Cap & Goggles

Only a Swimmer Knows the Feeling

Trials of a Supergroup

Bob Bowman’s NBAC crew might be the most talented group of swimmers ever assembled… But is there such a thing as too much talent in one pool? Recent results raise questions… 

It’s all about the long term, the next Games. Let’s not forget that. Bob Bowman’s thoughts and plans remain focused two years down the road. He’s been thinking Rio since the flame went out in London. This summer is the halfway point, nothing to get worked up about, he’ll be the first to say. No argument there. Yet, when we’re talking about highly delicate egos and bodies as finely tuned and fragile as a Triple Crown contender, it can be easy to get wrapped up in the present tense.

This can’t be an easy time to be running NBAC’s supergroup. Because this summer has not exactly gone according to plan. Just ask Yannick Agnel and Allison Schmitt and Tom Luchsinger

Two years ago, Agnel was the most impressive swimmer in London. He won double gold, while his stature was perhaps most enhanced by the memory of Michael Phelps imploring his teammates to “get me a lead” before he anchored the 4 x 200 freestyle relay against the towering Frenchman. Phelps fears no swimmer, yet in London he knew he was no match for Agnel. Soon after those Games, with Phelps in retirement, Yannick rang up Bowman and crossed the pond for Baltimore. Even after Michael’s comeback, he has reportedly embraced Bowman’s program. Though he might be doubting that right about now.

Agnel is in the midst of an underwhelming campaign at the European Championships in Berlin. In the 400 freestyle he failed to final. The French coaches left him off the gold-medal-winning 4×100 free relay, and today he raced to bronze in the 200 free, a whopping three and a half seconds off of his lifetime best. This from the defending Olympic champion in that event.

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The Russians Are Dirty

And they’re not alone… Doping is rife these days. Is swimming becoming “the new track & field”? 

How many positive tests does it take to convince you of a country’s guilt? According to the official stance from FINA, it’s not many. The letter of its law states that it’s four strikes and the country is out. If four athletes are caught cheating, then the whole damn federation faces a two-year ban. Except that’s not really true. See, they have to be FINA-sanctioned tests. If you’re caught with a positive test by your own federation, then that doesn’t count.

Which is how Russian swimmers are still allowed at international competitions, despite overwhelming evidence of doping on a widespread scale. Over the last four years, sixteen Russian swimmers have tested positive. Five tested positive last year at domestic meets in Russia, and are currently serving suspensions. This year, three more are serving drug bans for positive tests – including world record-holder and reigning world champion in the 200 breaststroke, Yuliya Efimova. And last week, the latest positive was revealed: open water stud Vladimir Dyatchin, a multiple world champion and the Open Water Swimmer of the Year back in 2007.

This wave of dirty results has placed Russia “at the brink” of being suspended from international swimming competition. Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko recently told Russian media that “one or two more breaches” and all of Russian Swimming could face an unprecedented suspension. This would be particularly humiliating for them, as they’re set to host next year’s World Championships in Kazan.

But FINA’s Grand Poobah, Cornel Marculescu, isn’t worried. He expressed full confidence in his comrades to host Worlds, saying that “the facilities are amazing and FINA is receiving a great support from the authorities of the Russian Federation.” I’m sure Cornel would also have been impressed by the state-of-the-art facilities in Leipzig and Berlin in the former East Germany a few decades back. But that’s not really the point. The Russians are dirty, and it’s starting to look a lot like back to the future.

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The Big Lie

The agony of Ian Thorpe and what it says about his sport, and his nation… 

We all knew. At least we thought we did. We added up all the usual cues and clues and we assumed as much, despite the years of denials from the man himself.

Even after his handlers insisted he was a fashion-conscious ladies man. Even as he claimed to have that long relationship with Amanda Beard. Even when he denied it in writing in his autobiography, perhaps ironically titled This is Me. It wasn’t. Since he was old enough to have the first hints of his sexuality, Thorpe denied being a gay man to himself and to the world.

This weekend, after all those years of denying it, Ian Thorpe came out at the age of 31. In a sit-down interview with Sir Michael Parkinson, Thorpe called it his “big lie.” Now that he’s spoken the truth, the prevailing response seems to be: Finally. Followed by a shake of the head, as we think: Poor guy, I can’t imagine what you’ve been going through all these years.

Consider the torturous life that Ian Thorpe chose to lead over this last decade and a half in the public eye. He was a world champion at 15, and he was told he was gay soon after. In public, in the press, by everyone who ‘just knew’… Meanwhile, teenaged Thorpe didn’t know what he liked. All he knew was that he liked to swim, and that he was very very good at it. Coming to terms with sexuality – straight or otherwise – is no easy journey for any teen. For a famous boy wonder sporting hero, in an Aussie culture not known for its tolerance, the question of his sexuality must have filled him with a fear that’s hard to fathom.

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Under Water, Going Mad

Sydney Morning Herald calls swimming: “the worst job in the sporting world”… Here’s why… 

I was somewhere around my 400th consecutive lap of the morning, nearing the end of a 12,000 for time, and I was all the way around the bend. As a Brit might say, I was quite mad. Which isn’t to say angry, though I was that too. But mostly, I was insane. Madness had swallowed me up on that long ago Friday morning. There wasn’t a sane, rational thought left in my chlorine-soaked mind. As soon as I touched the wall, I started ranting, throwing my mesh bag, shouting at lane-mates who had surely skipped laps.

Not my finest hour.

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Chances are, if you spent your years between age 10 and 20 as a Swimmer (the “S” must be capitalized), you can relate to these madman emotions. Chances are, you’ve swum out to your tether of sanity. It’s a point of pride. For all of us.

Yet, this is also why the Sydney Morning Herald recently ran a less-than-inspiring column entitled: Swimming: the worst job in the sporting world. Ouch. Really? And this a missive from Down Under, where swimming is damn near a religion? How dare they. Haven’t they heard about USA Swimming’s “Funnest Sport” campaign? As someone who has spent the better part of his career celebrating – ok, selling – the virtues of swimming at all levels, I took immediate offense. Then I clicked on the story.

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The Sharks Circle

Missy Franklin is turning pro in ten months… Top agencies hungry for their piece of the biggest fish in the pool… 

She’s the most marketable Olympian alive. Across every sport, Summer or Winter, Phelps and Lochte included, you won’t find a more appealing athlete for endorsements in the lead up to Rio. Two years out and Missy Franklin is already the confirmed face of the 2016 Olympics.

Much was made about her decision to forgo the pro path after London and attend college at Cal, including by yours truly (Why She Went to College), but let’s be honest – that was always a halfway commitment. Missy, and her parents Dick and D.A., who are highly active behind the scenes, never had any intention of swimming through the full four years of her collegiate eligibility. She longed for the college experience, and she’s getting it, but the time has come to start talking dollars and sense.

This four-time Olympic champion is a sponsor’s dream. She may not have the 8-gold epic-ness of Phelps in her future, and she may not have the twinkling-eyed model smirk of Lochte, but Franklin has something neither of those two man-childs possess. Actually, quite a few somethings. She is that rare transcendent athlete who is also relatable, down-to-earth, and somehow, retains an accomplishment-defying humility. She might be a mutant of physical excellence, like all highest-tier Olympians, but she possesses an unaffected star power that seems rooted in appreciation.

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Michael Andrew Becomes a Man

The greatest age grouper in history ages up to the big leagues… 

For most teenagers, turning fifteen is a bit of a shrug. It’s a birthday before the big one, the one that comes with driving privileges and all that open road freedom of the imagination. But for swimmers, aging up to fifteen is a passage into adulthood. From that point forward, you’re no longer an age grouper, cozily collected into comfortable age brackets at most meets. At every meet from here on out, now you have to race with the big boys, age be damned.

Last Friday, April 18th, Michael Andrew celebrated his 15th birthday. However, thanks to a clause in the swimming rule book that stipulates that your age when a swim meet starts is the age you will be, for record-keeping purposes, throughout the competition, Andrew had one last shot to shatter a few more National Age Group records. He did. Of course, he did; for the last few months it feels like the kid has crushed another NAG record every time he touches water. His last one may have been the most jaw-dropping of all: 46.95 in the 100 fly. Sweet Jesus.

Obviously, Andrew will set many more NAG records in the years ahead, in the 15/16 and 17/18 “age groups”. (Hell, his 46.9 in the 100 fly is already faster than the 15/16 record in that event…) However, those are really age groups on paper, not in practice. In competition, you turn 15 and it means you compete against all ages, or in the case of Junior Nationals, every other fast 18 & under out there.

So, at the dawn of this rather significant swimmer’s birthday for Mr. Andrew, it seemed a fitting time to take a look at the mass destruction he spread across damn near every event. As a 14-year-old, Michael Andrew now holds every National Age Group record, with the exception of the 200 breaststroke and the three distance freestyles. He’s the fastest age grouper of all-time in ten of the fourteen events. Take a look at this mind-boggling roll call:

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