By Michael J. Stott
RICHMOND, Virginia, August 28. A late night meeting of swimming cognoscenti following Day 3 of the 2012 men's NCAA swimming and diving championships concluded that it was unlikely that anyone at the meet would make the USA Olympic team. The sentiment regarding women was, like the men, that postgrads would dominate USA Olympic Trials save for veterans in college like Elizabeth Beisel and wunderkinds Missy Franklin and maybe Katie Ledecky.
“The demographics have changed so much in our sport,” offers U. S. National Team Director Frank Busch. “As few as three Olympics ago the high school was considered the [farm league] for the collegiate programs and now the collegiate programs are the [farm leagues] for the postgraduates. Postgraduates are going to be 90 percent of our Olympic team. It used to be the window for fast swimming was two-to-four years; now it seems to be six, eight, ten years. With people getting older it has just changed everything,” he says.
At age 28, professional Peter Vanderkaay made his third Olympic team. “At that age I can still be competitive. Some days I feel the best I've ever felt in my life,” he says. Undoubtedly so do veterans Jason Lezak, Ryan Lochte, Michael Phelps, Natalie Coughlin, Dara Torres, et. al.
Yet being a mature trainer doesn't guarantee Olympic success. Referencing a recent database, Busch notes that if swimmers are not ranked in the top six in the world within 18 months of the Olympic Games their chances of being on the podium are 15 percent.
“The dilemma postgraduates face is financial,” he says “and it may always be that way. It is very difficult for postgraduate athletes not on the National Team (top six in their event) and not at least in the top 16 in the world to get funding,” he says. Funding allows postgraduates to soldier on. Lack of funding produces “defining moments,” says Busch.
The United States Olympic Committee began funding some athletes in 2000 under a corporate partnership arrangement. Swimmers like Justin Mortimer received full time pay (at a modest hourly wage) for part-time work at companies such as Home Depot so they could continue to train. The current USA Swimming Athlete Partnership Agreement has been in place for about 18 months. It allows qualifying postgraduates to receive a $3,000 monthly stipend. Terms of that arrangement will change beginning September 1, 2013 with the top 14 in the world qualifying. By 2015 the goal is to fully fund 52 pool and four Open Water athletes and have them be top 12 in the world.
Busch acknowledges that aside from USA Swimming funding there are limited sponsorship opportunities. “What is available is taken up by the better athletes,” he says. “So it is very difficult, if you are not getting funding on a monthly basis, to remain in the sport unless you have some kind of financial backing. And usually that is someone in your family (more on that later) making that commitment so you can work your way into funding of some sort.”
Two-time Olympian Vanderkaay is grateful for every dime. A USA Swimming stipend recipient he also counts Mutual of Omaha, Speedo and Power Bar among his sponsors. He knows from experience how challenging a postgrad life can be. One of four Olympic Trials qualifiers in his family he watched brother Alex (World University gold and silver IM medalist) swim for two years after college with virtually no funding.
Those who soldier on are a diverse group that range from college age professionals like Chloe Sutton to 36-year-old three-time Olympian Jason Lezak. “One thing about swimmers,” says Busch. “They are dedicated, understand hard work, do well and want to continue. The biggest dilemma they face is whether or not they are doing it for the right reason. There are so many factors why they continue including pride, an unending belief they can accomplish more and the drive to make it to the ultimate stage.”
For Vanderkaay it is not the need to accomplish more. He has three Olympic medals. “I could easily walk away from the sport and be proud and content with everything I have done in the pool, but I still have that yearning for competition,” he says. “I think I can be competitive…I honestly feel I have my best performances ahead of me, so that's why I am still going. It motivates me every day.”
Clark Burckle, training with postgraduates at Tucson Ford, swims for love of the sport and pride. “Every day I wake up thinking about why I love to swim. I am deeply interested in technique, training strategies, mentalities, body types, nutrition and racing. Swimming since the age of six, Burckle looks at 2012 as the pinnacle of his swimming life. “I could not resist that,” he says.
“I continue because I love to race and compete,” says Lezak, a non-USA Swimming-funded athlete who benefits from clinics, appearance fees and arrangements with FINIS, Mutual of Omaha and Rose Bowl Aquatics. “I always think I can do better so the reward for me is learning something and going out and doing better next time.” Much of Lezak's learning comes from adapting his training to physiological changes and the increased demands of travel. “I have to adapt and not think about what I used to do and what made me fast before,” he says.
Olympian, funded National Team member and five-time international medalist in the pool and open water Chloe Sutton chose a path less traveled. Knowing that colleges couldn't offer the training a 10K swimmer needed she opted to forego NCAA eligibility to train with long-time coach Bill Rose at Mission Viejo. “I wanted to make sure that I did everything I could to become the best swimmer I could. I knew that in order to get faster, I had to stay with Coach Rose,” she says. “It wasn't so much that I became professional to be a pro swimmer, it was more that I didn't want to swim on a college team where I knew my needs wouldn't be met.”
The belief that one can still be competitive is a strong motivator. Annie Chandler did not qualify for USA Swimming funding until last summer at Palo Alto Nationals. She kept swimming without funding for a year after missing the world top 16 by .03. “I was at a major crossroads after Pan-Pac's. It was a wonderful National Team experience, but heartbreaking because I did not go fast enough to make myself financially independent. I was looking at narrowly missing the cut as a sign that I should maybe hang up the goggles and start making money in another realm. But after talking to Matt (Grevers, fiance) and my parents, I was convinced in my heart of hearts I wasn't ready to retire. I knew I hadn't maxed out in the pool and I would always look back and say 'what if?' At the time two years seemed like a big chunk of life to devote to swimming. Matt reminded me how many people would love to be at this level, in my physical condition, with an actual shot at making an upcoming Olympic team. To quit because of two hard years was insanity,” she says.
Both Chandler and Burckle have adapted to the less structured college life. “We are blessed with a giant group of extremely gifted postgrads here in Tucson, but we are all very independent,” says Chandler. “My first season fresh off the UA team was really challenging. I no longer had the accountability that comes with being on a collegiate team. I could sleep in and no one would make a fuss. I wasn't contributing points at dual meets or NCAAs, so the only person that cared if I went to practice was me. My coach cared too because he knew my personal goals were/are lofty. Swimming is on me now. I do what I need to do to be the best I can be, but training solely for your own goals took some getting used to,” she says.
No one knows solo training like Lezak who has done it since 2006 when long-time coach Dave Salo left for the University of Southern California. Lezak's options were to strike up a new relationship or go it alone. “I learned so much from him and other coaches that I knew what I needed to do. It was just a matter of pushing myself. I don't need someone standing over me to make me go. I figured if I can't motivate myself I shouldn't be doing it,” he says.
So how hard would it be to swim without outside funding? In reality, a tough go. “My parents have supported me my whole life with all of my decisions,” says Sutton “and they would support me financially if I couldn't because they know how passionate I am about my swimming. However, it would be very hard on them if they had to pay for my training.”
Burckle is very forthright. Aside from limited Grand Prix earnings and a declared income “below the poverty line” he admits “I am still swimming entirely due to my parents. Both were college athletes and very supportive when 'the dream' came into play after college. This was monumental because without them I would be most likely finding my niche in the working world.”
Does lack of funding compromise training? “To some degree it does,” says Vanderkaay, fully aware that time devoted to finding funding is a real grind. “When you are taking days off to do business work, it's not like a real day off. I would have to do a lot of other things when I'm not training to make up for that funding and that would ultimately hurt my training,” he says.
Post-Olympic plans vary. It's a no-brainer for Burckle. Regardless of result he is moving on, back to Louisville to take care of personal matters and to investigate graduate school. “It will be very exciting,” he says. “I cannot wait to see what life is like outside the pool.”
Vanderkaay is “still looking at options,” which include a return to Michigan, decompression, continued training and fulfillment of contractual obligations. “From there I'll decide if I want to face the real world, but I don't want to make any decisions until I am done for sure. It depends on how I do. If I don't make London I'll probably just have to go on vacation,” he says.
“I've been getting that question a lot in the last eight years,” says Lezak. “Right now I am focused on the swimming and that's really it. I might want to continue or be completely done. I just haven't figured it out yet. It's not easy doing this at this age. I'm not going to be able to do this forever, but one day I'll be able to look back and say I learned a lot and I've really enjoyed what I was doing.”