On Monday evening, I did a podcast with Coach Mike Thompson of the CoachMike Canadian swimming blog, discussing the youth in swimming and how, even as federations push for ways to keep athletes in the sport longer, the competition seems to still be dominated by youth.
This comparison holds true in the present American Team that will be sent to the Summer Olympics in London this year, on the women’s side at least. For the men, however, it’s the opposite of true. It wasn’t until the last day, and the last finals event, that we signed up our first two amateur swimmers for the men’s roster in Connor Jaeger and Andrew Gemmell in the men’s 1500 free. Even if you extend it to swimmers who just finished college careers in March and haven’t had much time as a true professional, that bumps the list up by only one - Jimmy Feigen.
For all of the potential youth that we’ve talked about making this team in the last year (Tom Shields, David Nolan, Arthur Frayler, Clay Youngquist, Dax Hill) the racing was still dominated by professional, post-graduate athletes. But that’s not necessarily a huge shift, either. In 2008, there were very few amateur swimmers on the roster – Ricky Berens, Dave Walters, and Nathan Adrian were then relay-only swimmers. Scott Spann was a surprise to make the team, and final’ed in the 200 breaststroke. And that appears to be all.
The bigger shift appears to be on the women’s side of the pool – and it’s not in the direction one would expect. By my counts (and there’s no guarantees that they’re precisely accurate), there were only 7 amateurs on the 2008 Olympic Team – Elizabeth Beisel, Elaine Breeden, Kathleen Hersey, Rebecca Soni, Julia Smit, Allison Schmitt, and Christine Marshall. This year, there are a 14.
Part of that is caused by the vacancy left from 6 events that Katie Hoff swam in 2008; part of the explanation could also be that after a rush to turn professional in 2008, we’ve gone back to our youngest swimmers remaining amateurs. The number would’ve been beefed up by three with the addition of Katie Hoff, Kate Ziegler, and Chloe Sutton to the amateur ranks back then. This year, we’ve got only 1 swimmer who are both pros and would still be in college had they not gone pro (Sutton).
But among those 7 amateurs on the women’s team in 2008, only 4 returned to make another Olympic squad, which is a lower percentage than of those who turned pro early (Ziegler and Sutton both made a second-straight team). The numbers aren’t big enough to draw a statistically-significant conclusion, but it seems as though turning pro before college isn’t necessarily as automatic of an end-of-the-road as some might like to make it seem.
The longer-term trends seem to indicate that men’s swimming is still moving toward a more “professional” team; though I haven’t done the math on it, thinking back to the early 2000′s, where the American squads were dominated by collegiate swimmers like Aaron Peirsol and Brendan Hansen. The women’s program, on the other hand, seems fairly stagnant in their pre-graduate ways.
So why the difference in trends between men and women? The first may be that women develop so much earlier, so it’s more natural for high school and college swimmers to contend with their money-earning counterparts. Women also seem to be a bit more hesitant to delve fully into the pro lifestyle after college still, even with increased opportunities. Swimmers like Julia Smit, who retired before this year’s Olympic Trials, are a great example.
So the bigger question here is “why do we care?” We’d all love for our athletes to make money, but just because more pros are making the team, doesn’t mean that they’re making more money doing it, so these numbers don’t necessarily bare out that more swimmers should stick with swimming after they finish college. Financially, with these guys graduating from great universities, it’s a loss on opportunity costs probably half of the time.
The benefit has to do with the long-term successes of the sport. For starters, the more professionals that make the National Team, the more power they have. Professionals are more likely to shift the sport toward collective bargaining for athletes – if over half of our Olympians are amateurs, it will be harder for the few professionals to be taken seriously when they ask for a bigger piece of the pie.
The other side of it is the non-monetary aspects of being a professional. Professional athletes are (usually) more accessible to the media; they’re more visible in their communities; they have more freedom to compete and grow fan-bases. Swimming, as it currently sits, has only two ways to grow: into minority communities, and with an increase of the pure “fanhood” class of the sport. There are a ton of kids in this country who swim competitively, but still only a small portion of those are “fans” of the elite levels of the sport, who might buy a shirt honoring their favorite swimmer rather than their hometown basketball team; or who might buy a ticket to a Grand Prix instead of a Dodgers game.
The qualification numbers don’t show a whole lot of progress in the professional arena, but these numbers aren’t the be-all end-all in the story. Look at attendances (the last three nights of the Olympic Trials topped 12,000 fans). Look at the amount of coverage the sport receives on ESPN – it was a headline story on every episode of SportsCenter over the last week, as well as a topic of discussion on every talking-heads show.
The challenge now becomes how to best parlay the potential benefits into realities. Many of these Olympians are still struggling to pay their bills and feed themselves. That gap is the one that needs to be cleared. At the point to which the sport has now developed, simply putting more or less professionals on an Olympic Team doesn’t even begin to tell the story of what’s going on in professional swimming.