By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
At the 1956 Olympic Trials, there were no time standards. Nor were there goggles. The post-graduate swimmer was as rare as a Phelps loss in the 200 fly. When I talked with 1956 Olympian George Breen earlier this year, he said almost no swimmers swam beyond college.
56 years later, scan the 2012 Trials psych sheets. Much has changed. Our sport has goggles (wow!) and fancy suits (unfair!) and digital clocks (what a thought!) and pyrotechnics (very cool!). But there’s one important and often overlooked evolution sweeping our sport.
Our elite swimmers are getting older.
Forget the suit controversy of 2008. The increase in competitors’ ages is the biggest change in recent American swimming. In 2011, many of our U.S. World Championship captains were married… with children. When’s the last time that’s happened? At these Olympic Trials, there are more post-graduate swimmers than ever. Some are supported by USA Swimming’s Athlete Partnership Program. Others are supported by their own families. Or local swim clubs. Most have part-time jobs (or full-time jobs) and struggle to balance training and work. Some post-graduates receive endorsements, stipends and award money (Phelps, Coughlin, Lochte, etc…) But many, many others rely on more frugal or inventive means to keep the dream alive. Swimmers like Joe Pascale and Eric Knight. Many post-graduates live with host families, or their own families, or with other post-graduates all training for the same meet. They wake before dawn chasing a dream, a chance to represent the United States. They have been doing this for years…
It’s this rise of the post-graduate swimmer that is the biggest transformation in our sport. Scan the psych sheets. Many top-seeded names are familiar, recognizable faces from 2008, from 2004, and even 2000. I can’t remember seeing more mid-twenty-somethings seeded so high on any Trials psych sheet. Sometimes, you have to venture quite low on the psych sheet just to find anyone under age 20. Like in the women’s 100m breaststroke (no teenagers in the 18 top seeds) or the men’s 50m freestyle (no teenagers in the top 20 seeds.)
So, these final “5 Storylines” of the major competitive season will reflect facets of the increasing age issue. What does this mean for Team USA? Who is affected? What is changing? What could happen at these Trials? Without further ado…
1. Coughlin vs. The Teens: Passing of the Torch, or Continuation of the Establishment? Natalie Coughlin is – and always has been -- swimming’s Golden Girl. She won 6 Olympic medals in 2008 and no one even blinked an eye. Coughlin is just that consistent. She’s the most consistent female swimmer on Team USA. And even so, the biggest race of the meet could be the women’s 100m backstroke. It’s a showdown I’ve dubbed “Coughlin vs. The Teens.” The sprint is not only for an Olympic roster spot, it’s for that all-important lead-off Olympic medley relay leg. It’s a chance for relay redemption for Team USA, which took silver at the previous two Olympic Games in that event. Coughlin, the veteran, is the two-time defending Olympic champion in the 100m back. She’s been a phenomenal lead-off leg in previous bronze-medal winning relays. And yet, is she an underdog next week? Rachel Bootsma has shown firepower, Elizabeth Pelton could challenge, and, of course, there’s the “once in a generation” (as Rowdy Gaines phrased it yesterday) Missy Franklin. All teenagers. All young, full of fire. Who will rise to the occasion and solidify that relay spot? The last very-young backstroker who led off the Olympic medley was Beth Botsford in 1996. Could we see another new face leading off in 2012?
2. Veterans’ Mental Strength. This could be the most “mentally strong” Olympic roster ever assembled. Think about it: You have the greatest swimmer in history (Phelps) performing near his peak (swimming in-season times near 2008) and people are actually expecting a U.S. TEAMMATE to challenge him in a several events (Ryan Lochte). On the women’s side, you have some of the most dominant swimmers in recent years (Coughlin, Soni, Vollmer, Schmitt) all with major Olympic experience. If the veterans seeded to make the roster spots actually do, you’re looking at a deep well of international and Olympic experience. (Even the young Missy Franklin has been primed for these Trials with her astounding international success in recent years.)
In some events, “mental strength” could be a much-needed advantage. Look at the men’s breaststrokes. Here are two events perceived as “weaker” by swim pundits. But no athlete – I repeat, NO ATHLETE – has gone through what Eric Shanteau has. His father passed away in 2009 nearly at the same time as the World Championships. He was diagnosed with cancer just before the 2008 Trials. He missed the Olympic team twice by one spot in 2004. Try and find a swimmer with more mental toughness than Eric Shanteau. You can’t. You won’t. Doesn’t exist. Should Shanteau qualify in either breaststroke event, he’ll perform at the Olympics. Isn’t that the type of guy you want representing your country on sport’s ultimate stage?
In a similar realm, Brendan Hansen has emerged from his comeback with renewed passion. He’s been a man on a mission. Should Hansen qualify, his leadership and mental toughness will serve advantageous to Team USA. OK, perhaps the U.S. men’s breaststroke events, as many pundits are predicting, could be a “weak event” at these Olympics. But I’d take Hansen and Shanteau’s mental fortitude over any international field.
3. We can finally retire the word “comeback.” (Don’t worry; “comeback” will come back in 2016.) Can we just refer to these “comebacks” as “now backs?” Because I think qualifying for the Olympic Trials means you are officially “back” in the world of swimming. Here are a few of the veterans Now Back: Ervin. Evans. Moses. Hansen. Torres. Tarwater. Most eyes will be on Anthony Ervin and Janet Evans, since Hansen solidified his comeback with last summer’s national title. It’s interesting that three of the most talented swimmers of all-time (Ervin, Evans and Torres) are in the same pool once again. Anthony Ervin’s comeback has always intrigued me. Ervin is by far one of the most talented (if not “the most talented”) swimmers to ever sprint between two blocks of cement. It’s wonderful to see him back in the water and enjoying the sport again.
Don’t misunderstand me: These “now back” athletes want to win. They want to make the Olympics. But even if they don’t, clap and cheer when they compete. It’s hard getting out of bed to run a few miles a few times a week, like most of us retired swimmers. But these athletes suffer the slings and arrows of early mornings, doubles, intense training sessions, and – oh yeah – living normal lives to re-experience the magic and allure of competitive swimming. A few could make the Olympics. But many of these heroes from yesteryear simply want to enjoy the experience again. It’ll be a major storyline how these Now Backs fare and play out.
4. The Self-Marketed Swimmer. Similar to the point where this could be the most experienced U.S. Olympic roster, this could also be the most marketed U.S. Olympic roster ever. “Why are these names so familiar?” I asked myself scanning the psych sheet. “Oh, wait, I know why. Because I subscribe to most of their Twitter accounts. Because I saw a proposal between Matt Grevers and Annie Chandler that floored my chin halfway to London. Because I know Rebecca Soni and Ricky Berens are some of the nicest ‘power couple’ athlete-celebrities we have.” Swim fans interact with so many of these superstars every day via Facebook, Twitter, email, and blogs. I remember as a kid at the 1996 Trials, I couldn’t identify many swimmers. I didn’t know what they looked like. Now, I can confidently tell you that Madison Kennedy is obsessed with coffee (check her Twitter), and Eric Shanteau has been four years cleared of cancer (congratulations, Eric!), and Ryan Lochte really likes the word “jeaaaaahhh!” (still don’t know what that means). These details make swimming exciting to swim fans. And the self-marketing swimmer didn’t exist until now.
5. Phelps’ Farewell Tour. It wouldn’t be appropriate to mention these Trials without mentioning Michael Phelps. I’ll point out the great Rowdy Gaines interview yesterday on this website. Rowdy said Michael Phelps has done more for the sport than anyone else in history. Here’s his quote: “He is the single most important and influential person in our sport, regardless of what you think about him, of whether you like him or not, he has done more for our sport than anyone else, and we have to respect and honor that.” I 100% agree. By all reports, including his own, 2012 will be his final Trials. So let’s do a 21-gun salute, tip o’ the hat, splash o’ the cap, whatever you want to call it… Michael Phelps, thanks for helping make the sport great. My non-swimming friends now respect the aquatic activity I slaved over the majority of my life because they saw you beat the French and erupt on NBC and SportsCenter. I won’t be in London, but I’ll be able to tell my kids I saw Michael Phelps’ (probably) Final Olympic Trials. It’s astounding that this athlete can add to his gold medal collection of 14 Olympic golds… that he could finish with more Olympic gold medals than toes and fingers (!). Michael Phelps’ performance at these particular Trials will be remembered.
And it could be the biggest storyline of all. Visit www.usaswimming.org/trials for full Olympic Trials coverage.