The Aquatic Art

Relaunch coming to Cap & Goggles...  This site will soon appear very different. Since September of 2011 it has done one thing. It's been a column, of sorts, or a series of swimming essays, each around 1,000 words. At first they went up weekly, then it became a little more sporadic, with new posts popping up when it felt warranted. Thank you, to everyone reading this, for supporting - and sometimes indulging - this long-running commentary.

Now it's time for something more. In a few weeks, Cap & Goggles will relaunch as a site that celebrates the 'aquatic arts'. The commentary will still be there, with these columns anchoring the lead section of the site. However, I can't wait to introduce the new content. It will include Books and Videos and Art and Photography -- anywhere that swimming finds artistic, creative expression. My voice will be joined by many other, more talented creative voices, whether they're capturing our sport on canvas, on camera, on film, or between the pages of a book.

Here are two examples, probably ample:


Have you read this terrific memoir by Leanne Shapton? Leanne is a friend and fellow Canadian swimmer, and if you swam in or near Canada in the late 80s and early 90s, you'll surely recognize some of the characters that populate these pages. Swimming Studies won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. For good reason - it captures the feeling of what it means to be a swimmer as well as anything published. It's about the lonely moments, the forgotten sensations that still fill your dreams. And it's filled with haunting honesty like this: "When I swim now, I step into water as though absent-mindedly touching a scar. My recreational laps are phantoms of my competitive races." Yeah, it's that kind of good.

Here's another:


Eric Zener is a Northern Cal based artist well known for his underwater themes. Out of his studio in Sausalito, Zener creates work that leaves you both breathless and buoyed by his vision. If you're a former swimmer, viewing his paintings is like being comforted by the phantoms than Shapton writes about. In New York, his work can be found at a gallery not far from where I write this. I met him once there, and unsurprisingly he told me that all three of his children are swimmers in the Bay Area.

Between that book cover and that painting, I hope you get the idea. The water - and our relationship with it - tends to spark inspiration from every artistic outlet. It's an infinite well. In a letter to his daughter, Scottie, F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: "All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath."

If only we didn't have to breathe...

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.

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.


Assassin's Eyes

Katie Ledecky: The most fearsome swimmer since Phelps...  She always says the right things, always hits the right notes, always pays her respects. She's not bubbling with youthful joys for the moment, like her closest peer, Missy Franklin. And she's not winking and nudging and making up words like her fellow Athlete of the Year, Ryan Lochte. No, she's just getting up and getting the job done. Same as she does every morning, every race, every time the cameras are on, or off. See, Katie Ledecky is a killer. She's not going to lose a distance race that matters for about ten years.

There she was again last weekend in Los Angeles, the 16-year-old belle of the Golden Goggles ball. Ledecky collected the two awards that matter at USA Swimming's Oscars of the pool: the Race of the Year and the Athlete of the Year. Neither were in any doubt. In fact, she probably had the top three races of the year; her 400, 800, and 1500 were all superior to any other race swum by any other woman in 2013. Actually, let's go a stroke further, all three were better races than any other swim by any man, as well.

Missy Franklin might be the new fresh face of American swimming, but Katie Ledecky is its cold-blooded, I-dare-you-to-dream-of-gold heart. She may say the right things, and come across preternaturally poised in any setting, but beware what lurks beneath the surface. It's in her eyes. Or, more accurately, what's not in her eyes. Fear, for one thing. Any interest in looking back, for another. They're the eyes of an assassin.

She's aware of how good she is. You don't see the clueless humility there that you see in so many other teen phenoms. But she doesn't come across cocky about it because she's not all that impressed with herself. Not yet, anyway. She's well aware that there's a whole lot more in store. 3:59 in the 400 / 8:13 in the 800 / 15:36 in the 1500 - hot damn, those times are hard to fathom, but hearing her talk about them last weekend in L.A., those swims came across as no more than three checks on a list of goals accomplished. Ok coach, good season, on to the next one.

The night before the Golden Goggles gala, USA Swimming hosts an event called Swimming Thru the Decades. In its third year, it's presented as an intimate fireside chat with five of the all-time greats, one each from the last few decades. Rowdy moderates before a small crowd; champions share the stage and share experiences that few on earth can relate. This year it was Tracy Caulkins, Matt Biondi, Janet Evans, Lenny Krayzelburg, and Ledecky. Four old retired parents with a bucket full of gold between them, and 16-year-old Katie, seated on the far right. She didn't need to be told she belonged.

At one point in the conversation, Ledecky was asked about her range of events, how she was able to dip down in the sprints (watch out for her 100 free in the years ahead) and still manage her distance focus. Her reply: "It's not that hard. I mean, they're all just races. They're all sprints." Come again? You look at the 1500 as a "sprint"? There wasn't any irony in her voice; she hadn't been programmed to say it in coach-speak, in that first-person plural "we" speak of Phelps. She was just stating, in her matter of fact way, that the mile really is a sprint, and that's the way she'll continue to swim it.

Physiologically, she's right. Fifteen minutes of all-out exertion is indeed a sprint for the human body. It's a lot closer to the 100 free than it is a marathon. It's a few minutes of your life. A quarter of an hour, not a few hours of pain and agony. It's about 2% of an Ironman. How can that be called a "distance" event?

Mentally, of course, she sounds insane. The mile is the distance event in our sport. So much so, that in all their brain-dead wisdom, it's deemed too far for inclusion as a women's event in the Olympics. The ladies can take the 800 in the pool, but hold up on that crazy mile... Right, IOC?

Imagine how baffled Katie Ledecky must be by this fact. The men get to race for Olympic gold in the 1500, but not women? It's so ludicrous that it's not worth lamenting. In any case, Ledecky will probably not let that keep her from collecting five gold medals in Rio. We know two gold are all but a given. All due respect for the game racing of Denmark's Lotte Friis, but there is no chance anyone is beating Ledecky in the 400 or 800 anytime soon. I'm betting that she also wins the 200 in Rio. It's there for the taking. No one, including Franklin, is showing the talent right now to swim away with that race in the coming years. Ledecky is also going to be among the top four American women in the 100 free over the next few years. This means that if the American women manage to race to the top of the podium in the free relays (and there's no reason they shouldn't), then Ledecky will leave Rio with five gold.

Missy Franklin will probably win five too, taking both backstrokes and swimming key legs on the three relays. The 200 free will be their showdown, the race where the two best female swimmers on earth decide who's the Alpha Cat of aquatics.

That will be the story of Rio, far outpacing the Michael 2.0 comeback frenzy. Speaking of which, you've seen those assassin's eyes before, remember? Every time Phelps stood behind the blocks with that hangman's gaze... There wasn't fear, there wasn't doubt, and there was no thought of yesterday. There was only the killer, about to pull the trigger.

That's how Katie Ledecky looks these days.

Note from the Underground

Cap & Goggles resurfaces... with Under Water news...  It's been awhile. How have you been? Back hard at work, I hope. Back to training or coaching or working away wherever it is you call home... My apologies for the extended silence. Last I wrote, two months ago, it was about a young stud sprinter named Caleb Dressel. You might have noticed he's gotten a bit faster since then.

What's happened since? Well, 64-year-old Diana Nyad swam from Cuba to Florida. Or did she? It seems a great many in the open water community have their doubts about the swim's legitimacy. Seems the term "unassisted" is rather murky when you're out in the middle of the sea, hallucinating about the Wizard of Oz and the Taj Mahal, with shark divers surrounding you, and support staff shouting from their boats through the darkness. Assisted or not, if a 64-year-old lady is hardcore enough to trip out on the Yellow Brick Road while stroking through treacherous waters for two days, then let her have the glory and the Oprah blessings. Like all true swimmers, Nyad strikes me as rather demented, obsessive, and more than a little bit loony after all that time with her face in the water.

Speaking of which, that probably describes most of my friends, and yours truly. See, I've been spending some time in the heart of darkness depths myself lately: writing something called Under Water. It's a crime novel. A private eye novel, to be precise. The first in a series, one hopes. It will come as no surprise that it centers around the world of swimming, around the darkest depths of our sport. In the spirit of the genre, you'll find all the violence and sex and drugs and secrets that keep the pages turning.

It's been about a year in the making; over the last few months, it's swallowed up all other writing time. Hence, the silence on this site. But now it's about time to come up for air. Our hero's name is Duck Darley, tortured private eye and lifelong swimmer. I hope you like him.

Stay tuned...

Will He Be Back?

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

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

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

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

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

Here's why:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe he does.

Story By Numbers

Who cares about commentary, where are the results? It's all about the times. That is, the numbers, those down-to-the-hundredth facts, the ones that tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Results are what makes this sport so objectively beautiful. It's a universal language where nothing can be lost in translation. There's no third party trying to interpret what just happened on a field of play. No judges holding up subjective numbers or rankings that are inherently open for dispute. A clock starts with a beep, it records your progress at each wall, and it stops for good when your hand touches the finish. Beyond that, all else is just passing the time.

Which is why this site is about to add an essential element. A Results section. (Perhaps you've already noticed the toolbar additions above...)

In the coming weeks, a calendar of international meets will be posted. And in an Olympic year, there will be plenty. When that meet takes place, wherever it is in the world, a link will be posted where you can find the results. Sound simple enough? These results can be found elsewhere, I realize, but it frequently takes some searching. It won't be all-encompassing, tracking down each and every regional junior meet from Florida to Shanghai; instead it will be a curated list of meets that fans of Olympic swimming might care about. Grand Prix's, World Cups, Olympic Trials, NCAA's, European Champs, etc.

As fun as it is to dissect and analyze the athletes and the issues, what else is there, really, that's more interesting to swimmers than the actual results of a meet? That's the first thing I look for, before I read anyone's report on what happened... I want to read the story in the numbers. Because those numbers are far more honest and eloquent than what anyone could report.

It's akin to baseball box scores, the past performances of race horses in the Daily Racing Form, or stock charts that look like numerical gibberish to those who can't tease out fortunes from the hidden-in-plain-site patterns... For the savants of any sport or business, the numbers will always tell stories rich with life, a narrative without sentences but filled with deep meaning.

Take a look at the chart below. These are the results from the men's 200 freestyle at the 2009 World Championships in Rome. It was perhaps the tipping point of the super suits, the race that forced regulation, the race that led Bob Bowman to threaten to take his proverbially ball and go home if something wasn't done about those damn suits. Have a look:

What story do these numbers tell? Without any context whatsoever, you can look at Paul Biedermann's splits and be astonished. Not only by the final time that shattered the world record by almost a second, but by each number that came before it. Going out in 50.12 to the feet. Widening his lead over the third 50 by a few tenths. But leaving Phelps within striking distance, just four-tenths back. The man with the greatest last wall in the history of the sport, the guy who breaks wills over the final 50 meters, the one who's proven time and again that, if it's close with a lap to go, it's all over. But not this time...

On this day in Rome, Paul Biedermann made Phelps look human. An outmatched, outgunned, overwhelmed human. Biedermann came home in 25.70. Almost a second faster than Phelps. You don't need to watch the race to get it. You don't need NBC's Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines to call the race and explain what just went down in order to get it. All you need to see is the numbers.

But do those numbers really tell the whole truth and nothing but? Not really. Do they point out that Biedermann was aided by a suit that seemed to enhance his performance - and his particular body type - more than that of his competitors? Do the numbers illustrate Phelps' total lack of post-Olympic training? Well, they do if you know the context of the race. But the stand-alone digits only tell the story on the surface. They tell the story of a race - one that started and ended for all eight finalists in 106 seconds. And on that day, no matter what anyone was wearing, no matter who had trained more or less, here are the facts as laid out by the numbers: Paul Biedermann swam 200 meters faster than any human ever has before, while thrashing the greatest swimmer in history one lane over.

"Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime."

Those lines came from the Koran, apparently. Not a text I can claim to know much about, but wise words worth contemplating. And worth considering the difference between the two perhaps... A sport, in its purest sense, can be distilled in simple numbers, in silence. In the results. A pastime? That's what the rest of us do, trying to understand it.

Happy New Year, everyone.