By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Mel Stewart knows a lot about swimming, from being a double gold and bronze winner in Barcelona, to his much read and much talked about SwimSwam.com. He also won gold and silver at the 1991 World Championships, and four gold medals at Mutual of Omaha Pan Pacific Championships. After swimming he acted and served as a reporter for ESPN and ABC. His “Gold Medal Mel” interviews with top athletes are widely viewed and respected. He talks about what has him excited about swimming in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Did you see SwimSwam getting this big, this fast?
Mel: It’s very exciting to wake up each morning and know that the conversation that we’re having on SwimSwam is the same people are having on pool decks all around the world. That’s a great feeling. That was the goal, to be a part of the conversation.
2. As a journalist, I think you were smart to start online and develop that platform rather than try to adapt from a hard copy print format – has being part of social media been an eye opener on content generation and distribution for you?
Mel: That’s what new media does – social media has changed the way news is produced. It’s a lot more of a conversation than it is just reporting a bunch of facts. It works especially well in swimming. While the community appears to be small, it is far, far larger than anyone realizes.
3. You have broken big stories but are always on top of event coverage, too – how do you maintain that speed of news in the 24/7 news cycle?
Mel: Our goal was to move as fast as social media moves. It has served us 99 percent of the time. There have been a few times where trying to be first wasn’t right. It has been a struggle. For us, our biggest struggle is being fast but also having quality control.
4. You have added some impressive people and stayed on top of so many stories, is that growth part of the challenge?
Mel: What you have seen from us is growing very quickly. We want to maintain that momentum, but the biggest thing we want to maintain is quality control.
5. So Michael Phelps is back, how excited were you?
Mel: My reaction, I feel joy, a lot of joy, because I love seeing Michael Phelps on deck. Pure and simple, it’s exciting. My reaction to him returning, and him officially returning, is that no matter how well he performs, it’s good for swimming.
6. People are excited about him possibly being in Rio in 2016, but isn’t just him being back, like you said, important for the sport?
Mel: I think he’s going to have a big impact on the next generation we see, the stars performing in 2016, and the names that develop from ‘16 and swim at the Games in 2020. Michael will be a tremendous mentor.
7. We are starting to see this group from the 2008-2012 quad who were kids become tremendous talents, aren’t we?
Mel: We have seen Michael Phelps change the sport. We have seen his impact with this switch of extremely talented 13 to 17 year olds. They realize that being successful in one event is great, but they realize, “I can do seven to 10 events,” and they do it. He has redefined what success is, and we see it every month on SwimSwam.
8. Put you on the spot: What do you think Michael will swim?
Mel: I would like to see Michael swim the 100 free, the 100 free on the 4 x 100 relay, the 100 butterfly, 100 butterfly on medley relay, 4x 200 freestyle relay. I think he has those five events, and if he performs. I would be happy to see … my prediction is, two golds, two silvers and a bronze. And that’s a conservative estimate.
9. Think that’ll stick?
Mel: I am talking off (laughs) the top of my head, and I will change my mind every six months, and I will report on it every six months! Part of this is making bold predictions because the discussion is happening whether someone chooses to be a part of it or not, and it is a fun, exciting discussion. Even if he did the 4 x 100 relay and nothing else, and got a medal, I would consider that an extraordinary success.
10. His presence on the team would be worth its weight in gold, so to speak?
Mel: If he gets on that relay, he is going to be a leader on that team. I like our 2016 team with him on it. There is a Michael Phelps bump, a Michael Phelps effect.
11. Man, how great was 2012 atmosphere-wise after his Herculean feat and all the nerves on that 2008 team?
Mel: It seemed to me that you could feel the tension in 2008. So much was expected of him. From 2009 to 2011 he seemed a little bit grumpy because he was beating back the media because the media wanted him to be Michael Phelps from 2008 every time he stepped on deck. It appeared that was wearing on him.
12. How big was the change in Michael in 2012?
Mel: In 2012 he started smiling. It’s like he thought, “I’m going to do whatever I am going to do and it’s going to be great.” It appeared in 2012 that he wasn’t just racing for a time, he was racing to win. He seemed happy.
13. How different is he now, in 2014?
Mel: Since he’s taken a break and come back, he seems very, very chill. It’s a little bit different. If you compare him to the Michael Phelps in 2008 in particular, you see how he has matured into this amazing man ready for the rest of his life. And we’re seeing a glimpse now of the ambassador swimming will have for the rest of his life.
14. I saw your team at the NCAA women’s Championships – was it just me, or has women’s NCAAs, especially with Missy and some others choosing to swim in college, become a much bigger event?
Mel: I’ll give you something that might be interesting to readers. I was bracing myself for 2014 NCAA women’s NCAAs, I had very high hopes. I knew women’s NCAA does about half the (Web) traffic as men’s NCAAs, and that’s not fair – that doesn’t reflect what swimming should be. With Missy competing traffic was equal to men’s NCAAs, and the event itself was a packed house.
15. And it gets even more exciting with Simone Manuel and then Katie Ledecky the next year, right?
Mel: With the addition of Simone and Katie Ledecky, it could be a bigger event and draw even more than men’s NCAAs. And it’s not like the men’s NCAAs doesn’t have the great swimmers anymore or isn’t a big deal, because you saw in Austin, it’s still a great event. It’s just nice to see the women’s side get the respect and attention they deserve.
16. I look at Simone and Lia Neal, and it just makes the future so much more exciting, doesn’t it?
Mel: What excites me about that is what we are seeing in our sport – we have made it a goal for swimming to look more like our country. What I see with Simone and Lia, and when I think about what our 4 x 100 relay could be in 2016, it is really a wonderful thing. The diversity is so important because, first of all, it’s a good thing for anyone to be involved with swimming because it’s a healthy lifestyle and it’s good for you. But secondly, if we don’t look more like our nation, we won’t continue to grow. That tells me USA Swimming’s leadership is doing the right thing – what they are doing to develop the sport is working.
17. So I see you at Golden Goggles and NCAAs and you look 29 – what’s a 40-something man do to stay in that kind of shape?
Mel: I am 45 years old. My wife, Tiffany, and I do yoga five days a week. We do that through the winter. That flips with summer when I swim more, and I’ll do more gym and swimming and yoga then three times a week.
18. I remember how hard you worked in TV and with your writing after Barcelona, and you were still pretty intense. You are always smiling now – where’s that sense of contentment come from?
Mel: When I was competing, I was driven to win because I felt like I had to prove things. I was dealing with all those insecurities from my childhood. About the time I won the gold medal, I felt an unexpected emotion – being humbled. Everything was about being thankful. I couldn’t process that at first in my 20s, and in my 30s I started to understand it. You get that little voice in the back of your head, and you have this wife and daughter and all these people who care about you and help you try to make yourself better every day. Hearing that little voice makes me happy. It’s a big reason I came back to swimming.
19. You have a lot of friends in the sport still, don’t you?
Mel: You know, USA Swimming takes some criticism sometimes, because the buck stops with them, but anyone who can see what goes on knows that 99.99 percent of the time they get it exactly right, and the .001 times they don’t is because they can’t please everyone, and it’s not because they don’t try. It’s such a professional crew. I took their management style with me on my own business ventures. A lot of what I learned came from (USA Swimming Assistant Executive Director Mike) Unger and (Chief Marketing Officer Matt) Farrell – it seems like they know almost everything, but once you see them work you see it’s because they have good people around them and they all are willing to do the hard work together to find the answers. I’ll tell you another good one and that’s Debbie Hesse (Executive Director of the USA Swimming Foundation), who is really good about building a coalition around an idea or a movement. She identifies in each person very quickly what their best skill is, and then she helps you get the best out of yourself. You know when you work with her that no matter how bad you do, she’ll tell you first what you did well and then help you improve where you were lacking. And if you do something great, she’ll again point out what you did right, but she’ll find ways that you can make it even better. I love that.
20. Swimming has changed so much, but in good ways, hasn’t it?
Mel: In my day, there were only a few adults who swam into maturity. A lot of the National Team, even though there’s a strong young bunch coming up and the college-age members are incredible, has a lot of professional swimmers. Masters swimming has incredible numbers. So this relationship between people and swimming, and among swimmers, develops this culture and this relationship that lasts a lifetime now. The relationships are longer because people stay in the sport longer, and in most cases they never stop swimming – and ones who do come back to it. The sport has also grown a lot faster than we realized, and that’s because it’s like measuring your kid against the wall as they grow up. You do it often enough, the growth seems smaller. But then you see after a few years this huge growth, and you wonder how it happened. None of us certainly ever looked away, but swimming just continues to grow and grow, and when you see the amazing people coming in, you can’t help but think the future is going to be even more exciting.