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Michael Phelps always swore he'd never be swimming at age 30... He is. A man's entitled to change his mind. A kid's expected to change his mind, plenty. As both a young man and a teenage kid, Michael insisted over and over that you would never catch him on the starting blocks when he was 30 years old. At times he said it with a note of disdain, as if yeah right, I'll be long gone by then, when I'm, like, old. A few years ago, in the wake of London, he said it with a note of relief. He was sick of the sport in 2012, ready to move on with his life, and he did. Or he tried to. But when you're the best ever at something it's not so easy to swim away. You realize the view's a lot better from the top of a mountain.
And so, Michael Phelps did what most expected him to do. He came back. He picked up where he left off - at the top of the world rankings, the straw that stirs the drink of USA Swimming. His arrest and subsequent suspension for drunk driving last fall left some wondering if the comeback trail would dry up, but in the time since the man has professed to do some soul-searching. According to Bob Bowman (aka the Great & Powerful Oz behind the curtain), he's also been putting in the work. Something that Bowman hasn't proclaimed since, oh, around 2008.
It's been a redemptive few months for Team Phelps. His recent results at the Santa Clara Arena Swim Pro Series were encouraging. His deck side demeanor has been downright jovial. His press conferences on point. It's all about the love of the sport and the peace of mind these days for Michael, and caps off to that. It feels a far cry from the grumbling put out champion who approached London with a heavy load of obligation. Retiring after the bounty of Beijing was never an option, there was too much riches at stake, but it was apparent that Phelps was going through the motions in that long Olympiad between '08 and '12.
He hung it up after that, poured his prodigious competitive energies into poker and golf and Lord knows what else. But he couldn't keep his eyes off the times. They weren't getting faster. There was no one stepping up to claim his vacated throne. Sure, Lochte wasn't going anywhere, and sure Chad Le Clos kept improving thanks to the eternal confidence booster of his Phelps vanquishing in the 200 fly in London. But has there ever been any doubt: Michael on his best day, prepared and focused, beats anyone, ever. He knows that better than anyone. He couldn't resist.
You wonder how much he's considered those past comments about not swimming at 30. He said it a lot. It recalled the old hippie battle cry not to trust anyone over 30. It's an age that will do that to some folks, a number that shakes you up out on the horizon, speaks of an adulthood you don't quite grasp. He wasn't alone in being spooked by the big 3-0, he just had more microphones in his face.
Now that it's past maybe there's a sigh of silly relief as you realize it was never anything but a number. Maybe there's a bit of sheepishness as he remembers all the times he scoffed at doing exactly what he's doing now. There shouldn't be. He's doing what he does best, does better than anyone ever before, and if he's enjoying it then why not do it forever?
There's a proud romance in going out on top, in your prime, leaving a good looking athletic corpse. Leave that to the romantics in the stands. If you're a competitor, and that word sums up Michael more than any other, then that just isn't an option. It wasn't an option for Jordan or Ali, was it? Those are his contemporaries, icons and ugliness and all. Except Michael isn't getting hit in the head or beat up in the lane by younger faster opponents. Swimmers have nothing but clear still water before them. If the body and the mind hold up, why can't they continue into middle age?
So, on the 30th birthday of the GOAT, let's float a prospect for Mr. Phelps: Never retire. Never acknowledge any last times or swan songs or victory laps. Just keep swimming, as some animated fish once said. 2016 in Rio would be Michael's 5th Olympics, but why stop there? All the records have already been set, the legacy beyond secured. Why not go for 2020, when he'll be 35? Why not 2024 - age 39? You don't think he'll still be fast enough to swim a key leg on an American relay? What about in 2028 when he's long past 40?
Duke Kahanamoku, arguably the most admirable swimmer in history, was 21-years-old when he won the 100 freestyle at the 1912 Stockholm Games. Eight years later the Duke won the 100 free a second time on his 30th birthday at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. (He can blame World War I for interrupting the Games and denying him the hat trick...) A few years later at the 1924 Paris Games, he was months shy of 34 when he raced to silver in the same event behind one Johnny Weissmuller. The Duke's little brother Sam was four-tenths back for the bronze. And swimming was really Duke's second legacy. This is the guy who, more than anyone else, exported the sport of surfing from his native Hawaii to both the mainland United States and Australia. His legacy as the ultimate aquatic pioneer remains untouched.
The Duke had a great quote that lives on in surfing culture. He said: "Out of water, I am nothing."
Happy Birthday, Michael.
Katinka Hosszu is the best all-around swimmer on earth right now... What everyone is talking about, but no one wants to say... There is no proof. There never is, not when it matters, not when it's needed most. So, this is what happens: the coaches grumble; the experts roll their eyes; the athletes offer lukewarm congrats at the end of each eye-popping race. Everyone talks, but no one speaks up. Because only amateurs fail drug tests, and without that proof positive test it's all just jealous hearsay.
Except the chatter is often true, and the visual evidence - on the body and the scoreboard - generally doesn't lie.
Our latest Exhibit A: Hungary's "Iron Lady" Katinka Hosszu. FINA's reigning World Swimmer of the Year; three-time world champion; holder of five short course meter world records; and the woman who, last fall, became the first swimmer ever to surpass $1 million earned solely in prize money in the pool. She did this, of course, by globe-trotting the World Cup circuit and swimming a superhuman number of races at almost every stop.
This has resulted in a considerable amount of fawning press from the world's swimming media. "Iron Lady" has a certain brand-name ring to it, and Hosszu keeps the headlines pumping. No one competes, consistently, at a higher level than she does. Repeat - no one, ever. Not Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky and certainly not Ryan Lochte, who's always tended to look like a beaten slow sack of chiseled flesh when he races while immersed in heavy training. But not Hosszu. Her consistency, her ability to recover, and her never-flagging form continues without breakdown, regardless of when or where the race is going down.
Consider last weekend at the Charlotte Arena Pro Swim Series. Hosszu raced in seven individual events. She won six: the 200 free and the 400 IM on day one; the 200 fly and 100 back on day two (along with a why-not 9th in the 400 free); and the 200 IM and 200 back on day three. It was that last double on the third day that caught many eyes. Within a sixteen minute span, Hosszu posted the top time in the world this year in the 200 IM (2:08.66) and returned after a gasp of a warm-down later with a 200 back in 2:07.79, the third fastest time on earth this year. Not bad for an in-season meet that witnessed most of the superstars in attendance plodding through some very tired, in-training swims.
Since London, this has been a pretty standard meet's showing for Hosszu. She's always entered in a bounty of events and she always tends to deliver incredible performances every time she touches water. I understand the whole Ultra-Short Race-Pace Training (USRPT) philosophy now in vogue, being popularized and questioned through the exploits of young Michael Andrew, yet Hosszu's travel-the-world-collect-the-cash training program stretches the limits of even that dubious science.
No one wants to come out and point fingers. I hope I'm wrong, and to be clear - to any litigious minded folks out there - I realize I'm trafficking in currently unprovable conjecture. But I'm not alone, and past signposts point down some dark roads.
For the last year or so, I've been immersed in writing a documentary called "The Last Gold." It's a film about the tragedy of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, when the last of the innocent days of Olympic sport were lost. A doped East German team of women appeared on the Olympic landscape and they forever corrupted the sport. Lives were altered and shattered, on both sides, and we've never viewed athletic performance in quite the same way again.
One driving narrative of our film is the failure of the press to speak up in the face of such obvious corruption. In retrospect, and even in the present tense, it was beyond obvious what was going on. We were witnessing female bodies be distorted to unnatural strength and power, and they were delivering performances that could not be explained by any rational observer. Those in the know knew what was going on, but there was no proof. So no one said much of anything. Instead, the press labeled the few brave souls who spoke out, like Shirley Babashoff, sore losers. When in fact, these were the truth tellers, the ones outraged by the ugly facts hiding in plain sight.
Nothing has changed. Forty years later, it continues to happen, in every sport, every time there's a champion who stretches plausible achievement in ways that don't quite pass the bullshit test for anyone paying attention. For years I reveled as the blasphemous bastard who loved to incense my Lance-loving friends (especially those who liked to ride bikes) by calling Lance Armstrong a liar and a cheat and the worst kind of athlete scum ever to compete in any sport. That's what he was, and is, and sometimes it's a damn shame to be right.
Secretly, every cynic hopes to be wrong.
I hope I'm wrong now. It's just that there's a distinct smokey aroma around Katinka Hosszu's performances these last two years. And where there's smoke... Hell, finish the cliché yourself. Instead, I'll share this indelicate comment made by a close friend when I first told him I was thinking of addressing this. Said he: "Being surprised that Hosszu might be doping is like going to a strip club and being surprised that the strippers have fake tits!" Apologies if that offends anyone's delicate sensibilities. Sometimes the best similes are the crude ones.
For all of Hosszu's incredible achievements there is one rather glaring omission from her resumé. She has never won an Olympic medal. Not gold, which is the prerequisite for American greatness in swimming, I mean any color medal. Curious for an athlete so utterly dominant in her sport for years on end. It also may go a long way in explaining her current status as not only the best, but the most speculated about swimmer in the world.
Last month, NBC Sports.com published a story about how Hosszu emerged from depression after the 2012 London Olympics, when she placed 4th in her signature event, the 400 IM. She expected gold. In her own words, she "gave up" with two laps to go and despite having more events on her program, she admitted that "my Olympics was pretty much done. I wanted to go home."
Her spirit, she says, was shattered by the swimmer who won that 400 IM in London. 16-year-old Ye Shiwen of China, who blistered through the final 100 meters in a split so fast (58.68) that it seemed impossible for a woman - that is, without the help of performance enhancement. There was outraged talk that Ye had to be doped, some of it bordering on the xenophobic. True or not, most believed it. Did Hosszu? That's only for her to say.
Yet, here's one thing that we've learned in producing a documentary that centers around doping and the dark clouds that circle it. There is one prerequisite for athletes who dope: They must convince themselves that their competition is doing it. That is the only thing that can validate crossing this line.
In 2012, Katinka Hosszu's spirit was crushed by a performance achieved through dubious means. Ever since, she has been the one standing atop every podium.
Relaunch coming to Cap & Goggles... This site will soon appear very different. Since September of 2011 it has done one thing. It's been a column, of sorts, or a series of swimming essays, each around 1,000 words. At first they went up weekly, then it became a little more sporadic, with new posts popping up when it felt warranted. Thank you, to everyone reading this, for supporting - and sometimes indulging - this long-running commentary.
Now it's time for something more. In a few weeks, Cap & Goggles will relaunch as a site that celebrates the 'aquatic arts'. The commentary will still be there, with these columns anchoring the lead section of the site. However, I can't wait to introduce the new content. It will include Books and Videos and Art and Photography -- anywhere that swimming finds artistic, creative expression. My voice will be joined by many other, more talented creative voices, whether they're capturing our sport on canvas, on camera, on film, or between the pages of a book.
Here are two examples, probably ample:
Have you read this terrific memoir by Leanne Shapton? Leanne is a friend and fellow Canadian swimmer, and if you swam in or near Canada in the late 80s and early 90s, you'll surely recognize some of the characters that populate these pages. Swimming Studies won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. For good reason - it captures the feeling of what it means to be a swimmer as well as anything published. It's about the lonely moments, the forgotten sensations that still fill your dreams. And it's filled with haunting honesty like this: "When I swim now, I step into water as though absent-mindedly touching a scar. My recreational laps are phantoms of my competitive races." Yeah, it's that kind of good.
Eric Zener is a Northern Cal based artist well known for his underwater themes. Out of his studio in Sausalito, Zener creates work that leaves you both breathless and buoyed by his vision. If you're a former swimmer, viewing his paintings is like being comforted by the phantoms than Shapton writes about. In New York, his work can be found at a gallery not far from where I write this. I met him once there, and unsurprisingly he told me that all three of his children are swimmers in the Bay Area.
Between that book cover and that painting, I hope you get the idea. The water - and our relationship with it - tends to spark inspiration from every artistic outlet. It's an infinite well. In a letter to his daughter, Scottie, F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: "All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath."
If only we didn't have to breathe...
The high-wire genius in coaching talent-loaded teams… If only I had athletes like that, man, what I could do with them. With talent like that, how can they not win? He’s a great recruiter, a brilliant salesman, but as a coach? Anyone could do that, with his stable of horses… You just need to get out of the way.
The bitter musings of a jealous coach… It’s March, and from poolside to courtside, madness like that is in full bloom.
Over the last two weekends, the clear favorites have run away with the women’s and men’s NCAA Swimming Championships – Teri McKeever’s Cal Bears and Eddie Reese’s Texas Longhorns. Neither team title came as a surprise. In fact, if either of these teams had failed to win it all, it would have been seen as a choke, as teams failing to live up to their potential.
The same will be said of John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats if they fail to complete perfection next week in the Final Four. Most of America outside the blue grass state will be pulling for some sort of impossible upset, if only to stoke our collective underdog lust. Sports fan love excellence, but too much domination can spoil the fun. And so we root against those teams who’ve managed to recruit and coach and will the odds in their favor.
This curious condition can put a brilliant coach in an all-or-nothing corner. You can find yourself so good, surrounded by so much breathtaking talent, that it feels like everyone, even your closest coaching allies, are secretly hoping for you to slip up.
So it’s been for Teri McKeever and Eddie Reese this year. Anyone paying attention to the times and projected numbers knew that the team titles were theirs to lose. Their pools in Berkeley and Austin are bursting with talent. Sure, Georgia was the two-time defending women’s champion, and sure it had been five years since the Longhorns hoisted the team trophy at men’s NCs, but if their ladies and gentlemen swam as expected in March, the meets were theirs.
In the face of those suffocating expectations, McKeever and Reese exceeded them. They coached their athletes to performances that took a lot more than talent. They brought the best out of the best. The two races that personified it for me: Missy Franklin’s 1:39.10 in the women’s 200 free and the legion of Longhorns who turned the men’s 100 fly into an intramural meet, sending out six of the top eight finalists, including an unprecedented 1-2-3-4 sweep led by freshman Singapore stud Joseph Schooling.
Before we proceed, consider that 100 fly for a moment. Imagine being the sixth best flyer on your own team, and going 45.9, and making it all the way to the A-final of the NCAA champs. Breaking 46 and scoring a lane among the top eight: that’s a high water mark for plenty of All-American swimmers out there. If you go to Texas these days, it means you’d find yourself on the “F” medley relay!
While we’re speaking of an embarrassment of riches, it must feel rather similar to be a backstroke specialist among Teri McKeever’s women. There’s Missy, of course, the straw that currently stirs USA Swimming’s drink. There’s Rachel Bootsma, the third fastest 100 backstroker ever, who narrowly missed Natalie Coughlin’s NCAA record by .06. There’s Elizabeth Pelton, who still reigns as the American and NCAA record holder in the 200 yard back, despite some slower times these last few seasons. And then there’s Queen Natalie herself, still ubiquitous at Cal’s Spieker Pool, a pro well into her 30s now, one Olympics away from perhaps emerging as the most decorated female swimmer in history.
Franklin, of course, will now join Coughlin among the pro ranks, no longer able to turn down the riches that await in the lead up to Rio. After a successful but not Missy-perfect freshman campaign last year, plenty were whispering about an imminent return to Todd Schmitz back in Colorado, following her sophomore swan song. After her performance this year under McKeever, I’m not so sure that’s the case. But whether she packs her bags for the club cocoon she knows so well, or chooses to remain on campus at Cal for this next crucial year, Franklin’s college “experiment” that was so overanalyzed and second-guessed can now go down as an unqualified success. Missy being Missy, I’m positive she’d trade the couple million she might have made in the years since London for the experience she’s shared in Berkeley the last two years.
The lion’s share of the credit here must go to McKeever. Since landing the greatest recruit ever to sign in NCAA swimming, there must have been plenty of times when the coach felt that old buzz-kill truism ‘be careful what you wish for’… You work your whole career for a shot at coaching a group like that, led by an athlete with the character and talent of a Franklin, and then you start sensing the chatter. The schadenfreude undercurrents that creep up anytime your superstars perform less than superbly. You know your swimmers read the sometimes cruel comments pages over at Swim Swam. You know your recruiting is picked over anytime a new blue chip recruit chooses to sign elsewhere. And you know how fragile these swimmers’ egos can be. Monster talents or not, it will always be a delicate dance to the top of any podium.
Eddie Reese has known this for decades. The boys may play at having thicker skins and sturdier confidence, but that’s an act. Their egos are just as fragile. They just fake it in different ways. You think it’s easy to coach a kid who goes 1:39 in the 200 fly – in season – and is still the second best flyer on your depth chart? Jack Conger and Joseph Schooling, along with the rest of those world-class flyers down in Austin, now have maybe the best training group on earth. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy to coach that crew. It will fall to Reese, and to his indispensable number two Kris Kubik, to maintain an insanely tough balance in coaching each of these kids to their individual best, while constantly guiding the overriding needs of the team each March.
Reese and Kubik have done it before. It wasn’t that long ago that Aaron Peirsol and Brendan Hansen and Ian Crocker were the trio of big dogs at Texas. World record holders each, they collected fifteen individual NCAA titles between them... while making just a slight mark on the international scene, as well.
This collective success isn’t a given. Just witness the implosion of NBAC’s super-group last year, soon after the return of Michael Phelps. It’s one thing to coach a great one; it’s quite another to coach a team of great ones.
The master of guiding all-time talent, of course, is Zen master Phil Jackson. He of the 11-rings and Buddha-like presence, helming the best teams in NBA history… Those 11 rings were largely due to two men, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, who happen to be two very bad men. Metaphorically, sure, because they’re as bad ass as any ever to play the game. But I mean that literally – Jordan and Bryant are, by most every account, bad human beings. Egomaniac sociopaths, guys who respect few, listen to less. But they listened to Phil. And because of that genius – his ability to get through to monsters and bring out their best – Jackson will go down as the greatest ever to coach his sport.
Teri McKeever and Eddie Reese are already Hall of Famers on the pool deck, and they have the good fortune not to be coaching sociopaths, at least as far as I know. But their tasks are not so dissimilar to that of Phil Jackson and Kentucky’s John Calipari. When your reputation and your past champions and your self-evident skills as a coach eventually lead you to a bounty of talent assembled around you, that’s when the real work begins. It’s grossly unfair, but that’s how the greatest coaches will be remembered: how they led teams of unreal talent, when all the pieces were in place.
You wish you were that lucky, to have the opportunity to coach that kind of talent. But be careful what you wish for.
Jeff Julian - Friend, Coach, Cancer Survivor To-Be... You're sitting in a doctor's office. Something's been bothering you, a pain in your back and neck that just isn't getting better. You're fit, not yet 40, a former champion butterflyer who knows his body the way only swimmers do. Your days are spent active, on your feet on a pool deck, under a warm Southern California sun. The pain has been progressing for a few months now, but Advil usually takes care of it. Whatever it is, there must be an easy explanation. It's probably just one of those nagging signs of aging, the aches and pains of creeping middle age.
But then one night you're out to dinner with your wife and the pain becomes too much to ignore. You contact a doctor. The next day you head to the hospital.
And then, after a whirlwind of tests, you hear the unthinkable. The C-word, says the doctor. It's lung cancer, he tells you. It doesn't get more serious.
How would you react?
If you're Jeff Julian, head coach of Rose Bowl Aquatics and former All-American at USC, your response is the very definition of courage. You announce your diagnosis on Facebook with unblinking candor and a fearlessness that's hard to fathom. Then, you end your note to your stunned readers with this line: "I wanted to share this with you one time, before I put my head down and get ready to kick some ass.”
Hear that, cancer? Prepare yourself for a beat down.
Picture the polar opposite of a lung cancer sufferer. That is Jeff Julian. Never a smoker, a world class athlete, a wise coach with perspective and patience, possessed of a singular So Cal laugh that never fails to send out positive vibrations. The last man you'd expect.
Soon after his diagnosis, his team at Rose Bowl created #TEAMJeff - a site where you can support his fight and join his legion of friends and family across the swimming universe. Through the CaringBridge website, you can follow his journal, and at his site at YouCaring you can offer financial support to help fund the battle.
Jeff and I have been friends for 22 years now, since our recruiting trip to USC the same weekend in the fall of 1992. We were both 200 flyers, about the same speed, and we both fell for SC instantly. We entered as freshmen together in the fall of '93, our dorm rooms separated by two floors, our practices separated by a few feet. We were usually in the same lane, or right nearby, both cranking out the same sets with the same goals. You might think that would make us rivals. I was certainly the prickly sort, not always polite in practice. But Jeff was, and is, a man who received effortless respect. Probably because he respected everyone around him. Maybe it also had something to do with his undeniable work ethic or the way he led by example.
It's easy to slip into cliché when reminiscing on those college glory days, forgive me. This isn't some sepia toned drift down memory lane. Just a bit of context.
We both chose swimming as our careers after we hung up the goggles, and as a result, we managed to cross paths with some regularity through the years, despite living on opposite coasts. If you're lucky, you have friends like these - the ones where a year, five years, a decade can go by, and you can start chatting and pick up right where you left off.
This afternoon we picked right up again on a long phone call. The circumstances weren't great. I was calling about the News. The worst kind of elephant in any room. Yet, for the first half of the call, we didn't mention it. Not because either of us were dancing around that bastard C-word, but because we just had a lot to catch up about. There were the usual stupid-fast results from SEC's, for instance. There were the updates on our teams, our kids. (Note to Coach Dave Salo: Keep an eye on this Trenton Julian kid. I want future book odds on Trenton winning NCAAs in the 200 fly around the year 2021... As a Trojan, if they're lucky.)
Then we talked about a video Jeff had made for his swimmers and parents at Rose Bowl Aquatics last fall. If you missed it on Swim Swam, take a look. If you're a club coach, it should be required viewing. The theme of the talk is "Improve Your Swimming Process." Think Nick Saban, but for swimmers, So Cal-style. Unlike Alabama's football guru, Julian's idea of the "process" has a lot to do with the joy of the moment. But like Saban, it is about doing things the right way, in all ways. You don't look at the scoreboard or the clock or the swimmer in the next lane, you look within yourself and you figure out ways to do things better.
Jeff spoke about the dangers of 'the chase.' The way so many parents and swimmers believe that's the secret to improving - they need someone to chase, someone just a little bit better, that carrot dangling out there. Or maybe it's that green light across the bay. A doomed recipe for fulfillment anyway you cut it. Jeff saw right through it, and he's challenging all of his swimmers to transcend it. Instead of the chase, turn within and figure out the ways you can improve each skill, and do things right in the present tense every day.
He could never have known how personal and prescient that advice would be. Soon after sharing this wisdom with the swimming world, Jeff received his diagnosis. The day was January 4th. The night after his dinner with his wife of 17 years, Kristine Quance Julian, when the pain became too much. Things unraveled after that, and the news devolved from bad to worse. First it was in the lungs, but with the hope that it could be cut out of the lower lobe. Scary and life-rattling, but over quickly. No need to share with the world.
But then Jeff learned that it had spread to the bone and muscle. That meant Stage 4. Doesn't get much scarier. That's when Jeff decided to open up and post that message to Facebook. He was staring down the heaviest news a human being can receive, and he was letting the world know he was ready.
While we were chatting, I began jotting down notes. I told him I wanted to write about this and he gave this story his blessing. Here are some quotes that say all you need to know about the man:
"The only time I get emotional at all is when I think of all the love and support that's poured in."
"So far things are really good. I feel so blessed."
"Ironically, I'm in the best shape I've been in in twenty years. I've changed my diet, get plenty of rest, I'm swimming everyday, averaging about a mile each day."
"Timing-wise, I got lucky."
Wait, come again? Lucky? You heard that right. See, instead of chemo or radiation, Jeff is undergoing a trial process of immunotherapy. It's not on the market yet, and it's not available to everyone. After consulting with physicians at USC and UCLA Medical, he was chosen to participate in a trial of a drug that is reputed to 'attack the bad cells and stop them from growing.' As opposed to your classic chemo, that pretty much nukes everything, good and bad. The drug is called Nivolumab, and so far it appears to be working.
After a brutal first few weeks, as the pain intensified and the mind reeled, he began receiving biweekly treatments. After the second round he immediately felt a difference. He reports that "the last two weeks, I've been feeling awesome." He's been forgoing the pain meds and the night sweats have faded away. He got up to 2200 yards in the pool the other day.
There remains a long way to go, and Jeff knows it. But he also knows that success will come by sticking with the process. By doing the right things everyday, and going all the way in his commitment - to live and to fight another day.
Outside magazine publishes a deep dive into swimming's sexual abuse scandal... Lawyers rejoice. Somewhere, the devil is smiling. Or to quote Al Pacino playing the personified Dark One in the Devil's Advocate: "Lawyers are the devil's ministry."
Oh yes, the lawyers are tossing back shots of whiskey and beaming with the news. Outside magazine just gave them the bully's pulpit. Then, Slate Magazine picked up the story, and quoted yours truly. Imagine my surprise. I haven't been posting much lately, but suddenly traffic to this site was spiking. Curious, says I, let's take a look at the old Word Press Dashboard, figure out where all these hits are coming from. Ah, but of course, the story that wouldn't die: "The Worst Kept Secret in Washington", published the day the Rick Curl scandal broke, back in the summer of 2012.
Since then, that story, about Curl's criminal relationship with a teenage swimmer named Kelley Currin back in the 80s, has been read twice as many times as any other piece ever published on Cap & Goggles. For good reason, I suppose. It addressed not only the horror of sex abuse between too many coaches and young swimmers, but the sport's dirtiest little secret: it's never been much of a secret. Since the time I was twelve years old, I've heard the rumors. Many of which weren't rumors at all. Somewhere along the line, beneath the unseemly surface, it became part of the culture.
It wasn't just swimming, of course. Inappropriate relations between coaches and young athletes are legion. They happen in every sport. Yet, swimming seemed to take it to another level of misconduct. Why? Well, you don't have to look too far. This is a sport where the athletes are mostly naked, wet, breathing heavy, and quite literally, staring up in positions of subservience at their coaches above them on deck. The sexualized nature of the sport is impossible to miss. Plenty of unscrupulous coaches have taken advantage of it in unconscionable, downright evil ways.
But let's hit pause on the pile-on for a second. Outside magazine has already piled on plenty, as well meaning and outraged as the story was. When I say 'plenty', I mean too many. Hell, one is too many. But let's make no mistake: 'plenty' remains the minuscule minority of a proud and noble profession. And while we're at it, let's make something else clear: no other national governing body has reacted with more vigilance and commitment to change than USA Swimming, ever since this story took on a life of its own four years ago.
You can say that's overdue, and perhaps you're right. You can say you don't trust swim coaches, as a profession, and you'd be guilty of gross generalization, but if you were ever touched by abuse, I wouldn't blame you.
Still, there is another side to this dark story that has yet to be called out of the shadows. The lawyers so passionately, and publicly, defending the victims. Robert Allard, here's looking at you. I have full respect for those who represent the law, and even more for those who stand alongside victims and demand justice for the sins committed upon them. What is unworthy of respect is the eager shamelessness in disparaging an entire profession and an entire governing body. Men and women overflowing with integrity, who devote their lives to helping young athletes achieve their dreams.
In a video link alongside that Outside story, here's what Robert Allard had to say about swim coaches: "Frankly there may be coaches out there who disagree, but I don't think it takes a whole heck of a lot to be a swim coach. You're out there on the pool deck and you're saying, 'swim some laps back and forth, I know something about swim technique, and here you go.' It's relatively easy for someone to come into the world and say 'I'm a swim coach and I'm going to be watching over swim activities.' Unlike a football coach who's calling plays and intimately involved and so forth and so on."
And so forth and so on, Allard makes clear that he lacks even the most basic knowledge or respect for a profession he appears to be intent on destroying. His fellow attorney, Jonathan Little, who is also active in these litigations, had this to say: "It's widely accepted in USA Swimming. You're a 15-year-old kid... you like the sport, maybe you want to coach someday, and your coach or a coach at a nearby club is having relationships with his teenage swimmers. So, when you turn 30 or 40 and you're coaching, it's not abnormal that you have relationships with your teenage swimmers."
Come again? To cross examine Mr. Little a little: So, what you're saying is that pedophilia is passed down based on observation? That it's learned behavior, and that an otherwise noble young man could be so poisoned by evil witnessed that he will go on to take advantage of young teenage athletes - because that's what he saw his coach do growing up? Sorry, but I'm not buying it. Instead, this sounds to me like an attempt to demonize an entire profession - and the organization that represents it - rather than go after the real bad guys, those evil fuckers who actually prey upon their underage athletes. Why cast such a large and ill-informed net? Well, because lawyers follow the money. The sick and twisted fuck, Andy King, who raped dozens of young swimmers over the course of decades - it's not enough to see him rot in prison, hopefully for eternity. There needs to be financial retribution, to make it worth the lawyers' time.
Of course, the pot always loves to call the kettle black. To hear Jonathan Little tell it: "They have unlimited streams of money. The athletes live in poverty. And nobody cares. That's the problem with the Olympics - nobody cares." Adds Allard: "We're talking a tremendous, tremendous amount of money, and people who are getting rich. Many, many, many people... So, I'm gonna sacrifice this little girl for the good of the sport. And all the while their pockets are being lined with money, and they're being flown to the Olympic Games for weeks at a time with their families, and they're eating at these lavish restaurants and they're staying at five-star hotels. They're living like kings basically."
Um, actually, no. Facts are rather important in the law profession, and there is almost nothing factual in those statements. Libelous and clueless maybe, but not factual. However, their sentiments do go a long ways in explaining why they've put a bull's eye on the back of not just the entire coaching profession, not just on USA Swimming, but on all national governing bodies in America. Because tapping into any unlimited stream of money sure sounds nice, doesn't it?
I've been contacted personally by representatives of some of these attorneys in the past. My stories seem to indicate that we share a common mission. And we do, in the most basic sense. A pedophile coach who preys on young athletes deserves to be exposed and shamed and treated with the harshest punishments available. There is no place for these folks in society, full stop. But funny things happen on the righteous road, don't they? It's unacceptable to look the other way, and that goes for the parents of athletes who hear these same rumors and choose to do nothing, because their kids are getting results in the water.
At very least, the lawyers involved in this mess must be applauded for helping to shine a light on a horrendous problem. The victims need help, and they deserve to see justice done.
But when the lawyers climb up on their pulpits, and national magazines start publishing their words as gospel, keep your antenna up for motive. And don't believe everything you read.
After a second DUI arrest, a hard look at Michael Phelps on dry land... This time it's different. It's already being lumped in with his past two public transgressions, but those two past offenses belong in a separate category. A dumb decision at 19-years-old, getting behind the wheel after a few too many? Not okay, but not the end of the world either. You and a million other dumb-ass teens have done the same thing, and you hope it's lesson learned. You hope you recognize how lucky you were that no one got hurt. Transgression number two: getting caught smoking from a bong at age 23. It's hard even to dignify this with an ounce of judgement. If you have a problem with a kid in his early twenties smoking weed at a party, well then, less power to you.
But this time, for Michael Phelps, it's a different story. He didn't get caught making a teenager's mistake, and he didn't get caught puffing on something that's soon to be legal in every state any way. This time, Michael Phelps did something deserving of judgement and the harshest of words. He got shit-faced, climbed into his Land Rover, and sped almost 40 miles per hour over the speed limit, charging through the Fort McHenry Tunnel, going 84mph in a 45mph zone, swerving over the double lines as he did it. Then, when stopped, the officer immediately noticed Phelps was plastered. A sobriety test proved it: it's been reported that his blood alcohol level was almost twice the legal limit.
Then he was arrested, charged, released, and sent sulking home in shame and fear, as Michael Phelps, Inc. spun into Code Red.
Before making clear why this time it's so different, a note to the moralizing masses: I don't think Michael Phelps has a drinking problem. I don't think he's off the rails or out of control in any get-this-kid-to-rehab sense. I don't judge him for getting a DUI at 19, nor for unwinding with a bit of weed. And I certainly don't judge him for enjoying a few drinks. Lord knows I enjoy bending an elbow too. I'll be as permissive as you like when it comes to recreational drug use, as well. You can judge me for that, I'll accept my choices, and others' too. But here's where unflinching judgement is due:
When you get into your car, blitzed, and blaze down the highway going so far over the speed limit that it qualifies as reckless endangerment. What does that term mean? Well, according to Maryland state law, "this behavior is seen as reckless because it unnecessarily endangers not only your life and the lives of your passengers, but also the lives of other innocent people on the road around you."
Basically, you're not just risking your own life due to your own reckless choices, but you're risking the lives of everyone around you. This is something that they tend to remind you of a lot after one's first DUI arrest, when you get the old slap on the wrist, with probation and plenty of scared-straight classes.
Speaking of scared straight, back in high school, when I was swimming for NBAC at Meadowbrook just like Phelps, I lost a friend in a drunk driving accident. The kid was 17. He left a party plenty drunk, and flipped his car over a bridge. I'll never forget talking to his devastated father at the wake, as he made the rounds through a bunch of dazed teary teenagers, doing his best to keep it together. You probably have a similar story. Sadly, most of us do. Did that keep us from drinking when we got to college? Hell no. But did we think twice before we hopped behind a wheel and sped off into the night with a head full of booze? Damn right.
That's not to say we always made the right choices. No one does. But when you've already been busted and shamed once, and then reminded in excruciating detail how bad those decisions can turn out, then one starts to lose sympathy for your mistakes in a hurry. Going 39mph over the speed limit when you're hammered does not make you an alcoholic or an evil person. It makes you a selfish little shit without regard for the lives around you.
That's why this time is different. Phelps is well aware of the stakes. He's made high stakes his career. But outside of the pool, he's proven, in public transgressions and private ones, that he's not very good at handling himself on dry land.
The phrase "role model" is always tossed around when star athletes screw up. Like you, I tend to roll my eyes when I hear it. It's a joke, to label the athletically gifted as role models. Because Michael Phelps is the greatest who ever lived at swimming across a swimming pool does not make him a role model in any sense of the word. In fact, on dry land, he's done a pretty good job at proving he's not worthy of the label. Do you remember that great "I Am Not a Role Model" Charles Barkley commercial from back in the 90s? Barkley, like Phelps, has been arrested for a DUI. It didn't make him a worse athlete, or a less colorful commentator. It just proved that he made a selfish, dumb-ass choice, and he should face the consequences like anyone else.
Before this script is hijacked by Michael "needing help" or "recovering" as he tries to sorry and spin away this event, let's put it in the wider context of the superstar and his circle. These are men, man-childs, really, who are used to controlling their environments. They impose their prodigious will, and they get the results they want. They do not hear the word 'no' very often, and the ones who dare to utter any criticism are soon excommunicated from the flock. They would never believe the phrase "you can't." Their response, the one that makes them so damn good on the field of play, is: I'll show you.
A lovely quality when you're a master of your environment, the best ever, with a will and a talent that has inspired billions. But it's a very ugly quality indeed when you step away from the play, get hammered, hop in your fancy car, and charge down the highway putting every life in your wake at risk.
In an underwhelming midterm year, Japan is ascendant...
Pop quiz: Who is the best all-around male swimmer on earth right now? No, it's not Phelps or Lochte. No, he's not from Australia. Or anywhere in Europe. Clue: He owns a single Olympic medal, a bronze in the 400 IM. Until this week, he'd never stood atop a podium at a major international meet.
His name is Kosuke Hagino of Japan, and he just turned 20-years-old. It's really not even close when you look at the world rankings. He's as easy a pick as Katie Ledecky is for the women, though not nearly as jaw-droppingly, staggeringly dominant as Ms. Ledecky, who is the story of the year. But that's a story for another time. I'm still trying to digest a 17-year-old old girl going 15:28 in the mile...
Back to Hagino, who has developed an all-around versatility that can only be termed Phelpsian. Check out his best times and his current world rankings: He is presently the #1 ranked IMer in the world, in both the 200 and 400 IM, posting times of 1:55.38 and 4:07.88 this year. Backstroke is his best individual stroke, where is currently ranked #2 in the 200 (1:54.77) and #4 in the 100 (53.08). He's no slouch in the middle distance freestyle either. In 2014, he's #7 in the 200 free (1:45.89) and #4 in the 400 free (3:43.90).
At the just-concluded Pan Pacs in Brisbane, Hagino out-touched Phelps in the 200 IM by .02 and out-raced Tyler Clary and Chase Kalisz in the 400 IM. In the men's 4x200 free relay, he dusted Connor Dwyer on the lead-off leg in a race where Japan came dangerously close (.13) to pulling off a shocking upset.
Two years from Rio, Hagino leads a Japanese team that has forced the world to sit up and take notice after their performance in Brisbane. At Pan Pacs, their men won twice as many individual gold medals as the American men. In addition to Hagino's medley victories, Daiya Seto won the 200 fly, while Yasuhiro Koseki swept both breaststrokes. This compared with three individual golds for the men of Team USA - Phelps in the 100 fly; Clary in the 200 back, and Connor Jaeger in the mile.
The breaststrokes have long been the domain of the Japanese, and that hasn't changed. This is a stroke perfected and long innovated by the Japanese. It's the stroke of Kosuke Kitajima, and the greatest breaststroker of all-time has left it in good hands. Today, their sixth best 200 breaststroker in 2014 is the current world record holder, Akihiro Yamaguchi, at 2:10.33. Yamaguchi went 2:07.01 back in the summer of 2012, soon after the London Games, but right now his event is so deep in his homeland that he's struggling to keep a spot on their National C team. They're just as good among the women, with Kanako Wananbe and Rie Kaneto going 1-2 at the Pan Pacs last week.
If once some might have considered Japan a One Stroke Pony, they've shed that label now. In addition to Hagino's top times in the IMs, they currently boast the top two ranked swimmers in the world in the 200 back - Ryosuke Irie and Hagino; and the #2 and #4 ranked swimmers in the 100 back and the 200 fly. Among the men, Team USA currently has 12 swims ranked in the top four in the world. Japan has 11.
This isn't to say that the next Duel in the Pool should be booked against Japan. The American team remains on another plane when it comes to depth of excellence. Yet the Japanese are clearly doing something right, and they're doing it in events that can't be faked: long course IMs, the 200 fly, back, and breast -- these races will always be among the most painful on the program, and they require a lot more than raw speed and great walls. They require a commitment to long course training and focus that many believe is getting lost stateside. Particularly at programs that put a premium on NCAA success over big pool excellence...
Every program would deny that, of course, but the summer of 2014 is sure to be a wake-up call for many - swimmers and coaches alike.
Time will tell if Kosuke Hagino and company continue to step up and set the pace as the stakes increase in Kazan and Rio. But for the moment, it might be time to gaze across the Pacific and take a bow towards the rising power to the west.
Bob Bowman's NBAC crew might be the most talented group of swimmers ever assembled... But is there such a thing as too much talent in one pool? Recent results raise questions... It's all about the long term, the next Games. Let's not forget that. Bob Bowman's thoughts and plans remain focused two years down the road. He's been thinking Rio since the flame went out in London. This summer is the halfway point, nothing to get worked up about, he'll be the first to say. No argument there. Yet, when we're talking about highly delicate egos and bodies as finely tuned and fragile as a Triple Crown contender, it can be easy to get wrapped up in the present tense.
This can't be an easy time to be running NBAC's supergroup. Because this summer has not exactly gone according to plan. Just ask Yannick Agnel and Allison Schmitt and Tom Luchsinger
Two years ago, Agnel was the most impressive swimmer in London. He won double gold, while his stature was perhaps most enhanced by the memory of Michael Phelps imploring his teammates to "get me a lead" before he anchored the 4 x 200 freestyle relay against the towering Frenchman. Phelps fears no swimmer, yet in London he knew he was no match for Agnel. Soon after those Games, with Phelps in retirement, Yannick rang up Bowman and crossed the pond for Baltimore. Even after Michael's comeback, he has reportedly embraced Bowman's program. Though he might be doubting that right about now.
Agnel is in the midst of an underwhelming campaign at the European Championships in Berlin. In the 400 freestyle he failed to final. The French coaches left him off the gold-medal-winning 4x100 free relay, and today he raced to bronze in the 200 free, a whopping three and a half seconds off of his lifetime best. This from the reigning Olympic champion in that event.
The defending Olympic champ in the 200 free on the women's side is Allison Schmitt. In London, she scorched to gold in an American record of 1:53.61. She hasn't approached those lofty times since. Last week in Irvine at the U.S. Nationals, she failed to final in any event, and settled for a B final victory in her signature event, almost five seconds slower than her personal best. Like Agnel, at the Olympics she anchored her country's 4 x 100 free relay, and like Agnel, two years later she's sitting on the sidelines.
As for Tom Luchsinger, he's clearly nowhere near as decorated as those two Olympic champs. However, he's worth noting here due to his world class form last summer. In 2013, Luchsinger was the U.S. National champion in the 200 fly and at the World Championships in Barcelona, he raced to a respectable 5th place. He appeared to be the next American 200 flyer, ready to inherit the mantle from Michael. And so, he did what so many are doing these days - he moved to Baltimore and joined Bowman's supergroup. Last week in Irvine, Luchsinger raced to a less than inspiring 7th place at Nationals, almost three seconds off his best.
Is it unfair that I'm singling out these three? The NBAC supergroup is made up of a lot more than this trio. In addition to Phelps, there's also Tunisian distance legend and USC Trojan, Ous Mellouli. There's Olympians Connor Dwyer and Matt McLean and, in the summers at least, there's the best 400 IMer in the world, Chase Kalisz. Joining Schmitt on the women's side, there's open water stud Becca Mann and, most recent to emerge among the world class, future Cal Bear, Cierra Runge.
In Irvine, it was Runge who burst on the scene with the best meet among any of her illustrious North Baltimore teammates. It was largely due to a stroke of inspired coaching by Bowman. Not long ago, Runge was a good but not great sprinter. She was fast, but not getting much faster. Bowman noticed something in her stroke or temperament that spoke to a distance pedigree. And so, like the horse trainers he so respects, Bowman opted for a change of distance and tried to stretch his young filly out. Runge embraced the challenge, moved over to the D-group, and at Nationals she charged onto her first National Team in the 400 and 800 freestyles, behind Queen Katie Ledecky.
It's not all doubt and underwhelming results from past champions at North Baltimore these days. There are highlights, there always will be. So, is it fair to dwell a bit on the lowlights? Well, if you decide to post a live Twitter feed of your Saturday morning workout, you're inviting the scrutiny. And when you train a group with six Olympic champions, with 27 Olympic gold between them, you're going to get the attention, like it or not.
18 of those gold, of course, belong to one man. The elephant in the pool, so to speak. And speaking of elephants, the man has the memory of one when it comes to sets and slights. That prodigious memory of challenges and doubters, real and perceived, has always fueled Phelps. His competitive fire would seem to enhance any aquatic arena. What better example could there be for Luchsinger or Dwyer or McLean or Kalisz, or Agnel for that matter? Well, define example. Are you thinking MP circa 2003, devouring every set, never missing day, laying the foundation that would make him the greatest of all time? Are you envisioning MP circa 2010, coasting on that foundation, still able to dominate without showing up much at all, a questionable example to the worshipping young teammates around him. Or are you thinking elder statesman MP, a man with rekindled joy for the sport, a fresh perspective, and a desire to mentor his ambitious teammates? The latter, one hopes. But when comebacks begin and those being mentored become competitors once more, things can get a little sticky.
Do you think Phelps is going to like when Bowman focuses his energies on Agnel, should he decide to reinsert the 200 free into his Rio program? Do you think he'll be as generous with Dwyer or Luchsinger when he decides these are new foes that need a little head-messing? Do you think that renewed hunger can last another two years? And most of all, do you think Bowman would ever grant more of his attention to anyone else?
The question of hunger is a valid one with this group. The problem with eating it all is that it's hard to stay hungry, and there are champions in Bowman's group who have gorged at the Olympic feast. How Phelps stays hungry for more is beyond anyone's guess. But how does Ous Mellouli stay hungry? After 1500 gold in Beijing and open water gold in London, he's an Olympic legend no matter what. Allison Schmitt has her one shining moment, and it's hard to envision anything surpassing that in Rio.
It's also hard to imagine Yannick Agnel surpassing his London exploits two years from now. Which begs the question - is Yannick doing the swimming version of the Euro soccer icon, a la David Beckham? You know the drill - shoot to fame and fortune at your peak in Europe, then come over stateside to explore your options, after your place in history is secure. Agnel would surely deny this, and Bowman would never have welcomed him if he believed that, but his results in Berlin this week make one wonder.
While Phelps, Mellouli, Schmitt and Agnel have little else to prove, their Olympic resumés already sparkling, there should be no lack of hunger among the North Baltimore crew. Chase Kalisz has hinted, with his NCAA performances, that he could soon be threatening the insane standards of Phelps and Lochte in the long course version of his event. After his breakout season in 2013 and his disappointment this summer, Tom Luchsinger would seem to have something to prove in the years ahead.
Then there's Connor Dwyer, already an Olympic champion as a member of the men's 4 x 200 relay in London. Many consider him the next great all-around talent in American swimming. Many, including his former coach Gregg Troy at Florida, think Dwyer has the talent to take down the likes of Agnel in the 200 free and to contend with Lochte and Phelps in the 200 IM. His times at Nationals (1:47.1 in the free and 1:57.4 in the IM) don't put him in the ballgame just yet, but he may be sitting on big swims at Pan Pacs in Brisbane in the week ahead.
Then again, this summer doesn't matter. It's tune-up time. A midway check-in on the way to Brazil. No one will remember if it all works out two years from now. Except Phelps and Bowman, men who remember everything.
And they're not alone... Doping is rife these days. Is swimming becoming "the new track & field"? How many positive tests does it take to convince you of a country's guilt? According to the official stance from FINA, it's not many. The letter of its law states that it's four strikes and the country is out. If four athletes are caught cheating, then the whole damn federation faces a two-year ban. Except that's not really true. See, they have to be FINA-sanctioned tests. If you're caught with a positive test by your own federation, then that doesn't count.
Which is how Russian swimmers are still allowed at international competitions, despite overwhelming evidence of doping on a widespread scale. Over the last four years, sixteen Russian swimmers have tested positive. Five tested positive last year at domestic meets in Russia, and are currently serving suspensions. This year, three more are serving drug bans for positive tests - including world record-holder and reigning world champion in the 200 breaststroke, Yuliya Efimova. And last week, the latest positive was revealed: open water stud Vladimir Dyatchin, a multiple world champion and the Open Water Swimmer of the Year back in 2007.
This wave of dirty results has placed Russia "at the brink" of being suspended from international swimming competition. Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko recently told Russian media that "one or two more breaches" and all of Russian Swimming could face an unprecedented suspension. This would be particularly humiliating for them, as they're set to host next year's World Championships in Kazan.
But FINA's Grand Poobah, Cornel Marculescu, isn't worried. He expressed full confidence in his comrades to host Worlds, saying that "the facilities are amazing and FINA is receiving a great support from the authorities of the Russian Federation." I'm sure Cornel would also have been impressed by the state-of-the-art facilities in Leipzig and Berlin in the former East Germany a few decades back. But that's not really the point. The Russians are dirty, and it's starting to look a lot like back to the future.
Craig Lord, over at Swim Vortex, has always been on top of these doping matters, and speaking of the former DDR, he's reported on something particularly troubling with this fresh batch of Russian positive tests. It appears that we're not always talking about the proverbial tainted supplement, or some new juice that's one step ahead of the testers. Last summer, one of those Russian positives was a swimmer named Nikita Maksimov. Her drug of choice? The old classic: Oral Turniabol, the go-to dope of the former East Germany, in the darkest early days of international doping.
This notorious little blue pill produced astonishing results for East German women throughout the 70s and 80s. Since then, it's led to gruesome side effects and severe health problems; some of these women went on to give birth to children with birth defects as a result of their teenaged drug regime.
Athletes get older and drift away in the stream of forgotten results, but doctors and coaches, they tend to stick around a lot longer. There's a dark undercurrent that flows throughout international sport, swimming included. It's a black market of performance enhancement for sale, and it knows no borders. At the moment it appears to have infiltrated Russian swimming more than other federations, but that does not mean Russia is a rogue state of isolated cheaters.
Indeed, it's most high profile case, world record holder Yuliva Efimova, was not training inside some locked forbidden pool in Siberia. She was a member of the Trojan Swim Club, part of Dave Salo's high profile gang of breaststroke superstars out at USC. She tested positive for DHEA, and said it came from a supplement she bought at a GNC in Los Angeles. Efimova got 16-months, leaving her enough time to get legal in time for the World Champs on her native soil. Her tried and (possibly) true defense was one of ignorance. She admitted buying the supplement, said the salesperson told her it was fine, and said she'd never even heard of DHEA. Maybe that's what happened, but if you're a world record holder, a defending world champ, the face of a swimming federation under increased scrutiny for its doping violations, would you take the word of a random GNC salesperson before you ingested something that could destroy your reputation?
Of course, this is the same defense that her USC breaststroking counterpart used some years back. Jessica Hardy said the same thing - and lost a lot more for her doping offense, an Olympic berth back in 2008.
I'd like to believe that the Trojans are doing everything above board under coach Salo, however, there's sure been some smoke around certain SC swimmers in recent years. At very least, swimmers like Hardy and Efimova appear to have been woefully naive and under prepared for the responsibilities they face as elite, heavily tested athletes. At worst, well... There's no evidence of anything more than cluelessness out there, though that has to be a sin in another category.
Curiously, you don't hear many swimmers speaking up about doping these days. It's somehow become verboten. Into the grey matter of alleged doping and positive tests, a stiff upper lip of silence prevails. Swimmers are reluctant to point fingers, and fair enough; no one wants to be seen as the poor loser. But as they say about evil, all it takes is for good men to do nothing. Back in 1996, swimmers were literally pointing and laughing at Ireland's Michelle Smith, so shameless was her cheating. In 2000, there was a loud chorus surrounding Holland's Igne de Bruijn, and a collective eye roll surrounding the Italian team in Sydney, dismissively referred to as "Team EPO" after some credibility-defying swims. Now, neither de Bruijn nor the Italians ever failed any tests, and the only test Smith failed was for spiking her sample with lethal amounts of whiskey.
It all seems like an obvious joke in retrospect. But in the present tense, sport is being cheated and gold is being stolen. Here's one swimmer who's been unafraid of speaking up: Scotland's Michael Jamieson, the Olympic silver medalist in the 200 breast back in London. These days he's taken to Twitter and spoken the dirty truth about the Russians and the increase in doping that is clouding our sport. It's Jamieson who called swimming "the new track and field" and he's vowed "not to stop shouting for the rest of my career."
Cheers to that. Maybe a few Americans or Canadians or Aussies will pick up that righteous chorus sometime soon.
Because it's not only the Russians.
The agony of Ian Thorpe and what it says about his sport, and his nation... We all knew. At least we thought we did. We added up all the usual cues and clues and we assumed as much, despite the years of denials from the man himself.
Even after his handlers insisted he was a fashion-conscious ladies man. Even as he claimed to have that long relationship with Amanda Beard. Even when he denied it in writing in his autobiography, perhaps ironically titled This is Me. It wasn't. Since he was old enough to have the first hints of his sexuality, Thorpe denied being a gay man to himself and to the world.
This weekend, after all those years of denying it, Ian Thorpe came out at the age of 31. In a sit-down interview with Sir Michael Parkinson, Thorpe called it his "big lie." Now that he's spoken the truth, the prevailing response seems to be: Finally. Followed by a shake of the head, as we think: Poor guy, I can't imagine what you've been going through all these years.
Consider the torturous life that Ian Thorpe chose to lead over this last decade and a half in the public eye. He was a world champion at 15, and he was told he was gay soon after. In public, in the press, by everyone who 'just knew'... Meanwhile, teenaged Thorpe didn't know what he liked. All he knew was that he liked to swim, and that he was very very good at it. Coming to terms with sexuality - straight or otherwise - is no easy journey for any teen. For a famous boy wonder sporting hero, in an Aussie culture not known for its tolerance, the question of his sexuality must have filled him with a fear that's hard to fathom.
So, he hid from it. He pretended he was something he wasn't, and slowly he came apart. There was the well documented depression, the drinking, the deep mistrust of any and all journalists. And there was the early retirement. It seems unfair to say, given the truckload of achievements, but Australia's most decorated Olympian of all time may have underachieved as an athlete. He won nine Olympic medals, five of them gold. He won thirteen World Championships medals; eleven of those were gold. He broke thirteen individual world records and was the World Swimmer of the Year four times. He was, and is, the greatest freestyler to ever live.
Throughout all that, he was miserable. By the time he retired, too young, in 2006, he was a 24-year-old too old and weary for his age. He knew his body was still capable of much more, but his psyche couldn't keep pace. How could it? By the time he attempted that comeback back in 2011-12, it was too late. Years of drinking and self-loathing had robbed the champion of a return to glory. Yet, still he denied his basic nature.
These are supposed to be times of unprecedented tolerance. The shame of the closet is supposed to be gone. Pro athletes feel free to come out now, and the thought of rejecting someone for his or her sexuality feels absurd. Like the movement to legalize marijuana, it can sometimes feel as if the battle is already won. Anyone with a few basic brain cells can grasp these things. Gay marriage, legal pot? Really, are we still talking about these things? Not any thinking person I know.
Yet Thorpe's struggles reveal that we're still ages away from those liberal assumptions. Particularly in his land down under, and in countless swimming pools across the world. Maybe if Ian Thorpe had grown up in San Francisco or New York or Amsterdam, or another urban bastion of freedoms, then he might never have gone through these agonies. Instead, he grew up in the suburbs of Sydney, in a country that still hasn't gotten around to legalizing same sex marriage. Indeed, the caricature of the Aussie sports fan is not a generous one. The image of macho, chest thumping blokes who used to call young Thorpe a "poofter" to his face is too easy to picture. Forget about all those Olympic medals and world records, these blokes are enough to torture any young athlete who can't quite relate to what he's supposed to be feeling.
Sure, Aussie culture is partly to blame, but so is swimming culture. This is a sport that pretends to be more tolerant than others, congratulates itself, in fact. Swimmers like to feel superior in many ways, for our work ethics, our physiques, our higher than average jock intelligence...and yes, for the heightened acceptance we think we have. But is any of that really as true as we like to think? Based on his reported agonies, it seems a safe bet that Ian Thorpe was subjected to the same rampant homophobias that exist in so many other locker rooms and fields of play, regardless of sport or nation. Athletes are athletes, and those same fiery qualities of competitiveness and camaraderie may not serve us so well when it comes to accepting teammates who might not be attracted to the same things.
So, if we all knew all along, why does Ian Thorpe's coming out even matter anymore? There've been plenty of smug shrugs in response. Who cares who he likes, the guy's still a king, right? Well, yes. But try telling that to the talented 14-year-old swimmer in the lane next to you. The one who's not quite like everybody else, but damn is that kid fast. Yesterday, he might have quit sports altogether, too shamed and confused and frustrated to continue.
Today, thanks to one long-coming admission by Ian Thorpe, that kid may keep at it.
Sydney Morning Herald calls swimming: "the worst job in the sporting world"... Here's why... I was somewhere around my 400th consecutive lap of the morning, nearing the end of a 12,000 for time, and I was all the way around the bend. As a Brit might say, I was quite mad. Which isn't to say angry, though I was that too. But mostly, I was insane. Madness had swallowed me up on that long ago Friday morning. There wasn't a sane, rational thought left in my chlorine-soaked mind. As soon as I touched the wall, I started ranting, throwing my mesh bag, shouting at lane-mates who had surely skipped laps.
Not my finest hour.
Does that sound familiar to anyone?
Chances are, if you spent your years between age 10 and 20 as a Swimmer (the "S" must be capitalized), you can relate to these madman emotions. Chances are, you've swum out to your tether of sanity. It's a point of pride. For all of us.
Yet, this is also why the Sydney Morning Herald recently ran a less-than-inspiring column entitled: Swimming: the worst job in the sporting world. Ouch. Really? And this a missive from Down Under, where swimming is damn near a religion? How dare they. Haven't they heard about USA Swimming's "Funnest Sport" campaign? As someone who has spent the better part of his career celebrating - ok, selling - the virtues of swimming at all levels, I took immediate offense. Then I clicked on the story.
Ok, the guy has a point. When viewed in a certain dark light, a case can be made that swimming is a breeding ground for mental illness. I don't mean learning to swim, or splashing around in the summer, or even swimming a few K a couple times a week as a grown-up. I mean, really swimming, like swimmers do. Swimming twice a day, most every day, for a decade or more. I mean, spending over a quarter of your waking life with your face underwater throughout your most impressionable years. To quote this Aussie columnist, Sam de Brito, "if there is a sport tailor-made for producing sociopaths and depressives, it has got to be swimming."
Well, that's a little harsh, isn't it? I'm neither a sociopath nor depressed, and I spent as many hours as anyone at that masochistic craft for a very long time. Most of us made it out sane, didn't we? At least we'd like to believe we did.
Yet many don't. The maladjusted champion swimmer is a bit of a hot topic down in Oz these days. Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett in rehab after hitting the bottle and the pills too hard; Geoff Huegill getting caught doing coke at the horse races; Scottie Miller doing hard time for dealing... The list goes on. Safe to say the Aussies might want to take a closer look at their Career Transitions outreach for departing members of the National Team.
Let's not pretend it's limited to this unfortunate rash of Aussie champs. The column calls out the "emotional maturity of a Teletubbie" with regards to many 20-something swimmers. We all hate to admit the mean accuracy of that statement, but be honest, there's more than a grain of truth there. There's also an inconvenient truth to this cold passage:
"the inherent, egocentric-sole-competitor nature of swimming coaching goes to work, cementing in the swimmer what will become the defining disorder of their competitive life – that they are central to the universe, their story is the only story that matters, yet they are also separate from the universe – there is only them and all those other people. These "built-in confusions" tend to get belted out of normal people pretty early in life, but swimmers often don't see evidence to the contrary until they are ready to retire."
If that hurts to read, it's probably because it hits rather close to your pool.
Missy Franklin is turning pro in ten months... Top agencies hungry for their piece of the biggest fish in the pool... She's the most marketable Olympian alive. Across every sport, Summer or Winter, Phelps and Lochte included, you won't find a more appealing athlete for endorsements in the lead up to Rio. Two years out and Missy Franklin is already the confirmed face of the 2016 Olympics.
Much was made about her decision to forgo the pro path after London and attend college at Cal, including by yours truly (Why She Went to College), but let's be honest - that was always a halfway commitment. Missy, and her parents Dick and D.A., who are highly active behind the scenes, never had any intention of swimming through the full four years of her collegiate eligibility. She longed for the college experience, and she's getting it, but the time has come to start talking dollars and sense.
This four-time Olympic champion is a sponsor's dream. She may not have the 8-gold epic-ness of Phelps in her future, and she may not have the twinkling-eyed model smirk of Lochte, but Franklin has something neither of those two man-childs possess. Actually, quite a few somethings. She is that rare transcendent athlete who is also relatable, down-to-earth, and somehow, retains an accomplishment-defying humility. She might be a mutant of physical excellence, like all highest-tier Olympians, but she possesses an unaffected star power that seems rooted in appreciation.
This sounds like I'm among the agents pitching her these days. She and her parents have clearly been hearing much of the same from many quarters. In this week's Sports Business Journal, the trade reports that meetings have begun in earnest among top agencies trying to woo the Franklins to their star athlete stables. (I'd include the link to this piece, but it appears you have to be a subscriber to access SBJ stories online...)
These agencies include CAA (home of Lochte); IMG (Lindsay Vonn); The Legacy Agency (Lolo Jones, Kerri Walsh); and of course, Octagon, where Phelps has resided since he turned pro way back in 2001. Safe to say she'll be just fine at any one of these hot spots. Each will come flooding into her orbit with big ideas and big promises and big-time endorsement contracts. In less than a year's time, Missy Franklin will be a multi-millionaire.
Those new representatives will also get theirs. Anything an athlete makes in endorsement income, the standard is that the agent keeps about 20 percent. A $5 million deal with Kellogg? Lovely! The agency will collect a cool million for their trouble. That's just one example, probably ample. As the deals continue to spin, and the potential earnings add up, one can see just how valuable a commodity Franklin has become.
Her refusal to turn pro right after London may have actually helped her in the long run, and not just for the two blissful college-years she's in the process of enjoying. Provided these years proceed without any real hiccups or injuries, her value continues to soar as she sits on the professional sidelines. She's already a proven quantity on the Olympic stage; she's a proven quantity as an athlete with her priorities refreshingly in order; and she's yet to endorse a single thing. All of which adds up to the Sports Business Journal calling her "the most sought after Olympian for agencies in more than a decade."
Indeed, the sharks are circling. But first they'll need to swim past Missy's father, Dick Franklin. See, Mr. Franklin has spent much of his career as a sports business executive, working for Reebok and Head tennis. Agent Evan Morgenstein, who is quoted liberally in the SBJ story, but knows he can't sign her himself, points out that Dick Franklin will likely act as "the point guard" in the team that assembles around Franklin beginning next spring.
Reading all of this in the works, can you blame her from wanting this last gasp of campus normalcy? Just two years to indulge in the fantasy that you're a regular college kid, just like all your friends. But Missy Franklin isn't normal; she's so abnormal in fact that there is a growing line assembling in front of her, just waiting to pour millions into her bank account the moment she says so.
The irony is that what makes her most valuable is the fact that, despite all those heady money clouds on the horizon, she remains motivated by all the right stuff.
The greatest age grouper in history ages up to the big leagues... For most teenagers, turning fifteen is a bit of a shrug. It's a birthday before the big one, the one that comes with driving privileges and all that open road freedom of the imagination. But for swimmers, aging up to fifteen is a passage into adulthood. From that point forward, you're no longer an age grouper, cozily collected into comfortable age brackets at most meets. At every meet from here on out, now you have to race with the big boys, age be damned.
Last Friday, April 18th, Michael Andrew celebrated his 15th birthday. However, thanks to a clause in the swimming rule book that stipulates that your age when a swim meet starts is the age you will be, for record-keeping purposes, throughout the competition, Andrew had one last shot to shatter a few more National Age Group records. He did. Of course, he did; for the last few months it feels like the kid has crushed another NAG record every time he touches water. His last one may have been the most jaw-dropping of all: 46.95 in the 100 fly. Sweet Jesus.
Obviously, Andrew will set many more NAG records in the years ahead, in the 15/16 and 17/18 "age groups". (Hell, his 46.9 in the 100 fly is already faster than the 15/16 record in that event...) However, those are really age groups on paper, not in practice. In competition, you turn 15 and it means you compete against all ages, or in the case of Junior Nationals, every other fast 18 & under out there.
So, at the dawn of this rather significant swimmer's birthday for Mr. Andrew, it seemed a fitting time to take a look at the mass destruction he spread across damn near every event. As a 14-year-old, Michael Andrew now holds every National Age Group record, with the exception of the 200 breaststroke and the three distance freestyles. He's the fastest age grouper of all-time in ten of the fourteen events. Take a look at this mind-boggling roll call:
50 Free - 19.76; 100 Free - 43.90; 200 Free - 1:38.31; 100 Back - 47.83; 200 Back - 1:43.15; 100 Breast - 53.88; 100 Fly - 46.95; 200 Fly - 1:46.29; 200 IM - 1:45.29; 400 IM - 3:52.08.
Most of those records annihilated the previous marks. No 14-year-old swimmer had ever broken 56 in 100 breast before; Andrew went 53. No 14-year-old had ever broken 1:48 in the 200 IM; Andrew goes 1:45 low. Olympian Ricky Berens held the 200 fly NAG record for over a decade. His time was 1:48.24. Andrew dusted that one by almost two full seconds.
These times for a 14-year-old are almost impossible to fathom. Michael Phelps never came close to yards times like this at that age, and Phelps was breaking world records and swimming in Olympic finals soon after he turned 15. They're so hard to fathom, in fact, that his success has prompted some nasty defamation. I've heard the unfortunate chorus on more than a few occasions: He must be doping. Or, more precisely, given his age: Someone must be doping him.
Now, just to be totally clear: I am not making any accusations of the sort. Nor am I spreading any rumors. These aren't rumors or whispers, these are the cynical knee-jerk responses of those who can't get their heads around things so far beyond our sense of the possible. That's what happens when you reset the record books. Not everyone is going to believe you. That's sport these days.
Ten months ago Michael Andrew turned pro by signing an endorsement deal with a "performance nutrition" company called P2 Life, and thus tossed aside any future prospects of swimming in college. Last June I posted a story entitled The Boy in the Bubble. I was critical of this decision; I called it "wildly inappropriate and premature." Despite Andrew's stunning success in the year since, I still feel that way.
But to quote a dead man much smarter than I: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."
Take a look at Michael Andrew's best times as a 14-year-old. It doesn't get much weirder than that.
Shattering age group records is plenty impressive, and no one in history has ever been a better age group swimmer than Michael Andrew. But 'turning pro', by definition, means joining the big leagues. It means being among the best on earth. Not being the best on earth, for your age.
While the media out in Mesa breathlessly chase the exhaust of yesterday's Michael, maybe it's time to look in the other direction. The one named Andrew just turned 15. Which happens to be the same age Phelps set his first world record. At age 14, Michael Andrew was in another universe, light years faster than any other kid his age, ever. But age group swimming is really just a warm-up. Now NAG records no longer impress.
To keep pace with the greatest of the great, it's time to start wondering if world records are on the horizon.
Ryan Murphy's rookie year at Cal... The kid just keeps following the script. He's been the best since he was a boy, and every year, at every level, he keeps fulfilling his seemingly unlimited promise. And so it went his first year at Cal. A year ago, I wrote a piece called The Recruit after Murphy signed at Berkeley. It seemed fitting to follow up a year later with this one.
The box score on his just-about-perfect NCAA Championships: Five titles, three relays / two individual. NCAA record in the 200 back. Just .03 off the NCAA record in the 100 back. Stunning splits on every relay, with wins in the 200 free, the 200 medley, the 400 medley, and a second in the 400 free. And perhaps most impressive of all, in terms of personal leaps forward, a 1:42.24 in the 200 IM, which secured a spot in the big final and got Cal rolling right out of the gate.
Between his relay load and his individual races, there wasn't a swimmer at the meet that accounted for more points than Murphy. He's the most valuable swimmer on the best team in the nation. With that in mind, it's flat out disrespectful that Kevin Cordes, a swimmer who scored zero points on relays, was named Swimmer of the Meet over Murphy, or Florida's Marcin Cieslak, for that matter. (The Gators could easily make a case for Cieslak, who claimed two gold and a silver in his individual races, and also contributed big time on the relays, with prelims swims as well. Yet Florida, did not win any of those relays...)
Cordes was predictably impressive in his pair of record-setting breaststroke performances and all, but you're not the swimmer of any meet if you DQ your team's medley relay on the all-important first day. As everyone knows, relays win the meet at NCAAs; therefore Cordes is undeserving of this year's honor.
But let's stay positive here, and focus on what Murphy did right, not what the jump-happy Mr. Cordes might have done wrong. It's hard to find a flaw in any one of his swims. He led off the medley relays in 20.90 and 44.91, and Cal never looked back. He swam the second legs on the sprint free relays. In the 200, on night one, he went 18.75. In the 400, in the last race of the meet, he split 41.67, which was not only the fastest on his foursome, but the third fastest split among all competitors. In his second best stroke.
Of course, it was his individual backstroke races where he shined most. As expected (and predicted last year in that Recruit story), he swept both backstrokes. 44.6 and 1:37.3 is over-the-top fast, but for Murphy these times just scratch the surface of what's in store in the years to come. Before he leaves Cal, Ryan Murphy will very likely be a 43 / 1:35 backstroker. Times that, not too long ago, were scoring points in freestyle at NCAAs...
Now comes the hard part. The subject of my story last year was not how he would swim in the small pool, but how he would fare in the big pool, where it really matters. NCAAs might be the most exciting three days of swimming on earth, but they are still the minor leagues when it comes to making your mark on the sport. All anyone remembers, and all sponsors will pay for, is international long course success.
So, this summer will say a lot. Will Ryan Murphy go 52+ and 1:54, and continue to stay on script? Or will he miss those walls and swim back to his best long course times from his Bolles days? A year ago I questioned whether he would have been better off at Florida with Coach Troy, pointing out the outsized success of Gator backstrokers on the big stage, and the short list of big time backstrokers who have come from Dave Durden's Berkeley Bears.
It's too soon to withdrawal that question completely, but it's getting hard to question anything Durden is doing these days. With three team titles in four years, he's created a new dynasty at Cal, and Murphy is now at the center of that dominance. Here's hoping - and betting - that the can't-miss-kid continues to translate his success this summer in the big pool where it matters most.
What happened to the 500 free? As times in every event drop with staggering speed and depth, the 500 remains stuck in another era... It was the usual stunning start of the NCAA championships, with times that were hard to fathom. If you're past a certain age, say 28, you're used to this by now. The further you get from your own glory days, the harder it is to grasp how fast kids are swimming these days. I'm sure that's always been the case, and may it always be so. Generations fly by, and times that were once NCAA records, the outer envelope of aquatic performance, now those same times don't even score a single point at NCAAs.
This is presently true in a race like the 200 IM. In 1993, Florida's Greg Burgess set the NCAA record in a time of 1:43.87. That time was jaw-dropping back then. I remember exactly where I was when I heard about it. Today, Burgess's time would not score a single point at the meet. 1:43.66 (by Stanford's Tom Kremer) was the 16th and last spot to earn a second swim at the big show in 2014. The same is true in other events - after all, two decades is a long damn time. If college kids aren't swimming much much faster 7,300 days later, then something must be wrong.
So then, what's wrong with the 500 free? Every event in every stroke has taken off with the times, but take a look at the 500 free. It's barely moved an inch in 20 years. On day one of the NCAA championships, USC's Cristian Quintero took the title with a wire-to-wire 4:10.02. A second and a half back was Florida's Dan Wallace, in 4:11.62. Turn back the clock to 1994, when Arizona's Chad Carvin cruised to an NCAA record with a 4:11.59, a time that puts him in the hunt pretty much every year these days. A year later, in 1995, Carvin was left in the wake, as Michigan's Tom Dolan dropped a 4:08.75. It was the first of several record shattering swims for Dolan at the '95 NCAAs; I'm not alone in my opinion that it's the greatest short course meet that any swimmer has ever had.
It took over a decade for a fellow Michigan alum, Peter Vanderkaay, to lower that mark, down to 4:08.60 in 2006. PVK dipped it down another .06 two years later in '08 to 4:08.54, and that's where the 500 record remains to this day. It's not going anywhere.
Based on the progression of other events, shouldn't swimmers be flirting with sub 4-minutes in the 500 by now? According to the progressions in the 200 IM, 4:08 should be about what it takes to make it back in the 500. Instead, a 4:16 is good enough to score points for your team in 2014. That's about 10 yards too slow.
Strokes and events don't progress at a uniform rate. Rule changes, like the dolphin kick in breaststroke pullouts, will artificially drop times across the board, simply because what's legal now is a whole lot faster than what was legal before. In another era, we saw the same thing happen in backstroke when the "bucket turn" was replaced by the classic freestyle flip turn at every wall. However, aside from the changes in breaststroke pullouts, there really haven't been any meaningful rule changes in the strokes that would warrant a significant drop in times.
A few weeks ago, as the conference championships wrapped up and the times came in, I noticed yet again that the 500 free was going nowhere, even as every other event seemed to surge forward. I raised the point with my friend Elliot, a smart, perceptive coach who wonders about the same things. His response was immediate: 'It's the under waters,' he said.
But of course. Nothing has changed more in swimming over the last two decades than the preeminence of under waters. I'd argue that nothing has driven the sport forward more than this "5th stroke". So much so that when the under water code was finally cracked in the mid-1990s, and times got silly, it was soon limited to 15 meters, first in backstroke, and a few years later in butterfly. Yet, even with that 15-meter limit, under waters have redefined virtually every event.
In a 20-lap race that lasts over four minutes, it's not exactly feasible to gain the full advantage of under waters off every wall. Or maybe it is, and no one has ever had the balls (or the lung capacity) to really try it. In any case, that would seem to provide the most obvious reason for the 500's languishing times. But it's not enough.
The times in the mile have dropped plenty over the last two decades, more than the 500, and under waters would seem to be even less of an advantage in the 1650. The 'we're not doing enough' argument is tempting, and maybe there's an element of truth to it, but that too is not enough. Not when the mile is getting faster, at a faster rate, than the 500.
There's also the fact that this riddle seems mostly limited to the guys. Katie Ledecky went 4:28 this year, in high school. She's an outlier of the most severe degree, but Missy Franklin and Brittany MacLean were both swimming at least a few seconds faster last weekend than the times in took to win women's NCAAs back in the mid 90s.
So, there are the under waters, that might be the biggest piece. There's the 'not enough' factor, and that can't be ignored. And there's the women, charging ahead and keeping with the times. What are we missing? Why hasn't the men's 500 free moved an inch in generations?
This is why: There has been no leader in imagination. There's been no outlier. Every other race and stroke has had its barrier-breakers. The Cielos, the Lochtes, the Cordes, the Phelps, the ones who pushed the standards of their strokes into another realm and challenged everyone else to follow.
That hasn't happened in the 500 free. There hasn't been anyone, not since Dolan, to grab the event by its throat and say: this way forward, try to hang with me, if you dare. This is an event that not even Phelps could master. There was a time when Bob Bowman looked forward to a showdown between Phelps and Ian Thorpe in the 400 free. It never happened. Phelps mastered damn near everything else, but this distance always eluded him, and for the last 20 years, it's eluded really everyone else. Vanderkaay chipped away at Dolan's mark, but he didn't redefine it in any meaningful way.
Coaches have surely realized this. Ambitious young middle distance guys too. It's an event that's just sitting there, waiting for someone to grab it and own it and drag it forward.
When is it going to happen? And who's it going to be?
Missy Franklin and the Meaning of NCAAs... She couldn't have realized it at the time. She was rather immersed in the task at hand. Two and a half seconds back, her team a distant third, only her anchor leg to go... It was Friday night, day two of the Women's NCAA Championships, and Missy Franklin had a hell of a lot of ground to make up in the 800 freestyle relay. The race was down to the three best teams at the meet - Georgia, Stanford, and Cal. Already in the water for Stanford was freshman Lia Neal, Missy's fellow high school Olympic teammate back in London. In the water for the Bulldogs, sophomore stud Brittany MacLean, the girl who beat Missy head to head a night earlier in the 500 free.
She couldn't have realized it then, but this was a moment, perhaps the moment, that she will always return to when folks ask her why she went to college. This is what college swimming is all about, this is why Missy Franklin passed up millions for a few years of this priceless community of competition.
What happened next was what you'd expect from the current face of American swimming. She dove in and started reeling them in. 50 yards, just a second and a half back; 100 yards, less than a second; 150 yards five one-hundredths back; and then Georgia's MacLean dug in. She wasn't letting Franklin by that easy. Stroke for stroke over the final lap, until Missy managed to inch by, touching the wall first for her Cal Bears by .15. Her split: an astonishing 1:40.08.
Another golden feather in the cap for the golden girl... Did you expect anything less?
Actually, many probably expected more from Franklin at her NCAA debut. Her individual results: gold, silver, and bronze. Three events earlier on that Friday night, she torched the field in the 200 free, crushing the NCAA and American record by almost a full second. On the first night in the 500 free, she had to settle for a hard-fought second in the 500 behind MacLean. Both swimmers eclipsed the former NCAA record, held by Allison Schmitt, though it's worth noting that Katie Ledecky's American record of 4:28.71, set last month, is a good four seconds faster than that NCAA mark. Tonight in the 100 free, she rounded out her freshman campaign with a third behind Arizona's Margo Geer and Stanford's Lia Neal.
A fine and impressive showing, but then again, the girl collected more hardware at the Olympics. And then again, why didn't the best backstroker on earth swim any backstroke for her team? Safe to say the 100 and 200 back were fairly sure bets for Franklin. Why wouldn't Teri McKeever use her golden goose where she's at her best? Well, because this is a team competition, and it's all about the points. Cal was already stacked with backstrokers; the Bears needed her skills more in the freestyles. That's value and versatility - when you can pass on your two best events, and still be a touch away from winning your fourth or fifth or even sixth best events, because that's where your team needs you.
Missy's first NCAAs didn't end the way she'd envisioned when she first signed at Cal last year, when she glowed and gushed about being a part of a college team and leading the Golden Bears to another team title. This year they were no match for the all-around depth and excellence of Georgia. A crushing DQ in the 200 medley relay didn't help Cal's chances, but even without it, Georgia was in a class of its own this year. However, it's a safe bet that McKeever's girls did not expect their cross-bay Cardinal rivals to sweep past them the way they did. The Stanford women swam over their heads at this year's meet. Caps off to second year coach Greg Meehan and his crew for four relay victories and a surprising second place finish. Cal swam away with what must be a bittersweet third in the team race.
She didn't think it would be easy, did she? Of course not. At 19, she's as seasoned an elite competitor as any teenager you'll find, in any sport. Yet, everything has always seemed to turn out, well, just about perfect for Missy Franklin. The Olympics, the World Championships, the almost sickeningly well-adjusted home life... Stumbles from the script, that stuff happens to other swimmers. Don't you think she must be just slightly surprised right now?
And that too is why she went to college. To go through challenges not as a lone figure on the blocks wearing stars and stripes, but to embrace the collective challenge as a teammate, as a student-athlete.
Missy Franklin has had greater triumphs than a come-from-behind relay victory at NCAAs. She'll have greater triumphs to come. But years from now, ask her about her experience swimming at Cal. Ask her what she remembers most, what were her proudest moments?
She's going to mention that 800 free relay.
Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett both in rehab... They're the two greatest freestylers of their generation, possibly the two greatest in history. They own sixteen Olympic medals between them, eight of them gold. They did it all as athletes, and they always came across as two of the nicest, smartest guys in the sport.
Now, in retirement, it appears the wheels have come off.
Earlier this month, Ian Thorpe was found drunk and disoriented on the streets of Sydney early one Monday morning. He was admitted to rehab soon after. While his managers have denied that Thorpe is suffering from alcoholism and depression, he has admitted to both demons in the past.
Earlier this week, Grant Hackett was also spotted in the wee hours one morning without his wits about him. After losing his four-year-old son Jagger in the Crown Casino hotel in Melbourne, Hackett was seen wandering the hotel lobby almost naked, shoeless, wearing only a singlet. Fortunately, his boy was subsequently found on the 20th floor of the hotel, 14 levels above the apartment where Hackett and his children were staying. Days later, Hackett was bound for Los Angeles, where he too checked into rehab. His managers also played down a problem, but reports are that a dependence to the sleeping pill Stilnox (aka Ambien) is to blame.
What's going on with these guys? When did their glory-filled lives begin to crack? Why can't these icons keep it together?
Let's take a look at Thorpe first. Always the most eloquent of champions, Thorpe published an autobiography last year that laid bare his struggles with depression, and the "artificial ways" he sought to manage his reeling feelings. He hung up his goggles young, in 2006, when he was 24. But he actually stepped away sooner than that, when he was just 21, after the 2004 Athens Olympics. By that point he was already his country's most decorated Olympian, and he'd been the best freestyler on earth since he was 15 years old. A comeback in the lead-up to London didn't take.
He grew up fast, and he grew up tortured. His sexuality was questioned since his earliest interviews. When he affirmed his heterosexuality, on camera and in writing, many refused to believe him. Not that it was anyone's business either way. Perhaps he was struggling to figure it out himself, as many teenagers do. Only he had to face these inner questions while his country's media analyzed his every move, questioning every fashion choice.
Faced with these circumstances, coupled with the yawning abyss of retirement, perhaps it's not so surprising that Thorpe sought solace in bottles and pills.
What happened with Hackett? Well, a bad marriage for one. In May 2012, Hackett faced the public indignity of an imploding marriage splashed across the tabloids. There was a fight with his then wife Candace Alley at their home. It was a bad one, featuring punched in walls, smashed pictures, and an overturned grand piano. A grim scene; alcohol played its usual role.
Then there were the sleeping pills. We know it as Ambien stateside; in Australia it's called Stilnox. It knocks you right out, wakes you up hangover free. The perfect drug for the sleepless stress of international competitions. Reports from Australia confirm that use of Stilnox is rampant among athletes. After an Olympic final, a podium, a drug-test, with more events to come early the next morning, these sleeping aids can be invaluable. A current member of the US National Team confirmed that they're just as prevalent among swimmers on Team USA. While the American team doctor can no longer supply them to athletes, it's well known that many swimmers come packing prescriptions of their own.
Though a good night's rest surely enhances performance (just take a look at those Holiday Inn Express commercials!), these drugs are perfectly legal, and make total sense during a high stress competition.
They can also be abused. Ambien can make sure you get a good night's rest, no question, but it can also give you quite a fine high if you can keep your eyes open. Swimmers aren't the most teetotaling lot. There's a certain inherent attraction to the extremes among many in our tribe. Is it so surprising that substance abuse sometimes springs up and fills the gap left by retirement?
Struggles with identity, marital wreckage, the slippery slope of pill popping, these are standard ailments in rehab. They're three of the top ranked issues that land you there. This is why rehab centers exist, not just to get you 'clean', but to help you discover what led to the abuse in the first place.
As athletes, Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett were abnormal in every way. In the pool, they were supermen, specimens that shattered our sense of the possible. On land, in retirement, they're all too human. Fighting the good fight against the ugly madness of life...
As many winter sports flounder, NGBs look to American swimming for answers... Don't let the medal count fool you. At the Winter Games in Sochi, Team USA finished second in the medal standings, five back from beleaguered host Russia. They won 28 total medals, nine of them gold. It took 255 opportunities to win those 28 medals - a rather unimpressive batting average of .109.
Of those 28 medals, a dozen came in either freestyle skiing or snowboarding, and five of their nine gold came in brand new Olympic events introduced in 2014. Translation: NBC must be immensely grateful for the X-Games... Anyway you cut it, Team USA is guilty of medal-padding, by adding American-made pseudo-events like the "slopestyles" on skis and snowboards. It's hard not to be cynical when you look at some of these less-than-universal sports, and then have to listen to the manufactured drama over national medal counts.
In the traditional Winter Olympics sports, the Americans were, to put it mildly, underwhelming. Speedskating was a well-publicized disaster, as US skaters failed to win a single medal on ice in 32 opportunities, and no, it wasn't Under Armour's fault. Ice Dancing gold aside, they weren't particularly impressive in figure skating either, winning just two medals in 13 opportunities.
But before the bashing continues, this column isn't about the failures of American Winter Olympians. It's about the outsized success of American athletes in melted ice. In the pool. See, this is about the time when leaders of National Governing Bodies in many winter sports start scratching their heads and wondering what went wrong. Then, they look to a group that continues to do it right. They ring up the folks at USA Swimming and they all ask a simple riddle: How the hell do you guys manage to be so good, Games after Games?
In 2012 in London, the swimmers of Team USA won 31 medals. Three more than the entire US delegation won in Sochi. As a Canadian Olympian who grew up in the US system and witnessed the Americans' pool domination up close, this used to be galling to me. It's always been the case. Every damn Games it's always the same. The American swimmers come swaggering in, and you can just see the look in their eyes. They know they're going to kill it. They just know. I've sat on the other side of the looking glass at international meets and watched that blind confidence just seeping from them. It's not always a pleasant sight. But this is sport, and the objective is pretty clear: You're there to compete. The evidence can't be denied; American swimmers have always been very, very good at that. Better than any Olympians, in any other sport.
So, the question is, why? I had the chance to spend a few days at USA Swimming's headquarters in Colorado Springs last week, and I got a few clues. First, I received a copy of their 2013 Demographics report. Last year, there were over 340,000 year-round swimmers in America. A 13% increase from 2012, and more than double the amount from a generation ago. That's a big pool of talent. But more importantly, they're not going anywhere. The report went on to point out that a swimmer who stays with the sport in the US past the age of 13 is almost definitely in it for the long haul. Swimmers simply don't quit if they make to middle school, and if they get the opportunity to swim in college, they'll stay with it through their early 20s. If they're good enough to rank high the world, post college, chances are they're going to stay with it longer than that.
Thanks to the Athlete's Partnership Agreement, post-college 'pro' swimmers now earn approximately $39,000 a year as a National Team stipend from USA Swimming. Ancillary income from prize money or endorsements are up to them. Now, $39K might not get you too far in New York or LA, but in college towns and smaller cities, where most elite swimmers train, this can be a solid income that can keep you in the sport through your 20s and, perhaps, beyond.
It doesn't get much simpler than retention. Have a huge, growing base, and keep your best athletes in the sport for as long as possible. That's the biggest piece of the puzzle, and it's something that speed skating and figure skating and plenty of other sports simply haven't done.
What else is there? Call it the structure of success. In terms straight out of MBA 101, it's: bring in the best, create the best possible situation for them to achieve, and get out of their way. That last bit might be the most important. If you have a huge pool of talent, and a club culture that fosters that talent, have enough confidence in the system to get out of the way. The tinkering and second-guessing at the top of so many national governing bodies, in so many countries, have proven that's not the way forward.
Of course, when faced with Olympic failure of shaming proportions, as USA Speedskating has faced in Sochi, the instinct is to do the opposite. In a less-than-classy rant, American speed skater Maria Lamb, laid her team's failures at the feet of her sport's leadership. Denial can be an embarrassing thing to behold. If it's not the suits, then it must be the bosses. Because it can't, can't, be the athletes.
Actually, it can. It always is. And if you want to fix your problems, don't start at the top. Start at the bottom. Figure out how to grow your sport. Figure out how to attract the best. (Memo to USA Speedskating: I'm pretty sure NHL players can skate fast too...) And then have the confidence to step back and let the best do their thing.
That Olympic swagger doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's the product of generations. It's the product of top to bottom faith in a culture.
It happens every day at swimming pools across the US. If you're in another lane, wearing another cap, that can be hard to accept. But it's true.