The Michigan Water Carnival
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Before you even arrive, echoes from the pep band blasting “The Victors” are audible from 200 yards away. A line of maize-and-blue fans stretch before the entrance. Twenty members of the Michigan dance team arrive discretely through another passage, smiling, excited, draped in Michigan apparel. Bright yellow pompoms abound. Kids and adults wave them excitedly. A PA announcer’s voice booms in welcome as you enter the arena, and take it all in.
Only, this is not a football game. This is not Ann Arbor’s “The Big House.” This is Canham Natatorium, and this is a swim meet.
The 2013 Michigan Water Carnival is one part competition, one part aquatic-based fun, and one-part chaos. In the center pool, the Michigan men’s and women’s swim teams take on Oakland and Iowa in off-beat events, like the “50-yard underwater with fins.” (Kyle Whitaker roused the crowd, victorious in a sterling 17.21.) In the pool to the left, happening simultaneously, a water polo match ensues. Competitors for the first time ever wear T-shirts and fins during the competition. And to the right, in the diving well, circus acts of gravity-defying showmanship diving capture many younger spectators’ eyes. Seconds after Whitaker goes 17-point, a 78-year-old man belly-flops off the 10-meter platform. Seconds after that, a goal is scored in the T-shirt water polo game.
“It’s a madhouse in here,” Tyler Clary, Olympian and former Michigan swimmer, said to those in attendance.
An aquatic madhouse, indeed. The stands were packed, filled with many local age group swimmers donning club team T-shirts (I saw a plethora of “Club Wolverine” shirts). The Michigan pep band blasted a two-hour soundtrack, complete with Journey covers and football-esque fight songs (and yes, it’s equally awesome and somewhat hilarious to see a tuba player sitting in the stands at a swim meet). The dance team performed opposite the stands, both poolside and in the balcony above. The PA announcer, Mike Poropat, who also did announcing at last summer’s World Championships in Barcelona, walked the deck and stands, interviewing coaches, athletes, and fans. (And even asking some hilarious Monty Python questions for us older folks.)
Above the pool, you see Canham’s newest addition: the 2013 NCAA Men’s Swimming and Diving Championship banner hanging dead-middle above the scoreboard. And as you see that, then pan your eyes and see the aquatic “madhouse” before you, and as you learn that the Water Carnival’s organizational efforts were shepherded entirely by the Michigan coaches, you realize one thing:
They didn’t have to do this.
A Fan-Friendly Meet
Michigan is, and has been, a brand name program. When the Michigan swim team hosts meets, loyal fans attend. The swim and dive program’s excitement is nearing a 20-year-high, following last spring’s NCAA Championship and 2012’s Olympic success. In other words: This program and this swim team didn’t need to produce an “aquatic spectacle” to grab headlines.
Here’s evidence: At the Carnival, near the end of the meet, two legitimate world records were broken. The 200 Mixed Relays had been recently ratified by FINA, meaning new world records were up for grabs. This athletic feat in itself – the breaking of two world records – would have garnered the Carnival media headlines.
In addition, fall is a crucial time during the NCAA swimming and diving season – for recruiting, for team bonding, for training, for focusing on the upcoming year. So when you then watch athletes belly-sliding off the 5m platform and swimmers competing in “knock-out 25s” (where the slowest swimmer to the wall is eliminated round-by-round), you have to wonder: Why?
Why are they doing this when they don’t need to be? Why spend the energy, the effort, the attention, the hours of planning? Why not just sit back and tout your NCAA Championship, your Olympic roster, your Michael Phelps connection?
An hour into the Carnival, my question was answered. As I watched the three pools’ action simultaneously occur, a 10-year-old behind me wearing a Club Wolverine shirt turned to his dad and said:
“This is the best swim meet I’ve ever been to.”
Having Fun Is OK
Swimmers grow up fast. Even at 10, they’re pondering far-off goals and conjuring training regimes to accomplish them. Swimmers tend to quickly grow serious and sacrificial about the sport. You should see some of the questions swimmers email me, asking advice about burnout, depression, jealousy, anxiety, and fear. Some of these swimmers aren’t even in middle school.
It’s rare, then to re-capture that essence of what this sport is supposed to be: fun. Oh, teams sometimes break 10-minutes early for an impromptu water polo game. But it’s rare to re-capture that feeling you once had going to the recreational pool with friends. That “summer vacation” feeling of pure enjoyment around the pool. After 20 years of swimming, when I go to any pool, I no longer see a place of Marco Polo and water slides and tag.
I see lap lanes.
What I believe Mike Bottom and the Michigan coaches are trying to do is make people understand that the pool – and places of water – can offer more than 500 freestyles. They want people (especially younger swimmers) to perceive the pool as a place to not only win Olympic gold, but also a place to belly-flop.
The Michigan Water Carnival is probably the only swim meet in the world where it’s possible to witness a world record in one pool, and a senior citizen belly-flopping off the 10m platform in another. It was designed this way – to create a lively environment, to celebrate all facets and imaginative possibilities of the pool, and to show kids that even the best swimmers in the world can have some fun.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USA Swimming and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.