As it has been proven time and time again, swimming does not get the respect that it deserves in the mainstream world of sports. So when I found out this morning that NCAA swim stars Kate Douglass and Leon Marchand were not nominated for the 2023 “Best College Athlete” ESPY award for women’s and men’s sports respectively, I was disappointed but not surprised.
ESPY awards, which are short for “Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Awards”, are accolades presented by the TV network ESPN and handed to the best performers in sports every year. Though the awards show isn’t exclusive to Americans (for example, there’s a “Best International Athlete” award for men’s and women’s soccer. In addition, Zach Edey, a nominee for “Best College Athlete: Men’s Sports”, is Canadian.), it is catered to an American audience and most athletes nominated play sports that are popular in the United States.
Given that winners are chosen by online fan vote, it’s pretty clear that the premise of the awards show is largely based on entertainment, which is why it doesn’t come as a shock that most NCAA-related nominees come from more popular college sports like football, basketball, softball, etc. And besides, swimmers aren’t strangers to ESPYs—Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel both won awards last year, and Olympians like Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, Katinka Hosszu, and Dara Torres as well as Paralympians Jessica Long and Brad Snyder have all either won or been nominated for ESPYs in the past.
That being said, most of the swimmers recognized at the ESPYs were more well-known to the mainstream because of their Olympic or Paralympic gold medals. When it comes to recognizing swimmers beyond their international achievements though, the ESPYs doesn’t do a great job—such as when Ledecky was nominated over Dressel for “Best College Athlete” in 2018, despite the fact that Ledecky was arguably not even the best female NCAA swimmer that year and Dressel posted one of the greatest NCAA Championship performances in history.
And after witnessing the history that Douglass and Marchand made in NCAA swimming this year, the fact that they didn’t even sniff a nomination for an ESPY is evidence that the ESPY nominations are far from an accurate representation of who were the best-performing athletes of the year.
For reference, these were the athletes nominated over Douglass and Marchand:
“Best College Athlete: Women’s Sports” Nominees:
- Caitlin Clark, Iowa — Basketball
- Jordy Bahl, Oklahoma — Softball
- Izzy Scane, Northwestern — Lacrosse
- Trinity Thomas, Florida — Gymnastics
“Best College Athlete: Men’s Sports” Nominees:
- Zach Edey, Purdue — Basketball
- Duncan McGuire, Creighton — Soccer
- Brennan O’Neil, Duke — Lacrosse
- Caleb Williams, USC — Football
All of the athletes listed above have accomplished great things, and I expected most of them to be nominated. Caleb Williams has been called the best NFL quarterback prospect in the last decade. Caitlin Clark‘s performance this year prompted me to write an article comparing her season to that of Douglass. I’ve watched a good amount of Northwestern lacrosse games this year, and Izzy Scane is an absolute human highlight reel—the story of her coming back from an ACL injury to drive her team to a national title and become the country’s leading goalscorer is incredible.
Despite the achievements of the athletes nominated, it still feels wrong that Douglass and Marchand weren’t named alongside them, and this isn’t just a “swimming bias”-fueled argument. Douglass and Marchand are not just the two best swimmers of the 2022-23 season, but they are both generational talents that the sport might never see again. Douglass is arguably the best female swimmer to grace the NCAA since Natalie Coughlin—how many other female athletes this year can claim to be the greatest that their sport has seen in the last 20 years (and as someone who is pretty familiar with the athletes nominated over her, I can confidently say that the answer is “not many”)? Similarly, Marchand has versatility/dominance that has not been displayed before in the modern era of swimming and is constantly compared to Michael Phelps—can you name four other male collegiate athletes that have been called the heir to the GOAT in their sports this year?
💐 Curtain call for Kate Douglass!
— Virginia Cavaliers (@VirginiaSports) May 23, 2023
Furthermore, Douglass and Marchand both set multiple national-level records. Yes, records tend to get broken more often in swimming because it’s a times-based sport. But Douglass and Marchand broke records in three different individual events all in one season, which is a feat that has only been done by three other swimmers in the last century. In addition, both swimmers are the fastest in history in multiple events by a significant margin: Marchand swam a 3:28 400 IM when nobody else has been under 3:32 and is the fastest 200 IMer and 200 breaststroker in history by over a second; while Douglass went a 1:48 200 IM when nobody else has broken 1:50 and is also the fastest women’s 200 breaststroker by over a second.
In other words, if Douglass and Marchand are considered two of the greatest NCAA swimmers of all-time, then why aren’t they being nominated for an award given to the best NCAA athletes of this year alone?
Now, I don’t expect swimmers to suddenly top the totem pole of NCAA sports. And in most years, I can understand why swimmers aren’t nominated for awards like these, especially NCAA-level awards. But in a year where two generational talents dominated swimming and barely got any recognition in the mainstream, all I see is missed opportunity to promote sport as a whole. This shouldn’t serve as an attack against ESPN, but as a reflection on how college swimming can be promoted better by all parties so that it’s greatest talents get the attention that they deserve.
And it’s not like Douglass and Marchand are totally obscure, either. They are both Olympic finalists, and Douglass’s 200 IM NCAA record even caught the attention of former White House press secretary and television host Jen Psaki (acknowledging that she is a former swimmer). In addition, ESPN even did a feature on the Virginia women’s swim team prior to NCAAs. Marchand, on the other hand, is inevitably going to garner international attention at the Paris Olympics next year.
One day, I hope that swimmers stop getting undersold not because they weren’t good enough, but because people don’t understand or take the time to understand how good they are.