Commentary by Nate Jendrick
SEATTLE, Washington, December 20. I've realized that most of my columns tend to be a little dreary, at least as far as subject matter goes. Silly this, unacceptable that, ban-cheaters-for-life, etc., etc. While I feel all of that is worthwhile text, I want to take a more positive light on this week's piece.
Recently, my family and I had the pleasure of making our nearly annual pilgrimage to Oklahoma City for the Chesapeake Elite Pro-Am meet at the Oklahoma City Community College pool. Sponsored by the Chesapeake Swim Club, this is easily my favorite meet of the year and I know I'm speaking for a lot of athletes when I say that.
Every year the meet is a model for what a well-run event should look like and athletes of all ages and levels have a fantastic time. And for the professional athletes in attendance, there's a real perk for choosing this meet: They actually get treated like professional athletes. And, in a rare occurrence, there is actually some nice prize money to be won at this meet. All in all it's a bright spot on the swimming calendar and there is a lot that can be taken away from this meet and a lot that should be duplicated around the country.
It has been more than 20 years now since the Pro-Am started and it's still one-of-a-kind. Hopefully with some encouragement, we can see this type of meet branch out and pop up throughout the United States. If that happens it's not just good for the athletes–adding an opportunity to earn their living as professionals–but also for fans because of some great formatting at the meet.
Now, first, for athletes and teams the meet is great for a multitude of reasons. As far as the racing goes, the competition is always strong, making the Pro-Am an ideal meet for any point in the season. It's great as a tune-up meet to gauge where you are against swimmers who can push you, or even as a taper meet. Some teams have even taken to bypassing Junior Nationals in favor of the Elite Meet. The venue is great with plenty of deck space and spectator seating, easy parking, ample warm-up and cool down lanes, and the pool itself is easily considered “fast,” as former American and US Open records by the likes of Jenny Thompson and Penny Heyns, respectively, can attest to.
For young athletes, competing alongside the likes of swimmers with names such as Natalie Coughlin, Angel Martino, Ed Moses, Megan Jendrick, Ian Crocker, Darian Townsend, Jason Lezak, Aaron Peirsol as well as the aforementioned Thompson–all of who have competed at the Pro-Am, among many more big names–is hugely motivating and brings out their best. While not cash, even the amateurs get to swim for prizes.
As for the professionals, having that caliber of competition is rare outside of the Grand Prix or World Cup meets. But right there in little Oklahoma City they can swim fast, be treated well–hotel, transportation, meals and dedicated warm-up lanes among the perks–and go after some prize money in a fun format. And the meet is most certainly fun, especially if you're a fan of 50's and the 100 Individual Medley (and who isn't?).
Something that athletes and spectators alike love seeing is the rotating special event, which alternates in IM order each year before becoming the 100 IM and restarting the rotation. This year it was the 50-yard backstroke with each respective winner–Dagny Knutson and Eugene Godsoe–putting on quite a show.
But that's not all; the highlight is the “Saturday Night Shootout” in the 50-yard freestyle where, in tournament bracket fashion, the 'A'-final athletes race mano-a-mano throughout the night until a champion is crowned with double the normal first place prize money as the icing on the cake. Fans get to see some real gamesmanship take place as athletes strategize to move on with enough left in the tank to win the final. This year, the Shootout champions were Steve Cebertowicz, a former Swimming World five-star recruit from the class of 2008, and Cal's multi-NCAA champion Liv Jensen. It was a sight to see and given the eruption from the stands, the fans were–as usual–pleased with the production value of such an event.
So, already, we're looking at something that's good for the fans, good for the athletes, and it's good for the community, too. The professional athletes get together and visit the Children's Hospital each year to talk with kids and their parents, show off their medals and tell their stories, and encourage those kids to keep fighting, keep dreaming, and smiling.
And, for an event that sees between 500-700 swimmers in total (read: prelims don't last until finals, and finals end in time for a reasonable dinner hour!), the community is surprisingly well aware of what's going on. As in, they–the non-swimming public–are aware of our sport. I walked a mile or so down the street from the hotel to pick up some milk for my son and the smiling cashier said, “Ya'll here for the swim meet?” I loved that. And I wasn't even wearing any swimming-related logos!
I could go on, but I think the point is clear: Meets like the Chesapeake Elite Meet are what this sport needs more of. It brings in great athletes, treats everyone from the up-and-coming age groupers to the top-tier professionals exceptionally well, showcases what fan-friendly and fun racing can really look like, and it gives back to the community and raises awareness.
The people who run the meet are some of the nicest people you could ever find, and clearly they know how to put on one heck of a show. They had a dream over two decades ago of bringing a great event to Oklahoma City, and I'm sure if anyone asks, they'd be happy to share their secrets to see this format expand around the country. Let's hope more people get the urge to give it a shot, because I have no doubt in my mind, that this is how we can grow swimming from the ground up.