$150K Later, A Sport Changes


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

The Arena Grand Prix Series just got a raise. And so did our nation’s elite swimmers.

By now you’ve heard the news: $150,000 in overall prize money will be awarded throughout the Arena Grand PrixGrand Prix generic (medium) Series. $500 will be awarded for first, $300 for second, and $100 for third in all individual Olympic-distance events. Awarding more money in a sport where some of our athletes live paycheck to paycheck is a huge, significant step towards financially supporting our best swimmers.

But it also means our sport is changing. At the elite level, this kind of financial offering will likely keep swimmers around longer. Swimmers will get older. Some will continue to train long after college graduation. Some will mix training and full-time jobs. These financial incentives will increase participation among twenty-something post-graduates, and could lead to a faster and more mature competitive swim population.

The sport has changed significantly over the past few years. Previously, after the 2008 Olympics, some swimmers financially struggled. Articles were written about swimmers like Jason Lezak, who had difficulty securing sponsorships post-Beijing. When a sport features its biggest stage every four years, sponsorship money quickly evaporates. Believe it or not, swimmers are not featured on Wheaties boxes in non-Olympic years. Once swimmers begin to settle, marry, and start families, many decide to hang up the suits, retire, and pursue other professional endeavors.

But now, you see a change. It happened this summer, at the Olympic Trials. A significant amount of championship finalists were in their mid-twenties, proof that our sport is growing older. A few U.S. Olympians were married. I remember when I was a young age group swimmer back in the mid-90s, and it was rare to see a “professional swimmer,” let alone someone swimming beyond age 23.

Flash-forward to present day: Anthony Ervin, age 31, used creative internet marketing on IndieGoGo to partially fund his World Cup tour. He raised over $10,000. Groups like Athlete Approved formulate and help organize professional swimming dual meets geared to help support post-graduate swimmers. And swimmers are beginning to be financially awarded for non-Olympic year, non-championship performances. It’s a small step, and it’s also a big deal.

Of course, this kind of Grand Prix prize money, spread among many swimmers over many events, won’t necessarily completely fund a swimmer’s full-time training costs. But a few extra thousand dollars can still go a long way. $500 for winning an event can buy you a lot of $3.50 Swedish Goggles. Even just $100 for finishing third can help fund the gas money to transport to a Grand Prix meet. Even the perception that, “Hey, swimmers can be supported a little bit after college,” can help motivate and encourage some of our fastest swimmers to stay involved in the sport when they might otherwise consider retirement.

Our nation’s economy is struggling. People are out of work. Unemployment remains high. Increasing prize money is both progressive and impressive. It’s not going to completely change the sport of swimming, but it’s a nice, added boost to help support and fund older swimmers who financially need the reward. Especially when you consider the sheer grocery bills some of these swimmers must encounter throughout their training: Consuming upwards of 6,000-8,000 calories a day isn’t cheap. Trekking across the country to compete against the nation’s and world’s best isn’t exactly pennies and nickels.

Slowly but surely, we’re transitioning to a sport that is not important every four years, but every single season. Universal Sports is going to broadcast the upcoming Austin Grand Prix. More money will keep more personalities around in the sport, as well as help fund some of the grocery bills, goggles, suits, caps, travel expenses, and everything else associated with the sport.

Michael Phelps, the sport’s ultimate historic money-maker, proved that swimmers are marketable, personable, and “mainstream.” He changed the sport.

$150,000 dollars later, the sport continues to change.

Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.

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