The Chuck Wielgus Blog: Legends at the Pool
I’ve recently returned from Irvine, CA, site of the 2014 Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships. It was a spectacular event, with a great team of veterans and rookies assembled and now in Australia readying for the coming Pan Pacific Swimming Championships.
An event of this magnitude doesn’t happen without an enormous commitment from the local organizers and the host swim team, in this case the Irvine Nova Aquatics. While there were approximately 500 volunteers working at the event, none worked harder or were more important than Kim Hoesterey. Kim chaired the local organizing committee and she seemingly lived at the pool for the entire two-week timeframe during which both the Junior Nationals and National Championships were held.
Television coverage for our major events is almost taken for granted now, but I wonder how many people noticed the Goodyear blimp that soared high above the venue and provided a whole new point of view to our television audience. That was pretty cool!
This was my first time back on a pool deck in almost a year, and it was great fun to see and talk to so many athletes, coaches and officials. Many of these people have become my good friends, and catching up on their lives was a special treat.
At events, I usually find a seat somewhere near the finish line. I’ll squeeze into the media area, or perhaps sit with our National Team Director, Frank Busch, or USA Swimming President, Bruce Stratton. Being the National Championships, there was a daily parade of National Team alums in attendance, and it was especially nice to see athletes who have now moved on to the next phase of their lives.
I bumped into Gary Hall, Jr. on the pool deck. I was always a fan of Gary’s, thinking he brought a sense of mischief and fun to our sport. Even at times when he was frustrating the National Team staff, I sometimes had to catch myself from smiling too wide. It’s hard to believe that Gary is now a father of two; one six and the other eight years old.
One of my all-time favorite Olympic moments was the 50 meter Freestyle finals at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games when Gary and Anthony Ervin finished in a dead tie for the gold medal. And talking about Anthony Ervin, there he was winning the 50 Free at these National Championships a full 14 years after those Sydney Games. I bet he is eager for a return visit to Australia.
Hometown hero, Jason Lezak was at the Nationals. A four-time Olympian, who had one of the single greatest performances of all-time when he stormed to the finish to help the USA win the 4X100 Free Relay at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Another local, Amanda Beard, was also at the meet. The 14-year-old prodigy with the teddy bear in Atlanta, Amanda is seemingly always drawn back to the pool. Like Gary Hall, Amanda also has two young children.
Ian Crocker appeared on deck one evening. A proud son of the state of Maine, I always marveled at the one-two powerhouse punch that Ian and Tom Malchow brought to the National Team. I can only imagine the fear Ian and Tom struck in opponents when the two of them stepped up onto the blocks together.
Arguably the greatest backstroker of all-time, Aaron Peirsol, appeared at my side one evening and we spoke for half-an-hour about the peace and tranquility he has found lifeguarding at the beach for the summer. Aaron and I always trade notes on what we’re reading. When last together, it was comparing thoughts on Jack Kerouac; this time the conversation focused on John Steinbeck and his muse Ed Ricketts. Aaron is a true son of the sea and I won’t be at all surprised to someday find that he’s making his career in and around the water.
It’s always a treat to see Peter Vanderkaay, a company man from a wonderful swimming family. My wife and daughters spent a fun afternoon taking cooking lessons during the 2009 World Championships in Rome with Peter’s mom and several other parents. After the competition was over we all found ourselves together in the same restaurant that was the host location for the cooking classes and a great meal was had by all. Peter’s brother Alex is getting married next month, just one more indicator that the march of time never stops … marriages, children, and careers outside the pool, etc.
I saw many other alums at this year’s National Championships, and I was reminded once again just how extraordinary swimmers are. There’s something about the sport that it helps forge young athletes into thoughtful adults who have so much to contribute to society. Whenever I have the opportunity to meet and talk with our great alums, I always come away with a good feeling about our country, our sport and the future always looks a little brighter to me.
Chuck Wielgus can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. All of his blogs are archived at www.usaswimming.org: click on “News” and then click on “Org News & Blogs”