Michael Turns 30

Michael Phelps always swore he'd never be swimming at age 30... He is.  A man's entitled to change his mind. A kid's expected to change his mind, plenty. As both a young man and a teenage kid, Michael insisted over and over that you would never catch him on the starting blocks when he was 30 years old. At times he said it with a note of disdain, as if yeah right, I'll be long gone by then, when I'm, like, old. A few years ago, in the wake of London, he said it with a note of relief. He was sick of the sport in 2012, ready to move on with his life, and he did. Or he tried to. But when you're the best ever at something it's not so easy to swim away. You realize the view's a lot better from the top of a mountain.

And so, Michael Phelps did what most expected him to do. He came back. He picked up where he left off - at the top of the world rankings, the straw that stirs the drink of USA Swimming. His arrest and subsequent suspension for drunk driving last fall left some wondering if the comeback trail would dry up, but in the time since the man has professed to do some soul-searching. According to Bob Bowman (aka the Great & Powerful Oz behind the curtain), he's also been putting in the work. Something that Bowman hasn't proclaimed since, oh, around 2008.

It's been a redemptive few months for Team Phelps. His recent results at the Santa Clara Arena Swim Pro Series were encouraging. His deck side demeanor has been downright jovial. His press conferences on point. It's all about the love of the sport and the peace of mind these days for Michael, and caps off to that. It feels a far cry from the grumbling put out champion who approached London with a heavy load of obligation. Retiring after the bounty of Beijing was never an option, there was too much riches at stake, but it was apparent that Phelps was going through the motions in that long Olympiad between '08 and '12.

He hung it up after that, poured his prodigious competitive energies into poker and golf and Lord knows what else. But he couldn't keep his eyes off the times. They weren't getting faster. There was no one stepping up to claim his vacated throne. Sure, Lochte wasn't going anywhere, and sure Chad Le Clos kept improving thanks to the eternal confidence booster of his Phelps vanquishing in the 200 fly in London. But has there ever been any doubt: Michael on his best day, prepared and focused, beats anyone, ever. He knows that better than anyone. He couldn't resist.

You wonder how much he's considered those past comments about not swimming at 30. He said it a lot. It recalled the old hippie battle cry not to trust anyone over 30. It's an age that will do that to some folks, a number that shakes you up out on the horizon, speaks of an adulthood you don't quite grasp. He wasn't alone in being spooked by the big 3-0, he just had more microphones in his face.

Now that it's past maybe there's a sigh of silly relief as you realize it was never anything but a number. Maybe there's a bit of sheepishness as he remembers all the times he scoffed at doing exactly what he's doing now. There shouldn't be. He's doing what he does best, does better than anyone ever before, and if he's enjoying it then why not do it forever?

There's a proud romance in going out on top, in your prime, leaving a good looking athletic corpse. Leave that to the romantics in the stands. If you're a competitor, and that word sums up Michael more than any other, then that just isn't an option. It wasn't an option for Jordan or Ali, was it? Those are his contemporaries, icons and ugliness and all. Except Michael isn't getting hit in the head or beat up in the lane by younger faster opponents. Swimmers have nothing but clear still water before them. If the body and the mind hold up, why can't they continue into middle age?

So, on the 30th birthday of the GOAT, let's float a prospect for Mr. Phelps: Never retire. Never acknowledge any last times or swan songs or victory laps. Just keep swimming, as some animated fish once said. 2016 in Rio would be Michael's 5th Olympics, but why stop there? All the records have already been set, the legacy beyond secured. Why not go for 2020, when he'll be 35? Why not 2024 - age 39? You don't think he'll still be fast enough to swim a key leg on an American relay? What about in 2028 when he's long past 40?

Duke Kahanamoku, arguably the most admirable swimmer in history, was 21-years-old when he won the 100 freestyle at the 1912 Stockholm Games. Eight years later the Duke won the 100 free a second time on his 30th birthday at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. (He can blame World War I for interrupting the Games and denying him the hat trick...) A few years later at the 1924 Paris Games, he was months shy of 34 when he raced to silver in the same event behind one Johnny Weissmuller. The Duke's little brother Sam was four-tenths back for the bronze. And swimming was really Duke's second legacy. This is the guy who, more than anyone else, exported the sport of surfing from his native Hawaii to both the mainland United States and Australia. His legacy as the ultimate aquatic pioneer remains untouched.

The Duke had a great quote that lives on in surfing culture. He said: "Out of water, I am nothing."

Happy Birthday, Michael.

The Smell of Smoke

Katinka Hosszu is the best all-around swimmer on earth right now... What everyone is talking about, but no one wants to say...  There is no proof. There never is, not when it matters, not when it's needed most. So, this is what happens: the coaches grumble; the experts roll their eyes; the athletes offer lukewarm congrats at the end of each eye-popping race. Everyone talks, but no one speaks up. Because only amateurs fail drug tests, and without that proof positive test it's all just jealous hearsay.

Except the chatter is often true, and the visual evidence - on the body and the scoreboard - generally doesn't lie.

Our latest Exhibit A: Hungary's "Iron Lady" Katinka Hosszu. FINA's reigning World Swimmer of the Year; three-time world champion; holder of five short course meter world records; and the woman who, last fall, became the first swimmer ever to surpass $1 million earned solely in prize money in the pool. She did this, of course, by globe-trotting the World Cup circuit and swimming a superhuman number of races at almost every stop.

This has resulted in a considerable amount of fawning press from the world's swimming media. "Iron Lady" has a certain brand-name ring to it, and Hosszu keeps the headlines pumping. No one competes, consistently, at a higher level than she does. Repeat - no one, ever. Not Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky and certainly not Ryan Lochte, who's always tended to look like a beaten slow sack of chiseled flesh when he races while immersed in heavy training. But not Hosszu. Her consistency, her ability to recover, and her never-flagging form continues without breakdown, regardless of when or where the race is going down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secretly, every cynic hopes to be wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Process of Courage

Jeff Julian - Friend, Coach, Cancer Survivor To-Be...  You're sitting in a doctor's office. Something's been bothering you, a pain in your back and neck that just isn't getting better. You're fit, not yet 40, a former champion butterflyer who knows his body the way only swimmers do. Your days are spent active, on your feet on a pool deck, under a warm Southern California sun. The pain has been progressing for a few months now, but Advil usually takes care of it. Whatever it is, there must be an easy explanation. It's probably just one of those nagging signs of aging, the aches and pains of creeping middle age.

But then one night you're out to dinner with your wife and the pain becomes too much to ignore. You contact a doctor. The next day you head to the hospital.

And then, after a whirlwind of tests, you hear the unthinkable. The C-word, says the doctor. It's lung cancer, he tells you. It doesn't get more serious.

How would you react?

If you're Jeff Julian, head coach of Rose Bowl Aquatics and former All-American at USC, your response is the very definition of courage. You announce your diagnosis on Facebook with unblinking candor and a fearlessness that's hard to fathom. Then, you end your note to your stunned readers with this line: "I wanted to share this with you one time, before I put my head down and get ready to kick some ass.”

Hear that, cancer? Prepare yourself for a beat down.

Picture the polar opposite of a lung cancer sufferer. That is Jeff Julian. Never a smoker, a world class athlete, a wise coach with perspective and patience, possessed of a singular So Cal laugh that never fails to send out positive vibrations. The last man you'd expect.

Soon after his diagnosis, his team at Rose Bowl created #TEAMJeff - a site where you can support his fight and join his legion of friends and family across the swimming universe. Through the CaringBridge website, you can follow his journal, and at his site at YouCaring you can offer financial support to help fund the battle.

Jeff and I have been friends for 22 years now, since our recruiting trip to USC the same weekend in the fall of 1992. We were both 200 flyers, about the same speed, and we both fell for SC instantly. We entered as freshmen together in the fall of '93, our dorm rooms separated by two floors, our practices separated by a few feet. We were usually in the same lane, or right nearby, both cranking out the same sets with the same goals. You might think that would make us rivals. I was certainly the prickly sort, not always polite in practice. But Jeff was, and is, a man who received effortless respect. Probably because he respected everyone around him. Maybe it also had something to do with his undeniable work ethic or the way he led by example.

It's easy to slip into cliché when reminiscing on those college glory days, forgive me. This isn't some sepia toned drift down memory lane. Just a bit of context.

We both chose swimming as our careers after we hung up the goggles, and as a result, we managed to cross paths with some regularity through the years, despite living on opposite coasts. If you're lucky, you have friends like these - the ones where a year, five years, a decade can go by, and you can start chatting and pick up right where you left off.

This afternoon we picked right up again on a long phone call. The circumstances weren't great. I was calling about the News. The worst kind of elephant in any room. Yet, for the first half of the call, we didn't mention it. Not because either of us were dancing around that bastard C-word, but because we just had a lot to catch up about. There were the usual stupid-fast results from SEC's, for instance. There were the updates on our teams, our kids. (Note to Coach Dave Salo: Keep an eye on this Trenton Julian kid. I want future book odds on Trenton winning NCAAs in the 200 fly around the year 2021... As a Trojan, if they're lucky.)

Then we talked about a video Jeff had made for his swimmers and parents at Rose Bowl Aquatics last fall. If you missed it on Swim Swam, take a look. If you're a club coach, it should be required viewing. The theme of the talk is "Improve Your Swimming Process." Think Nick Saban, but for swimmers, So Cal-style. Unlike Alabama's football guru, Julian's idea of the "process" has a lot to do with the joy of the moment. But like Saban, it is about doing things the right way, in all ways. You don't look at the scoreboard or the clock or the swimmer in the next lane, you look within yourself and you figure out ways to do things better.

Jeff spoke about the dangers of 'the chase.' The way so many parents and swimmers believe that's the secret to improving - they need someone to chase, someone just a little bit better, that carrot dangling out there. Or maybe it's that green light across the bay. A doomed recipe for fulfillment anyway you cut it. Jeff saw right through it, and he's challenging all of his swimmers to transcend it. Instead of the chase, turn within and figure out the ways you can improve each skill, and do things right in the present tense every day.

He could never have known how personal and prescient that advice would be. Soon after sharing this wisdom with the swimming world, Jeff received his diagnosis. The day was January 4th. The night after his dinner with his wife of 17 years, Kristine Quance Julian, when the pain became too much. Things unraveled after that, and the news devolved from bad to worse. First it was in the lungs, but with the hope that it could be cut out of the lower lobe. Scary and life-rattling, but over quickly. No need to share with the world.

But then Jeff learned that it had spread to the bone and muscle. That meant Stage 4. Doesn't get much scarier. That's when Jeff decided to open up and post that message to Facebook. He was staring down the heaviest news a human being can receive, and he was letting the world know he was ready.

While we were chatting, I began jotting down notes. I told him I wanted to write about this and he gave this story his blessing. Here are some quotes that say all you need to know about the man:

"The only time I get emotional at all is when I think of all the love and support that's poured in." 

"So far things are really good. I feel so blessed." 

"Ironically, I'm in the best shape I've been in in twenty years. I've changed my diet, get plenty of rest, I'm swimming everyday, averaging about a mile each day." 

"Timing-wise, I got lucky." 

Wait, come again? Lucky? You heard that right. See, instead of chemo or radiation, Jeff is undergoing a trial process of immunotherapy. It's not on the market yet, and it's not available to everyone. After consulting with physicians at USC and UCLA Medical, he was chosen to participate in a trial of a drug that is reputed to 'attack the bad cells and stop them from growing.' As opposed to your classic chemo, that pretty much nukes everything, good and bad. The drug is called Nivolumab, and so far it appears to be working.

After a brutal first few weeks, as the pain intensified and the mind reeled, he began receiving biweekly treatments. After the second round he immediately felt a difference. He reports that "the last two weeks, I've been feeling awesome." He's been forgoing the pain meds and the night sweats have faded away. He got up to 2200 yards in the pool the other day.

There remains a long way to go, and Jeff knows it. But he also knows that success will come by sticking with the process. By doing the right things everyday, and going all the way in his commitment - to live and to fight another day.

The Boy Behind the Wheel

After a second DUI arrest, a hard look at Michael Phelps on dry land...  This time it's different. It's already being lumped in with his past two public transgressions, but those two past offenses belong in a separate category. A dumb decision at 19-years-old, getting behind the wheel after a few too many? Not okay, but not the end of the world either. You and a million other dumb-ass teens have done the same thing, and you hope it's lesson learned. You hope you recognize how lucky you were that no one got hurt. Transgression number two: getting caught smoking from a bong at age 23. It's hard even to dignify this with an ounce of judgement. If you have a problem with a kid in his early twenties smoking weed at a party, well then, less power to you.

But this time, for Michael Phelps, it's a different story. He didn't get caught making a teenager's mistake, and he didn't get caught puffing on something that's soon to be legal in every state any way. This time, Michael Phelps did something deserving of judgement and the harshest of words. He got shit-faced, climbed into his Land Rover, and sped almost 40 miles per hour over the speed limit, charging through the Fort McHenry Tunnel, going 84mph in a 45mph zone, swerving over the double lines as he did it. Then, when stopped, the officer immediately noticed Phelps was plastered. A sobriety test proved it: it's been reported that his blood alcohol level was almost twice the legal limit.

Then he was arrested, charged, released, and sent sulking home in shame and fear, as Michael Phelps, Inc. spun into Code Red.

Before making clear why this time it's so different, a note to the moralizing masses: I don't think Michael Phelps has a drinking problem. I don't think he's off the rails or out of control in any get-this-kid-to-rehab sense. I don't judge him for getting a DUI at 19, nor for unwinding with a bit of weed. And I certainly don't judge him for enjoying a few drinks. Lord knows I enjoy bending an elbow too. I'll be as permissive as you like when it comes to recreational drug use, as well. You can judge me for that, I'll accept my choices, and others' too. But here's where unflinching judgement is due:

When you get into your car, blitzed, and blaze down the highway going so far over the speed limit that it qualifies as reckless endangerment. What does that term mean? Well, according to Maryland state law, "this behavior is seen as reckless because it unnecessarily endangers not only your life and the lives of your passengers, but also the lives of other innocent people on the road around you."

Basically, you're not just risking your own life due to your own reckless choices, but you're risking the lives of everyone around you. This is something that they tend to remind you of a lot after one's first DUI arrest, when you get the old slap on the wrist, with probation and plenty of scared-straight classes.

Speaking of scared straight, back in high school, when I was swimming for NBAC at Meadowbrook just like Phelps, I lost a friend in a drunk driving accident. The kid was 17. He left a party plenty drunk, and flipped his car over a bridge. I'll never forget talking to his devastated father at the wake, as he made the rounds through a bunch of dazed teary teenagers, doing his best to keep it together. You probably have a similar story. Sadly, most of us do. Did that keep us from drinking when we got to college? Hell no. But did we think twice before we hopped behind a wheel and sped off into the night with a head full of booze? Damn right.

That's not to say we always made the right choices. No one does. But when you've already been busted and shamed once, and then reminded in excruciating detail how bad those decisions can turn out, then one starts to lose sympathy for your mistakes in a hurry. Going 39mph over the speed limit when you're hammered does not make you an alcoholic or an evil person. It makes you a selfish little shit without regard for the lives around you.

That's why this time is different. Phelps is well aware of the stakes. He's made high stakes his career. But outside of the pool, he's proven, in public transgressions and private ones, that he's not very good at handling himself on dry land.

The phrase "role model" is always tossed around when star athletes screw up. Like you, I tend to roll my eyes when I hear it. It's a joke, to label the athletically gifted as role models. Because Michael Phelps is the greatest who ever lived at swimming across a swimming pool does not make him a role model in any sense of the word. In fact, on dry land, he's done a pretty good job at proving he's not worthy of the label. Do you remember that great "I Am Not a Role Model" Charles Barkley commercial from back in the 90s? Barkley, like Phelps, has been arrested for a DUI. It didn't make him a worse athlete, or a less colorful commentator. It just proved that he made a selfish, dumb-ass choice, and he should face the consequences like anyone else.

Before this script is hijacked by Michael "needing help" or "recovering" as he tries to sorry and spin away this event, let's put it in the wider context of the superstar and his circle. These are men, man-childs, really, who are used to controlling their environments. They impose their prodigious will, and they get the results they want. They do not hear the word 'no' very often, and the ones who dare to utter any criticism are soon excommunicated from the flock. They would never believe the phrase "you can't." Their response, the one that makes them so damn good on the field of play, is: I'll show you.

A lovely quality when you're a master of your environment, the best ever, with a will and a talent that has inspired billions. But it's a very ugly quality indeed when you step away from the play, get hammered, hop in your fancy car, and charge down the highway putting every life in your wake at risk.

The Rising Sun

In an underwhelming midterm year, Japan is ascendant... 

Pop quiz: Who is the best all-around male swimmer on earth right now? No, it's not Phelps or Lochte. No, he's not from Australia. Or anywhere in Europe. Clue: He owns a single Olympic medal, a bronze in the 400 IM. Until this week, he'd never stood atop a podium at a major international meet.

Give up?

His name is Kosuke Hagino of Japan, and he just turned 20-years-old. It's really not even close when you look at the world rankings. He's as easy a pick as Katie Ledecky is for the women, though not nearly as jaw-droppingly, staggeringly dominant as Ms. Ledecky, who is the story of the year. But that's a story for another time. I'm still trying to digest a 17-year-old old girl going 15:28 in the mile...

Back to Hagino, who has developed an all-around versatility that can only be termed Phelpsian. Check out his best times and his current world rankings: He is presently the #1 ranked IMer in the world, in both the 200 and 400 IM, posting times of 1:55.38 and 4:07.88 this year. Backstroke is his best individual stroke, where is currently ranked #2 in the 200 (1:54.77) and #4 in the 100 (53.08). He's no slouch in the middle distance freestyle either. In 2014, he's #7 in the 200 free (1:45.89) and #4 in the 400 free (3:43.90).

At the just-concluded Pan Pacs in Brisbane, Hagino out-touched Phelps in the 200 IM by .02 and out-raced Tyler Clary and Chase Kalisz in the 400 IM. In the men's 4x200 free relay, he dusted Connor Dwyer on the lead-off leg in a race where Japan came dangerously close (.13) to pulling off a shocking upset.

Two years from Rio, Hagino leads a Japanese team that has forced the world to sit up and take notice after their performance in Brisbane. At Pan Pacs, their men won twice as many individual gold medals as the American men. In addition to Hagino's medley victories, Daiya Seto won the 200 fly, while Yasuhiro Koseki swept both breaststrokes. This compared with three individual golds for the men of Team USA - Phelps in the 100 fly; Clary in the 200 back, and Connor Jaeger in the mile.

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

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

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

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

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

Trials of a Supergroup

Bob Bowman's NBAC crew might be the most talented group of swimmers ever assembled... But is there such a thing as too much talent in one pool? Recent results raise questions...  It's all about the long term, the next Games. Let's not forget that. Bob Bowman's thoughts and plans remain focused two years down the road. He's been thinking Rio since the flame went out in London. This summer is the halfway point, nothing to get worked up about, he'll be the first to say. No argument there. Yet, when we're talking about highly delicate egos and bodies as finely tuned and fragile as a Triple Crown contender, it can be easy to get wrapped up in the present tense.

This can't be an easy time to be running NBAC's supergroup. Because this summer has not exactly gone according to plan. Just ask Yannick Agnel and Allison Schmitt and Tom Luchsinger

Two years ago, Agnel was the most impressive swimmer in London. He won double gold, while his stature was perhaps most enhanced by the memory of Michael Phelps imploring his teammates to "get me a lead" before he anchored the 4 x 200 freestyle relay against the towering Frenchman. Phelps fears no swimmer, yet in London he knew he was no match for Agnel. Soon after those Games, with Phelps in retirement, Yannick rang up Bowman and crossed the pond for Baltimore. Even after Michael's comeback, he has reportedly embraced Bowman's program. Though he might be doubting that right about now.

Agnel is in the midst of an underwhelming campaign at the European Championships in Berlin. In the 400 freestyle he failed to final. The French coaches left him off the gold-medal-winning 4x100 free relay, and today he raced to bronze in the 200 free, a whopping three and a half seconds off of his lifetime best. This from the reigning Olympic champion in that event.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Russians Are Dirty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because it's not only the Russians.

The Big Lie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under Water, Going Mad

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

Not my finest hour.

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Freshman

Ryan Murphy's rookie year at Cal...  The kid just keeps following the script. He's been the best since he was a boy, and every year, at every level, he keeps fulfilling his seemingly unlimited promise. And so it went his first year at Cal. A year ago, I wrote a piece called The Recruit after Murphy signed at Berkeley. It seemed fitting to follow up a year later with this one.

The box score on his just-about-perfect NCAA Championships: Five titles, three relays / two individual. NCAA record in the 200 back. Just .03 off the NCAA record in the 100 back. Stunning splits on every relay, with wins in the 200 free, the 200 medley, the 400 medley, and a second in the 400 free. And perhaps most impressive of all, in terms of personal leaps forward, a 1:42.24 in the 200 IM, which secured a spot in the big final and got Cal rolling right out of the gate.

Between his relay load and his individual races, there wasn't a swimmer at the meet that accounted for more points than Murphy. He's the most valuable swimmer on the best team in the nation. With that in mind, it's flat out disrespectful that Kevin Cordes, a swimmer who scored zero points on relays, was named Swimmer of the Meet over Murphy, or Florida's Marcin Cieslak, for that matter. (The Gators could easily make a case for Cieslak, who claimed two gold and a silver in his individual races, and also contributed big time on the relays, with prelims swims as well. Yet Florida, did not win any of those relays...)

Cordes was predictably impressive in his pair of record-setting breaststroke performances and all, but you're not the swimmer of any meet if you DQ your team's medley relay on the all-important first day. As everyone knows, relays win the meet at NCAAs; therefore Cordes is undeserving of this year's honor.

But let's stay positive here, and focus on what Murphy did right, not what the jump-happy Mr. Cordes might have done wrong. It's hard to find a flaw in any one of his swims. He led off the medley relays in 20.90 and 44.91, and Cal never looked back. He swam the second legs on the sprint free relays. In the 200, on night one, he went 18.75. In the 400, in the last race of the meet, he split 41.67, which was not only the fastest on his foursome, but the third fastest split among all competitors. In his second best stroke.

Of course, it was his individual backstroke races where he shined most. As expected (and predicted last year in that Recruit story), he swept both backstrokes. 44.6 and 1:37.3 is over-the-top fast, but for Murphy these times just scratch the surface of what's in store in the years to come. Before he leaves Cal, Ryan Murphy will very likely be a 43 / 1:35 backstroker. Times that, not too long ago, were scoring points in freestyle at NCAAs...

Now comes the hard part. The subject of my story last year was not how he would swim in the small pool, but how he would fare in the big pool, where it really matters. NCAAs might be the most exciting three days of swimming on earth, but they are still the minor leagues when it comes to making your mark on the sport. All anyone remembers, and all sponsors will pay for, is international long course success.

So, this summer will say a lot. Will Ryan Murphy go 52+ and 1:54, and continue to stay on script? Or will he miss those walls and swim back to his best long course times from his Bolles days? A year ago I questioned whether he would have been better off at Florida with Coach Troy, pointing out the outsized success of Gator backstrokers on the big stage, and the short list of big time backstrokers who have come from Dave Durden's Berkeley Bears.

It's too soon to withdrawal that question completely, but it's getting hard to question anything Durden is doing these days. With three team titles in four years, he's created a new dynasty at Cal, and Murphy is now at the center of that dominance. Here's hoping - and betting - that the can't-miss-kid continues to translate his success this summer in the big pool where it matters most.


Why She Went to College

Missy Franklin and the Meaning of NCAAs...  She couldn't have realized it at the time. She was rather immersed in the task at hand. Two and a half seconds back, her team a distant third, only her anchor leg to go... It was Friday night, day two of the Women's NCAA Championships, and Missy Franklin had a hell of a lot of ground to make up in the 800 freestyle relay. The race was down to the three best teams at the meet - Georgia, Stanford, and Cal. Already in the water for Stanford was freshman Lia Neal, Missy's fellow high school Olympic teammate back in London. In the water for the Bulldogs, sophomore stud Brittany MacLean, the girl who beat Missy head to head a night earlier in the 500 free.

She couldn't have realized it then, but this was a moment, perhaps the moment, that she will always return to when folks ask her why she went to college. This is what college swimming is all about, this is why Missy Franklin passed up millions for a few years of this priceless community of competition.

What happened next was what you'd expect from the current face of American swimming. She dove in and started reeling them in. 50 yards, just a second and a half back; 100 yards, less than a second; 150 yards five one-hundredths back; and then Georgia's MacLean dug in. She wasn't letting Franklin by that easy. Stroke for stroke over the final lap, until Missy managed to inch by, touching the wall first for her Cal Bears by .15. Her split: an astonishing 1:40.08.

Another golden feather in the cap for the golden girl... Did you expect anything less?

Actually, many probably expected more from Franklin at her NCAA debut. Her individual results: gold, silver, and bronze. Three events earlier on that Friday night, she torched the field in the 200 free, crushing the NCAA and American record by almost a full second. On the first night in the 500 free, she had to settle for a hard-fought second in the 500 behind MacLean. Both swimmers eclipsed the former NCAA record, held by Allison Schmitt, though it's worth noting that Katie Ledecky's American record of 4:28.71, set last month, is a good four seconds faster than that NCAA mark. Tonight in the 100 free, she rounded out her freshman campaign with a third behind Arizona's Margo Geer and Stanford's Lia Neal.

A fine and impressive showing, but then again, the girl collected more hardware at the Olympics. And then again, why didn't the best backstroker on earth swim any backstroke for her team? Safe to say the 100 and 200 back were fairly sure bets for Franklin. Why wouldn't Teri McKeever use her golden goose where she's at her best? Well, because this is a team competition, and it's all about the points. Cal was already stacked with backstrokers; the Bears needed her skills more in the freestyles. That's value and versatility - when you can pass on your two best events, and still be a touch away from winning your fourth or fifth or even sixth best events, because that's where your team needs you.

Missy's first NCAAs didn't end the way she'd envisioned when she first signed at Cal last year, when she glowed and gushed about being a part of a college team and leading the Golden Bears to another team title. This year they were no match for the all-around depth and excellence of Georgia. A crushing DQ in the 200 medley relay didn't help Cal's chances, but even without it, Georgia was in a class of its own this year. However, it's a safe bet that McKeever's girls did not expect their cross-bay Cardinal rivals to sweep past them the way they did. The Stanford women swam over their heads at this year's meet. Caps off to second year coach Greg Meehan and his crew for four relay victories and a surprising second place finish. Cal swam away with what must be a bittersweet third in the team race.

She didn't think it would be easy, did she? Of course not. At 19, she's as seasoned an elite competitor as any teenager you'll find, in any sport. Yet, everything has always seemed to turn out, well, just about perfect for Missy Franklin. The Olympics, the World Championships, the almost sickeningly well-adjusted home life... Stumbles from the script, that stuff happens to other swimmers. Don't you think she must be just slightly surprised right now?

And that too is why she went to college. To go through challenges not as a lone figure on the blocks wearing stars and stripes, but to embrace the collective challenge as a teammate, as a student-athlete.

Missy Franklin has had greater triumphs than a come-from-behind relay victory at NCAAs. She'll have greater triumphs to come. But years from now, ask her about her experience swimming at Cal. Ask her what she remembers most, what were her proudest moments?

She's going to mention that 800 free relay.

Aussies Adrift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something in the Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Demons of Diana Nyad

In a New Yorker profile, the marathon swimming queen reveals a dark and troubled past... including allegations of sexual abuse by Hall of Fame coach Jack Nelson when she was a teen... You could see it coming. We've heard this story before, we know the set up. "I had him on a pedestal - he was it," she says. "I was just dying for some leadership and I selected him."

I gulped, knowing what was coming next. And sure enough... Another tale that sounded darkly familiar. Young teenage girl, coach in his mid-30s. Girl is ambitious, trying to swim away from a bad home life, savors the guidance, the encouragement. Might even be in love with this older man who makes her feel so strong. He makes her feel like she can achieve anything. If only she does what he says. And then it happens. One afternoon when she's 14, he forces himself on her. He continues molesting her throughout high school, in hotel rooms away at meets, in his office off the deck, in his car.

No, we're not talking about Rick Curl. Diana Nyad is talking about her old coach, Jack Nelson. The same Jack Nelson who was the head coach of the U.S. Olympic women's team in 1976. The same guy who was an Olympian himself, in the 200 fly, back in 1956. The same Jack Nelson that I remember well, from his days leading the Ft. Lauderdale Swim Club. He was an irrepressible spark plug of a man, a short stocky presence of infectious cheer. In 1993, the city of Ft. Lauderdale named him its man of the year.

That was 29 years later. The allegations in question occurred long before he became so beloved and decorated as a coach. In an astonishing profile by Ariel Levy on Nyad in this week's New Yorker, she says that Nelson first abused her in 1964, when she was 14. He would have been 33 at the time. After years of the abuse, Nyad says she told a teammate about it. The teammate told her that Nelson had done the same to her. They reported him to the Headmaster of Pine Crest, where Nelson was coaching at the time, where Nyad was a student. He was asked to leave at the end of the school year. It didn't take him long to find another nearby job and continue his rise as a coach. Twelve years later, he reached the pinnacle of his profession, as the head coach of a U.S. Olympic team.

This abuse allegedly occurred half a century ago. The scars run deep. They clearly helped motivate her in that mad Quixote-esque quest to swim from Cuba to Florida. She's spoken of it before, through the years, but seldom named Nelson by name. Still, the story has been out there. Google 'Diana Nyad' and the first auto-fill that pops up after her name is 'Diana Nyad Jack Nelson.' Google 'Jack Nelson' and you get the same. However, Ariel Levy got her to open up in ways no one has ever done. It's the best profile ever published about her, and plenty has already been reported about a swimmer who's never been shy about selling her story.

Now, there are plenty in the swimming community who have their doubts about Nyad's truth-telling abilities. A lot of folks doubt that she really did legitimately make it, finally, on her fifth attempt, from Cuba to Florida. There are sections of the swim where her progress does indeed seem hard to believe. The word "unassisted" is murky when you're out there in the open ocean, hallucinating, with friends nearby who care deeply for you, who desperately want you to achieve your greatest dream. Maybe they did cross a line and help Nyad along. If you ask me, who cares? The woman accomplished something epic and inspiring, and if you're going to split hairs about it, then you're missing the point.

Feel free to doubt her achievement in the water all you like. But reading her words about the abuse she says she endured, it's hard to have any doubt there. Not when you read a passage like this: "With the coach, for me, it's not complicated," she said. "I've had all kinds of fantasies of being out in the woods and tying him to a tree and putting his penis on a marble slab and walking around with a hatchet and watching him cry and plead, and I'd say 'Oh, remember me? Remember when I was crying? You didn't seem to care too much about my feelings.' And then leaving him to bleed to death."

Those are words of imagined revenge for sins that run deeper than death. Read that again, and ask yourself if that sounds like a person who's lying?

So, was Jack Nelson ever questioned about all this? He was. Back in 2007, 43 years after the abuse allegedly began, Nelson was questioned by the Ft. Lauderdale police. He denied everything. His explanation? Nyad had said she "wanted to be a writer, and wanted to have the ability to write things that were not true and make people believe them."

Which is a clever and stunningly insulting way of saying: the girl is a liar. Apparently, having aspirations to write fiction makes a person inherently a liar who will make up horrible things about someone just because... well, just because that's what writers do, right?

Jack Nelson is now 82 years old and suffering from advanced Alzheimer's. If his 50-year-old abuse of Nyad is true, then he's gotten away with it.

But some things you can never out swim.

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?

Biondi, But Better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Genders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not that anyone's keeping score...

The Yanks vs. The Francs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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