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Commentary by Jeff Commings
AUSTIN, Texas, March 28. TWO years ago, Swimming World Publisher Brent Rutemiller feared that interest in college swimming was on the decline when he noted that the stands were barely half full in Federal Way, Wash., for the NCAA Men’s Division I Swimming and Diving Championships.
If attendance numbers are to be used as a gauge of interest in this sport, then we are at an all-time high. I saw very few empty seats tonight in the Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swimming Center for finals, and the empty seats were probably previously filled by those who needed a few minutes outside to get some fresh air after witnessing the record-breaking night in the pool.
Texas, the home team, occupied about 40 percent of the spectator area. California appeared to be close behind, while Michigan and Florida had good numbers as well. It’s one thing to support your team, but it’s another when you’re at a swim meet. Michigan and Louisville had basketball teams playing in the NCAA tournament tonight. As a lifelong swimmer, it’s a no-brainer that I would have chosen the swim meet over the basketball game, but tonight’s attendance numbers showed how many fans swimming – college swimming in particular – continues to have.
Those who make millions and sit in expensive offices on college campuses might be the ones who hold the cards in determining the fate of college swimming, but if they were to see how fervent swimming fans are (Nathan Adrian wore a bear suit tonight in support of his alma mater) they would never consider dropping this sport.
Where else can you find fans scribbling scores on scrap paper to find out where their team stands? That rarely happens at USA Swimming nationals, and team scores are not kept at the Olympics. High school teams care about this, but that’s about it.
College swimming shows no sign of giving up. Yes, Vlad Morozov turned pro one year early. Michael Phelps never swam in a college race. And 14-year-old Michael Andrew passed up any chance to swim in college by going pro But we all know that Missy Franklin didn’t want to pass up this opportunity. Natalie Coughlin swam for Cal all four years. Ryan Lochte didn’t give up his eligibility, either. There’s something unique about the college swimming experience, and the ringing in my ears from the roof-raising cheers reminds me of that.
Now, about those records. 3:34.50 in the 400 IM. 1:22.83 in the 200 medley relay. 50.04 in the 100 breast. Even I had to triple-proof what I typed to make sure those times were right. Not since the techsuited 2009 NCAA championship have we seen a day like today. Five years ago, people were shaking their heads in disbelief, thinking the sport had gotten out of control. Lots of heads were shaking tonight. Mouths were held slack-jawed. And there was nothing you could do but stand, applaud and appreciate what you just witnessed.
We saw the future of the sport unfold before us tonight. While we ponder Michael Phelps’ return, monitor Ryan Lochte’s rehab and bow before Katie Ledecky we can also put Kevin Cordes, Chase Kalisz and Ryan Murphy squarely on the “very likely” list for 2016 and 2020. Kevin Cordes continues to swim in a different stratosphere from everyone else in short course yards, and he’ll likely become more confident in long course meters. Chase Kalisz is already established on the world scene but now he’s got four solid strokes to make him the one to watch in the next two years.
But first, let’s see what Cordes can do tomorrow in the 200 breast. After dropping seven tenths in his 100 breast today, I’m thinking 1:47.5 is not out of the question. What are your thoughts?
Overheard: “I just texted my son about Cordes’ swim. He seriously thought I was doing an April Fools’ prank on him early.”