Tuesday, July 3, 2012

"Where's the Viking?" and Other Stories from Omaha

As you recall from my last post, I capped my weekend at Olympic Trials by meeting my nemesis Craig Lord and exchanging pleasantries. As I was wrapping up, Lord blurted out a question (as only he can).

"Where's the Viking?" he asked. When I told him that "the Viking" had been unable to make the meet, a look of severe disappointment washed over his face. Having met me, his mind had immediately moved on to my partner in crime, the "blogging blockhead". He did not inquire as to the whereabouts of Tony Austin.

I watched the last session of finals from home last night. The viewing left me with the same mixed emotions I had watching the meet in Omaha. It bundled breathtaking and disappointment all in one. Somehow, until I saw it not happen, I still believed that Dara Torres would get her hand on the wall for an Olympic spot. Judging from Dara's post race reaction, she felt the same. She glanced up at the scoreboard in disbelief. Quickly realizing all cameras were trained on her, she shook off her disappointment with a whip of her head and turned to congratulate Kara Lynn Joyce. My disappointment faded quickly to the realization that I had just seen a 45 year old women go 24.8 in a 50 free twice and I probably wouldn't see it again.

Being a fan of "American's Swim Team" can spoil you that way. At several junctures of the meet, I got caught up with other coaches bemoaning the impending doom of our Olympic squad. Those complaints sounded something like:

"Our 100 freestyles were horrible! We're going to get crushed in that relay (both genders)"

"That 400 was terrible, our guys won't even final!"

"Phelps and Lochte aren't tapered right? (after they go by far the fastest and second fastest 400 IMs in the world)"

I could go on, but you get the point. Somehow, even as we follow the dominant swimming superpower of the world, we can find fault. That is not to say there are not signs for concern, just that they are considerably more complex than the results of this meet. The "psych sheet" (world rankings) for the London Olympics suggest that the US will maintain and possibly even strengthen its position. Here are the true underlying reasons for concern:

1. America's dominant position is mainly owed to the presence of two dominant athletes on the men's side and one possibly dominant athlete on the women's side. While the female athlete is just beginning, the impending retirement of Michael Phelps on the men's side weighs heavily. In three weeks we will know whether he or Lochte is the world's best at the moment, but at worst he is second best and he will leave a void on the national team. We are also quickly approaching a time when Lochte too will likely start to struggle to compete and dominate a huge program.

2. The US men's team is "old" in many respects. While this is a good sign for our pro swimming development, it is also evidence of some gaps in talent and/or development. The fact that Brendan Hansen can launch a comeback, regress from his peak, and still win in the 100 breaststroke is one such gap. Likely we'll soon get the answer to whether a younger group led by Kevin Cordes can take the baton by 2013. Men's sprint free is another event with some lackluster performance (the 100 mostly, not so much the 50) and sparse young swimmers. Anthony Ervin's performance in the 50 was stupendous, as was Cullen Jones. But Ervin is also a reminder that twelve years ago as a teenager he was 21.7 in the 50. This year's top teenager was around a second back from that time.

3. There is still a lot broken in our talent development, professional and coaching systems. Again, I will not argue that we are not the #1 swimming power in the world, that much is still obvious. However, it is high time we start evaluating our swimming success in relative rather than absolute terms. We have no such measurement factors in place. Compare this to the way we evaluate education in the United States. When publications write that the US is ranked far lower than say, Finland in educational rankings, no rational person thinks that somehow a country of 5.2 million is producing more higher performing students in total than a country of over 300 million. They are saying that the smaller country does this far more efficiently. Everything in American swimming is designed to work backwards from high performance instead of understanding and evaluating bottom line indicators of what it took to get there. Given raw probability it is far more likely that a 1500 or 2000 swimmer club will put someone on the Olympic team than a 100 swimmer club, and yet that 100 swimmer club could be doing a far better job. I hope that in the next four years the US can wake up and realize the full potential of swimming in this country.


  1. Regarding your point #2 about the aging of our men's team, I would refer you back to my article "The Facts about Senior Swimming in America" - http://swim-life.blogspot.com/2011/08/facts-about-senior-swimming-in-america.html

    The progression of meets in USA Swimming is leaving potential elite athletes, particularly males, with the current meet progression. Physically mature men crush up and comer teenagers at meets like Sectionals. It is discouraging our younger males. I think we need to cap the age of our Sectional meets and make them more like our "old" Jr meets.

  2. Cliff,

    You might be interested that Frank Busch pitched the idea of a "College Championship" in LCM over the summer to draw college kids and older away from the sectional meets. Sounds good in principle but like most of what Frank Busch has said since taking over it's at best half baked. He for instance envisioned Division 3 athletes training and competing with their current coaches which is of course totally impossible except in an olympic year.

  3. It is not just Sectionals. Even at Southeastern Championships (LSC: Alabama, Tennessee, Florida Panhandle) this happens.

    Routinely University of Tennessee swimmers use this as nothing more than a train-through meet but finals are filled with these guys. The teenagers get crushed and the college kids look as though they are already at the Copper Cellar. They are bored and the teenagers look as though they have been hit by a freight train.

    1. point #2 ...elders,

      We have been here many times before. In 1992, I watched Pablo make the team in the 100Fly and win with times that were far from his WR(he was "ancient" for his day). In 1996, I remember watching Puppychow make his first Olympic final, and righting in my notes shortly before that we (US) need some leadership from our youth. Boy did Tom deliver.

      I was revisiting the feeling again when Anthony tied Gary for the Gold in 2000. Then that seemed to be the opening of a flood gate that resulted in a large crew of new hopefuls ...including the new king and queen.

      We have been very productive and 300million have produced a plethora of dominant swimmers in all the strokes and at most distances. Further many of the top non-american swimmers are getting there via the US. We are swimming great. But we have not embraced professionalism very well, and still rely way to much on the NCAA and NISCA (clearly the only focus of ASCA). We need a 'PRO CIRCUIT' with Professionally owned teams ...like other sports. We have done little in this, maybe because our leadership is old college coaches who enjoy the status-quo and luxury that comes with it.

      Very interesting how few college swimmers are making the team now days, when up till 1996 it was mostly college swimmers, Title-IX was really where the change began. Thanks to the likes of Pablo, Dara, and Janet we have discovered we don't peak till much latter and College is not absolute. We are still coming to terms with this. I agree on a revamp of the system, though i think the 12&unders also need a major change if we are going to avoid winding up right where gymnastics is (...2nd rate athleticism with little NCAA support with minimum male involvement).

  4. What we need is to cut very high salaries of top brass of USA Swimming and divert some of the money saved in the process to support and motivate swimmers on national team