Coaches have long careers. Swimmers, especially female swimmers, generally do not. To me, this one distinction has led to some distortion of the relative value of the two.
I understand how foolish it might seem to argue against the importance of coaches on the blog of a business that is literally my name plus the word "coaching". I'll do it anyway- the athletes that do our sport have gotten and continue to get far too little credit.
Before I begin to pump up athletes though, let me address what I am not saying about coaches. I am not saying they are not important, or that they do things to help those they lead in the pool and life. Coaches do matter.
Coaches are also underrated in their own way, but I'm focusing on athletes here. Just as an argument for valuing how important athletes are doesn't mean that coaches lose, the reverse is true. Many coaches are literally underrated by the way they are compensated and treated by those around them.
The people who do the swimming just haven't quite gotten their due. One underplayed story from the story that Ariana Kukors Smith told a few months ago is this: while she was undergoing horrible abuse she set a world record in swimming.
She did this DESPITE the abhorrent "coaching" she was receiving. Even though many fell backwards over themselves to worship her coach and his methods. Kukors was the one actually doing the thing. Imagine how fast she could have been swimming for an average coach?
Likewise, I've found myself reflecting on the career of Tracy Caulkins. She is almost universally in the conversation for greatest swimmer of all time. Now that we know more about what a dirtbag Paul Bergen was, it turns out Tracy Caulkins was even more amazing than we thought.
Too often with these "great" coaches, the results are used to justify their means. The results should belong to the swimmers. There are exceptional people that can succeed despite terrible coaching, they can make their coaches look great.
I was talking to a former swimmer yesterday and I had to admit to him that I screwed it up for him when I coached him way back when. I got in the way. It's little consolation these days to hear that I would do it better now- his swimming career is long over except for some 25s now and then.
I've had that conversation many times over. Again, not to say I haven't helped people but I have realized that a lot of what I thought was "coaching" was me inserting myself (and my ego) into a process that an athlete would have figured out better had I done nothing.
Swimmers deserve more humility from coaches writ large. It would do wonders for the general culture and environment in our sport for coaches to universally recognize how much more important swimmers are and tone down the coach worship a bit.
If we want to empower swimmers to speak up, they need a bigger seat at the table. They need a culture all the way up from the bottom that treats them as the most valuable part of what we're doing.