"Pro" Swimming in Small Cities

It seems I can’t fall out of bed anymore without reading about another post grad swimmer’s decision to go train with Sergio Lopez. While Lopez’ reputation as a coach is an obvious draw for elite swimmers, the geography of Blacksburg, VA is decidedly less so.

A decade ago, USA Swimming tried to centralize post graduate, or “pro” swimming, in several locations. I’m putting “pro” in scare quotes only because often most professional swimmers are barely making an income off of their swimming.

The “Centers of Excellence” as they were initially called, were resounding failures. The most spectacular of them was one based in Fullerton, California, where Mark Schubert put a man (Sean Hutchison) that he had reason to suspect was sexually abusing his swimmer in charge of a team mainly of young women.

One of the reasons these centers failed was that they were located in somewhat expensive areas to live. The Fullerton site, in Southern California, was particularly egregious. Baltimore is/was still a more expensive than average American place to live. Charlotte, the center that had the most legs as a training site, was the best bargain of the bunch.

Blacksburg, VA, a place I have been multiple times, is not Charlotte, NC or Baltimore, MD. In a world where being a “pro” swimmer meant that you commanded a salary even into the modest six figures, it wouldn’t be the first place (or second, or third) you would choose to base a professional group of swimmers.

That’s not the world we live in, and so Blacksburg and Virginia Tech actually really works. Seeing how well it’s taken off in under a year made me think of some other areas of the country that could actually copy the Blacksburg model.

To me that model has three crucial points. First, you have to have a coach who adult swimmers view as a viable option for them to pursue international swimming success. Second, a city that is big enough that it doesn’t feel like you are trapped in the middle of nowhere. Third, a place that is small enough that cost of living is relatively low.

Or perhaps it’s premature to call what’s happening in Blacksburg a success. But that kind of reasoned, patient take would be absolutely no fun to blog about, so here we are.