Jackpot Points, Non-Freestyle Skins, Teamwork: 4 Storylines From the ISL Final


As the 2020 ISL season draws to a close we can now look at both how the events of day 2 of the Grand Final brought each of the four teams to its final standing as well as how the changes made to the season overall impacted the final results and team standings.

Thank you to Barry Rezvin for the stats on jackpot point totals.

Final Team Scores


1. Jackpot Points: A Dramatic Viewing Experience & Paradigm Shift for Scoring

This topic could use an entire article of its own, perhaps multiple, in order to discuss the upsides and potential downsides of jackpot points. If you need a refresher on the jackpot point rules, read this article.

When the season began, jackpot points were somewhat confusing for viewers and they made keeping track of points more difficult than we are used to. Though simplicity usually wins the day, just because something is slightly more complicated or involves a little simple math doesn’t mean it lacks merit. In the case of jackpot points, once a viewer understands how it works it adds excitement to races where one swimmer smokes their competitors.

Runaway victories are not necessarily uncommon when the absolute best swimmers in the world compete head-to-head, but they tend to be less common than you see at a college duel meet, for example, especially in sprint events such as the ISL favors. This could be used as evidence in favor of jackpot points–one swimmer rarely steals everyone else’s points so when it does happen it makes the spectacle of the race more exciting! Whether you agree with that statement or not is beside the point since this is not an op-ed intended to convince you that jackpot points are awesome and a great update to the ISL. There probably is a stronger case to be made that jackpot points make the viewing experience more exciting for people that don’t know as much about swimming, world-class times, etc., but again, not my point.

The Cali Condors were a huge benefactor of the jackpot mechanism, and the meet would have been a lot closer with Energy Standard if Caeleb Dressel and Lilly King hadn’t been awarded so many points that otherwise would have gone to other swimmers–athletes that still finished the race and didn’t get disqualified. However, two swimmers among the top-10 jackpot earners all season represent Iron and one the New York Breakers, teams that didn’t even make the league final.

Top-10 Jackpot Point Earners 2020

  1. 119.5, Caeleb Dressel, CAC
  2. 107.5, Ryan Murphy, LAC
  3. 102.5, Lilly King, CAC
  4. 85.5, Emre Sakci, IRO
  5. 61, Olivia Smoliga, CAC
  6. 58, Siobhan Haughey, ENS
  7. 55.5, Beryl Gastaldello, LAC
  8. 52.5, Nicholas Santos, IRO
  9. 52.5, Sarah Sjostrom, ENS
  10. 45, Marco Koch, NYB

Much of jackpot points, including who reaped the most and who lost the most, is also tied up with the skins. For example, Cali’s Coleman Stewart was one of the top 50 and 100 backstrokers all season and even advanced to the skins final against LA’s Ryan Murphy in the second semifinal meet, as we all remember. There, Murphy bested Stewart by a wide margin and stole Stewart’s points–7 points. Stewart was not deducted 7 points, but the points he could have won had he finished closer to Murphy were awarded to Murphy instead, which is why no athlete truly “loses” points when they are jackpotted so much as they simply don’t win them. Elsewhere throughout the season Stewart was jackpotted for a loss of a total of 15 points, 6 of which came during another skins race, resulting in a season total of -22 jackpot points for Stewart.

At face value, seeing -22 points by Stewart’s name gives the impression that he contributed very little to the Condors when in reality he finished the season ranked 74th in the league with 103.5 points, putting him in the top 25% of all athletes. Seeing how many points swimmers such as Dressel and King “stole” from other athletes, however, begs the question of how the final would have shaken out if the jackpot mechanism were not in place. To take away the jackpot would be a step backwards for the ISL since it promotes a nuanced, flashier version of swimming–“Swimming Re-imagined”–as we’ve heard so many times.

Thanks to the jackpot system, athletes like Dressel, Murphy, King, and formerly under-the-radar newcomers such as Emre Sakci have made themselves legends in the ISL and some of the most valuable swimmers in the entire league with the power to turn the tide of a meet with a single swim–or three.

2. Non-Freestyle Skins Change the Game

In season 1, the 50 freestyle skins was an exciting event featuring a grueling knockout-style series of 50 freestyles that was fun to watch if not somewhat predictable. Then, in season 2, the ISL announced that the winning team of the medley relay would get to decide which stroke the 50 skins races would be, and everything changed.

Dressel would be a vital member of any ISL team with or without the skins, but by broadening the skins to include any of the four strokes it gave swimmers such as Murphy and King the chance to flex in ways they couldn’t last season. King, of course, was undefeated in all three breaststrokes in 2019 in the ISL, but adding breaststroke skins increased her value immensely. And Murphy, while not undefeated in season 1 in the backstrokes was nonetheless one of the league’s top performers, and this season, after winning meet after meet of backstroke skins he has risen even higher in worth to his team.

3. The 4 x 100 Medley Relay Has Become the Most Important Race

Following from the previous storyline, it is fair to say that the 4 x 100 medley relay is the most important race given its influence over the skins which, if a jackpot is hit, could mean a windfall of points for the winning swimmer’s team. In season 1, all relays were given a special reverence as being extremely valuable as they are worth double the points of an individual race. While this holds true in season 2, the medley relay has also seemingly been attributed an additional 27 to 71 points for the skins. Of course, a medley relay victory does not guarantee a skins victory as Adam Peaty proved to Ilya Shymanovich and Energy Standard today, but at least it lets that team and its coaches decide how to best play the skins to their benefit.

4. The Team Still Matters Most

Swimming fans were collectively relieved when the ISL started releasing and publishing results with times so that we could see just how fast the swimmers in the pool were racing. That, for us, is part of the excitement, but for those who don’t know swimming as well it might not mean very much, and from its inception the ISL has stated that it values teamwork over individual glory, which is a reason why extra points and money is not awarded for World Record as it would be in a FINA meet.

Athletes from all 10 ISL teams this season showed spirit and support for their teams, as the 8 original did last season. This may not be especially profound in and of itself, but there is a change in the dynamic and flow of the meet when the individual attention that most swim meets give to champions is taken away.

Of course winning and setting World Records is still a big deal, but there is no pause in the competition for a medal ceremony after each race, no flags raised or anthems played. Instead, athletes dive in, do their business, get out, and move onto whatever else their team needs from them, whether that means standing in the team box and cheering or getting ready for a relay. Standing on a podium and getting a medal is a special feeling, but raising a trophy with your team and celebrating a victory that everyone present had to fight for feels even better.

The ISL is still a business and every victory comes with a cash reward, but the ISL is also one of the few venues where swimmers aren’t clamoring for medals, and that is a change of pace the sport has long been overdue. NCAA swimmers rarely get medals or trophies for their races and are instead focused on a team victory, but to the masses, a gold medal, preferably one from the Olympics, is swimming’s end-all-be-all.

The ISL, though flashy and commercial, has done a good job in its two seasons of getting athletes invested in the success of their team, and this focus on a goal larger than the individual or a medal has made the viewing experience more relatable.

In This Story

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10 months ago

This last point really has been huge. The olympics are very exciting to watch because what is on the line only comes every 4 years, but professional swimming needed something comparable in excitement to NCAA swimming on a yearly basis. I’ve really enjoyed the team camaraderie

10 months ago

As a final bonus event the 2008 Lezak relay busts out their old super suits and fins to prepare for one last 4 x 100 relay. Their competitors this time are against the top four swimmers who swam the fastest splits in the medley relay. To make things fair the Lezak relay swims all freestyle while the legendary squad of Kolesnikov, Peaty, Shields and Dressel all swim in a medley relay.

Thomas Selig
10 months ago

Some thoughts on the season overall and the innovations.

First off, it’s great that the season took place at all. Given the absence of any other significant swimming events this year, it also meant athletes could taper, and we saw some great swimming as a result. I’m going to be having severe withdrawal symptons now :/

The shorter season worked quite well for me. I know the scheduling had issues, but keeping it in a short time frame and in one place added to the excitement/interest IMO. It’ll be interesting to see how it evolves and fits around other events in the calendar. How would a full ISL season look?

I liked the new skins format. I agree with the… Read more »

Reply to  Thomas Selig
10 months ago

In some instances it feels like jackpots reward the winner for the weakness of the field rather than the strength of their swim. The perfect example is Peaty getting no jackpot for a WR while King broke no WRs and hauled in huge jackpots all season because beyond the top few the times fall off a cliff in the women’s breast events. All 3 of the men’s breast events were more competitive and were close to or broke WRs.

Last edited 10 months ago by Troyy
Reply to  Thomas Selig
10 months ago

I agree, Peaty was in a sense penalized for being in a really strong heat.

How to fix that? I’m not sure. I do think there should be bonus points awarded for world records, 10 points maybe.

Ned Flanders
10 months ago

Here’s how you fix it…maybe:
Award jackpot points for relays only.
Award multiplier points where the normal jackpot points are currently and then those multipliers could be used on the relays”

OR have the jack potted points go to a “treasure chest” that can be won on the relays or skins

10 months ago

All of these things contributed to making this season one for the books. This is one of the bright spots of the year for me so big thank you to the ISL. Hopefully these things are kept for the next season (minus loading money in a jackpot).

10 months ago

I was just wondering if anyone had asked what was going on with Ben Proud?

Seems really odd to me that he barely featured for Energy Standard. In my mind on form he unquestionably has a bigger impact than Zhilkin in 50 free and 50 fly.

Last edited 10 months ago by Riccardo
Casas 100 back gold in Tokyo
Reply to  Riccardo
10 months ago

I am wondering about that too!
I know many British swimmers returned to swimming very late, but there are many others who haven’t been back to the pool for too long as well. Vlad only trained for one month and was not doing too bad (still won two or three individual races). And for a swimmer who only swims 50s, the recovery should be *relatively* easier. I think Ben should at least be better than Zhilkin even with a little traibing, but it looks like he’s not, so I’m really wondering whether he has some other problems such as injuries?

Last edited 10 months ago by Casas 100 back gold in Tokyo
Reply to  Casas 100 back gold in Tokyo
10 months ago

Yeah no idea. At his best he is a medal contender internationally in both 50 free and 50 fly and Zhilkin has one international final in the 50 fly. Something else had to be going on.

Casas 100 back gold in Tokyo
Reply to  Riccardo
10 months ago


Last edited 10 months ago by Casas 100 back gold in Tokyo
Casas 100 back gold in Tokyo
10 months ago

One interesting thing is, all the rule changes this year are actually not in favor of Energy Standard. Jackpots and multiple stroke skins hurt them a lot.

Casas 100 back gold in Tokyo
Reply to  Casas 100 back gold in Tokyo
10 months ago

Many people complained about isl making rule changes to make Energy stronger, but I don’t believe it’s the case.
If they studied the results of last year carefully, they will find out Cali can benefit from jackpots a lot more than Energy. Energy’s stars Sjostrom, Le Clos, Manaudou are not swimmers who can destroy the field by a lot.
And they certainly know Energy’s win last year was highly related to their great performances in free skins. (Before the skins they were well behind London.) Changing skins strokes is in no way in Energy’s favor.

Last edited 10 months ago by Casas 100 back gold in Tokyo
Craig Jones
10 months ago

I really like Dressel, and I loved his performances but if the emphasis is on TEAM he simply had too much individual influence on the final outcome. Perhaps some bigger restriction on number of events might make it more team based.

The unoriginal Tim
Reply to  Craig Jones
10 months ago

Restricting the best swimmers from multiple events is lame.

Reply to  Craig Jones
10 months ago

No jackpot and this situation is fixed without restricting number of events…

About Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson originally hails from Clay Center, Kansas, where he began swimming at age six.  At age 14 he began swimming club year-round and later with his high school team, making state all four years.  He was fortunate enough to draw the attention of Kalamazoo College where he went on to …

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