By Sean Tedesco
MINNEAPOLIS, May 19. LAST year, the United States Merchant Marine Academy proudly hosted the Men’s NCAA Division I Championships in short-course meters at the Nassau County Aquatic Center in East Meadow, NY.
The meet was exciting, as seven world records, eight American records, 15 U.S. Open records and eight NCAA records bit the dust. However, many people have trouble making the connection between short-course meters and short-course yards. As a result, it’s difficult for those folks to make comparisons.
I could not wait for this year’s NCAA Championships, because it was two years ago that the men raced in a short-course yardage format. Before the meet, I read an article regarding the possibility of someone breaking 19 seconds in the 50-yard freestyle. I remember hoping that someone would swim an 18-plus, so I could watch it when it was televised. This became a realistic goal, since Fred Bousquet of Auburn University went 21.10 in the 50-meter free a year earlier, a time that converted to 18.9 for short-course yards.
I was following the 2005 NCAA Championship on SwimInfo.com, when I received a call from Susan Petersen Lubow, the Merchant Marine Academy’s Director of Athletics, who was in attendance at the championships. She told me that Bousquet went 18.74 in the 50 free preliminaries. I could sense her enthusiasm as she described how amazing the race and the atmosphere had become.
I knew that the meet was going to be televised on Friday, April 1 on ESPN 2. On that day, USMMA assistant coach Julie Harrington and myself sat in our conference room to watch and tape the championships. I was watching because I believe it is our responsibility as coaches to support our sport when it is on national television. Naturally, I also watched because I wanted to see Bousquet’s 18-plus performance – a feat that swimmers had been striving for even before Tom Jager set the mark of 19.05 in 1990.
The announcers discussed the 50 free early on, and my anticipation for the race was heightened, only to be completely deflated. ESPN only showed the first 15 yards and the last 10 yards of Bousquet’s prelim swim. I was in shock before I remembered that last season the preliminary swims were not recorded. At this point, I was eagerly awaiting the 50 free finals.
Once again, however, my hopes were crushed as I did not have a chance to see one of the fastest men in the world swim. ESPN only showed the last 15 yards of this final. I sat in disbelief. I think David Marsh, Auburn’s head coach, and Bousquet, spoke longer than the race was shown. Marsh and Bousquet did a great job leading the viewers into the race and building up the anticipation to watch the entire 18 seconds of competition. Disappointingly, viewers only saw a small portion of it.
So often the public regards the 50 free as the premier event in the sport, especially at the NCAA Championships. When an athlete becomes a barrier-breaker, it is a special occasion. Speaking from a marketing perspective, this race should have been the anchor and the backbone to this televised event.
Somehow, the swimming community needs to showcase these events to the public. We are coming off the Summer Olympics in Athens, where Team USA produced terrific results. Swimming is on the mind of many people, and this would have been a perfect chance to keep that momentum going for a little while longer.
I still enjoyed watching both the men’s and women’s meets on television, but feel that we, the swimming world, could have shined a little more. In my article, “Why Should We Watch swimming on TV?,” featured in Swimming World in December 2002, I specifically discussed how ESPN postponed the airing of the 2002 U.S. Nationals on television twice. It seems that we have no leverage in what occurs in regard to television. Often when swimming is given the chance to be televised, either the time slot gets moved or it is scheduled during inconvenient hours.
How can we watch our sport when often the event is not aired as scheduled, or when some of the best events are shortened? If each of us takes the responsibility to watch our sport on television and excite the public about premier swimming events and athletes, we would make a difference in raising the popularity, awareness and leverage of this great sport.
It is important that we work to televise the large swimming events, professional or collegiate, and that we promote races where a record is broken or an extraordinary event happens. Who knows? Maybe next year, the premier event will be Ryan Lochte of Florida breaking 1:40 in the 200 IM, or Georgia’s Mary DeScenza breaking the 50-second mark in the 100 butterfly. If so, I sure hope ESPN promotes and televises the entire race.
Sean Tedesco is the head swimming and diving coach of the men’s and women’s programs at the United States Merchant Marine Academy