By Phillip Whitten
SAN DIEGO, Calif., October 6. LAST month, USA Swimming President Ron Van Pool gave his annual assessment of the “state of USA Swimming” at the organization’s annual convention held, this year, in North Carolina. Not surprisingly, Van Pool’s assessment was a rosy one. But, though it overlooks and underestimates various challenges to our sport, it is hard to take issue with the thrust of his remarks – “hey, we’re doing all right.”
It was a strong speech and, the fact of the matter is, we are doing all right. In fact, we’re doing more than all right, but we face some very stiff challenges in the foreseeable future.
Van Pool began with a review of our national teams’ performance in international competition, pointing out that American swimmers set four long course world records and eight American records in 2005, plus an additional four short course marks from last October’s Short Course World Championships in Indianapolis.
“And this is supposed to be an ‘off’ year?” he asked rhetorically.
It’s a good point. With the changes our sport has undergone in recent years, there really are no “off years” any longer. Oh, an Ian Thorpe or an Amanda Beard might take the year off, but there are plenty of challengers ready to take their place. Witness Grant Hackett’s taking down Thorpe’s 800 free record, Leisel Jones’ ripping Beard’s 200 breast mark, and newcomer Jessica Hardy appearing on the scene and smashing the global standard in the 100 breast.
He pointed out that the US won 32 medals, including 15 gold, at the Long Course World Championships in Montreal in July – actually, it was 33 medals: 15 gold, 11 silver and 7 bronze. Australia was second, he reported, with 22 medals, neglecting to mention that the Aussies had only two fewer medals of the golden variety than the USA.
Van Pool went on to review the winning US performance in the Duel in the Pool and its strong showing at the World University Games.
Everything he said was accurate, but what he didn’t say paints a somewhat different picture.
First of all, take the USA vs. Australia stats: the numbers are right but they should be put into a broader perspective. That perspective includes the fact that the US has 15 times the population of Australia. So it’s hardly surprising that the US is somewhat stronger than Australia. What is surprising is how close to equal the Aussies are. And, in fact, the Aussie women are just a little better right now than their American counterparts. That, in itself, is especially surprising because it is the US men whose programs are under assault. Women’s programs are solid.
Moving from the current national team to the state of age group swimming, Van Pool pointed out that 44 individual and four relay national age group records were broken in 2005. That’s true, and it’s a positive sign for the future. But Swimming World’s examination of the quality of the next generation – the 16 & under girls and the 18 & under boys – indicates that the US can expect some very strong challenges from abroad, particularly from China, Britain, and Japan. Indeed, Uncle Sam’s charges have their work cut out for them.
Also missing from President Van Pool’s report was a discussion of numbers. Traditionally, in the aftermath of an Olympic year, our numbers shoot up. That was certainly the expectation after 2004, with Michael Phelps the undeniable superstar of the Athens Games and with the fabulous success of our entire swim team. The TV coverage was excellent… and yet, our membership barely changed. In fact, our numbers haven’t changed much in the past 30 years – meaning we’re drawing a declining percentage of youngsters from the national population.
Why? What needs to be done to fix it?
But aggregate numbers also hide a disturbing trend: the declining number of boys in our sport – a phenomenon that has a variety of causes, one of which is the continuing assault on men’s college programs.
Beginning around 1990, the percentage of boys in USA Swimming began decreasing at the rate of about one percent per year, until today boys comprise only about one-third of the nation’s swimmers. At first USA Swimming tried to hide the ominous trend, perhaps believing that if no one noticed, it would disappear.
We noticed, made the information public and, to its great credit, under Chuck Wielgus’s leadership, USA Swimming has attempted to address the problem.
Today, there’s reason to believe that the bleeding has stopped. Now we need to re-entice young boys into our sport. We need to build a powerful experience for boys in our sport, from the 8 & unders through the college years.
Our sport still needs to improve its “outreach” – specifically, we need to become much more effective in reaching ethnic minorities, especially African-Americans and Hispanics. Van Pool acknowledged and addressed this issue in his speech. He appointed a task force to make recommendations, including budgetary ones for 2006, and he appears optimistic that USA Swimming will be more effective in bringing these young athletes into swimming than it has been in the past. I hope he’s right but remain skeptical.
On the issue of protecting athletes, Van Pool was admirably proactive. Much more needs to be done, but USA Swimming appears to be on top of a very sensitive issue.
There is much more in the President’s address, which can be accessed on USASwimming.org and is well worth reading.
One final note: The convention took place in the immediate aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Katrina. Van Pool fittingly placed the concerns of our sport within the much broader survival challenges wrought by the hurricane, noting the actions USA Swimming, various LSCs, numerous clubs and countless individual swimmers had taken to aid the victims of the tragedy.