The Effects of Professional Swimming: Are Male Swimmers Staying in the Sport Too Long?

Michael Phelps Ryan Lochte
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By Patrick Murphy, Swimming World Intern

As we approach the World Championships heading into the Olympic year, we get to see a number of veterans compete in what’s believed to be their last go-around. The World Championship roster includes three-time Olympian Ryan Lochte, multiple two-time Olympians, and countless swimmers over the age of 25. This roster doesn’t even include a certain four-time Olympian due to suspension.

Surprisingly, even with all those veterans, this roster is not quite as “old” as some international meet rosters in the recent past. Ever since the Michael Phelps era began in 2000, the average age of the male Olympic team has trended upwards.

olympic-avg-age

***Ages courtesy of USA Swimming***

On a positive note, this shows how far swimming has come. Not too long ago, swimming was a sport consisting mainly of college athletes. Very few managed to swim past the age of 22. Now, swimming is a legitimate “professional sport.” USA Swimming provides a number of athlete services that allow swimmers to compete well into their 20s.

This is great for the sport of swimming. While not on the level of the NBA or NFL, young swimmers can still aspire to be “professional swimmers.” As the “professional” aspect of the sport continues to grow, we see more and more swimmers competing into their 30s. Keep in mind this is not just perennial Olympians like Phelps, Lochte, and Matt Grevers, but other competitors like David Plummer, Nick Thoman, and Mike Alexandrov are successfully competing as professional swimmers.

On one hand, this trend is only going to make careers longer and the sport faster and more competitive. But is there also a negative effect of these veterans continuing to swim so long as professionals?

The Age Gap

Photo Courtesy: Maria Dobysheva

Photo Courtesy: Maria Dobysheva

The age gap for USA Men’s swimming has been a topic of conversation for years now. As mentioned before, there are a number of late 20, early 30-year-olds on the World Championship team. We also have young stars on the World Championship team like Kevin Cordes, Ryan Murphy, Reed Malone, and Jordan Wilimovsky.

Take Ryan Murphy for example. He is the youngest on the World Championship roster, turning 20 just a few weeks ago. Michael Phelps turned 30 last month. As impressive as it is that Murphy is competing at the international level at age 20, remember that Phelps made his first Olympic team at age 15. This difference in age held by the youngest roster member shows how much times have changed.

Of course, Phelps was Phelps, and no one can compare to him, but still in 2000, the average age at the Olympics was 21.1. In 2012, that age was 26 and we can expect this average to only increase next summer.

While in all likelihood, these college kids are going to get their chance to shine, the real issue here is the lack of international experienced held by those in between the youngsters and the veterans. These are the swimmers who have been overshadowed by the Phelps and Lochtes of the sport. These are the swimmers who have not gained Olympic experience.

Outside of Nathan Adrian, Tyler Clary, Conor Dwyer, and Conor Jaeger, no US swimmers in their mid-twenties have made an Olympic team. Yes, athletes like Tom Shields and Michael McBroom are on this year’s Worlds team, but they still lack extensive international experience. When these swimmers are called upon for veteran leadership once the big-time veterans retire, will they have enough experience to provide it?

Hurting the future?

Jul 14, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Santo Condorelli of Canada poses with his silver medal after the men's 100m freestyle swimming final during the 2015 Pan Am Games at Pan Am Aquatics UTS Centre and Field House. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports Images

Almost every elite swimmer’s goal is to make the Olympic team one day. Recently, two potential future US Olympians decided to swim for other countries. Shane Ryan, NCAA All-American in the 100 back and 100 free, now swims for Ireland. In addition, Santo Condorelli recently posted the number one ranked 100 freestyle in the world while swimming for Canada.

I do not know what led these swimmers to swim for other countries, but I am sure a number of factors influenced their decisions. I do not doubt their competitiveness, but I will say that it would have been much tougher to decide against the United States if some of these veterans were not still standing in the way of an Olympic berth.

In addition to elite swimmers deciding to swim for other countries, there is also a chance of swimmers choosing alternate career goals over the Olympic dreams. Take the case of David Nolan. He is one of the most decorated college swimmers of all-time, currently is the only swimmer (for now) to break 1:40 in the 200 IM, and owns arguably the most impressive high school national record in history in that same event.

But, he has never qualified for a major international meet and he is a Stanford graduate. In addition, he swims the same event that Phelps and Lochte have dominated for more than a decade. If Nolan doesn’t make the Olympic team in 2016, will he continue to swim? Only he knows the answer, and I expect that he will. But if he doesn’t, I presume Phelps and Lochte sticking around past their primes influenced the decision.

Is this all bad?

Now, this whole situation could play out perfectly for the US. We will find out next summer. If some of the young guys make the Olympic team and the veterans mentor them on how to lead and perform consistently, this links the old generation to the new one. If not, the US will compete internationally with a very inexperienced team after the 2016 Olympics. That lack of experience may very well hurt US performance in 2017.

Overall, professional swimming is great for the sport. I am not arguing that professional swimming is bad. It is fantastic that people are getting sponsorships and making money doing what they love.

Trust me, I started my first full-time job last Monday, and I would choose to put my body through hell if I could swim for a living instead of sitting at a desk all day. What I am arguing is that if these veterans shut out the young up-and-comers yet again, USA Swimming could be in trouble in 2017. Hopefully, it all works out next summer.

46 comments

  1. Laura Cooper Crouch

    From a swim mom’s point of view (never was a swimmer), boy’s often don’t finish developing physically until they are in their twenties, so a swimmer in his mid to late twenties could be at the peak of his development, whereas boys in their late teens to early twenties may not have reached peak performance. Isn’t that who we would want competing? I admit, I may be oversimplifying from lack of understanding.

    • Susan Williamson

      As a swim mom of boys, that idea of physical development makes sense to me. But what the article is suggesting is that the younger men, those in their early to mid twenties, are being shut out by the ones in their late twenties, thereby preventing them from gaining international experience which could harm the team when the pros finally do retire and they stand at the top of the time lists when they reach their mid to late twenties. Or the up and coming swimmers may choose to swim for another country, leaving Team USA in the lurch after the 2016 Games. I am not saying the POV stated by the author is correct, but it is an interesting idea.

    • James Bice

      It carries a point, and maybe it is really that younger swimmers have yet to mature physically and mentally. The idea of being a grown up when Phelps won his first medals, was being eighteen, living by yourself and paying your own bills. That is far from the standard of the coddled kid of college today.

    • James Bice

      It carries a point, and maybe it is really that younger swimmers have yet to mature physically and mentally. The idea of being a grown up when Phelps won his first medals, was being eighteen, living by yourself and paying your own bills. That is far from the standard of the coddled kid of college today.

    • James Bice

      … OK ok ok ok….. Missy Franklin and Natalie Coughlin… Two winners two generations

    • avatar
      Kate

      Thank you and amen to that. And if someone wants to replace you then they need to win. That is what a professional sport is. It is not little league where everyone needs to get the chance to play. This article smacks of “honey, let Johnny have his turn”.

    • Tyler Yates

      Kind of true – you leave when you WANT to leave. Not when some journalist decides they’re tired of you. Rofl

  2. Damien Eyre

    Swimming is all based on times – swim the time and you qualify for the Olympics pretty simple.

  3. avatar
    BJC

    Interesting article, not many dare to write on the negative impact of having national team veterans pursue progressively longer professional careers. There is certainly validity that swimmers in their 20s on the national team now have less international experience than generations past, however I think this article overvalues the importance of international experience to exceeding at an international competition.
    There may be some merit to the idea that “more international experience = more international success” on an individual basis, but I would say it’s not a significant enough correlation that USA swimming will be in trouble following these olympics. Major international competitions are still swum in 50m pools, and are swum with the same rules as domestic meets here at home.
    The only clear differences between the two competitions is the competitive atmosphere and added pressure on the athlete, but I’d argue that the U.S. Trials, which the athletes on Team USA must win to get on international teams, mimic at least the pressure of major international competitions very well. In my mind, any athlete that can make it through the U.S. Trials is pretty well prepared to take on the world, regardless of their national team experience in the past. The experience can help to a degree I’m sure, but I think it’s a minuscule factor compared to everything else that goes into an athlete’s performance.

    • avatar
      Patrick Murphy

      I agree about overvaluing the international experience. I personally do not know how much experience helps. I agree too that now with WUGS and other international meets (Pan-Ams, Junior Worlds) that have gained more exposure, some of these younger swimmers are gaining that experience, although not at the very top level.

      I was just hoping to show how much older the sport is getting and how much tougher it is to make the big meet for the young guys.

  4. avatar
    Jay

    So, our fastest swimmers should retire so people that are less fast can swim in their place? Just making sure I understand the argument. Seems legit.

    • avatar
      Jane

      That is not at all what the article says. What the author is arguing is that while some talented swimmers are staying in the sport longer due to the availability of resources, there are some interesting effects that come with this prolonged career. The author never states that he thinks the “stars” should retire. He takes an interesting look at a trend that for the most part goes unnoticed: there’s an age gap in those qualifying for international meets. The older stars that are still swimming like Phelps and Lochte came into the sport when there was a lack of depth in the U.S. They came at the right time when this trend in prolonging the professional career of a swimmer really took off. As any swimmer would know, there’s more to the sport about going a best time. There are team dynamics that rely on the experience of veterans. The author simply brings up an interesting point that when the veterans do retire, it will be interesting to see how the crop of young swimmers perform without any senior leadership.

    • avatar
      Patrick Murphy

      I don’t think I ever said that in the article. What I said is that if some of these young guys get discouraged/ lose confidence, that is not good for the future of USA Swimming. From a leadership perspective, guys need to step up and make the team because Lochte/Phelps aren’t going to be there forever. In the grand scheme of things, some guys picking up the slack next summer will be a good start to the post Phelps/Lochte era.

      Trust me, who wants these guys retired? If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. If you can’t beat Phelps and Lochte at Olympic Trials, you don’t deserve to go to the Olympics. That’s how the young guys think and that’s how they should think.

  5. Jocelyne Humbert O

    Shame on this Times are times. If they weren’t still any good, they sure wouldn’t put themselves through the training to be the best they can be.

  6. Sonja Skinner

    This question is too dumb to answer! The above comments are right on!

    • avatar
      Paul Numbers

      This is actually a very astute question. To even think of this topic takes a mind that is looking at both the big picture and the minute details of the swimming world and US swimming in particular.

      I have personally known people and coaches that have decided to swim for other nations due to the ease of qualifying for an Olympic spot over having to compete against the other Americans for a spot on the Olympic team. The reality of the sport (past and present) is that America has the largest depth out of any country when it comes to swimming. If you look at Olympic medal history, there are many years and many events in which the entire medal stand consists of USA swimming (prior to the two swimmer rule change). While many countries are catching up to the US, depending on the country it can be easier to be first or second for another country than to be fourth or fifth for the US. Considering the Olympics is the true goal of any internationally competitive swimmer, it can be a strong incentive to swim else where. The Olympics only comes around every 4 years. While this particular topic is for a smaller subset of swimmers who have the ability to swim for other countries due to ancestry, it is still a great point.

      Looking at the bigger picture of the Author’s question, whether the effects are “negative” (this seems to have a rather harsh connotation that some readers may bristle at as we seem quick to do as a culture these days) there is still an effect of the average age of our top swimmers increasing. As the author mentioned, what would be the difference if our top swimmers had retired at the normal age a decade ago and our current “up and comers” had the opportunity to swim at the Olympics 4 to 8 years ago? Well, they would definitely be more experienced, to what degree is another question which any scientific mind would have trouble quantifying. As in any field, with experience comes competence.

      Now when the boys of the “Lochte and Phelps” era retire, will we have a turn over period in which the US takes a dip in the medal count? Similar to any college team losing its starting line of seniors. Maybe. Would Phelps have turned out the same or had the same path if he would have had to fight for a spot up until his 20’s? What effect does this have the upcoming generation positive or negative?

      We don’t know for sure, but the very fact that we can’t know the effects of this new phenomenon of an older “pro” swimming crew is what makes this a great question.

      The Author is asking beforehand what many will only think to ask and contemplate after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.

  7. avatar

    The situation isn’t just confined to the U.S. Across the globe guys ( and gals — right, Natalie?) are staying in the sport longer and are still competitive. As Satchel Page once opined: “Age is just so question of mind over mattet. If you don’t mind it don’t matter!” Until the vets get too old to cut the mustard they should be encouraged to,keep on truck in”. Lichtevsez he’d thinking about staying in the sport until? Great but just be sure and bring the GOAT along too.

  8. Chantel Jarrett Burton

    I agree what a dumb question . Times are times are times if you have the time you swim .

  9. James Bice

    Are people too old to breathe after thirty? How dumb a question could be asked. Coming after Coughlin just cracked the backstroke at the age of thirty… Is this an msmbc/fox thing we’ll have to hear about for the next month?

  10. Davide Montellanico

    Was Dara Torres in Beijing 2008 still in her 20s?

  11. Lisa Leslie

    They get into too much trouble without it!

  12. Naveh Eldar

    Non-issue. Silly article IMO.

  13. avatar
    Leander

    This is an example of why the two swimmers per event rule is wrong, and it is not limited to the US. After Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett retired, there were no Australian men ready to compete the freestyle events because they had dominated those events for so long. Maybe if a third Australian could have swum those events at international events, someone would have been ready to go when they retired.

    One thing the US might consider doing is going back to its traditional practice of only using those who swam the 100 and 200 at trials on the freestyle relays instead of adding a Lochte or Phelps to the relay. For example, Matt Biondi swimming a leg of the 4 x 100 in 1984 must have helped him perform better in 1988.

    I wouldn’t be upset if David Nolan moved on from swimming after 2016 and did something with the education he received at Stanford. Swimming is a great thing, but being a professional athlete is hardly the most significant of careers. If you can do something more important, and one thinks that a Stanford grad could, then it’s best to get on with that when you are in your early 20s because it takes a long time to become competent in any endeavor. That’s one of the things we should learn from swimming.

  14. Marcia Adams

    I’m a swim mom and Swimming is based on times. What a dumb question!!!

  15. avatar
    Coach Jim

    If anything, I think the numbers highlight the fact that in the past the best athletes didn’t have the opportunity to find out what they could do in their prime. Support for professionals affords this opportunity. As many of the other comments point out, you’re done when your body says you’re done, not when the money runs out.

  16. Darl Bonnema

    Dedication and hard work should be rewarded. If you want to win you have to earn it. Fastest swimmer reeps the benefits regardless of age. Love this sport!?

  17. Cherie M. Reeves Davis

    So they should just stop being good swimmers because of age? Seriously?

    • avatar
      Jeanette

      I think most of you are missing the post of this article. The answer to the author’s question is not “no.” He is not being critical of people continuing to perform at an older age. All he does is talk about the EFFECTS of this trend. He never says that swimmers should stop swimming if they are still performing well. Maybe if you actually read the article past the title, you could see that.

  18. David Estes

    No. Look at other sports. That’s a stupid question. 30 is very young in any other sport with the exception of running backs in the NFL.

    • avatar
      Chris

      Do you have athletes breaking world records at age 15 in other sports? No. Do some research.

  19. Dan Meyer

    If they have the Times, Who cares.

  20. Tim Morrison

    It does really seem like a silly question. C’mon Swimming World! How bout: ‘What are important factors in keeping swimmers in the sport longer?!

  21. Kelly OBrien

    Age is just a number.

  22. Tyler Yates

    Haters gonna hate… If you can get the time, then do it! It’s their life, not yours.

  23. Temu Gunag

    Swimming is all based on times

  24. Jim Gardner

    Too long for what? 🙂

  25. Patrick Murphy

    Hi everyone. I am the author of this article and I just wanted to take some time to explain myself.1. It appears that some commenters did not read the entire article. I probably should have emphasized my opinion that swimming is about times, but I thought that was implied. I was a swimmer for 17 years, so I understand swimming. Of course swimming is about times. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. That’s the way it works. Nothing in the article implied otherwise.2. Also, I never said that I think the Phelps and Lochtes of the world should retire. I actually repeatedly said in the article that professional swimming “is great for the sport.”3. I was simply posing a thought-provoking question (that in no way is dumb or stupid) that has no answer today. Only future years will provide clarity. But it does get people thinking about all the positives and potential negatives of male swimmers staying in the sport so long. Thanks for reading!

  26. Niles Keeran

    Ask Missy Franklin why being an amateur in NCAA, US Swimming, or secondary school. She’s in for the money, not the awards, records, or laurels. Tom Jager started the pro movement to overshadow the very expensive sport of competitive swimming, $20-25,000 per World Records, and now a point ranking for placements in Gran Prix meets to FINA, Pan Ams, World University Games, and so on…

  27. Carrie Ann Jacobs

    YES. (I’m just muscle jealous) Kick ’em OUT!!! Lol!