Cap & Goggles

Only a Swimmer Knows the Feeling

Michael Turns 30

Michael Phelps always swore he’d never be swimming at age 30… He is. 

A man’s entitled to change his mind. A kid’s expected to change his mind, plenty. As both a young man and a teenage kid, Michael insisted over and over that you would never catch him on the starting blocks when he was 30 years old. At times he said it with a note of disdain, as if yeah right, I’ll be long gone by then, when I’m, like, old. A few years ago, in the wake of London, he said it with a note of relief. He was sick of the sport in 2012, ready to move on with his life, and he did. Or he tried to. But when you’re the best ever at something it’s not so easy to swim away. You realize the view’s a lot better from the top of a mountain.

And so, Michael Phelps did what most expected him to do. He came back. He picked up where he left off – at the top of the world rankings, the straw that stirs the drink of USA Swimming. His arrest and subsequent suspension for drunk driving last fall left some wondering if the comeback trail would dry up, but in the time since the man has professed to do some soul-searching. According to Bob Bowman (aka the Great & Powerful Oz behind the curtain), he’s also been putting in the work. Something that Bowman hasn’t proclaimed since, oh, around 2008.

It’s been a redemptive few months for Team Phelps. His recent results at the Santa Clara Arena Swim Pro Series were encouraging. His deck side demeanor has been downright jovial. His press conferences on point. It’s all about the love of the sport and the peace of mind these days for Michael, and caps off to that. It feels a far cry from the grumbling put out champion who approached London with a heavy load of obligation. Retiring after the bounty of Beijing was never an option, there was too much riches at stake, but it was apparent that Phelps was going through the motions in that long Olympiad between ’08 and ’12.

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The Smell of Smoke

Katinka Hosszu is the best all-around swimmer on earth right now… What everyone is talking about, but no one wants to say… 

There is no proof. There never is, not when it matters, not when it’s needed most. So, this is what happens: the coaches grumble; the experts roll their eyes; the athletes offer lukewarm congrats at the end of each eye-popping race. Everyone talks, but no one speaks up. Because only amateurs fail drug tests, and without that proof positive test it’s all just jealous hearsay.

Except the chatter is often true, and the visual evidence – on the body and the scoreboard – generally doesn’t lie.

Our latest Exhibit A: Hungary’s “Iron Lady” Katinka Hosszu. FINA’s reigning World Swimmer of the Year; three-time world champion; holder of five short course meter world records; and the woman who, last fall, became the first swimmer ever to surpass $1 million earned solely in prize money in the pool. She did this, of course, by globe-trotting the World Cup circuit and swimming a superhuman number of races at almost every stop.

This has resulted in a considerable amount of fawning press from the world’s swimming media. “Iron Lady” has a certain brand-name ring to it, and Hosszu keeps the headlines pumping. No one competes, consistently, at a higher level than she does. Repeat – no one, ever. Not Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky and certainly not Ryan Lochte, who’s always tended to look like a beaten slow sack of chiseled flesh when he races while immersed in heavy training. But not Hosszu. Her consistency, her ability to recover, and her never-flagging form continues without breakdown, regardless of when or where the race is going down.

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The Aquatic Art

Relaunch coming to Cap & Goggles… 

This site will soon appear very different. Since September of 2011 it has done one thing. It’s been a column, of sorts, or a series of swimming essays, each around 1,000 words. At first they went up weekly, then it became a little more sporadic, with new posts popping up when it felt warranted. Thank you, to everyone reading this, for supporting – and sometimes indulging – this long-running commentary.

Now it’s time for something more. In a few weeks, Cap & Goggles will relaunch as a site that celebrates the ‘aquatic arts’. The commentary will still be there, with these columns anchoring the lead section of the site. However, I can’t wait to introduce the new content. It will include Books and Videos and Art and Photography — anywhere that swimming finds artistic, creative expression. My voice will be joined by many other, more talented creative voices, whether they’re capturing our sport on canvas, on camera, on film, or between the pages of a book.

Here are two examples, probably ample:

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Have you read this terrific memoir by Leanne Shapton? Leanne is a friend and fellow Canadian swimmer, and if you swam in or near Canada in the late 80s and early 90s, you’ll surely recognize some of the characters that populate these pages. Swimming Studies won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. For good reason – it captures the feeling of what it means to be a swimmer as well as anything published. It’s about the lonely moments, the forgotten sensations that still fill your dreams. And it’s filled with haunting honesty like this: “When I swim now, I step into water as though absent-mindedly touching a scar. My recreational laps are phantoms of my competitive races.” Yeah, it’s that kind of good.

Here’s another:

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Eric Zener is a Northern Cal based artist well known for his underwater themes. Out of his studio in Sausalito, Zener creates work that leaves you both breathless and buoyed by his vision. If you’re a former swimmer, viewing his paintings is like being comforted by the phantoms than Shapton writes about. In New York, his work can be found at a gallery not far from where I write this. I met him once there, and unsurprisingly he told me that all three of his children are swimmers in the Bay Area.

Between that book cover and that painting, I hope you get the idea. The water – and our relationship with it – tends to spark inspiration from every artistic outlet. It’s an infinite well. In a letter to his daughter, Scottie, F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: “All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath.”

If only we didn’t have to breathe…

Playing Favorites

The high-wire genius in coaching talent-loaded teams…

If only I had athletes like that, man, what I could do with them. With talent like that, how can they not win? He’s a great recruiter, a brilliant salesman, but as a coach? Anyone could do that, with his stable of horses… You just need to get out of the way.

The bitter musings of a jealous coach… It’s March, and from poolside to courtside, madness like that is in full bloom.

Over the last two weekends, the clear favorites have run away with the women’s and men’s NCAA Swimming Championships – Teri McKeever’s Cal Bears and Eddie Reese’s Texas Longhorns. Neither team title came as a surprise. In fact, if either of these teams had failed to win it all, it would have been seen as a choke, as teams failing to live up to their potential.

The same will be said of John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats if they fail to complete perfection next week in the Final Four. Most of America outside the blue grass state will be pulling for some sort of impossible upset, if only to stoke our collective underdog lust. Sports fan love excellence, but too much domination can spoil the fun. And so we root against those teams who’ve managed to recruit and coach and will the odds in their favor.

This curious condition can put a brilliant coach in an all-or-nothing corner. You can find yourself so good, surrounded by so much breathtaking talent, that it feels like everyone, even your closest coaching allies, are secretly hoping for you to slip up.

So it’s been for Teri McKeever and Eddie Reese this year. Anyone paying attention to the times and projected numbers knew that the team titles were theirs to lose. Their pools in Berkeley and Austin are bursting with talent. Sure, Georgia was the two-time defending women’s champion, and sure it had been five years since the Longhorns hoisted the team trophy at men’s NCs, but if their ladies and gentlemen swam as expected in March, the meets were theirs.

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The Process of Courage

Jeff Julian – Friend, Coach, Cancer Survivor To-Be… 

You’re sitting in a doctor’s office. Something’s been bothering you, a pain in your back and neck that just isn’t getting better. You’re fit, not yet 40, a former champion butterflyer who knows his body the way only swimmers do. Your days are spent active, on your feet on a pool deck, under a warm Southern California sun. The pain has been progressing for a few months now, but Advil usually takes care of it. Whatever it is, there must be an easy explanation. It’s probably just one of those nagging signs of aging, the aches and pains of creeping middle age.

But then one night you’re out to dinner with your wife and the pain becomes too much to ignore. You contact a doctor. The next day you head to the hospital.

And then, after a whirlwind of tests, you hear the unthinkable. The C-word, says the doctor. It’s lung cancer, he tells you. It doesn’t get more serious.

How would you react?

If you’re Jeff Julian, head coach of Rose Bowl Aquatics and former All-American at USC, your response is the very definition of courage. You announce your diagnosis on Facebook with unblinking candor and a fearlessness that’s hard to fathom. Then, you end your note to your stunned readers with this line: “I wanted to share this with you one time, before I put my head down and get ready to kick some ass.”

Hear that, cancer? Prepare yourself for a beat down.

Picture the polar opposite of a lung cancer sufferer. That is Jeff Julian. Never a smoker, a world class athlete, a wise coach with perspective and patience, possessed of a singular So Cal laugh that never fails to send out positive vibrations. The last man you’d expect.

Soon after his diagnosis, his team at Rose Bowl created #TEAMJeff – a site where you can support his fight and join his legion of friends and family across the swimming universe. Through the CaringBridge website, you can follow his journal, and at his site at YouCaring you can offer financial support to help fund the battle.

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Chasing the Ambulance

Outside magazine publishes a deep dive into swimming’s sexual abuse scandal… Lawyers rejoice.

Somewhere, the devil is smiling. Or to quote Al Pacino playing the personified Dark One in the Devil’s Advocate: “Lawyers are the devil’s ministry.”

Oh yes, the lawyers are tossing back shots of whiskey and beaming with the news. Outside magazine just gave them the bully’s pulpit. Then, Slate Magazine picked up the story, and quoted yours truly. Imagine my surprise. I haven’t been posting much lately, but suddenly traffic to this site was spiking. Curious, says I, let’s take a look at the old Word Press Dashboard, figure out where all these hits are coming from. Ah, but of course, the story that wouldn’t die: “The Worst Kept Secret in Washington”, published the day the Rick Curl scandal broke, back in the summer of 2012.

Since then, that story, about Curl’s criminal relationship with a teenage swimmer named Kelley Currin back in the 80s, has been read twice as many times as any other piece ever published on Cap & Goggles. For good reason, I suppose. It addressed not only the horror of sex abuse between too many coaches and young swimmers, but the sport’s dirtiest little secret: it’s never been much of a secret. Since the time I was twelve years old, I’ve heard the rumors. Many of which weren’t rumors at all. Somewhere along the line, beneath the unseemly surface, it became part of the culture.

It wasn’t just swimming, of course. Inappropriate relations between coaches and young athletes are legion. They happen in every sport. Yet, swimming seemed to take it to another level of misconduct. Why? Well, you don’t have to look too far. This is a sport where the athletes are mostly naked, wet, breathing heavy, and quite literally, staring up in positions of subservience at their coaches above them on deck. The sexualized nature of the sport is impossible to miss. Plenty of unscrupulous coaches have taken advantage of it in unconscionable, downright evil ways.

But let’s hit pause on the pile-on for a second. Outside magazine has already piled on plenty, as well meaning and outraged as the story was. When I say ‘plenty’, I mean too many. Hell, one is too many. But let’s make no mistake: ‘plenty’ remains the minuscule minority of a proud and noble profession. And while we’re at it, let’s make something else clear: no other national governing body has reacted with more vigilance and commitment to change than USA Swimming, ever since this story took on a life of its own four years ago. Read the rest of this entry »