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Three Stories About Swimming

I.     Nerves

An article in last Sunday’s Times discussed the paralyzing fear that afflicts some swimmers on the biggest stages, and the techniques used to combat it. The great Federica Pellegrini of Italy is so scared of the 400 meter freestyle, despite holding the world record in the event, that she often can’t perform well in it. Katie Hoff, a versatile American swimmer, was so overcome by nerves at her Olympic debut in 2004 that she practically drowned. Just yesterday, Aaron Peirsol, who wins backstroke events like Roger Federer wins tennis tournaments, failed to make the final at the 100 meter distance.

I can relate. Much further down the swimming food chain, I often choked in the biggest moments when some wrinkle was thrown at me. The worst of it was the final big event of my college career, the 200 butterfly — supposedly my best event — at our conference championship. Stricken with flu a couple of weeks before the meet, I lost confidence, tightened up, and failed to advance to the final. No chance at redemption. It wasn’t until I started masters swimming that I figured out how to harness all of that nervous energy; at age 30, I swam what was for me the perfect race, achieving a time I’d never before reached. The 200 fly never felt so easy.

Michael Phelps, of course, long ago figured out how to deal with all of this. The Times story tells of how his mother would command him to relax different parts of his body the night before a meet, and how he visualizes his races and the outcome he wants, no matter the obstacle. I’d say he’s been successful. But not even Superman can overcome…

II.     Supersuits and the Corporate Compromise to Competition

Phelps just suffered his first loss in a major international competition since 2005, getting (relatively) clobbered by the previously unknown Paul Biedermann of Germany in the 200 freestyle. The German, who’d previously taken down the legendary Ian Thorpe’s (thought-untouchable) record in the 400 meter freestyle, frankly conceded that his success in both events was attributable to his swim suit, saying that the suits were “destroying a little bit the sport.” In the 400, he guessed that the suit shaved a full two seconds off his time, an eternity in swimming terms.

FINA (a French acronym), the governing body for international swimming, has finally instituted a ban against these suits that turn man into superman, woman into wonderwoman; but it doesn’t go into effect until next year. Until then, expect the parade of soon-to-be-discredited (but not to be stricken!) record-breaking to continue. This Times article is a good summary, and includes a statement by Phelps’s coach that his star won’t swim any more international meets until the playing field is leveled.

Wait! Why wasn’t Phelps wearing one of these hyper-speedy suits, you’re wondering? His suit, the Speedo LZR, is so 2008. Beiderman’s suit is from the next generation; many polyurethanes had to die to create his rubbery boat. But Phelps wouldn’t — or couldn’t—  wear it, because Speedo is his sponsor. So Phelps plods along in a suit that might as well be from the 1920’s, while his less financially successful (and less contractually committed) opponents strap rockets to their backs. It’s not too cynical to ask whether Phelps’ coach, whom I don’t recall complaining about the then-fastest suit his charge was wearing last yeaer, would be as outraged were the swimmer not boxed into a financial corner.

Corporate sponsorship has changed swimming in good ways, most notably by providing swimmers with an income source that allows the continuation of careers that once ended after college.  But now the flip side of allowing swimmers to cash in on their notoriety and corporate connection is clear: The competition has been compromised. Another problem comes into view when, say, a global recession causes sponsorships to shrivel up. Then, even world-class swimmers may find themselves out of the market. Some kind of organizational subsidy by FINA or national swimming organizations seems like a good solution here, but these issues are but two examples of what happens when the suits are effectively running sports.

III.     Not Wearing $1,000 Swim Suits

Today, both of my four-year-old daughters swam across the pool for the first time. Their shrieks of happiness will sustain me for at least a week.

This post was originally published on July 28, 2009. Since then, FINA has changed the rules on these high-tech suits; back to basics it will be.

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