By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
After joining USA Swimming two years ago as its first open water program manager, former USC standout Bryce Elser has had a tremendous influence on the sport and the athletes. He could not be more excited about the upcoming World University Games and World Championships – not to mention the future of the sport – in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. WUGs is a big trip this time around especially, isn’t it?
Bryce: It really is. I think we’re taking a really experienced group for this competition.
2. What makes you think this team can do some things?
Bryce: Everybody on this team has some international experience, and even our more experienced athletes have gotten even more experience.
3. Looking at the roster, there’s a lot of talent isn’t there?
Bryce: The WUGs team has all kinds of experience with Ashley Twichell and Emily (Brunemann). Joey Pedraza and Sean Ryan on the men’s team have all kinds of National Team experience. And Ashley just won Nationals last year. So that attests to the team we’re taking to WUGs.
4. Two years ago, we talked right after you were hired – it’s been a whirlwind since, hasn’t it?
Bryce: I’ve been with USA Swimming for more than two years now. It has been great to watch this sport grow from the first training camp to where we are now. The group of athletes we have now, and to see them come together, has been very special. Now we’re a force to be reckoned with on the international level, which is a great sign where this program is headed in the future and where we will be in 2016.
5. And that’s not saying the swimmers who blazed this path were anything but spectacular, it’s just that the amount of talent across the board is somewhat stunning, right?
Bryce: It’s certainly true we have some great athletes and athletic talent with what we have right now. That’s not taking away from what we have had in the past. But it’s becoming even more competitive just to make the national team – it’s not easy to finish in the top 6 at our Nationals.
6. What a finish that was to the women’s race, wasn’t it?
Bryce: Going into the final turn with 250 meters left, you could see 10 solid competitors fighting for that finish line. I remember when that happened, I was thinking, “We’re looking pretty good not just for WUGs and World Championships, but for the future of the sport” – to see 10 women that talented, battling neck and neck to the finish.
7. And it’s a fun group?
Bryce: More than I can even explain, especially with the group of athletes we have now – I am so fortunate. You don’t have to do too much motivating to get them to train hard and set goals. They realize the goal in front of them. They work their tails off and go for that goal.
8. It’s odd because someone who was on the medal stand last year might not make the team this year, and vice versa, right?
Bryce: They are pushing each other at all times. You see them at World Cups, and they are fierce swimmers in the competition. But the best aspect is when they walk away and they are all truly very good friends.
9. How important is that in this discipline?
Bryce: Absolutely, but in this case, that’s just part of the dynamic of this group. This isn’t something where we take six people per event in multiple events, there are only a few men and women. We travel together, so naturally they become a close group of people who really enjoy each other’s company.
10. Blows my mind to see the list of colleges and majors represented – isn’t that impressive?
Bryce: Oh yeah, absolutely, we’re dealing with athletes who are definitely (laughs) smarter than I am!. It’s great to hear their conversations, and it’s just the things they have in common that are great, too. Like when Eva (Fabian, from Yale), who is just incredibly smart, is talking with Haley (Anderson, from USC), who is also a tremendous thinker, and they’re talking about their interest in Harry Potter – it is hilarious.
11. What a diverse group – Harvard, Yale, Duke, Michigan, USC, Minnesota – that brings a lot of different perspectives to the team, doesn’t it?
Bryce: It does, and it is good for the sport because it’s not just something from the places you’d expect open water. We have people coming from Michigan, which you might not expect when you think about open water. Having that wide geographic swath adds a lot of character as well.
12. How does it grow in the U.S. from here?
Bryce: We’re going to continue to push each other domestically. It’s starting to show internationally as a result of our performances. We will continue to push each other so hard here, and we’ll continue to see our results improve.
13. Though coming into this you probably knew the legend of Fran Crippen, I wonder how much you have learned about him since joining the open water family?
Bryce: Fran is still a part of this team, this open water team. He helped build this foundation, and this culture that we have on the national team. There’s not a trip that goes by without a story about Fran doing something funny or something incredible in the water, or being a great teammate. Those memories mean so much to people.
14. These races are long, but with the intense competition such as the one at open water nationals again this year, these swimmers can’t let up, can they?
Bryce: I mean, we have a good problem when it’s tough to make national team. Haley Anderson didn’t make the National Team in the 10K, and she’s a silver medalist in the Olympic Games. You have to be on your “A” game at all times in these races. But then look at the character of Haley Anderson after that disappointment, where she comes right back and performs well in the 5K – that’s a true testament to the champion she is as an athlete and as a person, to have that mental and physical toughness to bounce back like that. She’ll be on the World Championship team in the pool and open water, so that’s pretty impressive. You know, going into World Championships, we are looking pretty good.
15. With these cerebral athletes on the team, does that make the coaches’ jobs more enjoyable?
Bryce: There are a lot of smart people in this group. The coaching staff that we take communicates with the athletes, who have their race plans already, but then they work together to tweak it here and there. These athletes are so smart, they know what is going on; they are so methodical, but at the same time they are willing to make a change during a race, which is important in open water. But yes, definitely, having a group like this makes it easy to work with.
16. Is open water safer now?
Bryce: It is. I think we’re making progress. It’s a slow progress, but we have made substantial strides. The athletes are well monitored now in races. I will always battle for safety, because there is no such thing as a completely safe race – you can always find room to make improvements and corrections, so I will battle that always for the athletes. I also get good feedback from our athletes in either talks or emails afterward, just conversations to get their feedback and direction because that helps me see where to improve or what questions to ask. It’s all about protecting the people and making it safe.
17. Doesn’t open water have a huge upside since it does not require pool access?
Bryce: I think it’s something that’s universal, and that’s what makes open water so great, it really doesn’t require a pool. So yes, hypothetically, everyone who has access to a body of water – a lake, a pond – can participate. It’s also great for the sport, because hosting these events allows a country to show off their national wonders, which London did an amazing job with, and Brazil will do as well – a chance for each country to show off some of their best art, which is their natural landscape.
18. How much does the current political upheaval and other things like terror threats concern you?
Bryce: It’s something I am constantly aware of and pursue information and solutions on. So that’s another benefit of me traveling with the athletes because we contact the necessary officials to make sure we are aware and are taking the correct, intelligent steps. I am the main contact and I am available 24/7 to monitor everything, whether it’s the political environment changing or a day-to-day logistical issue such as a car accident. When we were in Argentina, we had a 12-hour bus ride to the venue, so me traveling with these athletes brings another level of security to them during their travel.
19. Where do you get the energy to keep up with these incredible young people and great coaches?
Bryce: I see the athletes and coaches put in that energy and more – that keeps me going. I just get in a “travel rhythm” where I get home, drop off a suitcase, do laundry, (laughs) throw it back in the suitcase and I’m ready for the next trip! Seriously, I am so fortunate to work for this organization and with these athletes and coaches, so the energy for this job feeds itself off being part of the amazing things they are doing.
20. While there is not as much focus sometimes on the events a year or two after the Olympics, to grow open water, aren’t WUGs and World Championships more important than ever for especially this discipline of the sport?
Bryce: Absolutely, we’ve got the momentum going, especially with last year’s Olympic swims. The momentum is in our favor. We need to make sure we keep the ball rolling, and get it moving early enough in the quad to set ourselves up to be ready to put four athletes on the open water team in 2016. Getting those spaces is crucial to us for increasing our medal count in 2016.