Where Are the Swimming Movies?

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Photo by Krists Luhaers on Unsplash

By Claire Alongi, Swimming World College Intern.

Name a movie about football. Okay, now baseball. Basketball? Try boxing. Track. Now swimming. Got anything for that last one? Vulture’s list of the Best Sports Movie of All Time features over a dozen different sports, yet not one is a swimming movie. While the sports movie genre has been a staple of Hollywood for almost as long as the industry has been cranking out media, swimming has yet to make much of an impression. Let’s try to figure out why.

Defining the Sports Movie

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Photo Courtesy: Danny Karnik

Ingredients for a sports movie: take a couple of well-known actors, mix with underdog narrative, include a swelling and inspiring musical score, add at least one scene where it looks like everything will fall apart, then cook and sprinkle the ending where either a) the team comes out victorious against the odds or b) loses but learns that at the end of the day, there’s a lot more to life than winning. Of course there are films that fall outside of this formula, but it is almost comical how many movies do fit the tried and true trope extravaganza that has buoyed the sports movie genre for decades.

Following an underdog or inspirational narrative is a particular through-line in many sports movies. It’s likely because most people like to watch others overcome the odds. It provides a kind of comfort. As romantic comedies are a cheesy reassurance to the presence of true love, so are sports movies a reminder of the power of the literal and metaphorical strength of individuals and teams. But if that’s the case, why there are barely any swimming movies?

Unpacking Pride (Among Others)

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Photo Courtesy: Pixabay.com

It’s not that there are zero movies about swimming, though the pickings are slim. It’s just that most people haven’t heard of the few options that are floating around out there. A prime example is the Pride (2007). The Amazon blurb for Pride describes it as, “[based on the ] the inspiring [true] story of Jim Ellis, a charismatic school teacher who changed lives forever when he founded an African-American swim team in one of Philadelphia’s roughest neighborhoods.” Terrance Howard plays Ellis, while Bernie Mac stars as janitor and co-coach Elston.  

So on paper, it seems like this film should have been a smash. It has the stars, it has the story of triumph against the odds. So what happened? The Rotten Tomatoes critics’ consensus of the films states, “Pride features a typically stellar performance from Terrence Howard, but ultimately falls victim to its over-usage of sports movie cliches.” The critics’ score rests at 45 percent while the audience score is much higher at 72 percent. A great number of the critic reviews on the site do indeed remark upon the cliches in Pride.

But Pride’s fall is likely a little more complex than just it’s reliance on tropes. For one, Pride is not any more predictable than the number of sports movies before it. Perhaps it just came at a time when people were finally getting tired of the same story getting peddled over and over again. Though that seems fairly unlikely, another reason could be that it features almost an entirely black cast and takes a decent stab at the blatant racism festering in 1960s and 70s in Philadelphia. In recent years Hollywood has received more backlash for it’s white-washing and lack of diversity, but there is a still a long way to go when it comes to representation. So even when movies like Pride got made, they might have been more or less swept under the rug. In Pride’s case, it could have been compounded by the fact that swimming is typically a very white sport, though as years pass that is beginning to change as well (click here for USA Swimming’s diversity and inclusion mission statement).

It made about seven million dollars in the United States. It’s not readily available how much the movie was made for, but it’s probably safe to assume it barely broke even. Since Pride, there have been a few swimming documentaries like Touch the Wall and Swim Team. They were received much better critically but have still largely flown under the radar.  

Why Swimming Isn’t Making a Splash

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Photo Courtesy: Thomas Campbell/Texas A&M Athletics

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why swimming hasn’t broken through in the sports movie genre.  One Rotten Tomatoes reviewer remarked that part of the reason Pride didn’t work was that, “Maybe because it focused on swimming and didn’t really capture the drama of the sport. It came off like a TV movie.” Perhaps this reviewer has a point. Unlike a lot of other sports, there’s something about the actual sport of swimming that’s hard to translate to the screen.  

No zoomed in facial close-ups that show the narrowing eyes in the moment of determination. In fact, no facial expressions at all save for the gasp of breath and the finish. Of course swimming is televised, but there’s a difference between televising a sport and framing it for the drama of a movie. Swimming is structured much differently than other sports. It’s closest comparison is track and field, which takes place on land and makes it easier to capture.

Or maybe it’s just that the sport isn’t as popular. Aside from the Olympics, most people who aren’t directly involved in the sport likely don’t follow swimming. And at the end of the day, Hollywood is a machine run by money. It’s safer to bank on something they know will sell as opposed to more of a wildcard. As it stands, Pride is an outlier surrounded by a smattering of documentaries. Given the drought of swimming movies, some writers and directors will need to take a risk to bring a truly successful swimming movie to the silver screen.

If you were to write a blockbuster swimming movie, how would you do it? Leave us your ideas in the comments!

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

21 comments

  1. avatar
    Andy Ross

    Great points, Claire! I definitely think swimming should have more movies in cinema or even documentaries for that matter. The Last Gold was great when it debuted in 2016. There are so many great stories out there and they deserve to be told!

  2. avatar

    Ditto what Andy said ^. We purchased “Touch the Wall” for our Daughter and have watched it a number of times. She recently asked me if there was anymore swimming movies. Thankfully I have to more to check out. I think your point about swimming not being very popular (outside of the olympic years or those involved in the sport) is probably the main reason.

  3. avatar
    Sarah Noll

    I’ve always wanted to see a movie about Phelps. Nobody can say he’s not a great athlete and he’s pretty mainstream, plus everyone loves a comeback story (Rio 2016). Nice article 🙂

  4. avatar
    Sarah Noll

    I’ve always wanted to see a movie about Phelps. Nobody can say he’s not a great athlete and he’s pretty mainstream, plus everyone loves a comeback story (Rio 2016). Nice article 🙂

  5. Conner Andrews

    The only person with a decent stroke I’ve seen on tv/in movies is David Duchovny on x files…. every other persons stroke I’ve seen makes me cringe haha

  6. New York film producer and former coach David Stott made a swim film, Coach of the Year, several years ago. It has very much a Bad News Bears feel to it. Reach him at david@matchproductions.com if interested.

  7. Jason Swaim

    There is an aussie movie about swimming with the blonde dude from House in it. It’s pretty good!

    • Casey Haverstick-Beck

      Jason Swaim it’s called Swimming Upstream about Aussie swimmer Tony Fingleton

  8. Dani Navarrete

    I really hope they do a movie about Michael Phelps someday!!!!!!

  9. Michael Ker

    The Last Gold, incredible movie of the 1976 Olympic US ladies relay trying to beat the East German women that were all doping (as it has been proven).

    • Johnny Karnofsky

      Michael Ker, I swam with the YOUNGEST sister of the Babashoff family. Shirley wrote it, and the only thing that the movie could have been better would have been if Michelle Pfeiffer had done the narration, they were classmates….

  10. avatar
    Proteeti Sinha

    Touch the Wall, featuring Missy Franklin and Kara Lynn Joyce was great. The Last Gold too! But beyond that, there really aren’t any swimming-centric movies. I’d definitely love to see a movie on Phelps or Ledecky! Great article!

  11. avatar

    Then we have such horrible movies that purport to be swimming related, like SwimFan. They must have done 0 research on the sport and the plot was terrible. Swimmers don’t train by themselves after hours with no lifeguard and the protagonists time was 1:20 for whatever event he was swimming. That is a really fast 200 or a really slow 100. And what college swim coach has time to travel across the country to watch a mid season dual meet?