Gender Equality in International Swimming League is Key to Long-Term Success

Natalie Coughlin will be swimming for the DC Trident this fall, earning equal pay to her male teammates; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Since the International Swimming League (ISL) announced its inception, there have been questions about feasibility, money, logistics and long-term success.

These are natural questions for a new league on the upstart, and answers are starting to form.

One thing that has never been in question is how the league and its teams are handling co-ed teams and salaries. The ISL has been a proponent of gender equality since the idea launched, and with two of the four U.S. teams having female general managers, the league is backing up its equality talk.

Even though there are so many elite female swimmers like Sarah Sjostrom and Katinka Hosszu competing around the world, it shouldn’t be understated how big of a deal this is in the world of sports right now.

Swimming fans understand that in big swim meets, there are huge draws in both men’s and women’s races. For every race watching Caeleb Dressel or Adam Peaty, fans would also get to see Simone Manuel or Katie Ledecky.

Swimming legend Natalie Coughlin announced her return to swimming on Tuesday, signing with the ISL’s DC Trident, with equality being a big reason for her return.

“I think it is great that gender equality is one of the foundations of this league. One of the great things about Olympic swimming is that we are one of the few sports that values the female and male performances equally,” Coughlin said. “I think it is admirable that the ISL has put that in their mission statement that they are going to promote gender equality in sport. I think that is a very important topic.”

It has swimmers, both male and female, excited about the equality their sport brings. Each team in the ISL has some of the best swimmers in the world, both male and female.


Olivia Smoliga will be swimming with the Cali Condors this fall; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“I am really excited to be a part of it,” said Olivia Smoliga, who signed with the Cali Condors. “With swimming, it being equal throughout the years in terms of wanting to watch both sides equally. I think men and women bring equal excitement to fans with swimming. I am just happy to be a part of it.”

The Fight For Gender Equity

While fans have understood this in swimming for years, it is absolutely pivotal that professional leagues and officials within those leagues know and embrace that as well.

While sports like soccer and hockey are struggling with gender equity, the International Swimming League began striving for equality, something that the sport of tennis has reached. But even tennis had to fight for many years to achieve that. Billie Jean King fought for years to achieve gender equity in tennis. In 2019, the prize money for most tennis tournament around the world are equal for men and women. Just like swimming, gender equity makes sense considering fans can watch Roger Federer in one match, then Serena Williams in the next.

But starting out with that equality, rather than getting there after a long battle, has the ISL, and the sport of swimming, ahead.


Lilly King will be swimming for the Cali Condors; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“As far as it being equal for both men and women, I think that is a good step, not just for swimming, but for all sports,” said Lilly King, who signed with the Cali Condors. “It is super exciting.”

Kaitlin Sandeno is the general manager of the DC Trident, and she took equality a step further with her team, dividing up the allotted salary equally among every swimmer on her team.

Why go that extra step?

“Because it is the right thing to do,” she told Swimming World.

In addition to that focus, Sandeno wanted to get strong female leaders and role models on her team. She was able to sign Coughlin in her comeback to the sport — an extra step in showing what women bring to the league and the sport.


Kaitlin Sandeno; Photo Courtesy: Dan D’Addona

“When I was looking at building my women’s team, we are going for speed and versatility, but I was thinking about powerful women to lead this team,” Sandeno said. “When I think of someone with leadership and who has done so much for our sport, I decided to ask Natalie. I wanted her leadership. Everything she has done is so incredible. To have her and Katie Ledecky on our team, I am just blown away.”

Now, the male swimmers have a great thing going with a professional league as well. But the way the International Swimming League is embracing gender equality could be the key to it’s long-term success.

— All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.


Katie Ledecky; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick