After the first two days of Olympic swimming, everyone is asking: What happened to American men’s swimming? Despite pre-Games reports that this was the deepest US swimming team since 1976, the men’s team has been less than its usual dominant. We watched the US men lose the 4 x 100 Freestyle Relay for the second time, and fall from silver to bronze. Then there was the disastrous men’s 100 Free, in which no American advanced beyond prelims. These are both firsts in the history of American men’s swimming. But if you take a closer look, you can see that US swimming isn’t struggling as much as it seems.
The American swimmers once dominated the 4 x 100 — so much so that their loss to the Aussies in 2000 was the first they’d won less than gold. The sting of watching Klim and company strum away in victory (in 2000) was still fresh in the mind of all the athletes as they approached the blocks in 2004. All eyes were on the Australians as the team to beat. But the Aussies faded away to fourth and finished without a medal. Perhaps we weren’t focusing on the right competitor. The biggest threat was right under out noses.
The upstart South African team won the 4 x 100 free relay in world-record fashion. This is not as big of a surprise that it seems. Roland Schoeman, who swam the opening leg for the South Africans, has been on the American swimming scene for some time. He recently completed his collegiate eligibility at the University of Arizona. While at Arizona, Schoeman was a perennial contender in the sprint events. He was .01 off the NCAA record in the 50 Free two years ago, with a time of 19.06. Fellow countryman and University of Arizona teammate Lyndon Ferns swam second for the Aussies. This past year he owned the fastest time in the NCAA for the 50 and the 100 for 3 months. Darian Townsend was the only member of the Austrialian relay team who didn’t compete in the NCAA. The final leg was Ryk Neethling, who has been training with the University of Arizona for the past 8 years. Neethling was a nine-time NCAA National Champion as a collegiate swimmer. The University of Arizona has produced 75% of the South African world-record relay.
The disappointment continued for the US sprinters in the 100 free. Ian Crocker and Jason Lezak, our two representatives, were shut out of the semis. For the first time in history, no American sprinter made it into the field of 16. With a closer look at who did, there seemed to be a pattern emerging; the names were very familiar.
Semifinals read something close to an NCAA final from years past, with some other big names interspersed. Of the 16 semi-finalists, 8 have trained or do train in the United States. Bovell, Busquets, and Barnier all trained at Auburn. Luis Rojas, Schoeman, and Neethling swam for Arizona. Gimbutis, and Draganja, are still swimming for Cal. While the two United States national team members did not make it to the semis, half of the field trains in America.
The good news is that there is another side to this coin. America has turned pro. Many athletes are skipping out on scholarships for endorsement money. Scholarships used to be, and for most still are, the ultimate payoff for swimmers. Without a National Swimming Association that compares to that of the NBA, NFL, or even the NHL, pro didn’t seem possible.
All you have to do now is turn on the Olympics to see that everything has changed. Michael Phelps has done very well for himself to capitalize on his hard work. He has done commercials for everything from insurance to cell phones. He is the most noticeable but not the only one. Klete Keller left USC to turn pro two years ago. Just recently Aaron Piersol made the decision to forgo the rest of his career at the University of Texas, to swim in professional waters.
These athletes seem to be doing pretty well for themselves and for the US. It appears as if American swimming is in the fetal stage of its rebirth. The fact that America’s men have been less than dominant is helping this movement along. In future Olympics, be prepared to see our top athletes make the same move as their Australian, Russian, and Dutch counterparts. Why shouldn’t Phelps, Piersol, and Keller enjoy the same success and celebrity as athletes such Hoogy, Popov, and the Thorpedo?
Like any transition, this will take a little time, and some things will get lost in the change. Upon closer look there doesn’t seem to be anything that has truly gone awry with American swimming. The American college system is still producing some of the world’s top athletes. In addition, professional swimming has emerged as an option for our top athletes.