By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
It’s impossible to rank moments. But ‘tis the season, right? The end of the year means one thing: End-of-year lists, rankings, and best-ofs. The swimming world is no different. 2012 proved to be one of the best years in the history of the sport, with the Olympic Trials broadcast live on NBC each night in primetime, record-breaking TV ratings and membership enrollments, and a surge in mainstream interest in our sport like we’ve never seen.
So, here are the best moments of 2012. I’m sure I’m leaving a few moments out. But this list is more to spur your memory of your own favorite moments. And there were a lot to pull from this year: the Olympic Trials, the Olympics, the Grand Prixs and World Championships, and all those Twitter pictures (Matt Grevers making Nathan Adrian's bed after his gold-medal performance stands out as one of my favorites…).
Honorable Mention: Josh Davis taking on little kids in the Aqua Zone.
The Olympic Trials Aqua Zone is a melting pot of swim fans, enthusiasts, parents, swimmers, coaches, and Olympians. It’s a place people come together to have fun, to celebrate the sport, and hop on great interactive exhibitions like “The Swimulator.” Josh Davis is no stranger to fun. The Olympic swimmer and motivational speaker is one of those great, high-energy individuals we’re fortunate to have in our sport. My favorite moment at the Aqua Zone: Josh Davis stepping up onto the Swimulator and taking on little kids. It’s not every day you get to “race” an Olympian. The Swimulator – an interactive, virtual swim race involving VASA trainers and a video game monitor – was one of the best things of the Aqua Zone.
10. Brooklyn’s Lia Neal qualifies for the Olympics.
There are no indoor 50m pools in Brooklyn. It’s a borough of close to 3 million people – the size of Chicago – but swimmers must trek into Manhattan to train in an Olympic distance pool. That is exactly what Lia Neal, part of Asphalt Green’s swim team and coached by Rachel Stratton-Mills, did most her competitive life. When 17-year-old Neal qualified for the Olympics, it was a beautiful moment of a triumph arising from tragedy. In the wake of 9/11, an Asphalt Green scholarship program was set up to honor two swimmers who died in the terrorist attacks. Lia Neal was a recipient of one of those scholarships. She made an entire city proud. It was one of the most beautiful moments of the year.
9. Rebecca Soni breaking 2:20 in the 200 breaststroke.
She’s perhaps the most dominant breaststroker in memory. When Rebecca Soni finally cracked that elusive 2:20 barrier en route to a world record and Olympic gold medal, it was one of those moments of absolute, pure perfection. For whatever reason, sometimes you don’t often see “perfect” swims come in the Olympics. There is too much pressure, too many swimmers are riding their Trials tapers, and the entire program is too exhausting. But this 200m breaststroke was a perfect race. Soni charged ahead of the field, broke that once-impossible barrier, and showed the world what a perfect race looks like.
8. Both of Ryan Lochte’s 400 IMs.
Lochte had not just one, but two epic 400 IMs this year. The first one was at the Olympic Trials – a race that was, arguably, more exciting than the Olympics. I’ll never forget the pre-race electricity as Phelps and Lochte stepped up onto the blocks for the meet’s first championship race. It was the debut showdown between the two friends/rivals of 2012. No one knew what would happen. Later, at the Olympics, Lochte conquered the world’s toughest event. He won Olympic gold in the 400 IM, and Phelps didn’t earn a medal. After that race, swim fans were talking as if Lochte’s performance was one of the greatest in Olympics history. When you consider that Lochte dominated the Greatest Olympian of All Time, it’s hard to argue.
7. Missy Franklin’s epic double.
Many thought Missy Franklin bit off more than she could chew. But all along, Missy was proving doubters wrong every race and opportunity. She took down Natalie Coughlin in the 100 backstroke at the Olympic Trials. She qualified in the 200 freestyle. This set up an epic double that involved about fourteen minutes between the Olympic 200 freestyle semi and the100 backstroke final. Fourteen minutes. That means: Getting out of the pool, warming down, warming up, drying off, going to the ready room, and walking back out to the next final, and diving in – in fourteen minutes. Sounds impossible? Missy proved it wasn’t. She qualified for the finals in the 200 freestyle, hopped out of the pool, then fourteen minutes later, won an Olympic gold medal in the 100 backstroke. Fourteen minutes: exactly how long it took Missy Franklin to become an Olympic legend.
6. Nathan Adrian’s 100 free incredible “upset” by .01.
Every practice. Every finish. Every flip, every start, every morning practice. It’s almost impossible to look back at a career and analyze just where that extra .01 came from, but Nathan Adrian accomplished it. He took down the heavily favored James “The Missile” Magnussen by less than a fingernail. Nathan Adrian’s victory was the first U.S. Olympic gold in the individual 100 freestyle since Biondi in 1988.
5. Anthony Ervin’s road less taken.
He won Olympic gold at 19. Then he vanished from the sport for nearly eight years. Disappeared. Gone. Sometime late in 2011, after a few appearances in the Masters scene, Ervin “came back” to the sport. Many hailed his return as great for the sport, but few outside those at Imagine Swimming and Cal-Berkeley could expect what came next. With each race back, Ervin inched towards his personal best times, until he qualified for the Olympics at 31-years-old. Ervin, sleeved down both his arms with a variety of tattoos and Tweeting Shakespeare quotes before his Olympic 50 freestyle final, is one of swimming’s great personalities. He was featured in “Rolling Stone.” He has opened up about his struggles and journey and his renewed love for the competitive swimming realm. His road less taken was the benefit for us swim fans, and we’re so happy to have him back.
4. Katie Ledecky becomes an Olympic legend at 15-years-old.
No fear. That will define Katie Ledecky’s epic, incredible, heart-stopping 800 freestyle Olympic performance. She raced with no fear, surging ahead of the defending Olympic champion in the event and home crowd favorite with each stroke and each kick. The 15-year-old Ledecky was the performance of the year, the race of the year, and one of those Olympic moments you never forget. Her teammates hailed her, her coaches praised her, and her country adored her -- the girl with no fear.
3. Matt Grevers’ pool deck proposal to girlfriend and teammate Annie Chandler.
A few days before Valentine’s Day, at the Missouri Grand Prix, Matt Grevers knew he had to win. There wasn’t just a Grand Prix medal on the line: there was also a fiancé on the line. By now, everyone knows the story: Matt had to win the 100 backstroke so he could get to the medal podium, so he could have Annie give him the medal, so he could take her hand and get down on one knee and ask her a very important question, and subsequently make millions – literally millions – of hearts melt. But this was more than a viral proposal. This was two swimmers sharing an important personal moment. This is how much swimming meant to them. And we, as fans and passionate water enthusiasts, rejoiced. A few months later, Grevers won Olympic gold and did his patented Grevers fist-pump – the same fist-pump he did when Annie said “yes.” They instantly became Swimming’s Love Story.
2. The “Call Me Maybe” video.
When we think back to 2012, many images come to mind, but perhaps none more than the “Call Me Maybe” video. We’ve always known swimmers are fun – especially during taper. This “Call Me Maybe” video was shown on every media outlet for weeks. It allowed people to see the U.S. Olympic swim team as a fun-loving, silly, creative, inventive group of people. You had to root for them. You just had to. You saw them away from the stresses and competitive pool environment. This was one of the most memorable moments of this summer’s Olympics, period.
1. Michael Phelps, signing off.
We knew it was going to happen. Phelps talked for months about 2012 being his final swan song, his last Olympics. We just didn’t know how it was going to happen. How would Phelps be remembered? How would he leave the sport? In the final event of Michael Phelps’ career, catching the field then dominating them in the 100 fly leg of the men’s 400 medley relay, we knew. En route to earning his 18th Olympic gold medal and 22nd medal overall, Phelps proved that he was the Greatest Olympian of All-Time. Later, on the podium, he smiled, closed his eyes, and listened for the last time to the national anthem sung, a tune he had heard so many times before. Then, with one last walk around the pool, the greatest swimmer the world has ever known looked around, one last look at the Olympics, the attention, the lights, cameras, and action, and waved goodbye.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @ MikeLGustafson.