Witnessing the Magic: Watching Elite Swimmers in Person vs. Through a Screen

Photo Courtesy: Linda Griswold

By Molly Griswold, Swimming World College Intern.

Eyes move from lane to lane behind the blocks as muscular arms pull down caps and palms of hands press into goggles. Songs play quietly in the background as names are announced and hands are waved to the crowd.

Apr 16, 2015; Mesa, AZ, USA; Michael Phelps adjusts his cap before swimming in the Men's 100 meter butterfly prelims during the 2015 Arena Pro Swim Series at the Skyline Aquatic Center. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher/Arizona Republic via USA TODAY Sports

Photo Courtesy: Arizona Republic-USA TODAY Sports

As swimmers step onto the blocks, a hush envelops the arena at the start but transcends to a roar as the athletes complete the laps of their event. The announcer gives his play-by-play into the last lap – it is a close race between two swimmers trying to get a hand on the wall first. With each stroke, the spectators’ heart rates increase. Fifteen meters… ten meters… five meters! As fingertips graze the wall, everything stops like a game of freeze. Swimmers are floating mid-pool, officials are leaning over walls, and coaches are jumping in mid-air.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The live-stream is buffering, and in this moment, you remember that you are not actually in the stands after all but instead are watching from your computer screen.

Although live-stream or TV may be the closest you have come to watching elite swimmers compete, if the opportunity ever arises to see them swim in person, take it.   

Where The Magic Happens

With no lagging or delays, watching elite athletes compete is a front row seat to the magic. While media photographers, broadcasters and writers can capture only so much of what these athletes do, cheering from the stands engages all your senses and magnifies the excitement. Although TV captures underwater shots and up-close views, witnessing live the amount of power these athletes generate is truly remarkable. Above all, there is an inexplicable feeling of watching the heat winner’s hand hit the wall and experiencing that moment of silence as heads turn to the scoreboard in unison.


Photo Courtesy: Molly Griswold

When the race is not particularly close between swimmers, a camera lens can capture merely a fraction of the true picture of what is happening. So on camera, when Katie Ledecky is swimming, many of her competitors might remain completely out of view. But in person, you can actually witness her power – especially in long distance races – as she increasingly builds the length of her lead against the field with every subsequent lap.


Photo Courtesy: Molly Griswold

There is also something extremely special about having the opportunity to witness some of the most iconic and important moments in swimming history. For example, just recently at the TYR Pro Series meet in Bloomington, Nathan Adrian submerged himself in competition (quite literally) for the first time since his cancer diagnosis. Since Adrian has been so open in his communication to fans about his progress, they were able to actually cheer for and support him during such a pivotal and symbolic moment in his life.

Behind the Curtain

Attending a large televised meet in person, one realizes the massive coordination efforts required by hundreds of volunteers and media production employees to make it all happen. The swim officials, announcers, timers, camera operators and many others all play important and necessary roles on the broadcasted swim meet stage.


Photo Courtesy: Linda Griswold

Pro athletes and incredibly fast swimmers generate just as much “starstruck” moments when watching live as watching Olympians on TV. Only live, you get the reality of who they are beyond the pool.

The attention of the cameras is solely on the eight lanes of competition and behind the blocks. But watching in person, one remembers there is so much more to a swim meet than the seconds or minutes of racing. It sometimes takes experiencing an elite meet in person to realize the many pieces that go into building that swimmer’s  “magical” or “perfect” performance.


Photo Courtesy: SwimMAC

Feeling those freshly-shaved legs in warm up; squeezing into a tech suit; practicing pace work; waiting for starts; perfecting stroke count; joining team cheers; memorizing lanes; mastering swimmer buns; talking to coaches; embracing teammates; warming down – these actions are all part of the process that we somehow forget to normalize when it comes to the athletes we so much admire.


Photo Courtesy: Linda Griswold

Not only can normalcy be seen on the pool deck, but it can also be felt in the stands surrounded by the family members of these elite swimmers. We are reminded that behind every swimmer is a parent who made the same sacrifices and early morning drives that our swim moms and dads have made for us. With those sacrifices also comes their pride and the inevitable excitement in their voices as their children touch the wall.


Photo Courtesy: Annie Grevers

There is so much more to these swimmers than who they are when they dive in. Behind these athletes aren’t propellers, jetpacks, or superhero capes; instead, it’s never ending training sessions, supportive families and long-standing dreams.


Photo Courtesy: Annie Grevers

As the session ends and these elite swimmers head out the door with wet hair and backpacks on their shoulders, it is important to remember that although they are some of the most decorated and admired swimmers of our time – or even in history – they are ordinary people. They work tirelessly to accomplish extraordinary feats.

Through our own eyes, may we see them as swimmers just like us.

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


  1. avatar
    Swimmer Fan

    You really put me on the pool deck only to be reminded of that buffering phenomenon that seems to always happen at the worst possible time. Great article.

  2. avatar

    Great article!!!