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Courtesy of: Tori Bursell
Courtesy of: Tori Bursell
Commentary by Duncan Scott
MESA, Arizona, April 25. IT is a luscious treat for our sport having Michael back. He sucks all the air out of the room -- but I'd argue that is a positive reality at this stage in the development of competitive swimming in the perception of the non-aquatic American sporting press and, via the impact of that press, the general American public.
For 50 years or more, American sports media editors and reporters had a monolithic, unshakeable mindset that swimming existed only every 4 years for an 8 day Olympic schedule. No matter how popular swimming was in those 8 day blips, world records, world championships (beginning in 1973) and other significant events between those 8 day blips, were invisible, literally invisible, to those controlling swimming information reaching the bulk of the American public. And in a perverse way, great, record performances by great athletes were devalued since they occurred relatively often compared to records in other sports, rather than understanding the admirable nature of the remarkable advances in equipment, technique, tanks, effective spread of valuable competitive training skills and simple pursuit and faith within the culture that improvement is darn near always achievable.
Coverage between Olympics was often limited to human interest pieces that repeatedly spoke of teenagers exposed to pool chlorine to the point of producing green hair, experiencing a boring existence limited to hours upon hours staring at a line on the bottom of the pool, with no respite from training. Social life was nil and proms were missed. This basic story was told so often it soaked into the senses of most non-participating observers, with the inherent message that such an activity could not really be enjoyable, ... could not be FUN. Personally, I never missed a prom, though I must admit to occasional green hair when pool chemistry was askew.
Part of the development of this press belief came from the lack of long term stars. Press only exposed itself to top swimmers, usually ranging from age 16 through approximate college graduation age of 23, and only in those Olympic blips, so that even two time Olympians were rare. Editors/writers not fully in the swimming niche, didn't have anyone to hook onto for an extended period, especially for periods between blips; they had very few to groom as stars in the press, even if so inclined.
Michael was the bomb that forced some cracks in these previously intractable media attitudes, both undeniable in his excellence and more comfortable to them in the duration of his dominance, which became all the more saleable through the years, especially with the development of realistic rivalries such as with Lochte, known both for dogged training in pursuit of Michael and for good looks and personality producing squealing teenage girls at each of HIS meets. Michael's run of Olympic final in 2000, multiple world records in 2001 through 2012 Gold medals gave the press someone they could develop more along the lines of a baseball player with at 13-15 year career.
Michael made it respectable for mainstream media to cover the sport enough to begin to actually understand it and its best participants. His success also accelerated the availability of funding which has allowed many others to continue in the sport into more fully mature ages. Just look at the ages in the heat sheet. At this point, the extended careers may have been going on so long many may not remember that it was not that long ago when by far the largest bulk of entrants in major American meets, including Nationals, were 22 and under for men and somewhat younger for women.
Michael's return obviously brought press to this meet interested in his potential results, whether successful or not, who would not have been here without his presence. Again, he sucks the air out of the room. But at least the press is in the room and exposed to other wonderful stories, with their attitudes softened a bit by their experience over time with Michael so they might pick up a bit more easily on other great athletes following in his footsteps both in terms of excellence and duration.
There were plentiful people, performances and possibilities on view at this week's stop on the USA Swimming Grand Prix circuit stop at the Skyline Aquatic Center in Mesa, Arizona, a fine municipal/school district joint facility transformed this week into a world-class venue through the efforts of numerous elements of the swimming community.
On display were victorious returns by Olympic champions who had been "away" (Allison Schmitt's 100 Free win after missing the US World Championship team last summer) and a marvelous display of continuing consistent excellence by another Olympic champion (Nathan Adrian repeating his 2013 win in the men's 100 Free with his best time of 2014).
Jamaican Olympic 100 Breaststroke finalist Alia Atkinson, who preceded Breeja Larson as the breaststroke stalwart at Texas A&M and now trains in south Florida, again showed her continuing improvement since London by winning the 200 distance with improvement of 6 seconds over her 5th place finish here in 2013. Then, with the 200 Breaststroke win by Columbian Jorge Murillo Valdes representing Bolles School Sharks in Jacksonville, Florida, we got another demonstration of the decades old willingness of American schools and clubs train so many of our international competitors. There was an interesting twist in this instance when American swimming icon and commentator Rowdy Gaines approached Jorge for the now quasi-obligatory post-race deck interview, fed live to the in-house crowd at many Grand Prix meets, only to be rebuffed by Jorge at the prospect of an interview in English.
Coming into the meet, American names were scarce in the World top ten as so many others, such as France, England, Australia, Italy, Spain, Japan, Brazil, and several Scandinavian countries, have already had their national championships/selection meets for the major international events later in the year, whereas most Americans have not as yet rested for any 2014 long course meets. This continued fact did nothing to deter 2013 World Swimmer of the Year Katie Ledecky in the 400 Freestyle. She followed her known pattern of early aggressiveness, splitting out under 2:00.00, on her way to a 4:03.84, tying Spaniard Mireia Belmonte for the 2014 #1 ranking. On the Men's side, Michael McBroom, American record holder at 800 Meters, swam within about a second of his life best for the win.
And finally, the 100 fly completed the day's schedule. 2012 American Olympian Claire Donahue repeated her 2013 Mesa Grand Prix win. And there was a pretty good guys race also too.
The prelims, and the final for that matter, reminded many of pro wrestling. How could you script a couple of heavyweights any better than that. Except for the credibility of intense and honorable racing from each of them over extended time. First and second, each with unshaved prelim times in the world top 10 with a 0.10 differential in favor of Phelps, and each improving in finals, making world top 5 swims and a 0.20 differential for Lochte. Two of our sport's all-time warriors. One returning after over 600 days since last taking a stroke in anger and another still recovering from a serious knee injury.
Many came to see Phelps this time. But in being here to see Michael, they saw Ryan. And they heard both Michael and Ryan speak repeatedly about how much FUN they were having.
And they saw Nathan. And Katie Ledecky. And Jessica Hardy. And Allison Schmitt. And Natalie Coughlin. And Simone Manuel. And Claire Donahue. And great foreign athletes. And Anthony Ervin. And Connor Dwyer. And Breeja Larson. And the future in Michael Andrew, Ryan Hoffer, Justin Lynch, Becca Mann. And the return of Katie Hoff. And so many others worthy of interest.
We can only hope, and be grateful to Michael sucking the air out of the room, that while here they recognize the athletic and storyline value in these folks and others, so that when Michael no longer here, the press will continue forward with our sport in ways they were not willing to do before Michael. It may not happen fully, but before Michael no one else could break the damnable mindset.