Swimming on the TV/Movie Screen: A Character Ranking

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Swimming on the TV/Movie Screen: A Character Ranking

It’s unfortunately common knowledge that the portrayal of swimming in film and television is relatively uncommon, being overshadowed by sports such as ping-pong (Balls of Fury, 2007), BASEketball (BASEketball, 1998), and bobsled (Cool Runnings, 1993). As a result, a movie or television show that features characters who swim competitively is usually unrealistic in what it portrays of the sport (see Swimfan, below) to the point where characters routinely break world records unshaved, un-tapered, with times that would make Michael Phelps himself blush.

With all of this being said, however, it does mean that the rarity of a character swimming makes it relatively easy to rank them; there are so few that, when tasked with writing this, I was forced to include Mario (Super Mario Bros., 1993) just to get the list to 10.

10. Mario, Super Mario Bros

Mario gets on this list because while the movie character doesn’t technically swim, he’s competed in the last four Summer Olympics over the course of the Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games series. Is the swimming correct in any way, shape, or form? Not at all. Mario and Waluigi swim with their signature hats on, and Metal Sonic shouldn’t even be anywhere near a swimming pool. Is the technique good? No, half of them are swimming with their heads out of the water and Mario comes off the turn looking like a 9-year-old swimming the 50 free for the first time. Mario is swimming in the Olympics, though, and that gets him onto this list.

9. Kelly Kapowski, Saved by the Bell

Kelly Kapowski. Feel free to leave a comment if she was your first ever crush. With quite possibly the greatest last name ever conceived for a TV character, she’s a cheerleader and the captain of the volleyball, swim, and softball teams, despite volleyball and cheerleading being in the same season. We never see any of her times, but when you’re a four-sport athlete and you’re the captain of the swim team, you figure that she’s definitely athletic enough to be a pretty good swimmer.

8. Emily Fields, Pretty Little Liars

Emily is one of the more prominent swimmers in Hollywood, as her career lasts all seven seasons of the show and remains a prominent part of her character throughout the series. Ms. Fields is pretty clearly fast enough to be on a relay, as the 200 free relay seems to be the only event that her high school team competes in. Sure enough, she’s the anchor, although that’s just one of the many perks of being the main character of the TV show.

We actually don’t see much of Emily’s swimming career after that, because a shoulder injury in Season Four jeopardizes her career and ends up with her meeting with a coach to work on her stroke in an attempt at a comeback. Eventually, she winds up as the swim coach at her alma mater, vying for the position against former teammate Paige McCullers, who as a Stanford graduate and Olympic qualifier (and assumed Stanford swimming alumni) has clearly had a more distinguished swimming career than her rival. Has Paige clearly had a much more successful swimming career than Emily? Yes. However, Emily is the main character, and in the end, that’s what gets her No. 8 on this list.

7. Cody Griffin, The 13th Year

The 13th Year premiered on Disney Channel roughly three months after I was born, so I didn’t get to see it in all of its chlorinated glory until my fifth year. It stars Chez Starbuck as Cody Griffin (and no, you’re not the only one who thinks the first name sounds more like a Disney Channel character), the star swimmer for his middle school swim team, the Mahone Bay Marlins. Cody is apparently a sprinter, and one that performs well under pressure at that. His best event seems to be the 100 free, which is apparently the final race of the meet (as opposed to, you know, a relay) and in these circumstances decides who moves onto the “state finals” for middle school swimming.

While the result of the race itself is kind of meaningless because Cody and his teammate go 1-2 and the opposing school completes the choke-job of the century (Yankees/Warriors/Falcons, you’re off the hook), Cody gets to take No. 6 over teammate and team captain Sean because, well, he’s a mermaid. Sure, being team captain looks nice on a resume, but it doesn’t do much at all in the water. What does do well in the water is having webbed feet and literal flippers for legs. In the end, breaking the state record gets Cody on this list.

6. Josh Willis, Neighbors

Over his three years on the show before being killed off, Josh’s swimming career is a prominent part of his character before a shoulder injury in a rock-climbing accident ends it. He begins his time on the show as an elite level swimmer training for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, so we know that he’s fast. He undergoes several coaching changes over the years; frustrated with his father who had been coaching him, he turns to a training group led by rival coach Don Cutter. He then goes back to his father after Don begins encouraging steroid use, but is dropped by his father shortly before the beginning of the Games due to his poor performance. Is it a coaching issue, or does Josh just lack a work ethic?

In the end, Josh takes fifth. He’s clearly talented, having the speed to qualify for the Commonwealth Games. However, he lacks the work ethic to really go to the next level.

5. Kevin, Power Rangers Samurai

Kevin, who over the course of the two series that the show ran, is never given a last name. He literally gives up his dream of swimming in the Olympics to become a Power Ranger by leaving practice mid-set after his father makes an emergency intervention and presents him with what looks like an official Power Rangers paperweight as his official invitation to become a samurai. For all of the swimming inaccuracies in the show (he resumes his swimming career after the final battle to train for the “Olympic qualifying tournament”), the man has pretty good form.

4. Jake Fischer, The Guardian

Michael Kelso apparently either faked his death or went into Witness Protection between the end of That ‘70s Show and this movie, because he looks strikingly similar to Jake Fischer. In the movie, Jake is a top-ranked high school swimmer, with offers from “every Ivy League School,” so we can assume that he probably has also gotten offered from most of the top men’s programs at the time – Auburn, Arizona, Stanford, and Texas, among others. With this type of speed, we can also reasonably assume that he’s also one of the top recruits in the nation and as a result has also been to his fair share of high-level meets – Nationals, Olympic Trials, etc.

After probably quite a few recruiting visits, phone calls, and some unofficial visits, Jake decides to take his talents to the Coast Guard. No, not the Coast Guard Academy, #16 in the final Division III poll for the 2019-20 season. He joins the Coast Guard. For deciding to use his talents to better our country, Jake takes fourth place.

3. Tony Fingleton, Swimming Upstream

As I later found out while doing research, Tony Fingleton is not only a real person but also the writer of this 2003 film based on his biography. During his days as a swimmer, he competed at a world-class level, winning silver at the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games. He was eventually invited to participate in the 1964 Summer Olympics under the Australian flag but instead decided to attend Harvard and compete on its swim team under scholarship.

Seeing as this movie is based on his life and autobiography, we can expect his character in the film to be an excellent swimmer. It shows him getting second in the Games, pretty much training himself because his relationships with his father and brother are a bit strained, to say the least. In the end, because of his work ethic and his invitation to compete in the Olympic Games, Fingleton takes No. 3.

2. Ben Cronin, Swimfan

Cronin is fast, to say the least. In a meeting with his coach at the beginning of the movie, when told that Stanford scouts will be attending the meet to watch him swim, he tells his coach that he thinks he can get his 100 free under 45 seconds. Considering Stanford is one of the top teams in the nation, with a #11 preseason ranking according to the CSCAA Coaches Poll, and that “under 45 seconds” would have him roughly a second off the NCAA B cut for 2019-20 (43.80), we can also reasonably infer that he’s probably a member of whatever National Team that they have as well. Because of this astounding speed, presumably done unshaved/untapered/without a Fastskin, Mr. Cronin gets #2.

Honorable mention goes to Josh Ferguson, Ben’s teammate, who unfortunately does not get his own ranking because he tragically dies early in the movie. Shortly before his untimely death, Ben is holding a pity party in the locker room after being ejected from the meet and his team after testing positive for steroids when it’s announced that Mr. Ferguson won a freestyle event in 1:33:06. Considering that the swimmers seen in the movie seemed to be at least above average, we can rule out the 50 and 100 free, leaving the 200 free, for which the 2019-20 Division I A cut was 1:32:05. At the 2019-20 Division I National Championships, his time, which we can assume was done unshaved/un-tapered and in a regular suit, would have gotten him 21st in prelims. Imagine what he could have done if he wasn’t murdered. Sigh.

1. Elizabeth Beisel, Survivor

Is this cheating? Probably. But Survivor is a TV show (and a very good one at that), and being a contestant on the show makes her a TV character. It certainly helps that she finished ninth out of 20 contestants.

She gets first because apart from Mario (just kidding), she’s easily the best swimmer on this list, having won a total of nine medals across major competitions, including silver and bronze medals at the 2012 London Olympics. She’s also a three-time Olympian, having also competed at the 2008 and 2016 Summer Games.

Meanwhile, her college career included nine individual SEC championships, an individual NCAA championship in the 200 back in 2012, and a title in the 400 IM in 2013. In addition to the medals, she also won SEC Female Swimmer of the Year in 2012, and claimed 18 All-American honors and first-team Academic All-American honors. It’s pretty safe to say she takes first place by a good margin.

This list wouldn’t be complete, however, without a little imagination, specifically which TV and film characters would be great competitive swimmers.

They Could Have Been

Chris Traeger, Parks and Recreation

Emerging as a breakout star in Season Three of Parks and Recreation, Traeger is well known for his impeccable physique. In “Flu Season,” he worries about a flu outbreak going around the Pawnee Government, going so far as to say, “My body is like a microchip. A grain of sand could destroy it.” We also get several references to how much exercise he gets per day. In “Freddy Spaghetti,” he stops mid-run to talk about his exercise routine: “I have run 10 miles a day, every day, for 18 years.” Considering that many swimmers that do two practices a day routinely reach 10 miles in a day, we can see that he’s in the kind of shape that would translate well to a swimming pool. This is further expanded upon in “Bus Tour.” While on a bike ride, he remarks that he exercises not only for his physical health but for his mental health: “If I keep my body moving, and my mind occupied at all times, I will avoid falling into an endless pit of despair.” The man wants to keep himself in the best shape he can, so swimming would be perfect for him.

John Booker “John B.” Rutledge, Outer Banks

The star of the pandemic hit miniseries “Outer Banks”(remember a few years ago when it was all the rage? Oh, right. It was eight months ago), John B. was born to be a swimmer. After all, he lives right on the water, and if given five dollars each time I mentioned a scene that shows him swimming I could probably pay off my student loans and have a nice bit left over. Just kidding. He’s got the swimmer bod. He’s 6’1, and if he needed to could probably pop off a pretty nice 50 free time. He also shows off his aquatic prowess numerous times. In Episode 1, “Pilot,” he steals a scuba tank to go investigate the ship they’ve found, only to find out that it’s low on oxygen. This makes resurfacing in a safe fashion a bit of a mission, but the mission becomes borderline impossible when a police boat shows up, forcing him to chill just below the surface for a few minutes for fear of being caught. The boat finally leaves, and he’s able to surface just before drowning. Seems to me that this breath-holding ability would work great with underwaters.

(Insert character here) – Any Tom Cruise movie

This last spot was a tight race between Cruise and Bryce Meyer of The Real Bros of Simi Valley; you would think I would go with Wade Sanders, as actor Cody Ko is an alumnus of the Duke Men’s Swimming and Diving team. Meyer (Tanner Petulla) is shown to be a pretty good skateboarder, however, and has that flexibility required of swimmers.

Instead, I went with the characters portrayed by Cruise, who is well known for doing all of his own stunts. Tom Cruise is to swimming long distances through underwater tunnels as Matt Damon is to getting trapped in extremely dangerous places that cause his cohorts to have to literally risk their lives in order to rescue him. In 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, he swims underneath the Louvre Pyramid in order to exterminate an alien race.  Later, in 2017’s The Mummy, he is forced to take a swim through the flooded London Underground to save archeologist Jenny Halsey after she is taken by the resurrected princess Ahmanet. He’s shown to have pretty decent technique; when you take into consideration the fact that he’s dragged down by his clothes and still seems to be going pretty fast, you start to consider that he could be a pretty good breaststroker.

As I discovered over the course of writing this article, swimming could use a fair bit more representation in Hollywood. Sure, there’s been more recently. Sex Education character Jackson Marchetti is apparently a champion swimmer, and in the Community episode “Advanced Criminal Law,” we see that Greendale Community College apparently has a swim team. It’s clear that the potential for swimming to be shown on television is there. The only question is who will be the next to break the surface?

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