The Kids Are All Right
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Wandering around on the pool deck at the 2013 AT&T Winter Nationals, a person of average height and body begins to feel like a hobbit. A forest of bodies canopies the sky, all of them with oversized shoulders and appearing more like large statues than people. Everywhere you look, swimmers stand tall. Many are over 6-feet, with a plethora of them standing above 6’4”. If they hadn’t worn caps and goggles, you’d think they were there to play basketball, or clean windows with their albatross-sized wingspans.
But darting in between these vertically imposing swimmers (besides yours truly) were a few swimmers who appeared like children among adults. Namely, because they were. Shorter than your average professional swimmer, these swimmers didn’t yet have the muscle mass of their older, more experienced veterans.
And yet, they were winning.
Take Nation’s Capital’s Andrew Seliskar. The 17-year-old phenom conquered swimming’s most grueling event, the 400 IM. Seliskar clearly hasn’t physically matured compared to older swimmers he raced, and yet, there he was, surging ahead. Finishing the 400 IM in a personal best 4:41, Seliskar isn’t even in college and still claims the nation’s best 400 IM. Not yet seeing him in person, I expected to witness a monster of an age grouper. I was surprised to see what appeared to be like… a regular sized 17-year-old.
Or take Janet Hu, another Nation’s Capital swimmer and talk of the National’s pool deck. Hu broke a 17-18 NAG in the 50-yard freestyle, hitting the pads in a lightning 21.8. The next time some jerk says, “Girls aren’t fast,” point them to the fact that a 17-year-old girl just performed a 21.8. Last weekend, I stood behind Hu’s block. As she got out of the water, she looked neither surprised nor particularly elated with her NAG-breaking time. She merely exited the pool and walked to the warm-down pool, proving, to me at least, that she will drop a heck of a lot more time before she’s done with this sport. Hu doesn’t appear to be a gargantuan specimen of epic proportion, but she appears to be another teenager in a swimsuit. You’d hardly expect her to be one of the nation’s best sprinters upon first glance.
See, there’s a misconception in swimming that you have to be tall, big, huge, built, muscular, and NBA-sized and/or Matt Grevers-esque to swim fast. But in two very different events – the 400 IM and the 50-yard freestyle – I watched two seemingly regular-sized teenagers take on the rest of the nation and perform very well.
Not that there’s anything against large, physically imposing swimmers. But in many circles of swimming, there’s a belief swimmers must have the size and strength of LeBron, when, really, they need the precision and stamina of Bruce Lee.
In this post-Phelps Olympiad (pre-Phelps 2.0?), swim pundits have worried about the future of U.S. Swimming. They have wondered if we could/would stay competitive internationally without a legion of professional veterans slated to retire prior to 2016. But glance around at the results sheet from this past weekend. The success of Phelps & Co. didn’t deter swimmers such Andrew Seliskar from training for the 400 IM. If anything, success begets more success. It has motivated these young, next-generation swimmers to push further, swim harder, perform better.
The overall takeaway from the AT&T Winter Nationals (besides feeling like a hobbit) is the future of our sport is not only in great hands, but could be burning brighter than before. National Age Group Records have fallen this past year left and right – records we previously thought could not be broken. Sixteen-year-olds like Katie Ledecky and 17-year-olds like Andrew Seliskar and Janet Hu are taking down records, professional swimmers, barriers and expectations.
And this proves to me that, just because the main headliner of our sport, Phelps, isn’t competing, the sport itself remains as thrilling as ever. While there are thrills that come while watching veterans win more Olympic gold, our sport’s true, pure excitement comes from witnessing the unproven up-and-coming swimmer – the underdog, the chip-on-his-shoulder teenager – emerging from the shadows of the unheralded to shock the world.
Right now, the foundation of our next Olympic team is being built before our eyes. Storylines for Rio are not made in months before Rio 2016, or even in the pre-Olympic year, 2015. They are made in December, 2013. They are made when a few plucky, regular-sized teenagers start catching the attention of swim fans by winning, by breaking records, by making us say to ourselves, “Wow, that kid’s gonna be pretty good some day…”