USA Swimming

Addressing the Latest USA Swimming Letter

Addressing the Latest USA Swimming Letter

On Friday evening east coast time, USA Swimming sent out a letter to members. It was their first communication addressing "Safe Sport" since Executive Director Tim Hinchey wrote a letter two months ago.

It has been nearly two months since Hinchey's letter, and each passing day begged the question "what are they actually doing?".

Unfortunately, the answer is not much

The Archive: Mike Unger Knows The Real Victims

The Archive: Mike Unger Knows The Real Victims

n this final edition, I look back at the 2012 Aquatic Sports Convention. This was towards the end of the time that some employees (Chuck Wielgus, Susan Woessner and briefly Mike Unger) attempted to bring me into the fold.

I declined to be co-opted, and Unger's attempt was the one that showed me the depths of hubris that lay in Colorado Springs

Does USA Swimming Want Big Clubs?

Yesterday, USA Swimming announced its Club Excellence Results for 2018. Nations Capital Swim Club led the rankings for fourth consecutive year. 

There are a lot of critics of the rankings. The biggest criticism by far? That the rankings favor not just large clubs, but the biggest of the big. 

I've never coached a true USA Swimming club, and my livelihood doesn't depend on these rankings. But I know a lot of people that do. So I want to examine the purpose that USA Swimming sees behind ranking clubs in this way, and whether the criticisms are fair.

Ranking is Good

First off, let me acknowledge one obvious but probably understated fact. Ranking clubs is the right thing to do for a national governing body like USA Swimming.

I coached club swimming outside of the US in Denmark, and one of my primary frustration was that we didn't even have scored meets. Medal count (1st,2nd and 3rd) was the primary marker for deciding on how clubs stacked up.

Because of this, clubs were motivated to produce "medalists", and in my opinion, less than focused on helping swimmers who were not potential medal winners on the national level.

That medal focus meant a lot of squandered opportunity for Danish swim clubs. What is important in the US context to recognize is that if USA Swimming did nothing to rank clubs, there would still be some ad hoc way that clubs measured themselves against each other, and it would probably be worse (like medal count). So credit to USA Swimming for stepping into the void.

What Do We Want?

USA Swimming has some stated goals for the program. Let's take them one by one:

"Promote the development of strong, well-rounded age group..." Pretty simple, they want to avoid teams focusing on a small number of swimmers. However, the rankings do not account for age whatsoever. The assumption made by USA Swimming is that producing the high level results necessary for scoring in the program is a byproduct of "well rounded age group" training.

"and senior swimming programs that produce elite 18 & under athletes." They also want senior swimming and "elite" junior swimmers. The standards used for scoring are designed for these athletes, with the "gold times" specifically set to international world rankings from the previous year. 

"Provide recognition and resources to motivate and assist member clubs to strive for the highest ideals of athlete performance". They believe these rankings will promote the two above goals.

So Tell Me How It Works Again...

If you're confused, so was I the first 100 times I tried to understand this program. Let me try and give one case of how NCAP got such a high ranking this past year.

The "points" scored are "FINA Points". FINA points are built on a scale where 1000 is equal to a world record swim. So for example, in the 200 Butterfly, a 1000 point swim is 1:51.51, the same as Michael Phelps world record. 

Confusingly, USA Swimming has its own, similar, "power points" system that is not FINA points, which you can find when you do a time search for a swimmer. 

Anyway, one of the biggest reasons NCAP got a high ranking was Sam Pomajevich. The University of Texas freshmen swam a 1:57.62 in the 200 fly this past summer. That swim gave him 852 FINA points.

Because that time also achieved the club excellence "gold" ranking, that total was doubled, meaning Pomajevich scored 1704 points (NCAP's total was 91,597) with just one swim. A swimmer at Pomajevich's level alone can account for tens of thousands of points in this scoring system.

What Does It All Mean?

It's hard to think of a system that doesn't reward club size. Having a large club with large membership, by sheer probability, increases the likelihood of both there being a swimmer like Pomajevich and a lot of swimmers at the senior level who can achieve these time standards. If the rankings were changed to account for "depth", larger swim clubs would likely have an even bigger advantage.

These rankings ought to have more thought, however. Large clubs are definitely a more successful business model, and consolidation is happening because of that. But USA Swimming doesn't need to provide an additional boost of marketing to this end.

Large club size is not how American swimming dominates internationally, in fact it is the inverse. We are dominant because we have many places where excellence can grow, not increasingly fewer, coupled with a huge population base.

Small countries that punch above their weight (Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands) do so because they create an astounding amount of opportunity for both athletes and coaches despite their small population base.

China flounders for its population base because despite a huge investment in outside coaching and chemicals because you have to be elite of the elite to get access to top notch coaching, and there appear to be almost no development or opportunity for domestically born coaches within their system.

Likewise, Russia would probably have some incredible clubs in this ranking system. Their focus on producing "elite" juniors with similar tactics to the Chinese has payed off at the European Junior level. But they are pathetic on the international senior stage, and again must rely heavily on coaches outside of their system to take swimmers to a top international level.

All food for thought as we ponder another year of "club excellence". Do we want big clubs? I say no, and it's up to us to put pressure on USA Swimming to come up with something better.




Professional Swimming Starts From the Ground Up

Let me first say that Katinka Hosszu is absolutely right. Swimming is not a professional sport. Although she herself has been able to make a profession out of it through pure prize money, and yet others have strung together enough sponsorships to stay afloat, there is nothing resembling what we consider a true professional class in swimming.

She is right to rail against FINA, which is absolutely corrupt to the core and disinterested in creating a professional sport. Likewise, we should not look to the governing bodies, who invest far more heavily in non-swimming personnel than directly funding athletes. She is right to say that "it has always been right in front of us"

Swimming is a sport where sizable amounts of money changes hands, but surprisingly very little of it gets into the pockets of the people who add the most value to the sport. The bureaucracies we have in place are designed to enrich a select few, and leave the rest fighting each other over scraps.

It's not surprising that some swimmers whined and complained for the rule changes to World Cups that hurt someone like Hosszu. They are fighting for the survival of their meager professional careers. Two things are obvious:

A swimmer of Hosszu's stature should not have to compete for prize money to make a living in the first place. She is right to be firing off at the power players in Hungarian Swimming, who have had little to do with her success but nevertheless are enriched for it while she hustles every weekend.

When I coached in Denmark, Lotte Friis, the woman who almost beat Ledecky, was barely able to sustain her swimming career to the 2016 Olympics. I helped to broker a meager sponsorship through a private donor to help her continue to train and prepare. What did we get in exchange? We got our club represented by one of the most selfless, wonderful athletes our sport has ever seen. 

Many were critical. "What a waste of money" they said. I couldn't disagree more. We should all, from the ground up, be looking for ways to support the elite athletes of our support to a manageable level. My only regret was that we weren't able to find a way to support Lotte more. Only then will we see more athletes with the security to put on a show the way Hosszu has done for so many years.

Only when we make it inevitable from the very bottom of swimming's bureaucracy do we have a chance of breaking the stranglehold of corruption that holds all of us down. We cannot wait for federations, or USA Swimming, or FINA or (ugh) ASCA.

Athletes may form a union, but that union will be useless unless the rest of us, the rank and file of the swimming world, rally behind them wherever we can. We need to see supporting the top level of swimming as valuable to every level below it, not as some petty waste of resources.