By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
The wait is almost over.
The Olympic fever, building now with increasing fury, is catching. A slate of major fall swim meets are on the horizon. The Pan American Games in two weeks. The first USA Swimming Grand Prix in Minneapolis in 5 weeks. The AT&T Nationals in two months. But the biggest meet happens in Atlanta, at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center in mid-December.
Remember the Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool?
On December 16th, we’ll get a mini-Olympics in the form of Team USA vs. Team “European All-Stars,” hosted for the first time on United States soil since 2005. Tickets are available here.
If you remember in the last “Duel” installment, Team USA absolutely obliterated the E-Stars from across the pond. It wasn’t even close. The final score was 185-78, an embarrassing score for the E-Stars, reminiscent of other Duels (181.5-129.5 in ’07; 190-74 in ’05 against Australia; 196-74 against the Aussies in ’03).
But anyone who has been to the event knows that it’s more than simply pitting two geographic swimming regions against each other and hoping for a close meet. It is, in the words of USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus, “a fantastic celebration of our sport.” In other words, at least to me, it’s less like the Super Bowl, and more like Disney On Ice.
Which is fun.
I remember the first Duel in the Pool ever held. The meet took place in Indianapolis, a stone’s throw from where I attended college. Some buddies and I piled into an old, rusted car and trekked to the IUPUI center, home of so many historic meets on U.S. soil. There, we sat in the stands and watched our own version of a mini-Olympics, featuring the best swimmers from Australia (then our rivals, at least, much more than now) against Team USA.
The atmosphere was electric, even if the meet wasn’t close. It was a production, something that hadn’t been seen in the sport of swimming – possibly ever before. There were lights. Cameras. Bright spotlights. Music. Announcing. It was a high-budget production, and for the casual fan who happened to be attending, it was an experience.
We watched these Olympic-caliber, international swimmers competing just a few hours from where we lived, and I remember thinking, “Man, they should do this more often.”
It’s a unique, fun, festival-like event. For anyone who can’t score tickets to next summer’s 2012 Olympics in London, the 2011 Duel in the Pool might be the next-best-thing. Not necessarily for the competition (because, most likely, it’ll be another blow-out). But instead, like any “celebratory competition,” it will be fun, light, and allow younger swim fans the opportunity to experience a major international meet up-close and personal.
According to the Georgia Tech website, swimmers from “Great Britain, the Netherlands, Austria, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, Denmark, and more” have committed for the European All-Stars. Maybe the meet will be closer than before, but honestly, is that really the point of any All-Star Weekend? Does anyone REALLY remember the scores of any NBA All-Star Game? Or the Pro Bowl?
The only way this meet could ever become better is if the world was divided into two hemispheres – Eastern and Western. Then we could have a true, world-wide, International All-Star Competition. A weekend-long festival. With an underwater 50m competition (think: similar to the dunk-contest). And a belly-flop competition (similar to the home-run derby). Don’t you think people would tune in to see an ultimate Phelps vs. Lochte belly-flop derby? That’s half the fun of any “all-star challenge” – watching the athletes do things they can’t usually do during competitions.
We’ll see if any belly-flopping is on the agenda this time around (I doubt it). But even so, the meet should be exactly as what it is billed to be – a celebration of swimming. It’s not every day that you can see major, international superstars competing in your own backyard. If you’re fortunate enough to live near Atlanta, make plans now to pack into a car, and trek to the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center. Bring a friend.
It’s one of the few spectator-friendly meets in the world. And, having been in attendance as a fan myself back in 2003, I remember how inspiring a simple celebration can be.