By Phillip Whitten
DECEMBER 8. THERE will be more than just a gold medal on the line for some American swimmers at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. USA Swimming is offering a juicy incentive to improve the quality of US distance swimming: a bonus of $1 million to an American swimmer who wins gold and breaks the world record in the men’s 1500 meter freestyle or the women’s 800 meter freestyle at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
To sweeten the pie, USA Swimming will offer an additional $500,000 to the coach or coaches of the winning swimmers.
Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming says: "We are offering this bonus, quite simply, to provide a major incentive to our distance swimmers and to regain US dominance in the distance events. In the last twenty years we’ve put all our emphasis on the sprint events, while we’ve basically forgotten about the distance events. We’re hoping that this incentive will not only inspire our best distance swimmers, but also trickle down to the younger kids, and give them a reason to build a strong distance base."
Wielgus said that the bonus would be financed through an insurance policy. The details of the policy have not yet been worked out.
Earning the $1 million bonus won’t be easy. Only once since 1980 has the winner of the men’s 1500 meters set a world record in taking Olympic gold: Australia’s Kieren Perkins in 1992. The last woman to win the 800 meters at the Olympics in world record time was East Germany’s Petra Thumer. And, according to recently published files from the East German secret police, she was on steroids!
Still, the offer has fired the imaginations of US distance swimmers, who are vowing to redouble their efforts as they gear up for the Athens Games.
Chris Thompson, 22, who set an American record in the 1500 meters in Sydney while winning the bronze, commented: "I was planning on swimming through 2004 anyway, but this will sweeten the pot and provide added motivation. I think it will make the greatest difference in the middle of a tough set when there’s a tendency to slack off just a bit. I can just hear (Coach) Jon (Urbanchek) shouting: ‘Hey, Thompson, don’t you want that million dollars?’ Of course, he’ll be motivated, too, by that half-million for the coach.
"I think this will be beneficial for all of US swimming, not just the distance swimmers. It will get the young age groupers excited and, who know, maybe the offer will be extended for 2008 and 2012. Even if it’s not, in the long run, everyone will benefit by building a stronger aerobic base."
Kaitlin Sandeno, 17, perhaps the brightest young female American distance swimmer, who made the finals in three events and won a bronze medalist in the 800 meters in Sydney, said: " Before (she learned about the $1 million bonus), I was thinking I might let the 800 drift away when I got to college, but not anymore. There’s a million dollars there!"
Erik Vendt, 19 and a sophomore at USC, holds the American record in the 1500 meters short course. At the US Olympic Trials in August, he became the first American to crack the 15-minute barrier in the 1500 meters (long course). "I’d be lying if I told you the million dollars wasn’t in the back of my mind," he said. "I’m not really focused on it right now, because the next Olympics are almost four years away, but starting two year for now, I think it will be a huge motivating factor for me. Of course, having that million dollars out there will make qualifying for the US Olympic team in the 1500 ten times harder. The competition will be fierce. But hopefully it will bring US distance swimming back to the top, where it belongs."
Between the mid 1960s and mid-1980s, US men dominated distance swimming at the Olympics and World Championships. But for the past two decades, US men’s distance swimming, like US distance running, has been in the doldrums. (Unlike running, US women swimmers—led by Janet Evans and Brooke Bennett–have continued to dominate their events.)
For twenty years, US times in the men’s 400 and 1500 meters remained stagnant and even gotten slower, while the US failed to win a single medal in Olympic competition. At Sydney this year, that dismal string was broken when Chris Thompson won bronze in the 1500 and Klete Keller did the same in the 400. Both set American records. Still their times are far from the world marks (Thompson swam 14:56.81; the world record is 14:41.66; Keller swam 3:47.00; the world record is 3:40.59.)