has something to do with that precarious magic charm.

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.

A Man at Peace

Phelps, the most decorated Olympian ever, reveals a new relaxed persona... The edge is gone. The untouchable, unparalleled competitor, the man who broke spirits with such crushing excellence that gold always seemed like a foregone conclusion. He won races while he was still behind the blocks with that thousand yard stare. And he could never, ever be caught from behind.

That man is gone now and it's both refreshing and disconcerting. We all knew this was his last meet, but I don't think anyone expected it to be this way. Not just because we couldn't conceive of Phelps losing - the 200 fly of all things! - but because he truly seems fine with everything.

He's a man at peace, it seems. With the decisions he's made over the last four years, and with the consequences he's feeling here in London. He's fine with that. He knows he doesn't have a goddamn thing to prove to anyone. And that sense of satisfied closure appears to have made him a much nicer guy.

Now that's not to say that Phelps isn't infuriated by his out-touched silver tonight in the 200 fly. The way he lost it was eerie, a true live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword moment. It was Beijing's miracle 100 fly in reverse, with South Africa's Chad Le Clos playing the role of Phelps, as Phelps himself coasted into the wall just like Mike Cavic. Head up, arms reaching, momentum failing - it looked exactly the same. As did Le Clos's Phelps impersonation - a bad ass head down short stroke punch to the wall that snatched away what looked like certain gold.

Moments after seeing the scoreboard, Phelps tossed his cap, the rage at the result barely contained. He exited the pool quickly. I don't know if he went backstage and threw chairs and screamed obscenities and punched walls, maybe he did and who could blame him? But when he returned on camera with his relay mates in the men's 4 x 200 free, he was back in the zone and he got the job done.

Yet listening to the American foursome's joyful post-race banter, it was bizarre to hear what Phelps kept repeating over and over. I needed a lead. I just told these guys I needed a lead... Come again? Michael Phelps needing a lead, just to hang on to victory? This is the guy who could swim down anyone, in anything. Back in the day, he wouldn't need a lead, he would want to dive in behind, just to make it interesting. Because if you were within striking distance, you were dead.

Phelps was just being honest. France's Yannick Agnel is now the better swimmer. He would have smoked Phelps if he'd dove in a second or two behind. What's bizarre is that Phelps is fine with that. He knows it and he isn't fighting it. He's just trying to enjoy this farewell Olympic tour, come what may.

This is not a champion who can't accept when his time has come. Who can't admit that his passion has waned and now hungrier swimmers are beginning to eat him up. Truth is, he's been waiting for this time to come for quite some time.

He still has two more individual races left and they're going to be special ones. First, that showdown with Lochte in the 200 IM, and then, the rematch with Cavic in the 100 fly. He still may win them both. To win either, he'll have to go to the well one last time. We'll see what's left down there over the next four days.

Many expected this epic career to end with one more dominating scorched earth Olympic performance. But it turns out this one isn't about the medal haul.

Maybe, for the ultimate Olympian of all time, it's about remembering the Olympic creed itself:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well. 

Franklin, the Face of Swimming

Missy Franklin - There is no better ambassador... Close your eyes for a moment and try to picture the perfect avatar of swimming. He or she would be brilliantly talented for one, a gold medal threat in many events. She would be eloquent and real and warm and beloved by her teammates. She would be grounded and self aware. She would be driven not by money, but by what really matters - having fun and embracing the moment.

But most of all, she would be a fearless competitor. All those warm and fuzzies would belie her essential nature. The nature of a cut throat clutch performer.

Open your eyes and see Missy Franklin standing before you. If USA Swimming could assemble their ideal athlete, the one they'd want to hold up to the world and say this is swimming in America, this is who we are, that athlete would look exactly like Missy Franklin. If I could hold up a swimmer for my daughter and say this is what it's all about, this is a role model for you, that swimmer would also be Franklin. I am positive that I'm not the only parent to feel this way.

Sure, Phelps and Lochte remain the face of the sport for the wider world, and rightly so; Franklin still has a long way to go before she can amass their incredible accomplishments. Yet, this 17-year-old high school senior to be could give both of those guys media training. They might be a decade older, but when Missy speaks, she is far their superior. Good god, how well spoken is this girl?

But back to the water. Yesterday in London, she did something not even Phelps or Lochte have done. Her double - 200 free semifinal and just 15 minutes later the final of the 100 back - must rank among the greatest Olympic swimming achievements ever. As Rowdy Gaines pointed out in the primetime broadcast, if you're not a swimmer you cannot possibly understand how difficult that was.

The 200 free is a back-breaker of a race. It's the perfect masochistic mix of sprint and stamina. It leaves you absolutely gutted. That's why so many consider it the true standard of the sport. The best pure swimmer is the one who wins this race. In her semifinal heat, Franklin somehow stayed contained. She expended just enough energy to secure her place in the final - she grabbed the last spot, in 8th. I'm guessing she was going about 90% for the first three laps. But when she turned for home, she had to notice her spot in the final slipping away. She went to the legs hard that last 50 and did what she needed to do. But she would be needing those legs something fierce fifteen minutes later.

The 100 back is mostly legs, and Franklin had almost no time to recover. She jumped in the diving well and tried to swim it off as Ryan Lochte marched out for the final of the men's 200 free. Consider that little detail for a moment: One of the most anticipated drama-packed races of the Games was going on about fifty feet away from her, while she was trying to warm down and slow her racing heart. That's no small distraction.

Then she was back, dry behind the blocks and looking strangely relaxed and recovered. When the swimmers were told to enter the water, Franklin broke into a huge smile. You see smiles of a different sort behind the blocks all the time at the Olympics. They're forced nerves-cracking pressure-getting-to-me grins. They look painful and they say: Choke Imminent.

This was the exact opposite of that. Like everything else with Franklin, it looked totally genuine. She really is having fun out there.

Now, here's what would happen to everyone else if you were attempting this double. You would force yourself to get psyched up and over energized, and when the race went off, you would blast into it. You would over swim the first 25 meters; you would be winning, but already fading by the 50; by 75 meters the field would go by you. The announcers would be sympathetic, they'd say you just ran out of steam after that too-tough double. But it wouldn't really be that. You would fade because you didn't swim your race.

Somehow, yet again, Franklin swam within herself. She did what every coach on earth tells his swimmers to do: She swam her own race. She surfaced dead last, was still way back at 25 meters, and slowly built momentum into the wall. By 75 meters, instead of fading, Franklin was surging. It was over by then. Franklin finishes her 100 back the way Aaron Peirsol used to. Which is to say, she owns the last 15 meters of the race.

She touched in American record time, a half second drop from her lifetime best. 15 minutes after swimming 1:57.5 in a pressurized 200 free semi.

This is legendary stuff we're witnessing. A bit like watching Phelps first attempt his grueling eight-gold campaign back in Athens. It's resetting the standards of what's possible. Phelps left Athens with six gold and two bronze, setting the table for Beijing perfection four years later. Franklin will probably leave London with four gold (adding the 200 back and the next two relays), a bronze in that first relay, and may reach the podium in the 200 and 100 free too. It will be among the greatest Games ever for any female swimmer.

But of course, this 17-year-old avatar is just getting started.

The Lost Peacock

An inside out account of NBC's doomed broadcast model... Guess what? The ones producing these Games can't stand tape delay either...   It's 9pm London time, 4pm on the east coast of the U.S. The swimming finals have just ended and the NBC production crew has just produced another session of Olympic action. Now it's time to get to work. That is, chopping up the footage, re-calling some races, cutting some features, and otherwise tweaking their coverage until it's just right and ready to air four hours later. Or five or six or seven hours later, depending on when it finally makes it into NBC's primetime broadcast.

The talented folks doing this insane amount of work, they get it. They know - even more than you do - that these events should be airing live. They know it's infinitely better that way, despite the inevitable in-the-moment imperfections. They know this because most of them spend the rest of their days producing other sporting events. Ones that air live. Like the NFL and Wimbledon and, say, the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha.

Ask the Olympic veterans around the International Broadcast Center about their favorite Games past. Their answers may surprise you. They have almost nothing to do with whatever world capital was the host, or what American superstar delivered transcendent performances. These things are memorable, no question. Sydney was the single best host for an Olympics in anyone's memory, just the perfect Olympic city. And Beijing will always be unforgettable thanks to Phelps's eight gold perfection. But if you're asking about favorites, the answer is simple: The ones that were live. Like Salt Lake City in 2002 and Atlanta in 1996. (Two towns that are on no one's list of favorite world cities...)

For those who work in sports television, live means two things: A better product and sane working conditions. (Is sane the wrong word? Nothing in TV is sane, but at least bearable...) You produce a terrific event with that incomparable live drama, and when it ends it's over. No do-overs, no re-voicing, no re-touching the features. Game over, for both the athletes and the ones bringing it to you.

I was a part of this Olympic road show for some time. These London Games are the first Summer Olympics I've missed since 1992. I was there with NBC in Sydney and Athens and Torino and Beijing... All on tape, with one exception -- the swimming in Beijing. Saw the light during those eight days. It was like arriving in the land of Oz, suddenly alive in technicolor, after three Games in taped black and white. Unfortunately, it went right back to gray old Kansas as soon as the swimming ended and the rest of the events aired per usual on tape.

I know we all want to believe that it's ultimately all about the athletes, but the production and the programming behind them has a profound impact on how those athletic feats are perceived. Phelps mania would never have taken hold the way it did in Beijing if you hadn't been watching it live back home in the States.

So, if the viewers and the ones making it for those viewers know that these events should all be aired live - for the good of all involved - then why aren't they? Two words: bad business.

You can listen to television executives moan about how complicated this all is, how you just don't understand the light speed shifts in the media landscape, how the basic brutal realities make it impossible for a network to air the Olympics live. It must be on tape in primetime if the events are going down in the wrong time zone. This is because the lion's share of advertising dollars are made during primetime, and those ads prop up everything else. Expensive ads need a big audience, and a big majority of the audience is at work when most of these Olympic finals are taking place during the week.

However, this avoids the basic truth, the flaw in the whole design. The Olympics have become a bad business for NBC because bad businessmen have run it into the ground. And they've done it in the exact same manner that every other business gets run into the ground. Follow along with these three fatal steps: 1. Overspend on the product. 2. Misunderstand the market. 3. Try to dig your way out by offering a compromised outdated product in a way that can pay off your debts.

1. Overspend on product: NBC paid $2.2 billion on the rights to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games and the Games in London. The network lost $220 million on Vancouver. They won't earn $220 million on London to break even for this multi-billion two Games investment. The network has said it will likely lose money on these Games too, blaming the high cost of working in London, but it's a lot more than that.

NBC has also paid $4.38 billion for the rights to the next four Olympics. A billion and change each. That's a hell of a gamble for an old media model that they've already proven doesn't work financially.

2. Misunderstand the market: The online vitriol surrounding the London broadcasts has been overwhelming. Complete with the ranting Twitter hashtag #nbcfail. This is because the market understands what NBC doesn't - that this live freezing feed online followed by taped events in primetime is an insulting way to watch the Olympics.

Do not expect them to understand this any time soon. This is because, thus far, the ratings have been great. So much so, that the network is saying they might get a little closer to breaking even, now that they can charge more for the remaining advertising through week two of London. Hiding behind these short term high ratings is like hiding behind the price of your new home in Vegas in 2005. Good luck with that equity.

3. Offer a compromised outdated product. That's what you're watching right now. You're watching Olympic production wisdom from the 60's and 70's. The scripture of Roone Arledge, the gospel of Dick Ebersol. It is difficult to overstate how worshipped this gospel is inside the walls of NBC's upper echelons. Dissent is NOT permitted. That's not to say that all those producers, writers, editors, and talent don't fully see the fallacy in all this. It's just that they're being held hostage as much as you are.

Actually, more so. When you get fed up, you can get up and walk away. Grab a beer from the fridge and rant a little on Twitter. When the folks producing these Games feel that way, all they can do is suck it up, have their eighth coffee of the day, and get back to work.

They deserve better. They deserve live. And so do you.

A Dish Served Cold

France exacts relay revenge with apropos last lap comeback...  You can't say the Olympic gods don't have a sense of humor. Or at least a wicked sense of poetic justice. An epic upset was upturned in the most fitting of ways tonight. Put your allegiances aside for just a moment and smile through the looking glass at the scene.

Four years ago, the greatest race in Olympic swimming history... The men's 4 x 100 free relay in Beijing, back when the Frenchmen were invincible and Phelps's eight gold quest was surely doomed at race number two. And then, Jason Lezak's out-of-body experience. The fastest man on earth, France's Alain Bernard, tracked down over an impossible last lap by Lezak. The post race celebration by Phelps and Co remains the signature moment of those Games.

Fast forward four years. Bernard is gone, so is Lezak from the final, but there's France and Team USA in the center of the pool again, side by side. Except this time, neither was supposed to have a chance. This race was supposed to belong to the Aussies. The squad with the top two ranked men in the world, the foursome that on paper looked unbeatable. (Deja vu, anyone?)

Note to the Aussies: It's very hard to swim fast with your hands wrapped around your throat. It was clear from the first leg that they weren't showing up. Their Missle failed to launch. James Magnussen went 47.1 at Australian Trials, a swim that made him the heavy favorite for gold in the 100 free. He led off in 48.0. He choked. There's no other word for it. So did his mates that came next. But this isn't about them. Turns out they were a mere distraction.

That's the far off truth about revenge, where that cold dish cliché comes from. Revenge is best when you don't see it coming. When you've forgotten all about the pain you caused, when you've moved on, but the victims still simmer. And wait for their time to strike.

The French picked the perfect, cruelest moment. The new king, the greatest swimmer on earth, flipped with a lead with a lap to go. He unleashed his devastating underwater blast and widened it off the wall. The coronation continued. Then something started to happen. Something so twisted and wrong yet right... It was France's turn. Their anchor started to sink Lochte.

This anchor was no no-name. His name is Yannick Agnel and he's the fastest 200 freestyler in the world, the guy who's actually the favorite tomorrow in the final of the men's 200 free. His best time this year is over a second faster than anyone else in 2012 - and that includes the 200 free semifinals tonight. A little detail that won't make much of the mainstream media, yet should be obvious to anyone paying any attention...

Safe to say Agnel's confidence might be surging right about now. His split over that last 100? 46.8. Last 50? 24.6. It wasn't quite Lezak-esque (in Beijing, Lezak was 46.0), but it was more than enough. Fact is, Agnel ended the race with twenty meters to go. He won going away by half a second.

Lochte came home in 47.7. No shame in that, but sure to spark some second guessing. Matt Grevers split 47.5 in the prelims earlier. Many will say he should have been the guy on that relay, not Lochte. But Grevers swam a 100 back semi-final minutes before and no one can deny that Lochte is on as can be this week. The American line-up was the right call. It just wasn't enough.

Yannick Agnel might be the hero tonight, but it's two of his relay mates who are really soaking in this revenge right about now. Four years ago, the French team led off with Amaury Leveaux and followed with Fabien Gilot. This was the exact same front half line-up that France fielded tonight. The pair put the French in contention, a little less than a second back from the Americans after a brilliant second leg split (47.1) from Phelps.

Once again, they were standing there together panting behind the blocks, powerless, waiting for their countrymen to decide their fate.

Like the rest of you, I was screaming for Lochte to pull it out. But the Olympic gods had other ideas.

They cooked up something cold in London.