By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Pool Madness: NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships
Welcome to that crazy time of year when upsets occur, legends are made and championships won.
By which, of course, I mean the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships.
Last weekend, the NCAA women stepped up to the plate and delivered a handful of edge-of-your-seat performances. The Georgia women, with a full and talented roster, swam away with the title. Cal’s Missy Franklin won her first NCAA individual title in the 200 freestyle, setting a new American record. And Texas A&M’s Breeja Larson, one of the surprise stories from 2012, continued her assault on the 100 breaststroke records, setting a new American mark.
This weekend, it’s the men’s turn.
Michigan, the defending 2013 NCAA Champions, look to repeat. They’ll be challenged by an array of other teams looking to get onto the top podium, teams like Florida, Cal, Georgia, USC, and quite a few others. I stopped by Canham Natatorium and the Michigan practice the other day. I saw them looking relaxed, confident, and ready. (I love stopping by taper practices because it’s the one time of year swimmers look like they actually have energy on land.)
But anything can happen. Like a basketball game featuring an overtime half-court shot to win the game, NCAA swimming championships oftentimes feature unexpected, thrilling, out-of-nowhere performances. Teams can have an outstanding taper, one great performance from an outside lane, and win an NCAA title.
Florida coach Gregg Troy recently said this upcoming men’s NCAA Championships could be the “most competitive” championship meet in recent history. And he’s right. An array of teams could run away with the title, and, similar to the men’s NCAA basketball tournament happening right now, you get the feeling that anything can happen.
Recently, the latest issue of Splash Magazine ran a full issue dedicated to NCAA Swimming. Since that issue has ran (which you can read online here. I’ve received many notes online about younger swimmers inspired to swim in college. The point I was trying to make in my column was, “If you want to swim in college, you probably can, but it takes work.” The reasoning for your efforts has to be pure. You won’t be featured on TV. You won’t be graduating with corporations knocking on your door with endorsement offers.
See, NCAA swimmers are, for the most part, very different than many other, more mainstream NCAA athletes. If you want to see the difference between the two, just analyze the amount of attention each respective NCAA Championship receives in the media this month. The men’s basketball tournament has no fewer than three channels running games, oftentimes simultaneously. A corporation even offered a billion dollars to a person who could pick a perfect bracket prediction. There’s money out there – to be made, to be offered, to be gained. The women’s NCAA Swimming & Diving meet, in contrast, is lucky to get a blurb on ESPN’s homepage.
Obviously there are differences between swimming’s “Pool Madness” and basketball’s tournament. But in swimming, no athlete competes in college for TV appearances or long-term endorsement potential. No swimmer competes in college thinking that it will be a “stepping stone” to glory or endorsement dollars. In fact, some swimmers have actively walked away from those endorsement dollars to participate in college swimming.
Missy Franklin is the obvious example. Multiple news reports have written about the potential millions of dollars in endorsements the multiple Olympic gold medalist left on the table in pursuit of “the college experience,” of which she got her first championship taste last weekend. She had a successful meet, especially in the 800 freestyle relay, coming from behind in the anchor spot to win her team the title.
"I'm absolutely thrilled with that right now," Franklin told the AP after the race. "That was an incredible relay to be a part of, there's no better feeling coming in behind as an anchor, to come back and win that one was really great for our team.”
So many swimmers know they won’t win an NCAA title, let alone be in the conversation for endorsement dollars or photo shoots or magazine covers. Which is why the NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships is the pinnacle of amateur sport. These swimmers are not in it for fame or fortune. They do not endure the onslaught of 5am practices while their peers sleep and/or party in order to be on posters or cereal boxes or billboards.
NCAA swimmers compete because they are passionate. Not just about the water, but about their school, and about their teammates. The NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships oftentimes feature super-human performances because that’s what happens when you’re swimming for a cause bigger than yourself. The only other time we truly see this is at the Olympics or the World Championships. We see this when swimmers don a swim cap featuring the USA flag, and when they compete for a team bigger than themselves. (See: Lezak, Romano, etc..)
If you’re an age group swimmer and you’re thinking about swimming in college, do these two things:
1.) Check out this latest issue of Splash Magazine. There’s tons of great insight from experts around the swimming community, and many questions can be answered.
2.) Watch this weekend’s NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships. Don’t just watch the performances, but watch teammates behind the blocks. Watch the behind-the-scenes, if you can. Watch the cheers. Watch the interactions. Watch teammates hug each other, high five each other, scream for each other, jump around for each other, and cheer each other onwards.
It’s an inspiring sight, not only because of these great, young athletes putting it all on the line for each other, but also because their reasons for doing so don’t involve endorsements, bracketology, money, fame, or fortune, but simply to compete, to put it all on the line for teammates, coaches, and a team.