Life as a Professional Swimmer

Guest column by Russell Payne

SANTA CLARA, California, January 24. BEING a professional swimmer is tough. You will hear many of us say things like: "If I were as good at baseball as I am at swimming, I'd be a millionaire!"

And for many, this is all too true. I know more than a few professional swimmers who need to work full-time or multiple jobs in order to support their training. Before you stop reading, don't be scared; this is not going to be a post full of complaining. Instead, I want to try and get into a few of the reasons why American post-grad and professional swimmers are having such a hard time.

The USOC (U.S. Olympic Committee) and USA Swimming are not funded by the U.S. government
Swimming has historically been an amateur-only sport, and it is only relatively recently that it has come to be dominated by a top tier of professional athletes. Because of this history, many swimmers are still reliant upon support from the governing bodies.

Since these are both non-profit organizations and neither is funded by the U.S. government, there is little money to go around, and much less for the athletes once administrative and sports development costs are taken out of the coffers. In many other countries this is not the case. An athlete on a foreign National Team can be fully funded, and focus completely on training and competition.

There isn't a whole lot of swimming equipment to sell
While an elite swimmer may have a huge sack full of training gear to use at every practice, all that is really needed to train is a swim suit, cap and goggles. (As a man, one can also forgo the cap with a shaved head.)

For this reason, companies in the business of selling to swimmers like Speedo, TYR, Arena, and Finis will not be able to justify the expense of pursuing and sponsoring many athletes. This pressure is felt by top athletes who have fewer choices among potential sponsors. But, the dearth of sponsorship has an even greater effect on the swimmer that is trying to break into the top echelon and is looking for any help they can get.

The era of the technical suits (let's ignore, for now, the arguments about what it did to the integrity and balance in the sport) was an era of abundance for many of the suit manufacturers. Until the situation spun out of control, companies were selling expensive suits like hotcakes and could afford to sign many athletes to their payrolls. It was an era where anyone with a shot at the Olympics could get some sort of deal. Once FINA banned the tech suits, many of these deals were dropped and precious few new ones have been signed. These days, even a world record often isn't enough to woo the sponsors.

In order to make sponsorship a good deal for the swimming companies, we need to find a way to make a cheaply-playable sport pay big money. Basketball has gotten past this by marketing a lifestyle, in which everyone wants Air Jordans. Soccer has created a cult of personality, with companies making millions on the sale of just one or two players' jerseys. This, however, brings me to my next point:

Swimming is not yet a spectator sport
The basketball and soccer examples I mentioned above will have more trouble catching on in swimming because in those sports people know the personalities and players involved. On a basic level, it is because one can see the faces of the contestants as they compete, and can follow the individual battles and successes during a two-hour or 90-minute game. In swimming, all athletes look the same in their black, knee length suits, goggles and cap; and races last mere minutes and seconds.

Add the fact that those who attend the events live often have to deal with bleachers rather than individual seats, and an uncomfortably warm environment whether the event is indoor or outdoor. If you choose to pass on the live attendance, you will notice that television coverage is rarely live, often cuts events down the middle (so you only have to watch the start and finish of a 400 free), and is broadcast on a channel very few actually get (NBC Universal is the new ESPN Ocho). The primary spot for coverage is now online with ventures like SwimmingWorld.TV.

I am not saying we haven't made great strides: Michael Phelps has been great for the sport, bringing in sponsors and fans that would not have considered swimming anything special before him. And, there are many sponsors bringing money into the commercial side of the sport.

Think about Nike re-entering the arena with their new suit line (with colors!) and long-time gear manufacturer Finis announcing its sponsorship of Jason Lezak and launching their own racing suits.

If USA Swimming, and its sponsors, can capitalize on the growing fitness market that is now buoying triathlons and driving more interest in Masters swimming, we can find new ways to fund the dreams of the next round of U.S. Olympic swimmers.

USA Swimming has taken steps to provide more support to the top tier of athletes, but the majority of us are still being left out in the cold as we try to crack the ranks. For the time being, it is still going to be a very individual effort on the parts of the athletes trying to make it work.

Right now, the best way to support oneself and still get the needed training is to find part-time work to pay the bills and supplement it with small deals or agreements that may only consist of products or services. While the strictly swimming-focused brands are remaining hesitant in branching beyond their few marquee athletes, I believe many people may find more luck approaching brands that cater to an active lifestyle. These can be nutrition, recovery, fitness or apparel brands that can be made to see the opportunities of breaking into a yet-to-be fully commercialized sport such as swimming.

Event organizers can look to successful meets across the world to draw sponsors and spectators. Money meets such as the Charlotte UltraSwim, Chesapeake Pro-Am, and the smaller meets being held across Europe leverage corporate sponsorship to offer cash prizes that attract big athletes and pack venues. This is the sort of money that everyone has an equal chance to, and can mean the difference between continuing to train or not for many athletes on the edge.

Russell Payne is a professional swimmer who competed for the University of Minnesota prior to competing for SwimMAC in Carolina. He has since moved to train at the Santa Clara Swim Club, and has targeted the 2012 London Olympics as his goal. He operates an eponymous blog entitled

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