ISL Playoffs Missing Stars and Drama, Marred by Predetermined Outcomes and COVID

Cali Condors star Caeleb Dressel was among those missing from the first weekend of the ISL playoffs -- Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu/ISL

ISL Playoffs Missing Stars and Drama, Marred by Predetermined Outcomes and COVID

The playoffs in a sports league indicates a step up in competition and intensity. Everything is on the line. It’s win-or-go-home, all-hands-on-deck, and star performers are judged by their performances in these critical moments. But for the International Swimming League (ISL), the start to this year’s playoffs have been a total dud. The world’s best swimmer is absent, multiple teams are dealing with positive COVID-19 cases, and with two weeks and four matches left prior to the ISL final, it’s already a fait accompli which teams will be moving on.

Sure, each ISL match is exciting, and the fast-paced format is a hit with fans and swimmers and coaches. The athletes are swimming hard, and in a vacuum, it’s great swimming action. But the playoffs are basically a repeat of the regular season, the same issues hovering over the league. Crisis was averted since no teams boycotted the playoffs because of missed payments, but that’s about the only success so far.

The first issue is: where is everybody? This question comes with a caveat, as COVID-19 cases are rising across much of Europe, including in the Netherlands, and multiple teams lost swimmers to positive COVID-19 tests last week. Those absences are unavoidable in the current pandemic-stricken world.

But Caeleb Dressel, the MVP of the 2020 ISL final and the five-time gold medalist from the Tokyo Olympics, is absent for the Cali Condors after missing the last match and a half of the regular season. Also absent was Dressel’s younger sister Sherridon as well as 200 butterfly Olympic bronze medalist Hali Flickinger, who has not competed in the ISL yet this year.

Gold Medal SZABO Szebasztian HUN Hungary 50m Freestyle Men Podium Kazan - Russia 04/11/2021 Aquatics Palace LEN European Short Course Swimming Championships Photo Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

After matching the 50 fly world record at last week’s European Short Course Championships, Team Iron’s Szebastian Szabo missed the start of the ISL playoffs — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Energy Standard is missing French sprinter Florent Manaudou and, at least thus far, Russian breaststroker Evgeniia Chikunova, who won the 200 breast four times during the regular season and again at last week’s European Short Course Championships. In fact Chikunova, Italy’s Marco Orsi and Hungary’s Szebastian Szabo are all missing after earning gold medals at the continental championships last week.

Maybe that golden trio, including a world-record-matcher in Szabo, simply wanted a week’s break after one championship meet before heading to another. No fault in that. But that’s a sign that the ISL is unable to stand out amidst an unusually packed international racing calendar, with the European Short Course Championships and Short Course World Championships bookending the ISL postseason. Still, if this is the playoffs, the ISL should make it worth these athletes’ time to attend.

Adam Peaty is not in Eindhoven for the London Roar, but he was always doubtful to compete this season following his participation on the show Strictly Come Dancing. DC Trident is also missing two of its top performers, backstroker Jacob Pebley and sprinter Zach Apple, and American 400 IM Olympic medalists Chase Kalisz (Aqua Centurions) and Jay Litherland (DC Trident) were both absent this past weekend.

This rundown is by no means comprehensive. Others were absent, whether because of conflicts or, potentially, COVID. Again, viral infections happen, and teams and the ISL must live with that. But scheduling conflicts for the playoffs? That should not sit well.

And the action in the pool has lacked a little luster as well. Australia’s Kyle Chalmers took down a 13-year-old world record in the 100 freestyle his last time out, but when he raced the event Friday, he swam more than a second slower. Emma McKeon, the seven-time medalist from the Tokyo Games and Chalmers’ teammate on the Australian and London Roar teams, is also swimming slower than her stellar form on the FINA World Cup circuit. It is as though these teams have very little on the line.

Well, they do. The Cali Condors, winners of the first playoff match even in Dressel’s absence, are a lock to advance to the ISL final, and so are Energy Standard and London Roar. The last spot was projected to come down to the LA Current and Toronto Titans, and the momentum is definitely tipping toward LA. Led by backstroker Ryan Murphy (returning to the league for the playoffs), LA defeated London and Toronto in a match over the weekend. At the same time, the Titans have lost Blake Pieroni to injury and even left a lane open on one occasion during the match with no swimmer to take the spot.

A final consisting of Cali, Energy, London and LA would mark the third straight season with those teams competing for a title — and it is hard to see that title not coming down to Cali and Energy, just like the previous two seasons. But after the semifinal round was just one match per team in 2019 and 2020, it is now a round-robin over three weeks. So each team will race twice more even though we are already pretty confident in which ones will be advancing.

HAUGHEY Siobhan ENS Energy Standard (ENS) ISL International Swimming League 2021 Match 8 day 2 Piscina Felice Scandone Napoli, Naples Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Siobhan Haughey won three individual events for Energy Standard in the team’s first playoff match — Photo Courtesy: Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Apologies to the Aqua Centurions, DC Trident and Team Iron, but these teams just showed up in Eindhoven to participate. The potential of advancement was always nonexistent.

Maybe this will end with a raucous ISL final, with Dressel, Chalmers, McKeon, Sarah Sjostrom, Siobhan Haughey, Beata Nelson, Ilya Shymanovich and others all challenging records, and perhaps the team title comes down to the wire. That is the ending this ISL season needs and that the swimming community craves from its first-ever professional league.

But the playoffs so far are a dud, defined by who is missing rather than the action in the pool.

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6 months ago

Szabo is with Aqua Centurions this season, not with Iron.