The pictures this week come from my recent trip to Poland.
What I can say is that certain things seem to be universal.. the people involved in athletics and swimming are similar and good people all over the world.
Warsaw was a beautiful city and my new friends treated me very well every day!
I saw firsthand the challenges coaches and swimmers have in Poland. Compared to the United States, Poland has only a handful of long-course pools. The estimate flying around was fewer than 10. Compare this with where I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where we have at least that many within a reasonable distance of the city.
What they do to compensate for a lack of opportunity, is to make the sport very exciting. Surrounding the clinic I attended was a competition. White this wouldn’t be considered a "major" meet (one for which the swimmers would peak), it was a necessary mid-season competition. The big difference here was the show that goes along with a standard meet.
There was an awards ceremony for each race, regardless of the age. The award winners were presented not only with a medal, but also a very nice "diploma" or certificate indicating their time and place. Then another presenter would walk up and hand each podium finisher a bag with prizes in it. These weren’t just candy bars, but actual products supplied by sponsors.
When each race got underway, the DJ would start music playing during the race. There was an expo outside the pool area, there were models carrying the medals to the podium. While it may have seemed like a standard event to the Polish swimmers, I sat back and remembered the difference between competing in Europe, and in the United States.
The event was exciting for the participants, beyond the actual swimming.
Because of our vast size in the USA, and the cost and frequency of events, it would be very difficult to match this level at all our competitions. But I think we need to learn that swimming events still need to be exciting, fun, and filled with surprises for the athletes. I don’t think we have to grab huge sponsors to make events more exciting. It could be simple things… little things… it could be candy bars, or health bars, or patches, or small gift cards from local businesses… anything that represents a little extra.
It’s the difference between a major-league baseball game, and a minor-league game. While at the majors, all there is… is the game. You’re supposed to be excited just to be there, to see the players. You, the audience and fan, should be honored to be in their presence. At a minor-league game, there are many "extra" things going on, because the management and players are so happy you’re there that they want to treat you to stimulus overload so you come back. Sometimes the game itself becomes incidental. It’s fun to watch, but it’s not the only reason you’re there.
I think, when we have omore than 300,000 registered USA Swimmers, we may take some of this for granted. We will conquer through sheer numbers, but we need to continue to remember we’re developing a product. We need to entice people to come to meets, to look forward to coming to the meets, and to make the events special.
What are the answers? I really don’t know. However, take a look at Poland and many other countries with limited opportunity, and see what they’re doing to make the sport exciting, and we can learn some valuable lessons.
Also, the Polish swimmers, who may be spoiled by all the little things that go on at their meets, should be thankful you have organizers, sponsors, and volunteers who care enough about you, to add all those little touches that make your meets more than just swim meets.
Now, don’t freak out, this isn’t an indictment of the US system… I’m kind of a fan, it’s just observations and ideas.