Decade In The Mirror: Sabrina Knoll’s Top 10 Favourites Speak To The Athletes’ Voice

(L-R) Second placed Mack Horton of Australia keeps his distance to winner Yang Sun of China while they pose with their medals for photographers after competing in the men's 400m Freestyle Final during the Swimming events at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships, Gwangju, South Korea, 21 July 2019. Gabriele Detti of Italy finishes third.
Mack Horton, left, keeps his distance to Sun Yang for the photo-op with bronze medallist Gabriele Detti after medals in the 400m free at world titles in Gwangju ... podium protests followed after Sun Yang's latest brush with anti-doping authorities - Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

Sabrina Knoll, a leading German sports writer and Swimming World contributor, hones in on the same theme for her number 1 pick of the year as that chosen by Andy Ross at the helm of his 2019 favourites: the Athlete Voice speaking its  truth to power.

A foreign correspondent, Sabrina focusses not just on the swim but the attitude, the personality, the learning curve of the athlete and what we learn from that ourselves, writes Craig Lord. How did she arrive at her choices?

“These are my impressions as a reporter who only meets the swimmers a couple or a few times a year, that’s as best as I can judge this. I did not look back on my coverage of the past decade – if I had done that then this list might look different and more results based. Instead, I just sat at my desk thinking about what stuck with me. And so you will find Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Sarah Sjöström and Adam Peaty in my favourites, but not necessarily for some record-breaking races, but for moments that lasted. Performances, those mean something, to the swimmers, to the sport, but there’s always a story behind the story, the colour for the history book beyond gold.”

Our Decade in the Mirror series of Top 10s so far:

Sabrina Knoll’s Top 10 Through The Lens Of A Foreign Correspondent

1. Mack Horton and the two words that shook swimming

Outside Australia and the big pond that is the swimming world, Mack Horton won’t make a lot of end-of-the-decade top 10 sports lists. An yet, in no other Olympic sport (barring the huge earthquake that shook Track and Field to its core and spilled to all Olympic sports, thanks to Yuliya Stepanova and her husband Vitaly Stepanov, the whistleblowers who exposed the depths of the Russian doping scandal) have athletes voiced their protest on the biggest of all stages as loudly this past decade as Horton did in swimming. It all started at the Olympics in Rio, when the Australian called Sun Yang a “drug cheat”. Two words, two words that triggered a wave of support, a wave of protest and put on public display the mistrust with which swimmers themselves regard swimming when it comes to the official “swimming is a clean sport” mantra of those governing the sport. It was a defining moment in the sport. Horton once told this reporter, that he was more proud of having started that discussion than of the gold he won subsequently in the 400m freestyle ahead of the defending champion, Sun. The media watching suggested far and wide that it must have seemed like a mockery for Horton to see FINA missing every opportunity it had to stand up for transparency and a clean sport.  FINA gives the impression yet that it couldn’t care less about a few interviews in national media here or there. The organisation has years of experience in ignoring such things away, safe in the knowledge that the show will go on, swimmers will show up and do what is expected of them. Horton found a new way of keeping the fight for clean sport in the headlines. More and more swimmers are now speaking up, which has won plaudits far and wide. They gained heart from Horton, who found the courage to take the fight to where FINA is most vulnerable. He did it again this summer past; by destroying the perfectly painted picture summed up by the World-Championship logo “Dive Into Peace”. There will be none until clean swimmers truly believe that FINA and its member federations have their back. Duncan Scott joined Horton in that effort. It is, ultimately, one of the key ways athletes can express their view that an old culture of governance is unacceptable and passed its sell-by date.

And the confrontation with Scott:

2. Michael Phelps, a GOAT and a confession

So while you might not have read much about Horton in all the general sports reviews, you probably came across this guy: Michael Phelps. He is the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) in terms of success, no discussion, no argument required. It is beyond any shadow of a doubt. What defines him in the long term? Where does legacy rest? There was not much of the “great” about him beyond the water and outside the pool in his record-breaking years. By that, I mean that he never used his stardom to speak up about much at all, and when he did it was to repeat the wisdom and views of his coach Bob Bowman, who forced FINA to set a date for getting rid of shiny suits, when he threatened to pull his superstar out of the game until the day was named. How last decade! Phelps was GOAT in water, far from it on land and London 2012 came to a close with more prizes in the pool from a swimmer whose thoughts looked to be locked in his tears. We now know why. Opening up about his struggle, his depression, his thoughts of suicide was a very brave move for the one to the benefit of the many. And yes, ever since then we have come to know a different Michael Phelps, one who does speak up, one who does use his status for important topics. His decision to open up to the world about the dark places in his journey will wow help others, including many swimmers, to speak about something not many athletes dare to talk about: the hole too many of them fall into after the Olympic high. That is what makes Phelps truly great.

3. Sarah Sjöström and a special world record

Sarah Sjöström has broke several records, has won several titles, but there was this one world record that she wanted “more than anything else”, she once said. Sjöström had been trying to reclaim her first international record over 100m butterfly from Olympic champion Dana Vollmer ever since London 2012. The result of the Swedish ace’s determination: World records at the World Championships of 2015 – in semis and in the final for the crown. At this point it became very clear: another olympic disappointment like she had to endure in 2012 against a backdrop off illness (the Swedish Wunderkind also had the hopes of a whole nation on her shoulders) was surely out of the question in Rio 2016. And so Sjöström went, won the 100 ‘fly to become Sweden’s first woman swimmer to claim Olympic gold. She even took silver in her least favourite 200m free and bronze in the 100m free on top – and she has excelled ever since. As impressive as the performances: the determination in the pool that spilled to new attitude beyond the water. A once shy and somewhat introverted swimmer seems to be enjoying her sport a lot more, has learned to find the fun in it.  She says:

“I’ve come to believe that this is a pretty cool job I have here. It is a really great life, the life of an athlete. Every day I realize more and more what a unique opportunity I have here. When I was younger, I always moaned and felt sorry for myself that I always had to train so much. Everything was a struggle for me. Now I even enjoy training.”

And with that, she found her voice beyond swimming, too. When Sjöström voiced her support for the International Swimming League when commentating for Swedish TV during a competitive break, her national federation received a letter from FINA HQ asking what it intended to do about Sjöström. The federation sent a short note back reminding the regulator that in Sweden “freedom of speech is the right of every citizen”.

4. Laszlo Cseh, Michael Phelps and the picture of the decade

We are back at Rio 2016, the 100 ‘fly final, the last individual race of Michael Phelps. The young Joseph Schooling beats his idol. Silver went to Phelps – and to Chad le Clos – and to Laszlo Cseh. One of the most memorable pictures of the decade for me shows Phelps and Cseh looking at each other across the lanes, holding up three fingers, both men laughing heartily. Phelps and Cseh, two stars, competing in the same events for years, but one star always shone so much brighter than the other. Phelps, the record-of-records Olympic athlete, the swimming hero, the legend. Cseh, Europe’s serial winner, but the eternal runner-up outside of the continent. As Cseh put it with great humour after his third silver at Beijing 2008: “I’m very happy with three silvers behind The Alien”. Cseh’s biggest success (silver 200 fly Beijing 2008) has Phelps in the picture – as well as his biggest disappointment, when the Hungarian concentrated on Phelps in the prelim of the 400 IM. Phelps barely made the cut, leaving Cseh out of the one final, the one time, he really felt he could beat the unbeatable. Cseh struggled with this lost chance for years, even gave up IM in the process. So seeing this moment, the two of them smiling at each other after Phelps’ last solo race, it just seemed like a fitting end to their story.


Three into one silver does go: Michael Phelps beams across the lanes to Laszlo Cseh after both tie for silver with Chad Le Clos in the 100m butterfly won by Joe Schooling at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games – Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

5. Federica Pellegrini and the gold that Katie Ledecky didn’t win

It was the 200 freestyle at the World’s 2017 in Budapest. US-Superstar Katie Ledecky had just written history once again with her win in the 1500 free the day before. It was the first time in the history of World’s that a woman had won twelve gold medals. And only gold. At the previous World’s Ledecky had tackled (and won) all freestyle races from 200 to 1500, something she was expected to repeat in Budapest. Then the queen of freestyle came along and put the one who dared to kick her off her throne back into second place. Federica Pellegrini, the Lioness of Verona, wrote her own history with that Budapest race: 10 days before her 29th birthday, she made her 7th consecutive podium at World’s over 200m free. This  summer in Gwangju, she made it eight, with her fourth gold. La Fede, La Pellegrini said that would be her last World titles race. Tokyo 2020? Spring will tell. The 200 free, my personal favourite of every championship, won’t be the same without Federica Pellegrini, whose success also highlighted just how extraordinary Katie Ledecky is.

6. Yannick Agnel et la revanche de la décennie

Relays are all about myth and honour – USA vs Australia, the big rivalry, smashing guitars: everybody remembers Sydney 2000. And Beijing 2008 – USA vs France, the fierce one, the one where Jason Lezak overtook Alain Bernard, both body suited up, in an unbelievable finish down the last 50 after Bernard had turned with a body length advantage and gold looked almost as safe as could be. And then: la revanche in 2012. This was the moment Yannick Agnel entered the Olympic stage with a following wind and the work of coach Fabrice Pellerin‘s program in him.  Nobody had talked about the French quartet as the likely winner: it was all about mega-team Australia and its potential to rock the USA once more. The next day, Agnel would roar to 200m Olympic gold. The hint of towering condition was to be seen in his last lap in the relay: he jumped in as runner-up to leader Ryan Lochte, more than half a second behind but the young Agnel closed in crazy fast; Lochte gained ground with his underwater off the turn; Agnel chased him down and then, in the closing 20m, swooshed right by him, finishing more than half a second ahead of Lochte. It reminded all who celebrated the same feeling the other way round in 2008 of some words of wisdom from Lochte when he once told SwimVortex: “I start every season from ground zero. Nothing you’ve done before counts. You start again – it’s all to prove.”

7. Adam Peaty, Mel Marshall and the proof of greatness

He is the Olympic champion, the world champion, the dominator on the 50 and 100 breast. (And, since we just spoke of relays, the man who played a huge role in Team GB breaking the 52-year dominance of team USA in the medley relay at the 2019 World Championships). But this entry in my list is not about Olympics, it is not about Worlds. It is about the European Championships in Glasgow 2018. If Adam Peaty and his coach Mell Marshall had worked hard on mind and body before the 2016 Olympics, the hardest test was yet to come on the way to the defence. Would they be able to do it again? In fact, the next season, 2017, came and went with dominant world title-winning races but without a new record. Then in 2018, Peaty  suffered his first defeat in four years, when Cameron van der Burgh pipped him in the 50m at the Commonwealth Games in April. There was gold in the 100m but the time, 58.84 seconds was, relative to his own high speed, far shy of “Project 56”. Then came the explanation, the backlash, the beast in the beauty of breaststroke: a 57.10 World Record in Glasgow for a European title retained. “Now: Tokyo can come,” said Marshall.

8. Konstantin Grigorishin, the ISL and the beginning of the future 

Sarah Sjöström had to laugh really hard when she saw these numbers on the screen, numbers that showed her, that for her success at the 2016 Olympics she might have gotten 6 Million Euros. If swimmers were taken seriously, if they were valued enough to be granted a share of the multi-million dollar show they create called the Olympics (or any other major event for that matter), things might be different. Instead, the lot of swimmers has all too often been meagre or no financial gain, much financial output by parents and local sponsors shut out come the big moment, a culture in which their views are often ignored, their job simply to show up when told and perform. Swimmers were fed up with the way they were being treated by Fina: that much we now know, from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. For the horse to speak, it took Konstantin Grigorishin and the International Swimming League to flick a big switch in swimming. Grigorishin set a plan in motion, one that may well change the way we look at swimming and has already started to change the way the athletes are treated by the regulator. Grigorishin acted as a catalyst for an overdue revolution. By telling them what they are worth, and, of course, by being willing to give the first professional swimming league in history a try (putting his money where his mind and mouth are), Grigorishin brought the stars of the show together, made them think, made them understand that their strength is their excellence and their willingness to stand together. The year ends with a new entity in the sport: an alliance of athlete with a body, a union, a voice for all, ready to enter 2020 as a force governors of swimming will not be able to ignore.

9. Thomas Lurz and the determination of the decade

Never the fastest in the pack, but always smarter than most: no-one took more gold medals out of seas, rivers and lakes than twelve-time world champion Thomas Lurz. He often excelled in the most absurd conditions: currents and extreme temperatures are the natural obstacles of open water swimmers, rotting wooden pallets, cow cadavers and marginally polluted water in the mix. As such, Barcelona’s harbour could not scare Lurz. It was there that he won his hardest race. At the World’s 2013 he took on all distances, took bronze in the 5k, silver in his signature 10k, gold with the relay – and gold in his inaugural 25k beasting in global waters. The latter made him the first swimmer to win Gold in all four events. This agonizing 25k, which he finished with open flesh wounds in salt water, this determination, and this gold summed up the swimmer Thomas Lurz like no other race before. He was also an advocate for safety in the sport and campaigned for better governance and conditions, speaking out both before and after the death of Fran Crippen in the FINA World Cup end-of-season race in 2010 in which risky conditions athletes faced extended beyond cripplingly hot water and air conditions to a rule that held a threat over the head of athletes: finish the race or forfeit all season prize money. Lurz’s recommendations for change in the sport were taken into account and some of his demands with other swimmers met when rule changes followed the tragic events off the UAE coast in October 2010.

10. Florian Wellbrock and the German view on this

For German swim fans looking back on this decade there is not much to celebrate. The usual short-course medals, as well as some success at European level – and the big splash of 2015, when Marco Koch took the world title in 200 breast. But all of this could not hide the fact that the good old days are long gone. Where there had been 11 medals each in Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996, there haven’t been 11 medals at all the following Games put together, London and Rio being the low points with no medals at all for the former swimming nation. The search for a successful concept is still going on, while all too often personal vanity or ancient feuds stand in the way. But while the internal problems live on, there is one distance swimmer, who raises hope of an end to Germany’s Olympic drought in the pool. Florian Wellbrock wants to be the first swimmer to win gold in pool and open water at the same Olympics (Tunisian Oussama Mellouli claimed 1500m gold in 2008 and Marathon gold in 2012). With that ambition, Wellbrock has a strong message for German swimming: why limit yourself when you can reach for the stars. That puts a lot of pressure on his fellow swimmers in the process but Wellbrock has shown that he can handle the squeeze: at World Championships last July, he dominated the 10k in Yeosu this summer, looked like a spent force in the 800 afterwards – then picked himself up and won the 1500 in style.

1 comment

  1. avatar

    No Katinka?