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By Nate Jendrick
BARCELONA, Spain, July 23. I was having a discussion with a friend about the upcoming World Championships in Spain and how excited I am to watch them. He raised an eyebrow, tilted his head, and although a bit of a swimming fan himself, scoffed. "Why?" he asked. "It isn't the Olympics."
I hesitated a moment, debating on engaging the conversation, but went at it. I conceded that, clearly, the World Championships are not the Olympic Games, but I imposed that if one only cares about the Games as far as major meets go, they are missing out on a ton of amazing athletes and quality swimming. They may also be missing out on incredible careers, too.
While I openly admit the Olympics are the standard to which all athletes are held and nothing can combat the title, "Olympian," the title of "World Champion" does still roll off the tongue quite nicely. Granted, you get "Olympian" by making the team and you only get "World Champion" by winning, but they're magnificent titles all the same. Yes, there's nothing for a career that "World Champion" can get that "Olympic Champion" can't, but in my mind, it makes it no less significant.
With the depth of fields these days you could race an Olympic final three days in a row and have three different winners. And while I've heard the argument "it's all about who performs when it matters," I call that inexact. In some races where gold and fourth are decided by margins so small you can hardly see them with the human eye, I don't think any of those athletes got stage fright.
But, still, the Olympics are the almighty, commercial mega giant of athletic accomplishment. I don't have a problem with that. I get it. But with the exception of the debacle that was the 2009 supersuit Worlds in Italy, I simply say that some of the sport's greatest races have taken place at the World Championships, and some of the sport's greatest athletes have capped their career at the Worlds level.
Four years is a long time--from one Games to the next--and sometimes brilliant careers don't last that long. But like a shooting star in the night, even if it doesn't last a long time, that doesn't make it worth missing or any less amazing while it's there, does it?
That notion is something I hate; meets like Worlds and Pan Pacs tend to have a few people who say "so and so could be great at the next Olympics." Let's make one thing crystal clear right now: If an athlete makes Team USA for a World Championships team, they are already great. Let's not wait to celebrate them at an Olympics they may never make when we have every reason to do so right now.
Sure, for some athletes, they may not be at their peak yet, but don't discount what they've already accomplished. Sometimes it's as hard, or harder, to make a Worlds team as it is an Olympic team. Every athlete at the Trials meet is swimming just as hard for both. No one is saying, "Well, it's just World trials, I'll take it easy." Instead, what we should be doing is realizing that we are watching great swimmers who are, sometimes, on their way to even greater heights. But again, if this is their pinnacle, my-oh-my what a feat it is. Sometimes though, we are indeed only catching a glimpse of potential, and we're all the better for it by having caught that first triumph at a World Championships.
Let's take an athlete like Nick Thoman as an example. He swam in two World Championships and a Pan Pacific Championships before making the 2012 Olympic team and walking away with gold and silver. For those who "bothered" to pay attention in 2010 in Dubai and 2011 in Shanghai, they were able to say, "I remember when..." It creates a deeper connection to the sport.
Think too of David Plummer, a great athlete who is often pointed out to have been so-close to earning the title Olympian. Spain will be his third Worlds team. I've read a couple of pieces recently talking about his near-miss in 2012, but no mentions of the two gold medals he has from Dubai and Shanghai. I think that's the better story.
When you watch other sports, you follow athletes from one contest to the next. You learn about them, you learn their stories, you develop a rapport at a distance with them in the oddest of ways. You cheer for them, you cry with them, you feel the passion of their efforts. If you only watch the Olympics, you're doing yourself and the sport a disservice because no matter how well they are put together, a heart-wrenching, overdramatic five-minute NBC promo piece isn't going to give you the whole story.
I realize none of the athletes competing in Spain earned a title--like Olympian--just by making the team. But that doesn't downplay their hard work and current talents or their future potential. Hardcore swimming fans will eat up every minute of World Championships coverage, but I've always noticed the casual fan thinking of the World Championships as second rate. They aren't. They are, dare I say, vital to the sport as a whole. So let's embrace it, let's encourage others to watch, and let's engage in those conversations that see us telling people exactly why they should pay attention, too.