Swimming Finding Its Mojo In Flo-Mo & Co: The Sea-Change In A Swim League

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Sunday Essay – Swimming Finding Its Mojo

Two weeks to the start of a new era. Expects bumps, turbulence, settling in, fun, thrills, spills and something new. Don’t expect an overnight leap for swimming in the pecking order of sports, professional or otherwise, at the heart of a trillion-dollar-a-year sports industry.

For swimmers and swimming this first season of the International Swimming League progress can already be measured before racing begins: swimmers, not just Olympic champions but swimmers deep down the ranks of the best in the world, will have access to a regular season of wage-earning racing.

The format matters: it’s about team, the emphasis not on the individual and not on a winner-takes-all culture of one or two big peak moments a year, the Olympic final the only moment that draws the wider audience in to a sport that has been sliding down the ‘who cares’ ranks more than it has cared to admit in between the only event that has ever mattered to the bigger crowd: the Olympic Games.

Olympic culture comes with a demand to be at the peak of peaks once every four years; to have the world record in your sights and know that the world expects that because that is how swimming has long sold itself; and a format that means the very best in the world often go unseen, unheard of beyond their backyard pool.

Two swimmers per nation has, for many generations, meant that all but the top two in any country got a shot at the big stage, a shot at any real recognition for their skills and speed at all in many cases.

World rankings history confirms that the world top 10, top 20, in any passing season has long been flooded with Americans, Australians and others who were 3rd, 6th, 7th, 9th, etc., in the world. However, they never got to race in global waters. Calls for FINA to recognise that and make the World Championships a place where the best 20 (for example), from wherever they came, had a right to a place at the global showcase, fell on deaf ears.

Why? The reality is that two Americans or 10 Americans in the water makes no difference to the votes at Congress and the top table: the USA still gets the two governance votes in common with all those other well-known swim nations such as Anguilla, Andorra, Burundi, Benin, Congo, Curaçao … run the letters … Kuwait … and on through the alphabet to Tonga, Togo, Togo, Vanuatu, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Uruguay, Yemen and Zambia.

There are 209 FINA member nations. Outside the top 40, 50 at a stretch, you’re looking at teams with more officials than world-class swimmers, and often more officials than athletes full-stop, period.

So, for the votes, no need to consider the third best swimmer in the world if he or she happens to come from a powerhouse of swimming. “World” does not mean world-class in FINA world: it means “universal”, not “excellent”.

Galling, that, for those swimmers who attend college in the USA from home programs and nations such as Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany and beyond and know that much slower college teammates from other countries are off to the Olympics one summer, the Worlds the next. And that in the midst of international careers two or more Olympic cycles deep that bring recognition as “an Olympian” for never getting past a heats swim while their American college teammates, world top 5 and 10 swimmers back home, stay home.

The World Cup is Dead

The World Cup had a chance to be a terrific vehicle for change and promoting the sport in between Games. Ultimately, under the dead hand of FINA control, it failed to fulfil its potential as a showcase and shop window for world-class swimming, complete with a guarantee of a wage and the chance for swimmers to capitalise on their  careers in the pool.

Neither FINA nor domestic federations properly backed the cup, invested in the cup, debated through what the cup should be to provide a different format, a different take on swimming, one that would benefit athletes, in that between-Olympics zone.

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Debbie Meyer – Photo Courtesy: International Swimming Hall of Fame ISHOF)

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Shane Gould – Photo Courtesy: Kevin Berry/Swimming World Archive

A World Cup in name only, the participation event is dead as far as promoting swimming through excellence goes (read more in the October edition of Swimming World Magazine).

At recent rounds of the event, the world record that Shane Gould set for women over 1500m freestyle in 1973 would have been good for fifth place in the men’s race at something called a World Cup. The class of ’64, with Donna de Varona and Don Schollander, the class of ’68, with Debbie Meyer and Mike Wenden, and on through Mark Spitz, past Mary T and Janet E, Tamas Darnyi, Krisztina Egerszegi and down the stream of superstars of their era: all of those greats would have made finals in the FINA 2019 World Cup.

Little wonder that we arrive at a moment in just under two weeks from today when the ISL will stage its first show of eight international, branded, teams stocked and stacked with more of the very best swimmers in the world than the World Cup has managed to attract in more than 20 years under FINA control.

Bottom line: the athletes want it; a very wealthy man called Konstantin Grigorishin harnessed ideas long out there in the swim world but ignored by FINA and added his own twist to that vision, putting his money where his mouth has been. The ISL challenges the notion that swimming will only even be a sport for Olympic heights once every four years; the time was right and ripe.

The Trick Is Team, A Different Mindset, Expectation and … A Pay Packet

The trick is team, with some other essential ingredients in the mix. The ISL has created a new home for world-class swimming by:

  • getting rid of flags, creating new banners under which swimmers from many nations can compete;
  • placing emphasis on teams not individuals;
  • promising a 50:50 share of all revenues with athletes and teams;
  • creating a season that fits training schedules aimed at the big championship moments;
  • pointing out to swimmers that they have rights and should have a say in the way their sport is shaped;

And through legal challenge that has shown FINA it can no longer bully athletes and others into submission.

That new home includes a new direction, new opportunities for swimmers, new stages, showcases and a shop window, complete with the potential for branded merchandise and dedicated shops and a market for … not FINA but SWIMMING. Broadcasters and other media – as well as swimmers and coaches and all concerned, audience, too, can look forward to a show that means a few hours of entertainment, not endless hours of endless racing, all day and all weekend long in formats that make the eyes gaze over just reading the start list.

At last: relief from all that, all the things that the late Nick Thierry, father of world rankings and creator of SwimNews, called “athlete abuse”. Extend that to whole-family and audience abuse, too. The Olympic program is great at the Olympics,. It needed not ruin lives and prospects between Games.

Wealthy private investors have been a part of changes in sport such as that unfolding in the pool in various sports down the decades. Tennis (in which the weakest player on Grand Slam Tour earns more money in an average year than the vast majority of swimmers see from their sport in a lifetime) is a case in point. Swimbledon ahoy.

Keeping The Young In; Bringing Old Stars Back To Shine Once More

L’Equipe pointed to many of these issues in a piece this weekend, James Gibson, head coach to one of the eight ISL pro-teams, Energy (backed for several years as an international club by Grigorishin, head of the Energy Standard utility/power concern), telling the premier French sports paper:

“Olympic sports suffer stiff competition with the emergence of X-Games or e-sports. To survive and continue to attract young people, we had to change things.”

To attract big stars back into the water, too. Gibson’s charge, Florent Manaudou, 2012 Olympic 50m freestyle champion and a multiple World champion since then, retired after silver at Rio 2016. Silver. Who cares? Well, many in swimming do but even Flo-Mo got it: Olympic silver after vast hours and weeks and months and years of dedication to the black line won’t keep you in Ferraris, nor even Renaults, for the rest of your life.

Unless, of course, you are one of those rare cases that leap-frog universality, make it to excellent and become a hero forever-more in nations that look at the tally of Michael Phelps and know they won’t get there in 1,000 years of swimming.

Manaudou tells L’Equipe:

“Our sport needed top be dusted down. It was no longer viable to be a swimmer. The best are surviving with their sponsors but it is not normal to train like crazy for hours and hours and earning 1,500 euros when you are between the 8th and 16th in the world, for example.”

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Ryan Murphy – Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Precisely the point Grigorishin made after watching USA double Olympic backstroke champion Ryan Murphy at a social event of many stars from many sports. He noticed that fans asking for autographs of Pro-Sports athletes simply ignored the swimmer. They just didn’t know who he was.

Grigorishin turned to Murphy and asked “are you stupid?” – before explaining that Murphy could live by a different law and have his skills and speed recognised, celebrated more often in formats that did not demand world records of him for a decent return and turned into income. He told Murphy:

“You should be earning a wage, raising your market value, capitalising on being the very best in the world in a great sport.”

L’Equipe made other points, noting that the ISL will have no heats and other aspects of the traditional championship program. Here is how the French paper put it:

“So ends [with the ISL] the endless and boring series of small morning moments followed in the afternoon by semi-finals or finals for those at the top level”.

Again: boring series of small morning moments. Recognise it? I do. How many four-hour prelims sessions have swimmers and swimming families and coaches sat through down the decades? Far too many. While some say that’s part of what swimming’s about, others point out that even if that is the case, such things, like a set of 10x1000m swims in training, are best held in the privacy of your own company not shared with the world as an example of what swimming is about.

And all of that has gone on alongside an obsession with the clock. How about the … pure racing?

The ISL will use a team points system. In each race, first home (regardless of what the clock reads) gets the big points. It’ll be not far from the format that makes the NCAAs in the USA such a thrilling event. The fact that the rest of the world doesn’t care too much about any of that comes down to amateur rules and the yards pools not conducive to climbing over the ‘who cares’ threshold to a world beyond established audience.

“The vocabulary is important,” Gibson tells L’Equipe. “There’ll be many team matches against teams [knockout style]. The mood is completely different with that emphasis on the individual.”

Adam Peaty has noted that in this first season of the ISL alone, “a swimmer could earn $120 000”. For racing at  four weekends (there rounds and a final as max demand) and helping their team to lift the top prize of almost $500,000, which in turn will be used to develop teams, their brands, their marketing, the networth and market value of swimmers and pay decent wages to swimmers down the ranks of the world’s best 5, 10, 15 and even 20. A structure to sustain an industry, to sustain professionals within that industry at the heart of that annual trillion-dollar marketplace.

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Katie Ledecky – Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Federica Pellegrini of Italy celebrates after winning in the women’s 200m Freestyle Final during the Swimming events at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships, Gwangju, South Korea, 24 July 2019.

Federica Pellegrini. Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

Little wonder we find Manaudou, Peaty, Federica Pellegrini, Katinka Hosszu, Caeleb Dressel, Nathan Adrian, Sarah Sjostrom and one of the all-time greats of swimming history, Katie Ledecky, among those signed up as ambassadors and racers on the first global pro-teams in swim history. Then there’s the likes of Michael Andrew, Tom Shields, Vladimir Morozov and others who have proven themselves as tough-as-it-comes on multiple race day in the short-course pool.

Their presence shows not only their desire to earn a living for themselves but create an environment in which many more of their teammates also start to earn a living from the sport in which they excel.

Of course, all of those swimmers named above are far enough out in the outer-orbit of super-excellence to capitalise from their swimming through old models that are still available to them, still part of the Olympic model.

Schooling In Lessons Old

Rohit Brijnath, at The Straits Times, points to the other way swimmers, only those who achieve what has been the ultimate prize in the pool, Olympic gold, have earned their money (and will continue to do so).

In his piece headed “The Professionals: Eking out a career in sports: Joseph Schooling; A model champion keeps a fine balance”, Brijnath highlights the commitment required by the Olympic 100m butterfly champion and other athletes beyond their day jobs if they want to capitalise on the many hours and weeks and months and years of largely hidden effort in the pool – not to mention the vast commitment of parents, coaches and local programs scarcely mentioned come the gun and gold.

Here’s an extract from Brijnath:

What does it mean to be a professional athlete in Singapore? The Straits Times takes a hard look at the lives of some of the country’s sportsmen and women who earn a living doing what they love in this weekly series that ends today. He needs total focus in training and races but must manage multiple roles out of the water

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Joe Schooling – Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Joseph Schooling is being lightly coated with the paint of stardom. A little bit of foundation, a little spray on his hair. He yawns in his chair and laughs: “You never get used to make-up.” His life is usually a stripped-down existence, just swimming briefs and goggles, a lonely lane and a clock. But this morning is another world and his second life.

For four hours he’s like a human mannequin, changing clothes and holding poses, a man of sweat in a room of designer cool as he models Hugo Boss’ autumn/winter collection. Is this fun? Perhaps. Mostly it’s a champion earning a living.

In a darkened room, music throbs and Tim White, a photographer flown down from Los Angeles, takes fashionable aim.

Click. Click. Click.

It’s the sound of professionalism.

Ten shots, 100, 500. Photographers are as demanding as coaches, just politer. “Lose yourself,” White tells Schooling who, as an athlete, is a creature of control. Still, he tries.

It’s a relentless morning but his easy charm doesn’t extinguish. During one quick break, he posts a shot of himself drinking Milo on Instagram where he has 168,000 followers. Every minute he’s either swimmer, role model, son or star.

He has eight sponsors and if he roughly earns over a million dollars a year then he deserves it because he’s shown us that Singaporeans can be scholars of the pool. He’s entitled to it because he committed himself to a life of unthinkable odds where on a given day, which comes only every four years, he crossed a pool – using a butterfly stroke – faster than anyone on this planet.

When Joseph and his parents, May and Colin, began their quest, it was only for gold, not money. “It (money) was the furthest thing from my mind,” says Colin now. “We never, ever thought of it.” Then he laughs and adds, aware of a swimmer’s limited earning potential: “If I have grandchildren I would tell them to take up golf or tennis.”

Schooling’s challenge is to perfectly compartmentalise his life. Be ready to stride a catwalk, yet find enough hours to sleep. He knows, if he’s not fast enough for long enough no one will pay him enough. And so even on a modelling day he’s disciplined about what he eats – chicken rice, no skin or bones; extra chicken or spaghetti Bolognese; blueberries and coconut water.

The feature is behind subscription at The Straits Times but here’s where to go if you want to read the full, excellent insight into Schooling’s world.

Balance underpins it all, says Schooling, who managed to navigate the U.S. college system and its amateur laws while making sure he had access to the riches Olympic gold can bring. Balance is harder to achieve, he suggests, telling the Straits Times:

“It’s the key in an athlete’s life. Balance is also one of the hardest things to attain.”

That’s what ISL managers and agents and coaches are therefore: their roles includes knowing how to navigate the need to be seen, the need to race for team, the need to fit that into training and preparation for the big championship season and the moment of “expectation” in any Olympic season. None of that is not about to wither on the vine. Says Schooling:

” … those expectations come from what you see on TV. But on TV you only see pro athletes when they’re playing their game, doing what they do best. You don’t see the other side of things, what they are doing 99 per cent of the time. The only time you realise this is when you’re going through it yourself.”

As Brijnath puts it with a nod to the difference in being from Singapore or the United States, say, as a swimmer:

“He’s had to learn to be a master juggler, adroitly managing body, fame, sleep, technique, pressure, pals, cameras, fans, exhaustion, dreams. His life cannot only be water and yet water has to always be first. Greatness asks for a hard price, it’s why very few get there. Schooling exerts a sort of irresistible force, we’re drawn to him because there’s only one of him. Strangers, media, politicians, sponsors, everyone wants a word with him. It’s a lovely affection but it’s also tiring, stealing away his time of which he has only so much.”

Schooling says that “saying ‘no’ is hard. You don’t want to be rude, but you’ve got to do what’s best for you. If they really support you, they will understand.” His manager, Ronda Ng, who says ‘no’ for him.

What If You Got Paid Just Because You’re Among The Fastest Swimmers Ever …

Meanwhile, swimmers will soon be earning money not as side-show, role model and promoter and bringer of feel-good factor after Olympic gold, but as … swimmers.

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Posters for the ISL season ahead Photo Courtesy: ISL

Make no mistake: there will be challenges ahead, lessons for all concerned, the ISL’s organisers and visionaries included. Season 1 has already shown where steep improvements can and should be made even before the switch is flicked on the super-troupers and the stars of the show march out to their blocks to team chants and cheers in the bold new brands and colours of their international, multi-nation teams.

What will count in Indianapolis the week and weekend after next is that the show unfolds without visible hitch (there were hitches behind the scenes at every major meet I’ve ever been to), that the new shop window for swimmers and swimming is an eye-catcher, that team characters and profiles of swimmers, coaches and managers start to emerge.

And, most significantly, that swimmers (and coaches and managers) leave for the next round buoyed by a thought that many generations before them have barely been able to dream about: that was terrific fun, lessons learned on tactics and racing – and I’m actually getting a share of the dividend accruing from my efforts, I’m actually earning a living from the thing I’m world-class at, hard work honouring gift, talent and the support o all those who contribute to the process of unlocking the very best in the very best.

More Reading And Listening On Swimmers Heading For ISL Action:

ISL Managers Set Out Their Stall For Mentors At Dawn Of New Era In Swimming

In the lead-up to the first International Swimming League pro-team season, Swimming World is taking a look at some of the pioneers of a new chapter unfolding in the sport. 

Pioneers Of Pro-Team Swimming