The NCAA is Un-American

And that's a good thing. The issue of foreign Olympians training at U.S. colleges...  That headline is not meant to inflame. It's just a fact. In many quarters, calling someone "un-American" is akin to hate speech. In this case, in reference to an athletic institution based in the United States, it's simply the way it is. See, for decades now, the NCAA has been the principle development system of the world's greatest Olympic athletes. Many of those athletes carry American passports and go for gold under the Stars & Stripes; many more do not.

This upsets some folks. Well meaning Americans who seem to be believe that it's the duty of American universities to prepare only American athletes for the Olympics. Never mind the fact that the USOC does not give a single penny to these colleges to fund that perceived duty. So, apparently it's just supposed to come from some vague altruistic notions of nationalism?

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal got in on the debate - with a grossly jingoistic piece entitled Schools That Train the Enemy. (Nice to see Rupert Murdoch's always classy fingerprints on his illustrious paper...) The language in the piece makes the skin crawl. In addition to the "enemy" in the headline, there's a sidebar called "Rating the Traitors" (an honor won by Auburn), and words like "damage" and "threat" sprinkled throughout the piece. Fair and balanced, indeed.

Clearly I take exception. And unlike the Journal, I'll make no pretense of any objectivity. My bias is huge. I was the "enemy." I received all the spoils and expertise of NCAA swimming, and then I went off and competed for Canada at the Olympics. My business partner found his way from Germany to Cal Berkeley, where he was the captain of the Golden Bears his senior year, and was a member of their U.S. Open record-breaking 4 x 100 free relay back in 2000. Suppose he's the enemy too. A couple of damaging threats who now own a school that teaches thousands of mostly American children how to swim...

For the two of us, and a great many of our friends, the NCAA was un-American in the best possible way.

But I guess all that big picture context is besides the point. The question remains - should American coaches at American colleges be preparing top foreign athletes to compete against Americans at the Olympics? Is there an inherent conflict of interest there?

First, some facts and figures: In 2008, USA Swimming did a study on the number of foreign swimmers competing at the top level of the NCAA. At the 2008 men's and women's Division I NCAA champs, they found that 48 different countries were represented. The Olympic Games could not top that level of international participation until 1936 - when 49 countries competed at the Berlin Games. This means that our current NCAA Swimming championships are a bigger international event than the first eight Olympics.

Hans Chrunak, the former head coach of the Swedish national team from 1991 to 2000, was once asked who was the biggest sponsor of Swedish swimming. Chrunak thought for a moment, then replied matter-of-factly: "That would be the NCAA." An unlikely reply perhaps. One would expect an apparel company, or perhaps a petroleum company like Phillips 66. But no, for the Swedes, their biggest benefactor was the NCAA. When Chrunak made that statement a few years back, there were 51 Swedish swimmers competing in the NCAA. Now, not every one of those 51 were receiving full scholarships, and not all went on to make the Swedish Olympic Team, but consider the resources and the finances that the NCAA was devoting to these 51 Swedes. Even if each one was receiving a partial scholarship worth $10,000 a year, that's still a half million dollar investment each year in Sweden's swimming program.

One can see how that might rub certain Go U-S-A'ers the wrong way. Should those scholarships and those dollars have been spent on American kids? Well, if those Americans were better qualified, yes. If not, then absolutely not. (How do you feel about affirmative action? What's your stance on isolationism? How do you define your patriotism? This particular issue can quickly slip and slide onto bigger pastures...)

The greatest coaches in the U.S. are often divided on this delicate question. On one hand, you have Texas' Eddie Reese and Stanford's (now retired) Skip Kenney. These two elder statesmen are widely regarded as coaches who've seldom been interested in international swimmers at their schools. That's not to say it was a hard and fast rule for these men. I can rattle off a number of Canadian swimmers who competed for the Cardinal. And Israeli breaststroker Imri Ganiel (1:00.9 in the 100) just recently signed at Texas. Just two examples, plenty more, yet these two perennial powers have mostly been stocked with US swimmers through the years.

Contrast that with the longtime leaders of Auburn and Florida. As the head coach of Auburn from 1990 to 2007, David Marsh took the Tigers to prominence by focusing more on top foreign swimmers than anyone else. Sprint kings Freddy Bousquet and Cesar Cielo, to name the two most obvious. Meanwhile, Florida head coach Gregg Troy quite literally made his coaching name by developing international talent. At the Bolles School, where he coached for twenty years, he guided world beating talents like Surinam's Anthony Nesty and Spain's Martin Zubero, Olympic champions in 1988 and 1992, respectively. Add these guys to the Journal's "enemy" list too... (More bias, I was one of Coach Troy's "international" swimmers at Bolles. At the 1996 Games, we had 18 different countries represented in Atlanta. Two Thai friends and I made t-shirts that proudly proclaimed "Bolles Nation.")

Fast forward to today: Gregg Troy is the head coach of the U.S. men's Olympic swim team. Dave Marsh is now the CEO and Head Elite Coach of SwimMAC - a United States Olympic Committee Center of Excellence. So, is it fair to say that these two world class coaches may have improved their craft working with all those world class foreign talents? So much so that these two are now charged with developing and leading Team USA on the biggest stage possible.

The career arcs of Marsh and Troy reveal something frequently missed when folks make their isolationist arguments in favor of keeping foreign swimmers out of the NCAA. Both coaches and swimmers improve thanks to that international presence. Want to be the best? Put yourself around the best possible talent. American swimmers are better thanks to the presence of foreign athletes side by side in their lanes at college. And American coaches are better too, when given the opportunity to work with top talent from a wide range of diverse backgrounds. How could that not help a team improve in every way?

So, here's to the enemies. The foreigners, the ones who cross oceans and borders and arrive at American colleges determined to improve themselves... By doing so, they also improve all those young entitled American kids around them.

No thanks necessary.

Heartbreak on the Way Home

Solidarity for Canada's Stefan Hirniak... "What can you say?" asked my friend Adam. "It's beyond words."

I didn't have an answer. Still don't. Not really sure why I'm even writing this. All I know is that I don't think I've ever felt for a fellow swimmer - a guy I've never met - more in my life. And Adam and I both know that a fellow Canadian 200 flyer could really use some support right about now. His name is Stefan Hirniak. Last night at the Canadian Olympic Trials, he missed making the Team over the final 25 meters of the race, fading to finish 4th. The exact same thing happened to him four years ago, at the Trials for Beijing. Both times he was a favorite to make it. Both times it came down to that final 50, heading for home.

The Adam I'm referring to is Adam Sioui - the guy who won the 200 fly at Canadian Trials back in 2008. The same event I won, in the same pool in Montreal, twelve years before that, in 1996. 200 flyers tend to be a certain tribe of swimmer, same as the quirky breaststrokers or the masochistic milers. Not sure what adjective you stick in front of the flyers, but you know the type. When you represent the same country, swimming the same event, over a few generations of National Teams, you tend to look out for the guys who come next. Hirniak came next.

He was faster than Sioui or I. He's the Canadian Record Holder in fact, with a lifetime best of 1:57.01. A time recorded back in 2010, without the benefit of the Suits, I might add.

Heartbreak is part of the Olympic Trials. In any country, any sport. When you get down to it, it's what gives these pressure-drenched events their beauty. So few go home with glowing hearts, their goals fulfilled. Most limp back to their home pools with dashed Olympic dreams. But few experience heartbreak on the scale of Hirniak.

It's something you don't get over anytime soon. But there is a bright light at the end of this dark tunnel...

I told my partner Lars about what happened to Hirniak last night in Montreal. His response was thoughtful, and not what you'd expect to hear right after this level of disappointment: "Well, if he's able to look at it the right way, it will probably make him more successful in his life after swimming," said Lars.

Come again? Isn't the cliché supposed to be how becoming an Olympian makes everything after that much easier? How that great sporting success informs your later professional career, injecting you with a level of special Games-anointed confidence? Well, not exactly, not for everyone.

Lars proceeded to point out a laundry list of former Olympic champions (who shall remain nameless...) whose lives effectively stopped right after their mighty moment of glory. In the true, tragic "To An Athlete Dying Young" way... (If you don't know A.E. Housman's classic poem, please read it now, right HERE.) That success becomes a high water mark that can never be duplicated, so the rest of days become a rather sad dull buzz kill, with the volume turned way down.

But to miss it? To get so very close, not once but twice? To have the wall within sight like that...

That's not something you wish upon anyone. But I'll tell you what it is: This is someone you want to hire once those psychic wounds have had some time to heal. It's someone I'd bet large sums of money on succeeding - once that new path is taken.

I know Stefan Hirniak doesn't want to hear it right now. Would you? But this isn't some look-at-the-bright-side spin to a Trials Heartbreak. This is actually the case. Life extends a whole hell of a lot longer than a few cruel moments in a swimming pool in your 20's. And when those moments don't pan out as planned, well, those are often the men and women who stay hungry for life.

Who go on to truly great things, far beyond mere Games...

The Devil and Miss Manaudou

Comeback Success For the French Olympic Queen A warm welcome back to the lovely Laure... Yesterday at the French Olympic Trials, Laure Manaudou sealed her return to the Olympic stage with victory in the women's 100 back. Her time - 1:00.16 - was no joke. Just tenths off her lifetime best, and fast enough to put her back in the game for the medals in London. An Olympic champion eight years ago in Athens, with a lifetime of celebrity and scandal stuffed in between, one of the greats of her generation is back.

It's become tiresome to preface every race result with that fast-suit disclaimer (we all know everyone was faster in the warped years of '08-'09), so let's keep the suits out of it. The sport is a more interesting place with Laure Manaudou in it. Compared to what she's been through, times on the clock are boring and incidental.

To review: From 2004 to 2007, Manaudau was arguably the greatest female swimmer on earth. In Athens, she won gold in the 400 free, silver in the 800 free, and bronze in the 100 back. Her victory in the 400 made her France's first woman ever to win Olympic swimming gold. It also made her a massive celebrity across the pond. Two years later, she broke the unbreakable - Janet Evans' world record in the 400 free. A record that had stood untouched for 18 years. A year after that, at the 2007 World Championships, she broke the world record in the 200 free too. At the Worlds in Melbourne, she also defended her world title in the 400, and added silver in the 800 and the 100 back.

Then the wheels came off.

A month after '07 Worlds, Manaudou announced that she was making a traitorous move - she was leaving her longtime coach, Phillipe Lucas, and she was leaving her country. She was off to Italy. She was chasing a guy. The man in question: an Italian lothario named Luca Marin. A fellow World Champs medalist (bronze in the 400 IM in Melbourne), Marin held the keys to Laure's heart. He also held some very compromising pictures of his girlfriend.

That December, at the short course Worlds in Budapest, Hungary, the lovers had an ugly public quarrel. A ring was thrown, a break up was announced. And that very day, those pictures surfaced online. (I'll resist the impulse to provide a link; if you haven't seen them, go ahead and Google it...) Marin denied having anything to do with it. Sure, buddy, so did Rick Salomon... (Paris anyone?)

Regardless of who pulled the trigger, the damage was clearly done as far as Manaudou's psyche was concerned. She showed up at the Beijing Olympics a broken swimmer. She flat out quit in the final of the 400 free, fading to a hard-to-watch 8th in the 400. She added a lackluster 7th in the 100 back, and didn't bother to make it through the semi-final in the 200 back. And then she was gone. Retired at 21.

Fortunately, that was not all she wrote. What's the best revenge for a broken heart? Why, shacking up with a better man, of course. Manaudou soon did just that. Marin was a pretty good swimmer, a World Champs medal is nothing to sneeze at, but he's nowhere near in the same league as the guy who replaced him. A guy named Fred Bousquet: former world record holder in the 50 free, and one of the fastest men on earth for many years now. (The guy is also as ripped as a cartoon superhero...) In April 2010, the French power couple had a baby girl named Manon.

Any wonder why Manaudou's comeback has been a success?

She flew across the pond to States, moved to Auburn, where her man Bousquet had achieved such soaring success for the Tigers. And it all came back.

As we've seen in Australia, the fate of the comeback crew has been pretty grim. Thorpe, gone. Klim, out. Huegill, no show. Trickett, a semi-success, an alternate on the Aussie relay. The coming track record of others on the trail will likely be just as grim. It's tough to comeback.

But when you retire at 21, before you've even reached your peak, when your personal life comes full circle to a family and a happily ever after... Is it any wonder Miss Manaudou is back on the Olympic stage?

And So Much for That

Thorpedo Fails to Launch... 12th in 200 free at Aussie Trials

Despite every sign, I refused to believe it. I just couldn't conceive of Ian Thorpe failing like this. He seemed to have prepared (convinced?) himself for this outcome awhile back, but I suppose I thought it was his way of managing those crushing external expectations.

Turns out, the sad fact is that Thorpe just no longer has it.

Yesterday in the 200 free at Aussie Trials, he delivered a respectable morning swim of 1:49.1 - good enough for 5th place. Since the Aussies aren't quite as deep as the Americans, the best among them can cruise a bit through the heats. Checking out Thorpe's prelims splits it looked like he might have just shut it down on the back half. His split at the 100 - 51.7 - was by far the fastest of the bunch. But then he was crawling home, in a weak 29.2. Appears he wasn't just conserving energy. It wasn't there.

In the semifinal later that night, he relaxed a bit going out, flipping in 52.1. He was still in the game but fading badly at the 150, with his 3rd 50 over a second slower than his 2nd. And then... nothing.

1:49.91. 12th Place.

His last lap was slower, by significant margins, than all but one of the Aussie semifinalists.

There was a time when that last lap was a thing of beauty. When his feet went into overdrive and accelerated away from the field. Just like Phelps and Lochte and Biedermann, and the rest of the guys we so hoped he'd be racing in London...

Thorpe still has the 100 left. Maybe he'll sneak onto the Team with a 5th or 6th place finish and return to the Games as a relay alternate. But the Aussies are currently the favorites for gold in the men's 4x100 free relay, and it's clear Thorpe is not close to the league of his young compatriots who'll be on that relay in the London final.

Goes without saying that Thorpe handled the disappointment with class. No surprise there.

But here's one comeback junkie who probably should have never gone back to the sauce...

Trials, Now or Later?

Brits and Aussies choose their squads while Yanks wait till June... Finally it gets interesting. Covering the swim beat isn't much like being on the trail of a pro sports league. No real season to track, no daily, or even semi-weekly highlights for SportsCenter. Just long underwater intervals between meets, when we get a peak at what's been going on in those endless workouts... This suits me just fine. How can one care about 162 games of anything? Still, those long slow winter months can sure try the patience of your earnest swim fan.

But that's all over now. It's March and it's an Olympic year, and that means the results matter.

Last week, British Olympic Trials kicked things off. The London hosts were decent, sure to be a few Olympic champions amongst them. Hannah Miley's 400 IM (4:32.6) and Rebecca Adlington's 400 free (4:02.3) were a couple of stand-outs, with Adlington primed to defend her Beijing gold on home soil and Miley ready to square off against Australia's Stephanie Rice and defending world champ Elizabeth Beisel.

Still, the Brits are like the Canadians (pumped to be in Montreal in two weeks time...) and the Germans, the Dutch, the South Africans and the rest. Always a few amazing gold medal threats mixed in there, but still a tier below the big guns when it comes to overall Olympic dominance. That, for now, remains the domain of two nations above all others. The Aussies and the Americans, of course.

One of those superpowers is in the water as we speak; the other still has a few months before the Team is chosen.

Last night, on day one of Aussie Trials, Stephanie Rice showed she's still got it, super suit or not, with a fast 400 IM of 4:33.4. The other finals were respectable (an Aussie record for Thomas Fraser-Holmes in the 400 IM, at 4:11.8), but not exactly podium potential.

Tomorrow - or make that in a few hours, Aussie time - is when things really get interesting. It's Ian Thorpe's return - with his 200 free prelims and semis. By almost every indication, time, and quote, the Thorpedo will fail to launch. Which is why I'm hoping he drops an insane swim out of nowhere. A 1:45 or so, to really get folks chattering, taking back all that schadenfreude that's been circling his comeback for months. Of course, Michael Phelps went 1:45 last weekend at the Grand Prix in Columbus, coming straight from altitude training in Colorado Springs, so maybe it will take a lot more than for Thorpe to impress...

Whatever he does, it will overshadow the greatest swimmer Down Under. A 20-year-old kid named James Magnussen, who happens to be the greatest 100 freestyler on earth, and has to be considered the even-money favorite to take gold in London. He'll probably beat Thorpe in the 100 by two seconds or so, and get a lot less ink in doing it. No matter, Magnussen would have to swim one armed to miss making the Team, while Thorpe may need that full-body suit of old just to deliver a respectable top-6 showing in an end lane.

Once upon a time U.S. Trials were in early March of the Olympic year too. That changed back in 2000, when USA Swimming moved the Trials up, just a few weeks before the Games. The tactic clearly worked beautifully, so they stuck with it. Fact is, that strategy probably works best for their best performers - guys like Phelps and Lochte and Coughlin and Franklin. Swimmers who don't necessarily have to peak at Trails to make the Team. They have to be fast, no question, say 95% or so. But they don't need to leave it all out there in Omaha. For swimmers who need every last bit of mental and physical energy to get their hand on the wall in 2nd - or 3rd, 4th, 5th, or 6th in relay events - that tight turnaround makes an Olympic peak a whole lot harder.

In the meantime, there's still plenty of NCAA and Grand Prix action ahead, for those you merely interested in results stateside.

Before you know it, the rest of the dry land world will be paying attention too...

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.

Story By Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year, everyone.

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...