pro swimming

The Semi-Professionals Need Their Own Home

It's hard to believe that we are nearly a full year through another Olympic cycle, with Rio a fading memory and Tokyo seemingly approaching at breakneck pace. On the other hand, it's easy to believe when you look at the results of this week's  National Championships and World Trials. 

Team America is the Golden State Warriors of swimming, only if the team won some ridiculous total like 77-5 in Olympic years and then coasted to 60 win seasons the other three quarters of the time. 

The reasons for the slippage make sense. The process of making, then subsequently succeeding as a part of the US Team at the Olympics defies explanation. It is only natural that many of these athletes take some time away from the sport in the aftermath. 

Still it's worth to reflect, even when you're the best, or maybe especially when you're the best. Let's set aside the best from Rio: who are the swimmers that could best be pushing the ball forward in this off-Olympic year?

The answer is the post-graduates, the fifth (or sixth) years, the "semi-pro". There are a ton of capable athletes in this group. Relatively few seem to thrive. The answer is not in the 18 and under crowd, of whom there have been some really nice performances this week, and who deserve continued focus on their long term development.

Where are these athletes training? The opportunities for the most part still exist in some awkwardly grafted-on addition to a college or club team. This is not a successful formula for the group as a whole. 

The older a swimmer gets, the higher level they get to, the harder it gets to push their performance forward. However, the almost all of these "semi pros" exist in an environment where it would be amount to career suicide for their coaches to devote the big time resources to them that they need. College coaches are hired for college results. Club coaches are paid to coach the paying membership.

These swimmers need a true home, something that is actually designed for them, that gives them the resources that they need for elite performance. It is not USA Swimming's job to do this as top down solutions in this area are usually a mild to spectacular failure. 

I've heard a lot of dissatisfaction from the would be sponsors of these athletes. They do not feel they are getting value in return for there sponsorship. This kind of solution would be costly, and it is essential that we identify who is sitting on the sidelines, why they are doing so, and what would be valuable to them in return.

Ultimately, the development of a whole swath of capable swimmers could be a lot better. It will not be easy, but it is possible and, I believe, worth it.

Are you involved in sponsorship of swimming? Write me!

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.