The Big O and the Traveling Swim Circus

Big ratings, packed houses - and packed pools in Omaha...  The cabbie knew all about it. So did the late night Motel 6 desk clerk on the outskirts of town. So does everyone else in this Gateway to the West. They're a city on the move; indeed Forbes magazine ranked it America's number one Fastest Recovering City. This is a town that's aware of its growing stature and eager to get the respect it's long deserved. The sport of swimming can relate.

For the last five days, Omaha has rolled out the red carpet for swimming - and swimming has returned the favor, delivering big time TV ratings and packed houses at the beautiful Century Link arena each night.

After spending the first three nights of U.S. Trials watching the action live on NBC from my couch, I boarded the 8pm Thursday flight from La Guardia to Omaha. (Bad planning on my part, as that departure time meant missing all of Night Four...) I got caught up on the results with a flurry of texts upon landing, then got caught up on everything else from our cabbie and the desk clerk.

In the morning I caught up with some friends from USA Swimming during prelims. They had that restrained but giddy excitement of a championship team at halftime, refusing to claim victory just yet, but ready with the evidence. First, NBC's ratings... They've been killing it.

On the first two nights, the live broadcast scored a 4.7 rating and an 8 share. They won both nights. On the third night, ratings crept higher still, as NBC scored a 5.0 and a 9 share. Then on Thursday night, they dipped slightly (Thursday always brings the heavy TV competition), but produced a still strong 4.3 and another 8 share.

A note on these always esoteric ratings: The first number, the rating, refers to the percentage of TV households watching a given program. The second number, the share, refers to the percentage of TVs in use that are tuned to a given program. The current estimate is that there are 115.9 million TV households in the U.S. Therefore, when these ratings are converted to number of viewers, this means that around five and a half million Americans have been watching swimming every night this week. Watching swimming that is not the Olympics. That has never happened before, not even close.

To experience it live is something to behold. They've been averaging around 14,000 tickets a night. Sold out or damn close every finals session. Even the prelims are reportedly sold out this Saturday morning. Watching swimming in a sold out frenzied arena filled with all the slick loud production of an NBA finals game is something the sport has just never experienced. It's disorienting in the best of ways.

I've spent three decades going to swim meets, seen them large and small from damn near every angle. There's never been a meet like this. Sure, the Olympics - by definition - take it to the next level, but that's something else entirely, a closed society of competition available only to a minuscule silver of the world's best athletes. The Trials on the other hand are open to many. Too many some are saying.

There's the catch: the times. They're slow. Slower than they should be, and the reason is pretty clear to most coaches. There are too many swimmers here. Around 1,850. Only 52 make the Team. Only around 200 have even a remote shot at making the Team. This means that 90% of the athletes at this meet are really Trials tourists.

These tourists create packed warmup pools, endless heats of prelims, and less than optimal conditions for the true contenders to be at their best. If you swim your prelim heat of the 400 IM in the late afternoon, after a dozen heats of swimmers going slower than their seed time, then have little time to lunch and nap before finals, well that doesn't exactly set you up for an all time effort at night.

"They need to be real careful that the marketing side of things doesn't overtake the athletes as the top priority," said one top coach.

From one angle, you can see that happening, and these grumbles are valid. But from another, you need to ask yourself - would the scale of this event be possible without those eighteen hundred athletes / tourists? They're the ones making this the event it is. It's their friends and families who fly to Omaha and pack the stands, who tune in back home and drive the TV ratings.

Some would disagree, and claim that U.S. Trials could be just as big - both in ticket sales and ratings - with harder qualifying standards and many less swimmers in the meet. (Like it used to be, a generation ago - when it was staged in 1,000-seat natatoriums and aired on TV a week later...) Maybe the one-two fame punch of Phelps / Lochte has lifted the sport to that level - where events can be driven by fans not of the friends and family variety. Maybe we're getting close, but we're not there yet. It's a tricky balance.

However, for swimmers and coaches grousing about these packed conditions in Omaha, there might be something else worth remembering: Conditions are never ideal at the Olympics either. Insane security, mind boggling logistics, impatient international media - these are things that can affect performance too. Time to get used to being out of your comfort zone.

Because these are Trials. The final test to see if you have what it takes, no matter what stands in your way.

The Void

Junior Seau,Waterman Instead of going for a surf, he chose a shotgun to the chest.

A man of renowned positivity, a legend who never forgot his roots, one of the all-time greats, on and off the field... When Junior Seau killed himself last week, it shook the NFL to its core. It's a dark cliché, but Seau was truly the last guy you'd ever think would do this. It's no exaggeration to say he may have been the single most respected football player of his generation. He was 43.

In its probing cover story on the tragedy this week, Sports Illustrated reported another side of Seau, far from the gridiron. It appears that this larger-than-life Samoan was every bit the surfer as he was a linebacker. His place in Oceanside, CA was right on the sand and most mornings he would grab his long board and paddle out into the always good San Diego surf. His first words upon announcing his retirement three years ago: "I'm gonna go surf."

For Seau, the sea was the place he felt most at peace. It was water therapy of the highest order, and after two decades playing a brutal sport he loved, he desperately needed the peace and solitude that only the water can provide. It wasn't enough.

In the immediate aftermath of his death, the narrative became clear: this was a story about the brain damage suffered by football players. Endless hits to the head causes a condition known as CTE - Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. A grim disorder that can lead to depression and, darkest of all in Seau's case, cause a deterioration of impulse control. His suicide appears to have been a clear case of a desperate impulse he couldn't control. The day before he died, Seau was laughing with friends, inviting folks to a Kentucky Derby party at his popular restaurant. This was not a guy at the end of his rope.

This was a guy with demons, who needed a good long surf session. Everyday before, that had been enough. On the morning of May 2nd, it wasn't.

It's hoped that Seau's brain and the effects of CTE will be studied in extreme detail. The NFL has a public health crisis on its hands. And all of us who watch the game and worship the big hits and the play-through-pain culture should probably take a step back and reconsider just what you're cheering.

But let's set that aside for a moment, because there's another story here, one that relates to every athlete in every sport. Seau was so respected because he was the ultimate Player. He was as authentic as it comes. His work ethic, his commitment to the game, his ability to rise to every challenge - he was a coach's dream, an athlete's athlete. Combine those qualities with his profound bond with the water, and you have a man that every swimmer should want to honor.

He was also a man afflicted with the Void. When he was no longer Junior Seau the Linebacker, who was he? He likely didn't know, couldn't know. He is not alone in this. When you're done with your sport - or when it's done with you - how will you define your identity?

On 60 Minutes last Sunday, Michael Phelps insisted that when he retires, "I'm done." No comebacks, no looking back. These comments were the ones immediately picked up - and questioned - by other journalists in response to the piece. Many doubted him. Some pointed out that he also said the same thing about the 400 IM four years ago after his "last" one in Beijing. A guy's entitled to change his mind. Because as nice as freedom sounds when you're still locked in the shackles of your sport, that freedom can gradually turn to chaos.

Suicide, of course, is the darkest most chaotic state of all. When a loss of identity is merged with clear game-induced brain damage, one can see how desperation can spiral. But there are legions of ex athletes out there all suffering from the Void. Most will never dream of turning a gun on themselves. Yet their depression, their loss of identity, can still be crippling.

Junior Seau knew where he could find peace with that - in the water. He managed to paddle out on countless mornings and find solace.

Until even the waves weren't enough...

Forgotten Architects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Myth of Michael's Talent

Questioning God-given Gifts... It's easier to chalk it up to talent. It's that unfair distribution of destined-for-gold genetics that a rare few are awarded with in rich supply. Some got it, most of us don't. Or so the thinking goes...

And one guy was born with more of it than any human being ever dipped in water. You've seen this movie, right? The one about Michael Phelps being so perfectly born to swim that it's pointless for mere land-dwelling mortals even to try to compete? Indeed, four years ago, at the start of the Beijing Games, NBC ran a feature about his freakishly flawless proportions. They called it "Designed to Swim." (Check it out on You Tube right HERE if you missed it.)

The piece was well done, and hard to dispute. I mean, they were dealing in facts: stands six-foot-four; wingspan is six-foot-seven; short legs and a super long torso; size 14 feet; hands the size of dinner plates - ok, that one might not be technically fact, but you get the idea. At the top of the piece, Dan Hicks' voice-over tells you that "If you were to build the perfect swimmer, the finished product would look just like this."

Fair enough. The resumé speaks for itself.

Yet, even with all those physical facts, something essential has been lost. And it's probably the single most important element that explains Phelps' greatness. It's not those one in a million genetics. In fact, I'd argue that his genetic gifts aren't really one in a million at all. They're one in a lot, no question. Say one in a couple thousand? But he's not the only guy walking around who looks like that. Hell, hang out on deck at any national meet; you'll see plenty of guys with proportions not so different.

Nor is it his work ethic. As has been well documented (by Phelps himself), that work ethic comes and goes. When he's on, it's scary, we know this. The guy has done sets that are superhuman. But the guy has also missed a boatload of workouts over the past eight years. During the same period when he established himself, beyond all doubt, as the greatest swimmer of all time.

So, what the hell is it?

It's what happened a long time ago - back in the mid to late 90's, when Phelps was a kid, from age 10 to 15. If you want to understand Michael Phelps' greatness, stop looking at his God-given "gifts", and don't put too much stock in the many workouts he might have missed in the years since Beijing. Instead, go back about 15 years, back to a time when the kid never missed a day. Ever. For thousands of days in a row.

He hasn't been coasting on his talent these last few years. He's been coasting on perhaps the greatest base of training and aquatic education that a kid can receive.

There's a powerful book out there that breaks down this theory beautifully. It's called "Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else." It's by a Fortune magazine writer named Geoff Colvin. A business book in nature, it should be required reading for every coach who reads this. Buy it on Amazon right HERE. (Mr. Colvin, if you see a slight bump in sales, you're welcome...)

Colvin's thesis centers around the notion of Deliberate Practice. That is, doing specific things over and over and over again, with constant feedback. Identifying exactly where you need to improve, and obsessing on every last detail with brutal commitment. If you're like me, you've responded to that thesis like this: No shit.

Every swimmer and coach knows the necessity of deliberate practice in his bones. Nothing groundbreaking there. It's beyond obvious to swimmers. But like all good reporters, Colvin takes something that should be basic and peels back endless layers. To reveal that most of you do it all wrong -- over and over and over again.

Phelps did not. Correction: Bob Bowman did not let him. During Phelps' most formative years, Bowman, by every account, was a grand master of deliberate practice. So much so that I was truly surprised to find no mention of Bowman or Phelps in Colvin's book.

Here's who Colvin does analyze: Mozart and Tiger Woods. Two other guys who've long carried the mantle of God-given Otherworldly Talent. Of course, we soon learn that, though plenty "gifted", both Mozart and Woods were the creations of early, obsessive - and flawlessly designed - training in their youth. Mozart's father was a composer himself, who retired when baby Wolfgang was born to devote the rest of his life to teaching music to his son. And we all know the story of Earl Woods and his all-too-deliberate golf practice before Tiger could walk. These two prodigies were made, not born. And so was Michael.

This should be good news, for all involved. For Phelps and Bowman, it should give credit where it's due -- to the years when the ultimate foundation was laid for a swimmer.

For everyone else, it should be good news for the opposite reason: It should confirm that you are not racing someone who's "just better." Who has infinitely more talent than you, so why even try... The playing field might be a lot more level than you think. It just takes a level of commitment - from a very young age - that few are willing even to consider.

If you're having a hard time buying all this, I can relate. As a swimmer, I used to carry around barrels full of bitterness for swimmers I deemed "more talented" but less willing to work as hard as I was. This is defeatist thinking, to be sure. It also misses quite a few points. Some aren't so easy to admit - like maybe I was doing the wrong thing over and over for many thousands of yards of fly sets. Or maybe that some of those sprinters over in lane eight, dicking around doing workouts that seemed like a joke -- maybe there was something a whole lot more deliberate in their practice. Things that produced results when shaved and tapered, but not necessarily things that looked tough or impressive at 6am on a random winter Tuesday.

I realize talent does indeed exist. It's not all myth. And no amount of perfectly deliberate practice starting at infancy is going to help a swimmer compete with a Phelps if they stop growing at five-foot-six, with small hands and feet. There is a limit to all this overrating of talent. But it's also time to demystify that word.

God might give out plenty of gifts, but he doesn't give away gold medals.

The Price of Momentary Madness

The Saga of Nick D'Arcy: Brawler, Butterflyer It started with disrespect. It always does, doesn't it? Buckets of booze, a slight, righteous rage... A standard story on the night train - when things get weird and nothing good happens after the clock strikes two.

Bar fights. The shameful domain of macho tools...

By all grim accounts, Aussie flyer Nick D'Arcy used to be one such macho tool. And boy, has this kid paid one hell of a price for it.

Four years ago next month, D'Arcy broke the Commonwealth record in the 200 fly at the 2008 Australian Olympic Trials. The night he was named to the Team, he went out big with his mates. Went to spot in Sydney called the Loft Bar. At some point late in the night, after Lord knows how many pints, fellow swimmer Simon Cowley said something that pissed D'Arcy off. They took it outside. D'Arcy used his elbow. You know, instead of his fist. More damage that way.

Here's an accounting of the damage he did: broken jaw, broken nose, fractured eye socket, fractured palate, crushed cheekbone. He messed up Mr. Cowley something fierce.

He was arrested and charged with what it was - assault. He was thrown off the Olympic team. A year later, he was convicted in court, received a 14-month suspended sentence. Then he was thrown off the '09 Aussie World Championships team. It wasn't over.

The damage D'Arcy had inflicted on Cowley did not heal overnight. There were reconstructive surgeries to his face. Braces to realign his demolished jaw. Post-traumatic stress disorder. His face now held together by titanium plates and screws. Years of fallout and pain thanks to that crushing elbow. So, Cowley sued and won. The court awarded him $180,000 in damages. Forced D'Arcy to declare bankruptcy. Now his next Olympic prospects in 2012 were in doubt too...

Somehow, as the collateral damage mounted, for both victim and criminal, the criminal stayed in the water. Kept training, kept at it, remained among the greatest 200 flyers on earth. (To D'Arcy's supporters who may balk at hearing him called a "criminal" - this is a literal, factual label, not an opinion. "Macho tool", on the other hand, yes, that's an opinion. There is a difference.)

Yesterday this saga seems to have finally reached its end. 1,422 days since D'Arcy's assault, the Australian Olympic Committee cleared him to compete in London, should he make the Team next month at the Aussie Trials. This shouldn't be a problem; D'Arcy is currently ranked first in the world in the 200 fly, with a big chance to be on the podium in London.

He has paid a high price, and like every criminal who does his time for the crime, it's time to forgive him, let the kid move on with his life. Though he's probably not much of a kid anymore. Just 24 years old, D'Arcy has been forced to grow up in a hurry. He was 20 when he leveled Cowley that night, and it soon emerged that it wasn't the first time. A few weeks after the incident, another Aussie sportsmen, an Ironman named Tim Peach, alleged that the same thing had happened to him. A bar fight with D'Arcy that resulted in a mangled face, albeit nowhere near to the extent of Cowley.

A pattern perhaps... The image of a cocky, quick-tempered jock is easy to conjure. Or maybe the kid was just living up to an unfortunate side of Aussie jock culture. Back in '08, when this story was a swirling scandal Down Under, the Reuters newswire even took the time to note that "while nightclub fights are commonplace in Australian football and rugby teams, they are rare in swimming."

So, the story was that a swimmer was behaving as poorly as the rugby meatheads? Ok, so would this mean that D'Arcy's blow was just immensely unlucky in the degree of damage it inflicted? If fights like this are so commonplace, then does that mean that half of Aussie Rules football players are walking around with faces held together by plates and screws? Surely a few of them, but that's hardly the story here.

The story is about a drunk 20-year-old kid out celebrating on the greatest night of his life, the night he became an Olympian. He was feeling indestructible that night. Tough and dumb and too young to grasp where one bar fight could lead.

Now he knows.

Respect the Dragon

Splash Time with Jeremy Lin... Make a splash, they say. Stir it up. Welcome some new folks into the pool, open it up for all. Damn right, the more the better.

That goes for every sport, right? Even when our notion of "diversity" is turned on its head, or when our definition of diverse is far too narrow...

Over the last week and a half, the NBA has bore witness (Lebron who?) to one of the greatest sports story ever. Yes, ever. The Arrival of Jeremy Lin has already reached folklore status. Did this kid sell his soul at the crossroads, Robert Johnson-style, for the devil's gift of basketball genius? Is Jeremy Lin about to usher in a new era of Moneyball-thinking in the NBA, proving the blindness of so many men paid so many dollars to assess basketball talent?

Make it a tale of dark mystery at the crossroads or a prime example of paradigm shifting sports economy. Or make it a Disney movie. Take your pick. Jeremy Lin's already epic story fits every template of storytelling. Here's what else it does:

It reveals the too-often forgotten minority in our earnest discussions about diversity in sport. The Asian-American community.

According to the latest demographic figures from the 2010 U.S. census, the African-American community makes up 12.2% (37 million) of the U.S. population. The Latino community makes up 16.3% (50 million). And what about Asian-Americans? 4.7% , 14 million.

Now, I can tell you that African-Americans are 2.6 times more likely to drown than white Americans. I can also tell you that the drowning statistics for Latinos are almost as grim. I can tell you these things because programs like USA Swimming's Make a Splash campaign have done a fantastic job about getting this message out. However, never once, not a single time, have I ever heard a thing about the Asian-American community in this campaign, or any other like it. Why is that?

We all know that swimming has been an embarrassingly almost-all white sport for far too long. Gratefully, great strides are being taken to change that. The African-American and Latino communities deserve every bit of attention and focus they are receiving in this regard. But how many Asians do you see on the blocks at U.S. Olympic Trials? Fair to say this is a group equally underrepresented. Yet where is the outreach to them? Hell, where is even an ounce of acknowledgement?

Now, full disclosure: I am married to an Asian-American woman. My daughter will grow up identifying herself with two ethnic identities. This thrills me to no end, the opportunity to embrace and understand two cultures... So, this is a subject, quite literally, close to home. Scratch that, not close, it's a subject that is home.

So, where are her examples?

Actually, there's a wonderful one right in our midst. Not that anything's being said about it. The greatest sprinter in America today happens to be Asian-American. That is, every bit as much as he is a Caucasian American. His name's Nathan Adrian. You might of heard of him. His mom is Chinese, born and raised in Hong Kong.

I'm not trying to heap any unfair responsibility on Mr. Adrian. This can be uncomfortable terrain, being of mixed race and suddenly facing questions about barrier breaking for a culture that is, by definition, only half your own. Nathan's training partner, and soon-to-be teammate on Team USA, Anthony Ervin, understands this better than most. Back in 2000, when he was the 19-year-old sprint phenom stroking to gold in Sydney, Ervin found himself being asked about his African-American identity. Being of mixed race himself, he was caught unfair and unawares. What are you supposed to say?

Unfortunately, that's the way it goes with these delicate subjects. Celebrate and simplify. It's well meaning, we all get that. But these aren't exactly sound-byte reduced issues.

I'm not interested in hearing about anyone assuming the mantle for an entire race and competing as the shining example of a certain minority. No more than I'm interested in Michael Phelps representing all of the good folks of Baltimore. Where you're from should be shared and celebrated, sure. But sports fans are really just interested in celebrating one thing - winning.

Which is why, like the rest of New York City, I am currently obsessed with Jeremy Lin. Because the kid is sick. I watched him out-Kobe Kobe at the Garden last Friday night. He's been the best basketball player on earth for the last 10 days. I'll be looking forward to jaw-dropping times from Nathan Adrian this summer for the same reason. Because watching athletes kick ass and do something transcendent is why I watch sports.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that these guys share some proud ethnic heritage with my wife and daughter...

In this Year of the Dragon, it's about time they got some respect.

Death in the Valley

Paterno Dies, Predator Coaches Still Out There... 10 weeks, that's all it took. Just 74 days after being fired in shame for his failure to protect victims of child rape. The official cause of death was lung cancer, of course. Plenty have said it was really due to a broken heart. No patience for that sentimentality under the circumstances. But here's a fact for you: If Jerry Sandusky's darkest secrets were still under cover in Happy Valley, Joe Paterno would still be alive today. Anyone disagree?

Well, one guy apparently...

His name is Joe Posnanski, and he's recently been named the 2011 National Sportswriter of the Year. One of SI's top A-list writers, with a fantastic blog on the side, Posnanski is a great read. He is also in the midst of embarrassing himself badly. See, last fall, well before the Sandusky storm hit, Posnanski was living in State College, writing the definitive biography on Paterno. He was in thrall with the guy, given full access and deep into an extended 300+ page puff piece about the coaching legend. In the days after the horror unfolded, he was quick to defend Paterno, claiming a rush to judgment by the university.

Earlier today, he penned a eulogy of sorts. Despite all that's emerged about JoePa's epic failures - ones that helped demolish the lives of children who were raped by one of the coach's oldest friends and associates - Posnanski is still entrenched on Team Paterno. "He did not die a bitter or broken man," writes Posnanski. How did he "know" this? Here's how: "I know this because I spent time with Paterno in his hospital room during the last weeks of his life."

Correction: This is exactly why you don't "know." Because, from Joe to Joe, you were being manipulated. JoePa was in control until the very end. As he always has been. It worked so splendidly because Paterno believed it every bit as much as Posnanski wanted to. He was guiding the final word still to be written about his storied life. And the writer was lapping it up.

Every leader who has ever held power for any length of time learns the necessity of controlling the message. Learns how to manipulate those under his command - for good and for ill. That's what great coaches do. They create their own realities, their own lofty spotless universes, and then they convince others to come along with them. To that promised land where everything goes just right, exactly to plan, where they will be lifted on shoulders and statues will be erected in their honor, in worship to their vision and leadership.

One can see how a few decades of this might cloud the old judgment a bit...

Which is why Paterno's death crosses the sports divide and winds up on a site devoted to swimming yet again.

For most, his death will probably mark the point when we can start driving the speed limit again. After the requisite gawking at the grisly accident on the side of the road, there comes the moment when it starts to fade in the rear view. The passengers will all remain respectfully silent for a bit; gradually you'll pick up speed. Soon it will be out of sight, out of mind. After all the outrage, now that Paterno is dead, how many will actually take a close interest in following Sandusky's trial? How many headlines will the justice not yet served even generate?

Those in the swimming world would be wise to continue to pay attention. Because two weeks ago, it happened again. "It" being another coaching deviant preying on children. In Gainesville, the coach of the Gator Swim Club, Bryan Woodward, was arrested after allegations that he tried to arrange sex with an underage girl. He was charged with using a computer to solicit a child for sex and for traveling to seduce a child into sex acts. Like all the others, Woodward passed every background check before he was hired.

We want these things to go away. We don't want to think of them, don't want to even acknowledge that it exists. Especially when you're a parent with kids in youth sports. But these predators are still out there. Hard words to write, harder still to face, but there it is.

Joe Paterno won 409 football games. Changed plenty of lives in the process. Books will be written about him that try to place his whole life in context, not just the sad, dark final days.

Tell that to the kids raped by Sandusky after Joe Paterno failed to protect them.

Well Endowed

Tarheels, Bulldogs, Buckeyes, Bears, and Vikings... Yes, Vikings. Follow these leaders: Sustainable college swimming programs that get it... The headline isn't a euphemism, stop smirking. The Cambridge Online Dictionary defines well-endowed as "having a lot of something, especially money or possessions"... Or having a large something, right? But today's story is about what lies ahead for college swimming, not what lies beneath the Speedo. And those ahead-of-the-curve programs that get it...

Last week, a post called Pay Your Way quickly became the most read piece ever on this young blog. It tried to dissect what will happen in college sports when football and basketball players start getting paid, when swimming programs face elimination as a result, and want can be done to protect them. Based on the feedback that poured in, the story clearly touched a nerve for many. And rightly so, considering it's many of your livelihoods.

In the days that followed, I had a chance to email and speak with a few leaders in the sport who have been out on those front lines fighting this fight long before there was an Internet for bloggers to share their unsolicited insights. To a man, everyone's diagnosis was the same -- the situation is dire, perhaps terminal for some, and in need of immediate attention. And all agreed on something else -- there is a cure. The principal antidote? Endowments.

Want to protect your swimming program so your great grandkids can someday be Trojans or Mustangs too? If so, you'd better be well endowed. That is, with a healthy fund of alumni money set aside, accumulating interest, and paying for your swimmers' scholarships and training trips and, hell, even a brand new pool when the time comes. Without it, you're like a surfer without a leash. One big wave knocks you off the board and it's time to swim to shore, session over.

While that rather forced aquatic metaphor might describe many college swim programs, there a few teams out there that are sitting pretty. Thanks to the foresight of their coaches and / or their well-heeled alumni, they've made their teams untouchable. Come what may, these programs are now built to last. They're no longer the no-revenue-producing redheaded stepchildren of their big sport siblings. Pay their football and basketball brethren all you like, it won't affect these swim teams' existence. Because they figured out how to do it themselves.

So, who are they? Last week, I had a chance to speak to Bob Groseth, the Executive Director of the College Swimming Coaches Association of America. For twenty years, Groseth was the coach of Northwestern, taking the Wildcats from the bottom of the Big Ten rankings to perennial contenders with a roster of NCAA champions. Groseth took over as the head of the CSCAA in 2009. A widely respected presence at every level of the sport, he's interested in a whole lot more than the top 10 teams everyone sees at NCAA's. He knows college swimming extends far beyond its flagship meets, and that some of the programs most worthy of admiration aren't necessarily the ones stacked with Olympians.

But first, let's talk about one of those programs that gives everyone Olympic envy. When it comes to Cal Berkeley, there's plenty to be jealous of these days. They're the defending NCAA champions among both the men and the women. Their head coaches are among the most beloved figures on pool decks today. Recruits are lining up out the door for the privilege to swim here. (Untouchable, right? Tell that to UCLA...) But a few years back, they managed to do something even more impressive than win the team titles at NC's. They created the Cal Aquatics Fund. Led by a few deep pocketed alum (let's just say one founded the Gap, and another founded Dreyer's Ice Cream...), they made sure that every Cal water sport would exist forevermore. Men's and women's swimming and men's and women's water polo, all taken care of.

Sure, the Cal track record of excellence is plenty impressive, but it's also a state school, in a state than has just a few financial difficulties. Falling in-state admissions and rising tuition are serious issues in the UC system these days. No matter what place they got at NCAA's, the Cal teams had plenty to worry about. That is, until this Fund came into being.

Who else has patched together that warm cloak of endowment? North Carolina is a school frequently mentioned towards the top of the list. So is the University of Georgia. According to Groseth, both UNC's Frank Comfort and Georgia's Jack Bauerle have made sure that every single one of their scholarships is endowed. The UNC recruiting slogan almost writes itself: Take comfort with Comfort! Because his team isn't going anywhere...

Groseth also had high praise for Ohio State's Bill Wadley. In addition to building a new state-of-the-art pool, Wadley recently managed to get all of the Buckeyes' swimming scholarships endowed. No surprise that this is suddenly a program on the rise... Sure, the pool makes a major difference in impressing recruits, but according to Groseth it was the security of establishing the endowment that truly allowed Wadley to take ownership of his fast improving program.

All four of these schools mentioned above deserve plenty of props, but you might have noticed that they are all major athletic powerhouses, among the most accomplished athletic departments in the nation, across many sports. It makes sense that it's possible at schools like this, where there's bound to be plenty of passionate alumni support. But what about smaller schools, without any real sports tradition to speak of? What about a small Midwestern school, an institution less than 50 years old, a mid-major program that's never had a swimmer break 20 seconds in the 50 free? The sort of program that so often finds itself on the chopping block...

What about the Cleveland State Vikings?

According to Bob Groseth, CSU "should be the poster boy for how to create a sustainable swim team." The man responsible? Head Coach Wally Morton. Now in his 37th year as head coach, Morton has led a rock solid program with most of its scholarships endowed since 1999. And it's not just rich alumni who prop it up. The CSU team has made itself untouchable thanks to an active and ongoing effort to make itself indispensable in its college community. I spoke to Morton earlier, as he was about to board a flight home with his team from a Christmas training trip. (That right there should say something...)

"The money is key, of course," says Morton. "But more important is the relationship you foster with your Athletic Director, and even more, your college president."

Sounds simple enough - you want your bosses to know and care about you. Yet, this is something that just doesn't happen at so many programs. Case in point: During my sophomore year at USC, the Athletic Director, Mike Garrett, was giving a speech at our annual swim team banquet. His remarks were proceeding with the usual vague, overblown praise when he declared "and that's what makes the SC water polo team so important to this school." Silence in the room. A few snickers, probably from the freshman. It took Garrett a few uncomfortable seconds to realize that he was speaking to the swim team, and that now everyone in the room knew he was reading from a stock speech that he apparently read at every other team's banquet. The swim team was a faceless entity to this AD. He wouldn't blink if he was forced to cut it; he didn't even know who we were.

Something like this would never happen at CSU. That's because everyone at the school knows exactly who Morton and the swimmers are. And they know because Morton makes sure of it. Recently, Morton told me, the CSU president was traveling to San Francisco. So, the swim coach called up a few old alums who had settled out there. One took him to the San Fransisco Farmers Market. Another figured out his dinner plans. How much do you want to bet that this college president attended the team's next swim meet when he got back to Cleveland?

At the CSCAA conference last May in San Diego, Morton recalled a line from the keynote speaker Frank Busch, USA Swimming's National Team Director. After 31 years as the head coach of Arizona, Busch knows his way around the landmines of college swimming. To his assembled coaching audience, Busch had one piece of advice that resonated with Morton: "Don't be a mosquito to your AD and your college president." That is, don't be a pest who only buzzes around when you want something. Mosquitos gets swatted away, and then they get crushed.

But those wise well-endowed programs who get it? They'll be swimming above it all for a long, long time.

Pay Your Way

The movement to pay college football and basketball players... and what it means for college swimming. A righteous debate rumbles into deep water... Last Sunday, the latest media missile was fired into the mess of big time college sports. It hit its mark with precision, making the overwhelming and by now obvious case that NCAA football and men's basketball players deserve to be paid. This latest treatise was published in the New York Times magazine by Joe Nocera. Its unambiguous headline: Let's Start Paying College Athletes.

Agreed. But then what...

Nocera quickly clarifies his editor's headline; he doesn't mean just any athletes. And certainly not swimmers or other sportsmen and women in the shadows who generate exactly zero dollars for their schools. No, the journalist cum reformer makes the clear case that the only ones entitled to a share of the income are the ones who actually earn the income. In other quarters, this would be known as the Law. As opposed to a cartel or a plantation -- the two entities that the NCAA most closely resembles these days. (How do you feel about Colombian drug lords and slave driving 19th century Southern landowners? Maybe consider these two conscience-free classes next time you're singing your college fight song...)

Two months back, I posted a piece called State of Pay, which picked apart the tone-deaf ideas in a Sports Illustrated story that argued for similar reform. Under SI's plan, paying football and basketball players would mean slashing sports like swimming from scores of athletic departments. Fortunately, Nocera's plan in the New York Times refrains from such destructive half-bright suggestions. In fact, no other sport is mentioned once in the piece except football and basketball. He rightly points out that these athletes are employees of the schools -- workers who earn often substantial revenue for their employers. As opposed to the athletes in "non-revenue" sports who earn nothing for the university, and thus can fairly be called amateur. (Setting aside the sponsorship debate for the moment...)

I was nodding right along with the story until I came to one rather halting paragraph. Under Nocera's plan, not all universities will be able to afford the new required cost to compete. If each school has a set budget with a salary cap (to prevent Yankees-like monopolizing at schools like Texas and Florida...), some will not be able to afford that budget, even with a cap. Can't afford to pay, can't compete, goodbye program. Nocera doesn't seem particularly bothered by this. He estimates that the number of so-called "major" football programs will shrink from 120 to 72, and the number of "major" men's basketball programs will shrink even further, from 338 to around 100. Now, this would not affect the top 25 rankings in either sport, and you wouldn't even notice it during March Madness. It would merely eliminate those teams who are already kidding themselves about competing in the big time...

Except that's not what would happen at all. Under this plan, about 25,000 scholarships would disappear: 28 football programs with 85 scholarships each, and 228 basketball programs with 13 scholarships each. (Feel free to do the math.) Meaning thousands of ballplayers who might have gone to college for free now aren't going to college at all. We're not talking about high-income resourceful backgrounds here. If the scholarship ticket goes away, that means a great many would never even set foot on a college campus. As poor as the "education" is for so many of these football and basketball players, no college education whatsoever is not exactly preferable.

This won't fly. We know this. These football and basketball programs aren't going anywhere, even if they're also-ran schools with no hope of really competing at a high level. They still have a critical mass of fans and alumni who will absolutely howl at even the hint of cutting them. Guess what will happen? C'mon, take half a second to think about it... Football and basketball players suddenly start earning a rightful wage as proud income-producing workers of a university. Athletic Directors suddenly have to get financially literate in a hurry. They know they can't touch their sacred big ticket sports, even if they can't afford to compete. So, they start looking somewhere else to cut costs...

Looking at sports like... you guessed it. Swimming is in trouble any way you cut it. The financial model of the NCAA is so unsustainable and flat out busted that anyone not pulling their financial weight better start scrambling for their very existence. And that means everyone in the sport of college swimming.

Here's what it comes down to: If you earn nothing and yet consider yourself entitled to all the spoils -- scholarships, travel, private locker rooms, and the rest of those intangibles that so many swimmers consider birthrights -- if you feel you're entitled to all this and generate nothing in return, at some point, someone is going to come looking for you. With a knife.

So, how to avoid the assassin? There is a way. It's not too complicated either. It comes down to the simple wisdom learned (the hard way or not) by anyone who's ever held a job, didn't want to lose it, and hoped to be promoted... Three words: Make Yourself Indispensable. Make the people who pay your way actually give a shit about you. Make them think, no, truly believe, that they cannot do without you.

With all due respect, coaches and swimmers, your college swim team is dispensable. When it comes down to dollars and cents, you aren't worth keeping. That's a hard pill to swallow, but it's true. Competitive swimming is a bad business - for this basic reason: it requires a lot of time and space in the pool in order to thrive. Space and time, these are two expensive items, especially in a high maintenance tub of water.

But these teams are worth keeping, regardless of the unblinking bottom line. Anyone reading this surely believes that. So, the question is - how do you convince the two parties that matter most to embrace your existence and make sure you continue forevermore. These two parties? The university itself and your alumni. You need them both. They need to have your back and be willing to fight for your survival as much as you're willing to fight when the ax is raised...

If that's going to happen, it's time to wise up. The financial blindness of so many swimmers and coaches is astonishing. They can't, can't possibly!, grasp how a school could be so cruel as to cut a sacred institution like a men's swimming program. Yet, when asked what they've given back, what will the answer be? Deafening silence... Those football and basketball players have an answer when they're asked that question. They can point to full stadiums and TV cameras and ask how much their own coaches earn thanks to them.

Now, the answer will never be the same when it is put to swimmers or other 'non-revenue' athletes. ('Non-revenue', such a seemingly harmless word that's tossed around but says so much...) Money-generated clearly will never be the answer. Ok, then what about clinics and swimming lesson programs for kids in and around the college community? What about taking an active role in fundraising, with seniors picking up the phone once in awhile and calling alumni and wooing them as much as they try to woo star recruits? What about figuring out how to set up an endowment for your team? How about teams stepping forward to help the university as a whole, integrating itself as an essential how-can-we-help part of your college town? Something like that tends to bring grant money for young men and women who actually grasp their place in the wider community...

These are the sort of things that make one indispensable. They put you on the radar - in the right way - long before the Athletic Director / Assassin comes searching for ways that he can cut costs and afford to pay for sports deemed more important than your own.

I'm ashamed to admit that as a college swimmer myself, many years ago, none of these things ever occurred to me. I was a financial illiterate, an utterly entitled take-take-take swimmer. I was outraged when they cut the UCLA men's program across town when I was a freshman at USC. Yet, it never once occurred to me how it might have been prevented. It was Title IX's fault, it was unfair, and the mean old penny counters at the college just didn't get it. Maybe it couldn't have been prevented, no matter what was done. Many programs have been cut since, and many more will be in the future. But most of these teams are unwittingly putting themselves in harm's way by being so willfully blind to how they might help themselves.

Ground-shaking change is coming to the NCAA. College football and basketball players are going to be paid soon. Sooner than you think. The system is broken and the cries for reform are only getting louder. And the changes are going to hit swimming, hard.

If the sport wants to stick around on the college level, it's time to get creative. And it's time to start making yourself indispensable.

What Are You Wearing?

Speedo restarts the suit wars... Is this really happening again? Please tell me it's not happening again. The rhetoric certainly sounds familiar. The new technology is "revolutionary", unprecedented and performance-enhancing, world records will fall thanks to Speedo's latest innovation. The winter before the next Games, it must be time to stir up swimmers' suit insecurities... Because if you're not wearing the latest and greatest from Speedo, you can't possibly hope to compete for Olympic gold. (Right, Coach Schubert?)

Weren't we supposed to be done with this? Did anyone learn anything from that dark saga of the super suits back in 2008 and 2009? Well, we learned that polyurethane is bad, and that full suit coverage across men's torsos is unacceptable. We learned that artificial buoyancy amounts to cheating. We learned about things like compression and the nature of material that is far better than your own skin when trying to propel yourself through water at high speeds.

We also learned that suit makers really really want to be a part of the action. They want to be in the game, not just attached to it. They need to have a hand in those records. They want credit, damn your speed-reducing regulation!

The tone deaf nature of Speedo's latest announcement was comical. Last week, they introduced their new "Fastskin 3" -- now it's a system not just a suit. Fast suits are so 2009... Now you need a brand new ultra futuristic cap and goggles too! (Who knew this site would be so presciently named...) Take a look at aquabots Lochte and Phelps sporting their latest armor at last week's unveiling. Please try not to smirk...

Now, you can't blame the athletes for their glowing endorsements or for the goofy ways they're forced to model this stuff. Phelps said it makes him feel like a "torpedo" and that records would surely fall in London thanks to his sponsor's latest assistance. Lochte added that he now "feels as one" with his suit. I'd say the same thing if they paid me to say it. And what they're saying is probably true. I'm sure it works and I'm sure these guys are being genuine when they say it. But can we please have some self-awareness here, Speedo? Or at least some tact?

This is the company that led the way in dismantling the record books thanks to innovations that crossed every line of performance enhancement. Their LZR Racer was the first (but soon not the best) suit to make an utter mess of the sport. Less than two years after that LZR and its various spawn were banned, it might be appropriate for Speedo to acknowledge the market they warped and how the swimming community just might perceive that they're now doing the exact same thing again. Just with a new set of rules - ones that they're writing. Some free advice to Speedo's Public Relations team: Mention it. Say, perhaps, "we realize the swimming community has entered a new era of competition and performance, one not dependent on apparel, but on the body itself." Go on to state how respectful you are as a company of that important line, how you are there to assist not to enhance the performance of the swimmers wearing your gear.

This will be complete crap, of course. You won't mean it, but that's not important. At least pretend that you recognize how you might be perceived.

Instead, you trot out more scientists. Except this time, instead of citing NASA geniuses as your inspiration, you mention the innovators behind CGI special effects in film as your guides... You wheel out the head of your "Aqualab" in London, a guy named Tom Waller, who says that "we believe we're the only manufacturer to have ever designed something to work in unison. Taken together this is the fastest stuff we've ever created."

Yes, the same script you were using four years ago... Except if you can no longer tamper with the suit quite as much as you'd like, you go looking for new terrain. Let's face it, in swimming, there's not a lot to work with. You need to get creative in order to corrupt that essential purity of body moving through water... And so, you're left with the cap and goggles. How to get rid of that annoying, less than streamlined, face and head of every swimmer? By coming up with THIS.

There are plenty of folks out there who might applaud all this, call it "progress." Who might point to the long evolution of swimwear, back to the days of wearing wool, and shrug at just another improvement in a constantly evolving process. Or maybe you just love gear. Plenty of sports worship the stuff. Consider it an essential element of the game. But here's the thing:

Up until around the turn of the century, the evolution of swimwear was about freeing the body, getting the gear out of the way. From wool to nylon to paper... Some of those men's paper suits worn at the '96 Olympics were borderline pornographic in their coverage. (Here's looking at you, Tom Dolan!) They made Brazilian beach goers look demure. Then, the entire process was reversed. Suit makers realized that shaved skin was actually quite inferior to the fabrics they could come up with.

And now they've realized that shaving your head and wearing a pair of Swedish goggles isn't nearly streamlined enough.

What will they think of next? How about getting out of the way?

Watered Down

The Bloating of the U.S. Olympic Trials: Many cuts were faster 20 years ago... It's the ultimate swim meet. The most pressure drenched, heartbreaking, dream-making competition known to swimmers. Plenty of Olympians have said it was a bigger deal to them than the actual Olympics. The U.S. Olympic Trials, where the greatest aquatic athletes from the world's preeminent swimming nation gather every four years to vie for a few precious spots on the Team... If you've made it there, you've made it to the big time.

Except making it isn't quite as big time as it once was.

These days, making Trials is easier than it's ever been. In fact, in many events, the U.S. Olympic Trials cuts were faster 20 years ago. (A few examples: men's 200 fly cut back in 1992: 2:03.19. In 2012: 2:03.99; men's 200 back in '92: 2:04.19. In 2012: 2:04.99)  Feel free to have a look. Current and past time standards for U.S. national meets are available right HERE on the USA Swimming website.

It's absurd to state that making the American Trials is in any way "easy." It remains the deepest, most brutally competitive meet there is. But over the years, those Trials have put on a few pounds. The ranks of Olympic Trials Qualifiers have ballooned. Based on the number of swimmers at the meet, it is now three times easier to get there in 2012 that it was 20 years ago in 1992. The numbers don't lie. The cuts used to be faster, but the men and women placing first and second back then were a whole lot slower. That means that a lot less swimmers used to qualify for the meet. And the ones who did were in the game, each with a legitimate, if long shot, claim at making the Team. It was akin to making NCAA's. About 24 swimmers per event, the ideal being three circle seated heats in prelims, no more. Now we settle in for a marathon of unseated heats before reaching those top 24...

USA Swimming's Great Guru (I mean, Assistant Executive Director) Mike Unger laid it out for me at lunch last week. He knows these numbers off the top of his head. In 1992, there were around 500 swimmers at the meet. In '96, that number dipped to about 400. In 2000, when USA Swimming briefly eliminated Junior Nationals, the ranks of Trials qualifiers exploded, with a meet of 1225 swimmers. When Juniors returned, that number settled back down again; in 2004, there were 730 swimmers at the Trials in Long Beach. In 2008, at the sold out Quest Center in Omaha, there were 1225 qualifiers there. And next summer, back again in Omaha, how many are expected? About 1500.

Swimmers keep getting faster, but the price of admission stays the same. Or, in the case of most of the men's events, the price is cheaper than it was a generation ago.

There are many fine reasons for this. Indeed, the U.S. Trials is a better event now that so many are admitted. Just because it's easier to get there does not make it lesser. In fact, quite the opposite. The meet now sells out a 12,000 seat arena. If each of those 1500 swimmers brings their mom and dad, that's a quarter of the nightly ticket sales right there. Something like the AquaZone, that world's fair-esque attraction in the convention hall alongside the pool, would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. That's not a product of Michael Phelps' presence, it's due to the huge number of fast young swimmers now in his midst.

I'm told that some of this Trials-expansion philosophy came from Eddie Reese. He cited the example of a 16-year-old high school flyer who barely makes the Trials cut in the 100 fly, comes to the meet, places 86th, but gains the invaluable experience of being there, seeing what it takes. Four years later, that promising young flyer is now a sophomore NCAA All-American (presumably now a Longhorn, swimming for Reese!), and he's racing into the finals with a great shot to make the Team. Did that lower standard of admission help this sample swimmer's progression? The committee of top coaches who determine such things certainly thought so. They endorsed it 100%.

This mindset has created a curious new species of swimmer at the meet: the Trials Tourist. The swimmers who make the cuts and travel to Omaha without the slightest hope in hell of actually becoming an Olympian. Next summer, there will conservatively be about 1,000 or so Trials Tourists like this. Two-thirds of the young men and women who take their marks in Omaha will do so without any real dream of going to London.

Compare this to the men's 100 fly back in 1992. The Trials cut was 55.59. What did it take to make the Team that year? 54.01. Just a second and a half gap between the last seed who barely qualified and the time it took to become an Olympian. A second and a half. That's a realistic drop. A big improvement, to be sure, but nothing outlandish. Fair to say that every man in that event allowed himself to visualize making the Team and going to Barcelona.

20 years later, that 100 fly cut has become marginally faster (one of few). Now's it's 55.29. But what will it take to make the Team? Likely a 51-low. Four full seconds below the cut. A 54.0 won't even be noticed by anyone beyond your coach, parents, and teammates. It will be one of many, a mid-pack, heat 4, lane 7 prelims swim.

This says an awful lot about the insane depth of swimming in America. Unger points out that when they set the Trials time standards back in 2010, they expected around 800-1000 swimmers to qualify. They were uncertain what the effect of the now-banned super suits would have on the times. Turns out those suits weren't so valuable after all. No one expected 1500 to charge past these now pedestrian time standards. This says great things about the seemingly limitless depth in American swimming, says Unger. And the Quest Center can certainly accommodate these swelling ranks, with two 50-meter pools, another 25-meter warm-up pool, more than enough seating, and a meet spread over a long eight days.

It's a truism in swimming that there is no more depressing place to be than on deck on the last day of Olympic Trials. It's a time when 99% of the swimmers there are devastated, their Olympic dreams dashed. A small handful glide around deck with the new insufferable glow of the Olympian. The rest remain mere mortals. They got so close, but not far, or fast, enough. Maybe this was true back in 1992, when all the swimmers there had a right to dream of making the Team. But is that really the case these days? How crushed can the 1,000 Trials Tourists really be? It's not like they're arriving with realistic hopes of going to London. They're there for the "experience." Which is fair enough, but let's not pretend that experience is as prestigious as it once was.

This is a time, less than seven months from those Trials, when many young swimmers are currently tapering and shaving for regional meets, trying to make those elusive cuts, trying to punch their ticket to the big one in Omaha this summer. It's a high honor to be sure, but these days, many more will make it.

Most will be Tourists. But who will be Travelers?

Boys Beating Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyone have Michael Cera's phone number?

The Price of College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enabling Evil

Swimming through the darkness at Penn State... "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." - Edmund Burke

The legend is dead. Six decades of winning football games made him a deity in a small and happy town. But for the last decade and more, Joe Paterno carried on in the presence of evil - and he did nothing. He knew. He knew as far back as 1998. And for the last 5,000 days, he has gone to sleep each night with this knowledge. Since Jerry Sandusky "retired" in 1999, in the wake of allegations of improper conduct with an underage boy inside Penn State's football facilities, Joe Paterno won 102 more football games. That was 12 years ago.

Maybe he tried to forget about it. Didn't ask questions he didn't want answers to... Three years later, he was reminded. In 2002, a graduate assistant caught Sandusky, again inside of Paterno's lair. He brought it to the legend. This time Paterno did the bare minimum. He reported it to his superior (wait, since when did Paterno have a superior in Happy Valley?) He legally covered his legendary ass, and he never followed up. Out of sight, out of mind yet again. Back to winning football games. Nine more years passed. How many more abuses happened in this time?

I realize this is supposed to be a site devoted to swimming. I realize the last thing our sport wants is for any connection to be made to this story. A story that is fast becoming the worst scandal in the history of sport... But like it or not, the swimming community can relate. We have been hit hard by this evilest of all human behavior. Perhaps there has never been a monster so evil in the coaching ranks of any sport, but there have been monsters of Sandusky's type in swimming. A year and a half ago, in April 2010, ABC's 20/20 aired that awful piece about coaching predators on pool decks. Reading with rage the horrors coming out of Happy Valley, it's impossible not to recall swimming's own brush with this same evil.

When we're confronted with this, we don't react rationally. It's impossible. Yesterday while walking my dog, I found myself entertaining violent fantasies of torture that I hoped would be inflicted on Jerry Sandusky. The darkest corners of my imagination lashing out, unable to process unfathomable actions... I don't think I am alone in having these thoughts.

We can feel comfort, or at least certainty, in our murderous rage in the presence of pure evil. But what about the enablers, the ones who stood by and let it happen by choosing to look the other way? Whether conscious or buried deep within the sub, their choice to do nothing amounts to blood on the hands. They were driving the getaway car. And those in the driver's seat also get tried for murder.

How to process Joe Paterno's role in this? How to process the role of those in swimming who might have been able to do something to prevent past horrors, but failed to do so... Parents, assistant coaches, administrators, who heard things, suspected, even saw things but did not reach for whistles. We know background checks are sometimes no more than futile attempts to distance ourselves from future guilt, like checking a waiver. Jerry Sandusky would have passed a background check. We also know that you can never predict these things, it will always be a sickening blindside. Yet, on that dark day when it arrives at your doorstep, what do you do?

Coaches, as a proud tribe, are selfless men and women with a passion to share their sport. Whether at the side of a field or a pool, this is a part of the job description, the core part. If you're ranking careers based on lives changed and differences made, coaching must surely be ranked among the very highest of professions. It is also a job that can attract the very worst. The sort of men who prey on those they're charged with protecting. The sort who deserve a circle of Hell lower than Dante's 9th circle of traitors.

At Penn State, there may have been many of these good and selfless men in the athletic department. Maybe there was just one whose evil, hiding in plain sight, was allowed to spread and triumph. But they allowed him to remain in their midst. They let it happen. Where does that rank them on the Great Scorecard?

I don't think Joe Paterno is a bad man. Six decades worth of good works as a coach must count for something. Yet here is how Joe Paterno will be remembered. Not for his 409 victories on the football field. Not for his "Grand Experiment" that actually took the academics of his student-athletes seriously. Not for his (prematurely) crowned sainthood in the state of Pennsylvania. Joe Paterno will now be remembered forever as this above all else: An enabler of a pedophile. Nothing more. That is now his legacy.

The rest has receded, faster than creation, into the footnotes of a legendary life.

State of Pay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Steroid-Dealing, Ecstasy-Smuggling, Dead-Body-Burning Swim Coach

I was told to tread carefully. I was told that the man in the headline above could be litigious, and that he had deep pockets. There's also the matter of him burning and burying a dead body on his own property... During the trial when this dark detail emerged, an attorney said of this coach: "If he has a conscience, it would be a very hard thing to find." Fair warning. Careful what you write. I'll just tread in the facts. Here are some greatest hits:

- In 1997, Canadian swim coach Cecil Russell was banned for life from the sport for his lead role in an international steroid trafficking ring. In exchange for a reduced sentence, he agreed to testify in the murder trial of one of his associates.

- At that murder trial, Cecil Russell admitted under oath that he helped burn and bury the butchered body of the victim in a corn silo alongside his home outside of Toronto. After the disposal of said body, Russell and the murderer raked the area and made sure they disposed of any lingering evidence - in the form of bones and the victim's jewelry. In exchange for his testimony, Russell served just 201 days for his steroid crimes. His body-burning accomplice was convicted of first-degree murder.

- A few years later, Russell, banned but now coaching in Spain, was arrested on the pool deck on charges of possession with intent to distribute ecstasy. At the time he was coaching eventual Olympic medalist, Nina Jivanevskaia, of Spain. He spent four years in a Spanish prison. This was no small time drug bust; Russell had been the main player in a plot to import 500,000 tabs of E from Amsterdam, thru Canada, into the United States.

- In 2005, Russell's ban was lifted after he claimed he had been exonerated in the ecstasy case. The ban was reinstated in 2007 after a front page story in the Toronto Star revealed that he had misrepresented and managed to suppress facts surrounding his past crimes during his reinstatement hearing. Weeks after his second lifetime ban came down, Russell was seen back on the pool deck still coaching.

Here's another fact: Cecil Russell is also a very good swim coach. And because of this last fact, moral ambiguity muddies the present of a hard core criminal past. Despite the bans, he's never really stopped coaching, and when you get your swimmers to swim fast, as Russell does, it seems parents are willing to overlook any manner of past misdeeds. Reading those greatest hits in the headline, it's staggering to consider, but the scariest part of this true crime tale is that many parents are still behind him. They still want him to coach their children. Because he's good at it, never mind the man behind the curtain.

Welcome to the strange saga of the Dolphins Swim Club... A Toronto team loaded with Canadian Olympic Trials qualifiers, an A-list club team with a Russell-led history of producing top talent on the national and international level. This talent is led by Russell's own children: Colin and Sinead Russell, two of Canada's finest swimmers. Son, Colin, was an Olympian in 2008, a world class middle-distance freestyler. Daughter, Sinead, is even better. At 18-years-old, she was a finalist in the 100 back at the 2010 World Championships. Her lifetime best of 59.6 puts her right in the mix as a medal contender in London. Both children have reportedly spent much of their training time at the nearby University of Toronto, however, according to sources on the Canadian team, they still call their dad their coach. They're the two shining examples of Cecil Russell's success as a world class swim coach. And two young swimmers who find themselves in an immensely difficult position, thanks to the sins of their father.

The Dolphins are a team with a lot at stake in this Olympic year, five months from deciding Team Canada's London Olympians. Now is not the time for disrupting their training. Now's not the time to bother with annoying distractions like the outsized criminal past of their coach. And so, while parents hear of plenty of past evil, if they don't see it, they don't seem to care.

I spoke with Toronto Star reporter Randy Starkman, who has been tracking this story for years. Indeed, it was his front page story that caused Russell's second lifetime ban. He has been on deck with the Dolphins, spoken with Russell in person in front of his team, and was floored by what he found.

"It is by far the strangest story I've been involved with," says Starkman, who has covered every Olympics since the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games. "The weirdest interview I've ever done. Sitting at a picnic table, asking Russell about all this stuff, with parents and kids walking by. You get the impression that they all think he's a good coach, that things have been blown out of proportion. Their kids are swimming faster, they like swimming for him, end of story."

No, not end of story. And considering where this story begins, it would be difficult to blow any of Russell's past out of proportion.

Needless to say, the rest of Swimming Canada shakes with shame and embarrassment at the continued presence of the rogue coach in their midst. Yet, they've continued to prove almost powerless in their enforcement capabilities. Plenty of efforts have been made, but with limited resources there is only so much they can do to physically enforce any bans. Recently, the Dolphins' regional federation, Swim Ontario, has placed the team under suspension. This caused the team to lose its coveted pool time. And that led to a howling uproar among Dolphins parents.

In an astonishing scene at a community hearing, this loss of pool time was labeled a "violation of their human rights." Said one parent at this council meeting: “Please keep in mind the impact your decisions may have on shaping their values and views." (Hello, pot, please meet mister kettle...)

While that derailed the team momentarily, recent reports confirm that they are now back in the water, training at one of Canada's finest facilities, the Etobicoke Olympium pool. It will take more than that to keep Russell away. Over the years, he's learned a few tricks of technicalities.

First, Cecil Russell is not technically listed as the head coach of Dolphins Swim Club. His wife, Erin, is. A distinction that leads to instant eye-rolling among swimmers and other coaches in Canada... Next, it's said that he now lists himself as a "personal coach" not a "club coach." Meaning, he's not a part of any team at all, merely a proven commodity as a coach who is happy to lend his services to those swimmers who approach him personally. Whether using a spousal front or an individual vs collective distinction, both of these strategies have been effective. What has also been effective is Russell's ability to doggedly wait out the bad press, the roving spotlight that continues to glare over the shocking facts of his history. A coach to the core, it's clear he refuses to be denied the pursuit of his greatest passion.

"Nothing stops the guy," says Starkman. "That's the real tragedy here -- every athlete has to follow the anti-doping code. As most make almost no money, they have to be cleaner than clean. And then we have this coach, a guy who has been convicted of major drug offenses, still leading them."

And so it falls to the parents. The tunnel vision of an ambitious mom and dad cannot be underestimated. Those my-kid-only blinders that refuse to acknowledge anything outside of the immediate perception of what is good for MY kid... There is nothing else. And when that perception happens to include an Olympic dream on the cusp of being fulfilled, who has time for things like morals and ethics?

Best of luck to Cecil Russell's swimmers and devoted parents as the Trials approach. And good luck living with yourself.

Comeback Junkies

He left the press conference for his more famous friend. The one who had more gold medals than any countryman before him. He had a few too, was also among Australia's all-time greats, but by comparison, his news didn't feel all that newsworthy. Another comeback. By another Olympic champion. Welcome aboard, Michael Klim. The comeback trail is crowded these days, packed with aquatic icons who can't quite stay away...

When Ian Thorpe announced his intentions, it was sponsored by Richard Branson, as the Virgin mega-mind used the Thorpedo's return as a fine opportunity to announce Virgin Blue's latest international route. (You didn't think Thorpe was actually going to train for London in Abu Dhabi, did you?) When Michael Klim announced his own comeback, he chose a bit less corporate pomp. His venue? A comedy radio show, with a handful of local TV news cameras crowded into the studio.

Eleven years ago at the Sydney Games, these two were elevated to god-like stature Down Under. I remember an office tower in downtown Sydney whose entire 50 stories on one side was covered in a long picture of a pool, with Thorpe and Klim, along with (the still retired) Susie O'Neill swimming up lanes stretching hundreds of feet into the air. (Just one example; probably plenty...) Now, three Games removed, their legend-status engraved for all-time, these Aussie gents are hooked again, and they're not alone.

Stateside, have a look at the list of confirmed comebackers back on the sauce: Janet Evans, Brendan Hansen, Anthony Ervin, Ed Moses. And those are just the Olympic champs back in the mix. Rumors have swirled about an Ian Crocker comeback. (Still no official paperwork filed, according to USA Swimming...) And at the risk of starting a rumor, word is that Aaron Peirsol has yet to file his retirement paperwork. Perhaps leaving a door to Trials slightly ajar...

Across the pond, France's drama-soaked freestyle queen, Laure Manaudou, is immersed in a comeback of her own. England's ageless sprint ace, Mark Foster, is said to be contemplating another crack at it on home soil. And who could blame him? He's the male Brit version of Dara Torres. Both obscenely ripped sprint specimens who should not be allowed to look so mockingly good into their 40's.

Maybe it's Torres who's to blame for all these second acts. Did she make it look too damn easy? Would anyone be surprised to see her on the blocks in London too? She'll be 45 next summer. Back in 2000, a 15-year-old Michael Phelps used to call her "mom." A dozen years later, Missy Franklin could refer to her as "grandma."

Should this spate of comebacks be christened 'Torres Syndrome'? Surely, the thought must have crossed Janet Evans' mind as she considered her return to competitive waters. Evans was twice the swimmer Torres was. No comparison. Back in 1988, when Janet was the greatest female swimmer on the planet, Torres was a relay swimmer, earning a single bronze as a member of the women's 4x100 free. There's no question that Torres has been a compelling example for all these folks. The question is - what kind of example has she set?

You read about these comebacks and the lines are all the same. It's for the love of the sport... The fire still burns... I have unfinished business... I wanted to be a part of the Olympics just once more... Or as Klim put it recently to Craig Lord of Swim News: "We're all doing it for the same reason: swimming was a big part of our lives and we still feel it."

But what is it that you feel? Because this culture of comebacks sounds an awful lot like a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, a crew of relapsed junkies who just happen to be hooked on a drug of pure Olympism. It's hard to imagine two more polar opposite clans. The heroin addict and the Olympic champion. At distant ends of the spectrum of society's respect. One group, pitied and reviled, the other, praised on the ultimate sporting pedestal. Yet at the extremes, we always find similarities...

Consider: For both groups, the junkie and the Olympian, the "it" is two-fold, and exactly the same. They miss the high, for one. And as good as a heroin high must surely feel, it can't compare to the high of standing on top of an Olympic podium. But that's only part of it. The bigger part, the essential part, is about the lifestyle. It's a common refrain among ex-addicts. They talk of the purity of purpose, of the single-mindedness that gets them through each day. Where the rest of the world has daily to-do lists, headaches to confront and check off each and every day, the addict has only one concern: how to continue the high.

As does the swimmer back on the Olympic trail. All those worldly concerns that invaded your life after retirement? Your job, your family, your bills. Back on the backburner! Because as each of these comebackers knows, as every swimmer who's ever appeared in any Olympics knows, getting to the Games demands total sacrificial commitment. To the point of setting aside the rest of your life and acknowledging it for what it is - distractions. Distractions that get in the way of the one thing you care about more than anything else... That high. That feeling of invincibility, of total bliss, when there is nothing but the now, nothing but the passion to get what you need, what you've had before, and what you must have again...

Junkies are reviled, and rightly so, because their need and their bliss is self-destructive and false. Olympians, at the other end, are praised because that same need is believed to come from a pure and true place. They are not destroying their bodies, but elevating them to ultimate levels of perfection. But the motivation, the drive, the personality is all too similar.

Years ago, when Aussie great Susie O'Neill (remember, the one on that Sydney building not making a comeback?) retired, a reporter asked her what she would miss most about swimming. Her answer was honest and heartbreaking. She said: "I'll miss never being the best in the world at anything else ever again."

That's a hard addiction to kick. As her fellow Olympic champions, now immersed in comebacks, know all too well...

Hot Water

Fran Crippen, One Year Later The water was 88 degrees, the air almost 100. Like swimming through soup, under an unyielding Shanghai summer sun. If you'd been tanning on the beach, a quick dip in these waters would not cool you off. If you were planning on racing 25km, over 15 miles, in these conditions, forget about it. Reckless Endangerment would be the first two words to come to mind. Wikipedia defines this term as such: "A person commits the crime of reckless endangerment if the person recklessly engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person." Sounds about right.

So, back in July at the World Championships, what exactly was FINA doing, allowing the world's greatest open water swimmers to compete in water this hot? As Team USA's Alex Meyer said at the time: "It's like, did you not learn your lesson? Do you not remember what happened last time?"

Yes, last time. One year ago this Sunday. The day that Fran Crippen died, in water cooler than this, in a race near Dubai. On the eve of this tragic anniversary, it feels appropriate to take a look at exactly what has changed in the sport Fran died for -- and what has not. The temperature of the water being most troubling of all...

I sought out Germany's Thomas Lurz for some perspective. Lurz, in case you're a follower of only what happens in the pool, is open water's reigning king, a three-time winner of Swimming World's Open Water Swimmer of the Year, and the favorite for gold next year in London. In Shanghai at Worlds, he won gold in the 10km race. A few days later, he was one of many who pulled out of the 25km race, refusing to enter water that hot, with dark memories of that October day in Dubai. When Crippen never emerged from those waters, Lurz was one of the guys who charged back in to search for his missing friend.

When I emailed him, this was the first line of his reply: "Some things changed, but still not enough... Still no temperature limits."

How could this be? We all realize that there were many factors that contributed to Crippen's death -- from the negligence of race organizers in Dubai to the lack of basic safety requirements in sanctioned open water events. But at its core, wasn't it about the conditions? About extreme exertion in a very very hot environment, without considering the potentially disastrous consequences?

In Shanghai, the official response from FINA was that the proposed temperature limits were "a guideline, not a rule." Translation: Making, and then breaking, rules brings legal accountability. Setting, and then disregarding, guidelines brings, well, a shrug. Make it a judgement call and you're in the clear. Make it a rule and it's your ass on the line.

FINA's supreme ruler (sorry, 'Executive Director') Cornel Marculescu followed with the political 'we're working it', saying that FINA and the IOC are working with a New Zealand university on establishing a clear temperature limit, adding that "the target is to be ready by the end of this year and it will be included in the rules for 2012 and the Olympics."

Ok... But is a university study really necessary to confirm a range that's already abundantly clear to the athletes in the water? Said Lurz: "A limit between 17-28C (63-83F) would be great. Perhaps then you can make a 0.5 degree (range of error) up and down to get the race started, but a race under 16C (61F) and over 29 (84F) shouldn't be started." Like the one in Shanghai, which wasn't even close to this proposed range...

Before this turns into a FINA-bashing fest, some credit is due. Lurz was quick to point out that there have indeed been a great many changes to open water events across the globe. He notes that there are more safety boats on courses than ever before. He cited a race in Cancun as one impressive example, as scuba divers were positioned throughout the course, particularly around the turning buoys where there are often the greatest threats to safety.

Unfortunately, low-lights remain at certain destinations. With dry understatement, he noted that "Hong Kong is a nice place, but swimming inside the shark nets would be nice." And in Santos, Brazil, he paints a nasty picture of diseased water: "Not so nice. Dirty water with huge pieces of wood with nails on it. Dead fish, turtles, and rats." One can only hope that tetanus shots were available at the finish.

Anyone familiar with the wild west history of open water swimming knows that this sort of thing sometimes comes with the territory. In her incredible memoir, Swimming to Antarctica, Lynne Cox writes of stomach-turning aquatic adventures, including a race in the Nile River, strewn with animal carcasses, that unsurprisingly resulted in a severe case of dysentery.

Still, that was then, and the adventures of Cox and other frontiersmen and women are a different game. The challenge and danger of the unknown is the point. It is about overcoming and reaching, eventually, slowly, excruciatingly, the other shore, no matter how long it takes. It is not about winning a race. When competition enters the equation, certain regulation becomes essential. It becomes a matter of fairness, but more than that, a matter of safety. Athletes immersed in intense competition are seldom the best judges of their personal safety. (As the concussion epidemic in sports like football and hockey so grimly illustrate...)

One year ago it didn't seem possible. That a swimmer, one of our own, could die in the midst of a race. As we quickly learned, it was a death that was preventable. This wasn't a freak heart attack, a there-by-the-grace-of-God sickness so inexplicable we couldn't hope to understand. The causes of Fran Crippen's death were understandable. Too much so, uncomfortably so. He was involved in a race of extreme negligence and dangerous conditions. In the end, the water was too hot. It should never be again.

Blood, Honor, and Shame

Stamping Your Blood Passport on the Olympic Journey One fine morning, maybe tomorrow, a stranger will show up at your door and put a needle in your arm. You will not resist. You have no choice. This stranger, who has arrived without warning, will open a bag with a syringe, a few vials, and an assortment of official documents which you will sign with great seriousness. You will roll up your sleeve as he sits across from you. He will lean forward and tell you that you'll feel a slight pinch. You will wince and look away as the needle breaks your skin. After the vials have been filled with a sufficient amount of your blood, the stranger will pack his bags and leave. You will probably never see him again.

If you're currently ranked in the top 25 in the world in any event, this is your reality. You've probably never given it a second thought. If it helps keep our sport clean, we must support it, right? Like criticizing military troops or raising taxes, this appears to be one of those subjects where dissent is not an option. If you have a problem with blood testing, you must have something to hide. Never mind the dark privacy-stealing invasiveness of the act itself. If you carry that Olympic dream, what's in your body is not your own. It is up for display and dissection, an open-book passport produced by needle-wielding strangers...

Last summer in Shanghai, the FINA Bureau approved a pilot program for the long-considered 'Biological Passport'. The World Anti-Doping Agency subsequently signed off on these passports, meaning that in the lead-up to London more athletes than ever before will be subjected to blood testing, both in and out of competition. In a statement, FINA called the Athletes Biological Passport "the most advanced tool in the fight against doping in Sport." The new legislation calls for a steep increase in blood testing, requiring that 10% of all samples taken from athletes are blood instead of urine.

Why is blood better than piss? For the simple reason that it can detect some of the favored forms of cheating that don't show up in urine, ie Human Growth Hormone, EPO, and blood doping... Not that we have any reason to suspect any recent Olympic medalists of abusing such things... So, this should be a good thing, right? More opportunity to catch the guilty, the more chance we have to witness clean, untainted achievement at next summer's Games. In theory it sounds like a long overdue upgrade in the ever-losing battle against doping. So then why does the reality of blood testing feel like we're entering a Stasi-esque sports state of freedomless submission for the world's greatest athletes?

Is this where Olympic sport has arrived? Not only is the answer a clear and obvious 'yes', the total lack of questioning from any athletes or coaches indicates that we're so far gone, so conditioned to a culture of sporting suspicion that we are literally willing do to anything to prove our innocence. Actually, innocence is the wrong word: we're willing to do anything to prove we belong at the Olympics. Standards of innocence are not only constantly changing, so too is the very definition of the word from country to country.

Regardless of where you come from, there's no worse fear for an athlete than testing positive. Especially when innocent. We know these tests are subject to interpretation - hence the lengthy battles that inevitably ensue when an apparent 'false positive' comes back. Will blood provide conclusive evidence of exactly what's going on in a body? Will it prevent situations like the tragic case of Jessica Hardy three years ago, when an athlete's Olympic dream was revoked thanks to a positive test that wasn't quite Positive? Or will a questionable change in blood levels on your new passport lead to further debate, further excuses to explain away dubious bodily impurities?

Perhaps it's time to take the mission for clean sport in an entirely new direction. Rather than a standard built on blood and piss, why not something even more personal -- like honor and shame.

When I was in 4th grade, I was introduced to something called the Honor Code. On every test or quiz, we were required to write the following pledge on the back: "On my honor, I pledge that I have neither given nor received aid on this paper." It was drilled into us as a sacred promise. Breaking it would be the highest, most horrible sin of all. Physical violence against a classmate at recess was more socially acceptable than glancing at his paper during a test. Ok, we all lose our temper sometimes, but to lose your honor? It was unthinkable. There was no greater shame than being a cheater.

Clearly, 4th Graders are slightly more impressionable than elite world class athletes. Or maybe they just have more honor.

Before you scoff at this notion of an 'Honor Code' being more powerful, more of a deterrent than a needle in an arm or urine in a cup, consider the standard of our courts of law. Does every witness submit to a lie detector test before taking the stand? No, instead they sit down, put their hand on the Bible, raise the other hand and recite that they 'promise to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.'

It's this court-bound honor code that seals the fate of criminals - or acquits the falsely accused. The promise to tell the truth is enough to convict murderers. But in sport we apparently need much more. We need proof in the form of bodily fluids.

Of course, the procession of iconic athletes - from Barry Bonds to Roger Clemens to Lance Armstrong - who have brazenly lied under oath proves that raising a hand and taking a sacred vow of truth is not exactly taken seriously by all. The Pulitzer-prize winning journalist James B. Stewart even wrote a book on this erosion of truth-telling on the stand. His book Tangled Webs: How False Statements are Undermining America makes the case that we've become "a society where perjury is the norm." And he goes on to lay out the cases of some of our most high-profile promise breakers, from Bonds to Bernie Madoff to Martha Stewart.

Still, as someone who's taken big blind gulps of the Olympic Kool Aid, who believes that the Olympic standard is something that transcends sport, and someone who competed with no more than Advil and an asthma inhaler in his system, the idea of blood testing is troubling. Instead, moments before every Olympic final, before marching from the Ready Room, why not line up every athlete and force them to place a hand on a Bible and swear that: "On my honor, I pledge that I am a clean athlete who has never taken anything illegal that may enhance my performance."

Call it the Competitor's Code, and like the trials of Bonds, Clemens, Armstrong, et all, chase down those suspected of breaking this pledge, and publicly shame them as the criminals of sport that they are.

If you can dive in and compete with a clean conscience after making that promise, then may the best swimmer win. But we know such utopian notions of honor and pure competition won't be happening anytime soon. Instead, we need needle-wielding strangers to knock on your door tomorrow morning...