The Fantastic Four
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
I was sitting at dinner with relatives last Sunday night, when an uncle turns and says, “So I watched some swimming on TV today.”
“There was a really good female swimmer they were raving about.”
“Ledecky, yep! That’s the one!”
This is my test. I have a bootleg pop-culture litmus test to determine if a swimmer has yet broken into the mainstream conversation. It usually involves my family: If a non-swim family member turns to me -- knowing that I am a die-hard swim-a-holic -- and mentions a swimmer (mispronouncing the name, no matter), then I know that swimmer is now a veritable superstar. The formula goes something like this:
Non-Swimmer + Mentions a Swimmer’s Name to Me = That Swimmer is a Superstar.
“Yeah, Katie Ledecky is going to be a huge story in two years at Rio,” I said. “But, I mean, there’s also Missy Franklin. And Michael Phelps’ comeback. And Ryan Lochte will be great, too.”
Suddenly it dawned on me, as I watched this family member nodding along: He knew exactly who I was talking about. He knew Michael Phelps. He remembered Ryan Lochte. He knows Missy Franklin. And now, Katie Ledecky. I was speaking about four swimmers, and all four of them he had heard about. And I found myself thinking:
In terms of mainstream popularity, are we in the golden age of swimming, right now?
When have we ever had four incredibly bright swimming superstars all competing at the same time? Four swimmers -- two males and two females -- whom most people who follow the news have heard about?
Everyone knows Michael Phelps. The Greatest Olympian Ever. The swimmer who hosted SNL. Subway commercials. Ryan Lochte is equally as popular, at least in terms of recognition. Even my cousin, who knows little about competitive swimming, watched his reality show. America’s golden girl Missy Franklin broke out in 2012, having a legendary year and winning hearts everywhere. And now, Katie Ledecky is the story of 2014, and she doesn’t look like she’s slowing down anytime soon.
That’s four swimmers. Four superstars. Four athletes who pass my weird little bootleg litmus popularity test.
Of course, it’s still sad I resort to these kinds of popularity tests. But swimming is, and will be at least for the short-term, a niche sport. Swimming will never be as huge or transcendent as college football or the NBA. Our biggest competition is every four years. I have a dream that one day, a traditional and annual world competition with the prestige of the Kentucky Derby and the draw of the Super Bowl will hit competitive swimming. But until then, we will always be fighting for mainstream headlines, ESPN coverage, and media interest.
And yet, at the same time, we’re in the golden age of swimming, at least in terms of superstar appeal. Michael
Phelps’ comeback, in addition to Lochte’s presence, will be a continuation of 2012’s huge media draw on the men’s side. People are interested in watching them race. They want to see the greatest Olympian ever, and they want to see Ryan Lochte try to chase him down. Most of all, they want to see these two take on the world.
Same on the women’s side. The U.S. women had a huge superstar in Franklin two years ago. Now, they have two superstars who sometimes battle each other (See: 200m freestyle). Franklin, according to various reports, should turn professional in 2015, which would mean she would be even more in the limelight. Ledecky, who is Stanford-bound, won’t be professional, but will certainly be the talk of the town. (World record factories tend to be talked about.) Ledecky’s Pan Pacific performances were the highlight of the meet, and she will most certainly win Swimmer of the Year Awards. She’s the brightest star right now, and she shows no signs of dimming.
Come Rio, these two female stars could out-shine Phelps and Lochte and company, and that would be just fine with me. As Phelps and Lochte begin to wind down, Franklin and Ledecky are approaching their prime.
Now that we have passed the mid-point in the Olympic cycle, and as the Pan Pacific Championships end and World Championships/Olympic Trials talk begins to take over the conversation, we won’t be lacking for superstar power. Swimming has our own Fantastic Four: Phelps, Lochte, Franklin, and Ledecky. Put them together, you have one stellar mixed 800m free relay.
And, possibly, a new golden age of swimming.