Cap & Goggles

Only a Swimmer Knows the Feeling

The Freshman

Ryan Murphy’s rookie year at Cal… 

The kid just keeps following the script. He’s been the best since he was a boy, and every year, at every level, he keeps fulfilling his seemingly unlimited promise. And so it went his first year at Cal. A year ago, I wrote a piece called The Recruit after Murphy signed at Berkeley. It seemed fitting to follow up a year later with this one.

The box score on his just-about-perfect NCAA Championships: Five titles, three relays / two individual. NCAA record in the 200 back. Just .03 off the NCAA record in the 100 back. Stunning splits on every relay, with wins in the 200 free, the 200 medley, the 400 medley, and a second in the 400 free. And perhaps most impressive of all, in terms of personal leaps forward, a 1:42.24 in the 200 IM, which secured a spot in the big final and got Cal rolling right out of the gate.

Between his relay load and his individual races, there wasn’t a swimmer at the meet that accounted for more points than Murphy. He’s the most valuable swimmer on the best team in the nation. With that in mind, it’s flat out disrespectful that Kevin Cordes, a swimmer who scored zero points on relays, was named Swimmer of the Meet over Murphy, or Florida’s Marcin Cieslak, for that matter. (The Gators could easily make a case for Cieslak, who claimed two gold and a silver in his individual races, and also contributed big time on the relays, with prelims swims as well. Yet Florida, did not win any of those relays…)

Cordes was predictably impressive in his pair of record-setting breaststroke performances and all, but you’re not the swimmer of any meet if you DQ your team’s medley relay on the all-important first day. As everyone knows, relays win the meet at NCAAs; therefore Cordes is undeserving of this year’s honor.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Event That Was Left Behind

What happened to the 500 free? As times in every event drop with staggering speed and depth, the 500 remains stuck in another era… 

It was the usual stunning start of the NCAA championships, with times that were hard to fathom. If you’re past a certain age, say 28, you’re used to this by now. The further you get from your own glory days, the harder it is to grasp how fast kids are swimming these days. I’m sure that’s always been the case, and may it always be so. Generations fly by, and times that were once NCAA records, the outer envelope of aquatic performance, now those same times don’t even score a single point at NCAAs.

This is presently true in a race like the 200 IM. In 1993, Florida’s Greg Burgess set the NCAA record in a time of 1:43.87. That time was jaw-dropping back then. I remember exactly where I was when I heard about it. Today, Burgess’s time would not score a single point at the meet. 1:43.66 (by Stanford’s Tom Kremer) was the 16th and last spot to earn a second swim at the big show in 2014. The same is true in other events – after all, two decades is a long damn time. If college kids aren’t swimming much much faster 7,300 days later, then something must be wrong.

So then, what’s wrong with the 500 free? Every event in every stroke has taken off with the times, but take a look at the 500 free. It’s barely moved an inch in 20 years. On day one of the NCAA championships, USC’s Cristian Quintero took the title with a wire-to-wire 4:10.02. A second and a half back was Florida’s Dan Wallace, in 4:11.62. Turn back the clock to 1994, when Arizona’s Chad Carvin cruised to an NCAA record with a 4:11.59, a time that puts him in the hunt pretty much every year these days. A year later, in 1995, Carvin was left in the wake, as Michigan’s Tom Dolan dropped a 4:08.75. It was the first of several record shattering swims for Dolan at the ’95 NCAAs; I’m not alone in my opinion that it’s the greatest short course meet that any swimmer has ever had.

Read the rest of this entry »

Why She Went to College

Missy Franklin and the Meaning of NCAAs… 

She couldn’t have realized it at the time. She was rather immersed in the task at hand. Two and a half seconds back, her team a distant third, only her anchor leg to go… It was Friday night, day two of the Women’s NCAA Championships, and Missy Franklin had a hell of a lot of ground to make up in the 800 freestyle relay. The race was down to the three best teams at the meet – Georgia, Stanford, and Cal. Already in the water for Stanford was freshman Lia Neal, Missy’s fellow high school Olympic teammate back in London. In the water for the Bulldogs, sophomore stud Brittany MacLean, the girl who beat Missy head to head a night earlier in the 500 free.

She couldn’t have realized it then, but this was a moment, perhaps the moment, that she will always return to when folks ask her why she went to college. This is what college swimming is all about, this is why Missy Franklin passed up millions for a few years of this priceless community of competition.

What happened next was what you’d expect from the current face of American swimming. She dove in and started reeling them in. 50 yards, just a second and a half back; 100 yards, less than a second; 150 yards five one-hundredths back; and then Georgia’s MacLean dug in. She wasn’t letting Franklin by that easy. Stroke for stroke over the final lap, until Missy managed to inch by, touching the wall first for her Cal Bears by .15. Her split: an astonishing 1:40.08.

Another golden feather in the cap for the golden girl… Did you expect anything less?

Read the rest of this entry »

Aussies Adrift

Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett both in rehab… 

They’re the two greatest freestylers of their generation, possibly the two greatest in history. They own sixteen Olympic medals between them, eight of them gold. They did it all as athletes, and they always came across as two of the nicest, smartest guys in the sport.

Now, in retirement, it appears the wheels have come off.

Earlier this month, Ian Thorpe was found drunk and disoriented on the streets of Sydney early one Monday morning. He was admitted to rehab soon after. While his managers have denied that Thorpe is suffering from alcoholism and depression, he has admitted to both demons in the past.

Earlier this week, Grant Hackett was also spotted in the wee hours one morning without his wits about him. After losing his four-year-old son Jagger in the Crown Casino hotel in Melbourne, Hackett was seen wandering the hotel lobby almost naked, shoeless, wearing only a singlet. Fortunately, his boy was subsequently found on the 20th floor of the hotel, 14 levels above the apartment where Hackett and his children were staying. Days later, Hackett was bound for Los Angeles, where he too checked into rehab. His managers also played down a problem, but reports are that a dependence to the sleeping pill Stilnox (aka Ambien) is to blame.

What’s going on with these guys? When did their glory-filled lives begin to crack? Why can’t these icons keep it together?

Read the rest of this entry »

Something in the Water

As many winter sports flounder, NGBs look to American swimming for answers… 

Don’t let the medal count fool you. At the Winter Games in Sochi, Team USA finished second in the medal standings, five back from beleaguered host Russia. They won 28 total medals, nine of them gold. It took 255 opportunities to win those 28 medals – a rather unimpressive batting average of .109.

Of those 28 medals, a dozen came in either freestyle skiing or snowboarding, and five of their nine gold came in brand new Olympic events introduced in 2014. Translation: NBC must be immensely grateful for the X-Games… Anyway you cut it, Team USA is guilty of medal-padding, by adding American-made pseudo-events like the “slopestyles” on skis and snowboards. It’s hard not to be cynical when you look at some of these less-than-universal sports, and then have to listen to the manufactured drama over national medal counts.

In the traditional Winter Olympics sports, the Americans were, to put it mildly, underwhelming. Speedskating was a well-publicized disaster, as US skaters failed to win a single medal on ice in 32 opportunities, and no, it wasn’t Under Armour’s fault. Ice Dancing gold aside, they weren’t particularly impressive in figure skating either, winning just two medals in 13 opportunities.

But before the bashing continues, this column isn’t about the failures of American Winter Olympians. It’s about the outsized success of American athletes in melted ice. In the pool. See, this is about the time when leaders of National Governing Bodies in many winter sports start scratching their heads and wondering what went wrong. Then, they look to a group that continues to do it right. They ring up the folks at USA Swimming and they all ask a simple riddle: How the hell do you guys manage to be so good, Games after Games?

Read the rest of this entry »

The Demons of Diana Nyad

In a New Yorker profile, the marathon swimming queen reveals a dark and troubled past… including allegations of sexual abuse by Hall of Fame coach Jack Nelson when she was a teen…

You could see it coming. We’ve heard this story before, we know the set up. “I had him on a pedestal – he was it,” she says. “I was just dying for some leadership and I selected him.”

I gulped, knowing what was coming next. And sure enough… Another tale that sounded darkly familiar. Young teenage girl, coach in his mid-30s. Girl is ambitious, trying to swim away from a bad home life, savors the guidance, the encouragement. Might even be in love with this older man who makes her feel so strong. He makes her feel like she can achieve anything. If only she does what he says. And then it happens. One afternoon when she’s 14, he forces himself on her. He continues molesting her throughout high school, in hotel rooms away at meets, in his office off the deck, in his car.

No, we’re not talking about Rick Curl. Diana Nyad is talking about her old coach, Jack Nelson. The same Jack Nelson who was the head coach of the U.S. Olympic women’s team in 1976. The same guy who was an Olympian himself, in the 200 fly, back in 1956. The same Jack Nelson that I remember well, from his days leading the Ft. Lauderdale Swim Club. He was an irrepressible spark plug of a man, a short stocky presence of infectious cheer. In 1993, the city of Ft. Lauderdale named him its man of the year.

Read the rest of this entry »