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.

Michael Andrew Becomes a Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Place Your (Charity) Bets

Gambling, for Good, on Olympic Sport... Everything's more exciting with a bit of action on the outcome. A gambler's truism if there ever was one. Many might go with the glass half empty outlook: Nothing is exciting without some money on the line.

Wherever you fall on the compulsiveness meter, this is the one week of the year where you're probably placing a bet of some sort. Super Bowl week: the time when even teetotaling Mormons know the spread. The time when hard core bettors go on a mad frothing bender... In Vegas alone, there will be an estimated $100 million wagered legally. A drop in the cash bucket compared to the estimates worldwide. If you count offshore Internet gambling sites, illegal bookies, and the countless 'friendly' bets made in every living room in America, some say over $10 billion is bet this week on the game of games, by over 200 million people across the world.

It's a beautiful thing. Depending on how you view this fine vice... I love to gamble. Always have. Horses and poker, mainly, but having some cash on the line in any contest will always make it just that much more...

Unfortunately, wagering on our favorite sport of all has never been an option. (Officially that is...) Much as I'd love to see odds posted at the biggest meets, that doesn't seem like an idea that's going to entice the good folks at USA Swimming or the NCAA anytime soon. But just envision it for a second: 2-1 odds on Lochte beating Phelps in the 200 free. 50-1 odds on anyone beating Phelps in the 200 fly. How about a favorite / longshot Exacta in the men's 50 free - Cesar Cielo and Anthony Ervin, anyone? How about being able to bet the Trifecta on any podium at the Games?

Obvious opportunity for corruption and scandal aside, the idea does have its upsides. Like legalizing marijuana in California or legalizing Internet gambling in all 50 states, opening up wagering on swimming could instantly cure many financial crises. Things like, say, all of men's college swimming... Alas, few want to hear about vice coming to the rescue.

In the meantime, here's a noble way to get your gambling fix on in Olympic sport. Take a look at Charity Bets. Do-gooding meets stock-picking, in sport... A way to gamble on your favorite athletes. And when you win, you give. Come again? Isn't gambling about getting? Yes, well, time to test that old Christmas cliché - it's better to give than to receive...

Here's how it happened: A few sporty finance guys in New York were looking to raise money for cancer research around an athletic event. According to the site, their approach can be summed up with this simple premise: "I bet you can't run this fast, or jump this high, or throw this far." The essence of every challenge between competitors, with an emphasis on the bet. These guys decided to go a step further, set up a site, started contacting athletes, and a beautiful charitable mission was born.

And here's how it works: Pick your athlete and issue your challenge. Pick your favorite charity. Place your bets. Athlete succeeds, you win, you pay up to your chosen worthy cause.

U.S. marathon champion Meb Keflezighi has been the early face of Charity Bets. By winning the U.S. Olympic marathon Trials in Houston last month, Keflezighi won his bets, and raised a boatload for the chosen charities. U.S. sprinters Walter Dix and Justin Gatlin are also on board.

So, the question is, why aren't any swimmers on Charity Bets yet? Why aren't the Olympic Swimming Trials listed on the site as events with open charitable wagering? Right now, there are plenty of options in running, biking, and triathlon. Where are the swimmers?

This is what swimmers do anyway. Last week, I heard Ryan Lochte and Conor Dwyer were talking trash at workout, challenging each other over who could do what in practice. Apparently Lochte tells Dwyer there's no way you can stand up and go 3:48 in the 400 IM, right now. Dwyer takes the bait. Stands up and goes 3:42. In practice. Same time he went at NCAA's last year... Impressing Ryan Lochte must have been nice. Seeing him have to pay up - to a worthy cause - would have been even sweeter.

I'm ready to place some bets. So, here's a challenge to kick this off: Lochte, I've got $100 that says you can't break your world record this year in the 200 IM. You pick the charity.

I would love to pay up.

The Price of College

Missy Franklin and the Value of the Undergrad Degree To have problems like these... Option A: Accept a full scholarship to any university in America. Soak up school's eternal gratitude. Win many NCAA titles. Have time of your life. Option B: Accept prize money and untold endorsements. Win a few gold medals in London. Appear on Wheaties box. Earn far more than that college scholarship was "worth."

A champagne problem indeed. A truly diamond-studded dilemma... This is what is currently facing 16-year-old high school junior Missy Franklin. She's the best American female swimmer since Janet Evans, and she's earned this difficult choice by virtue of her astonishing talent. While I have never met the girl, everything I have seen, heard, and read indicates that she is a smart and grateful young athlete. I think she gets it, and I think she appreciates that there are worse problems to have.

It is a rare and privileged decision to face, yet it is hardly a can't-lose choice. The possibility of regret looms large on both sides. What if I win big in London and turn down millions that I might never see again? Just for the chance to have the college swimming experience? What if I take the plunge and accept the money and then get hurt? Or simply lose the fire or the mojo required to win gold medals? This is hardly NBA-contract guaranteed money. The real money in swimming (what little there is of it) is incentive-laden to the extreme. It's what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. Stop winning, stop earning...

Nonetheless, don't you wish you could have had such a choice at 16?

While this question affects a miniscule population of the obscenely talented, their rare choice shines a light on a much wider question, one that affects every college student who does not have the luxury of a scholarship or parents wealthy enough to pay their way. That is - what am I paying for? And, more importantly, is it worth it?

That's the real question of value, isn't it? The essential balancing act that determines the price of everything. In every story written about athletes turning pro and forgoing college, you tend to see the same numbers bandied about. The price of college is often cited as "as much as $200,000" - meaning the tuition of top schools being around fifty grand a year these days. But this is a prime example of basing value on the literal rather than the actual. Something we all do, lazily, because it's easier. How much did Speedo offer you? $100K? Well, a Stanford scholarship is "worth" twice that.

Apologies for the continued use of quotation marks around the word "worth", but this number is ridiculous. Here's why: there is nothing more overpriced in America today than the cost of an undergraduate degree. If universities were stocks, I would short liberal arts colleges with every penny I have. What you get out is very often not what you put in. Or at least, not until that debt is paid off so many years later... It's a bad investment for its current going rate.

This argument is hardly news. It's one of the many grievances of the angry folks trying to occupy Wall Street. Higher education costs too much and it doesn't offer any decent return. Due to this imbalance, three things could happen: 1. Tuition prices go down. 2. Post-graduation salaries go up. 3. Many kids stop attending college altogether. Any guess on the most likely scenario?

So, this would make Missy Franklin's choice much easier, right? The value of that scholarship is absurdly inflated, so why not take the endorsement and prize money - income that is actual.

But there's the sad irony. While the cost of an undergraduate degree, in tuition terms, is grossly overpriced, the value of the collegiate athletic experience may be the most undervalued thing on any college campus. Hell, they're cutting many of the programs that offer the highest return!

College swimmers, where do you think you're going to meet the lead to your first employer? Where might you meet the friend you later start a business with? What network will you tap into if you wind up out of work at 30 and needing an in? Clue: Don't expect your degree to open many doors...

I know, these aren't exactly variables that should enter the mind of a talented 16-year-old. She should be thinking about the experience, the friendships that will be forged, the energy of an NCAA team standing as one, shoulder to shoulder along the edge of a pool, waving a teammate home in the heat of a close race... These are things that are impossible to value is financial terms. Or are they? Because many of those moments can and will transfer into career-making opportunities.

Regret is not an emotion often admitted by elite athletes. When things don't go exactly as planned, you tend to hear the "I wouldn't change a thing" line, the "it made me who I am" denials. Fair enough. I wouldn't admit it either. But the precedent of regret after turning pro is hard to miss. Especially among female swimmers.

Back in the early 1990's, I was growing up alongside the Missy Franklin of that era, a breaststroke phenom named Anita Nall. A year apart, we were friends and teammates on the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. At the 1992 Olympic Trials, 15-year-old Anita broke the world record in the 200 breaststroke - twice in one day.  She was the golden girl of the moment, the young charmed face of the American team heading into the Barcelona Games. Faced with sudden professional opportunities, she took the money and decided to forgo her NCAA eligibility.

In Barcelona, she had a good meet. But not a great one... A best time and an American record in the 100 breast, good enough for silver. A gold as a part of the women's 4 x 100 medley relay. But in the 200 breast, the event she was expected to dominate, she was just slightly off her best. She missed the gold by 2-tenths of a second and had to settle for bronze. She was never the same swimmer after that. There were reasons, valid ones like chronic fatigue, but she had missed her window, by 23-100ths of a second.

An individual gold medal is where it's at, the price of admission really, if you're talking about a "pro" swimming career paying off. Sixteen years after Anita's near miss in Barcelona, another high school pro from NBAC was forced to face the same reality. In 2008, Katie Hoff arrived in Beijing with an albatross of expectations weighing over her. The female Phelps, we called her. It wasn't fair maybe, but she'd earned it. She was the best female swimmer on the planet in the early summer of 2008. But by late summer, after her Games had ended, Hoff, like Anita Nall, was no longer the same swimmer. They both exited the Olympics with three medals, none of them individual gold.

Of course, NBAC also produced the ultimate example, the one career scripted by the gods. In Olympic waters, not much has ever gone wrong for Michael Phelps. No need to recite the litany of greatest hits. The money he's made makes these pro vs college debates completely moot. But that took how many gold medals? Maybe that shooting star destiny awaits Missy Franklin in London. Maybe it won't be any decision at all. But more likely, it will come down to a difficult question of value.

College might be overpriced, but college swimming remains the deal of a lifetime.

State of Pay

Sports Illustrated and the Plot to Kill College Swimming (And the rest of the NCAA's Olympic sports...) The NCAA is broken. No breaking news there, folks have been shouting from the sidelines for decades about this inept institution of American sport. But the chorus is growing, the pitch raising a few octaves of outrage. There are long "important" stories emerging from the bastions of journalism. The sort of stories that make Athletic Directors sweat, make coaches cringe, and eventually, make the athletes themselves stand up and take action. This should be inspiring stuff. An uprising coming, college athletes finally speaking up and demanding an end to an unjust colonial past...

Careful what you wish for. This pay-for-play revolution against the NCAA might finally put a fair share of money into the pockets of the young men who earn so many millions for their schools. Those football players who pack 100,000 seat stadiums every fall Saturday, those basketball players who put the money-gushing Madness into March... It could also put a great many of the NCAA's non-revenue sports on life support, making men's college swimming an endangered species, much more so than it already is.

Last month, the Atlantic Monthly published a front page story entitled The Shame of College Sports. When Frank Deford (aka the Greatest Sportswriter in History) called it the "most important article ever written about college sports", the story quickly circulated through the mainstream media. In this exposé, by Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch, the NCAA was revealed as a "classic cartel" with their concept of amateurism a "cynical hoax." Most damningly, Branch exposes the utter fraud that surrounds the term "student-athlete." He points out that this long clung-to term was created with no educational reason whatsoever. It was coined to prevent college athletes from suing their schools for worker's compensation if they were injured on the field of play.

A damning indictment indeed. After reading it, I forwarded it along with passionate support for Branch's case. It was time to start paying these kids, time to strip the cartel of its shameful ways. Power to the players! Or something like that... And then, last week, Sports Illustrated picked up the cause. As they frequently do so well, SI decided to go beyond mere reporting and sought to map out a plan. If we could all agree the NCAA was broken, and if you read Branch's story it's virtually impossible to disagree, then what are we supposed to do to fix it?

SI's answer? Follow the money and start treating college sports like a business. Translation: screw any sport that doesn't make money for the school. Let them figure out how to pay their own way. If they can't figure out how to break even, then good riddance. Wait, what?

In a tone deaf treatise, the SI plan could fairly be termed the "Anti Olympic Sport Plan." This Moneyball Lite attempt at valuing collegiate sport across a broad and misunderstood spectrum could inflict deep wounds to a wide range of Olympic sports - ones long perfected at American colleges.  That doesn't seem to occur to, or at least bother, the sports lovers at SI. Here's how the usually great George Dohrmann described the loss of such sports and their supporters: "Traditionalists will bemoan the loss of some programs, claiming they provided a meaningful service to the university... (But) for the most part, non-revenue varsity sports serve only the participants and a small cadre of supporters." He maps out the savings possible in cutting such sports (ie swimming), and goes on to state that budget-less club sports "offer student-athletes an experience that is at least as rewarding."

Like a hit man who doesn't wish to know the names and backgrounds of the dead men walking on his hit list, the word "swimming" is never mentioned once in Dohrmann's article. (There is one swimmer pictured in the double-page collage of college athletes on the title page, but that's the extent of swimming's presence here...) Sports like wrestling and water polo, gymnastics and rowing, get name-checked in passing, but they too get dismissed as marginalized pastimes closer in character to Ultimate Frisbee than the Final Four. Perhaps hit man was an overly dramatic analogy. A better comparison: a heartless CEO who blindly fires large swathes of workers, no names please, in the cause of corporate efficiency.

For all of the NCAA's obvious sins, the uncomfortable fact remains that much of the money earned from the Big Two revenue-generators, football and basketball, helps pay the way for the rest of many athletic departments. Helps pay for your flights to the conference championships, your coaches' salaries, and most of all, the considerable daily costs of maintaining a 650,000 gallon world class aquatic facility. These things don't come cheap. And there are many who don't want to hear about the revenue-free value swimmers might bring to their college campuses as upstanding student-athletes.

There's the irony. Swimmers, as much as any other athlete, embody the term "student-athlete." It might have been coined with ulterior cynical motives way back when. And the phrase still might be a sham when it comes to so many college football and basketball players. But it remains an accurate and honorable way to describe collegiate aquatic athletes. Nonetheless, they produce zero revenue for a school. No one is paying to come watch your meets. Or at least, seldom and insignificant amounts. No TV networks are clamoring to air your exploits to a wider audience. (Even in the Age of Phelps, TV money for swimming continues to be negligible outside of the Olympics...) But you take a lot. Often into the millions a year for top teams. Yet, financially speaking, you give nothing back. This puts a bulls eye on swimmers' sculpted backs.

Through no fault of their own, the risk to college swimming remains a uniquely men's problem. Due to Title IX, women's sports remain well protected. This reverse gender inequity has led to some misguided resentment among many male swimmers. Don't blame your female teammates. They've earned - and deserve - those scholarships and security. If you want a villain, gentlemen, take aim at your school's football programs. The imbalance created by Title IX's gender equity requirements remains largely due to the fact that there will never be a comparable women's sport that swallows up so many scholarships and forever tips the balance.

But that brings it all back home. The paradox that leaves men's swimming gasping for air in uncertain seas... Your college swim team's very existence could be largely due to the money generated by your school's football and basketball teams. Your football and basketball teams' existence is founded on a dark colonial past (and present) that uses its players without regard for their off-the-field well-being or academic standing - and does not share with them the spoils that they earned.

As you can see, this could get ugly very quickly. The component of race becomes unavoidable. The perception could become one of non-revenue teams of predominantly white athletes being carried along by money-making teams of predominantly African American athletes. Even without that level of dare-to-tread discomfort, it is a situation of Haves and Haves Nots. With the added twist that the Haves don't really get to have what should fairly be coming to them.

Then of course, there's the looming question of that "free education." That scholarship that's worth, in some cases, in excess of $200,000, all told. The long favored argument of the never-pay-college-athletes camp... Much more on that in weeks to come, but suffice to say, it's neither "free" nor, in plenty of cases, an "education" at all.

Like most issues that matter, there is no clear path here, only complexity. A dose of Herman Cain cluelessness would be nice right now. If only we could reduce it to an easy-to-remember three digit solution... But the reality is that the NCAA has become a deeply flawed and corrupted institution with no idea how to repair itself. It is not doing right by its athletes. After reading Taylor Branch's piece in the Atlantic, I am convinced these athletes deserve a share of the money they generate for their schools. After reading SI's so-called solution, I'm worried that this eventuality could lead to a mass cutting of programs across college swimming, along with the rest of NCAA Olympic sports that do not generate a penny for their schools.

There must be a better way, some solution that rewards the young men who bring heaps of money and prestige to their schools, without punishing their fellow athletes who happen to compete in unmonetized contests. What about allowing the free market to do its thing? Open the door to endorsements for all. If you can make money from a third party, like say Gatorade or your local car dealership, more power to you. This would allow for the likes of Michael Phelps to have competed for the University of Michigan; it would eliminate that ridiculous threshold of fake professionalism that locks out some of the all-time best from competing on the NCAA stage. Just because they were fast enough, young enough, to be valued by companies eager to associate themselves with greatness...

SI published a side bar on this consideration as well. They call it the Free Market Plan, and count me as one of its advocates. I look forward to the day when a phenom like Missy Franklin does not have to make that absurd choice between taking money from a sponsor and swimming in college. Yet, before we all breath a sigh of relief and pour our faith in the invisible hand of the market, consider for a moment how college football might look if agents and boosters and the rest of the sport's slippery remora were actually allowed to put money in their players' pockets. You think things are corrupt now? Just wait until Auburn's next transfer Heisman quarterback can sell his services out in the open to every SEC school...

As the debate continues, in national magazines and athletic departments across the country, safe to say swimming won't be a priority on too many agendas. That is, until every fourth year, when the world decides to perk up and pay attention to the Olympic Games' most popular sport. And when that happens, I wonder how many will take the time to count how many of those world class aquatic specimens were produced in NCAA pools now earmarked for elimination?