Pros vs. Joes on US Olympic Swim Team

  40 Braden Keith | July 03rd, 2012 | Featured, National, News, U.S. Olympic Trials

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.

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40 Comments on "Pros vs. Joes on US Olympic Swim Team"


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swimmomsays
4 years 26 days ago

good article i believe on TV last night NBC said the average age for the women’s team is 21 and 26 for the men’s. the difference developmentally that makes sense. they are seeing the same trend in tennis. players are peaking later in their twenties now esp women. not seeing a lot of 16 yr old major winners anymore. I think it’s physical conditioning outside the pool that college and elite older athletes have access to. Look at the condition Torres was in and other 40 year olds are capable of. it’s not just more or better pool training, it’s dryland. Often the girls are not weight training either until college. pro or not it appears to come down to strength and out of the water conditioning. especially this is notable in the 50 to 200s. average age much older. the top jr national girls were absent from those finals. anyone can’t think of another explanation why they fell off the map other than experience and conditioning. the longer races exception bc the older swimmers tend to specialize and drop those in favor of shorter bc of recovery.

swimmomsays
4 years 26 days ago

also consider training methods used by elite clubs and coaches? my teen sprinter is still training with the old garbage yardage method. I have heard several times the top sprinters say I am doing well bc we race each other every day at practice. notice the number of swimmers coming out of the big programs on the team. is that usual?

Alex H
4 years 26 days ago

The aerobic base is par of what is needed to do well in the 100 Free long course. The 50 times in trials show that the sprinters are fast, but maybe aren’t able to train hard enough to be sub 48 swimmers. When all rounders like Lochte and Phelps are amongst the faster 100 swimmers, you probably need more than quality racing in practice…

PsychoDad
4 years 26 days ago

“It has been found that high volume pre-pubescent anaerobic work results in insignificant long-term anaerobic improvement for young athletes (10-13 years).” Working on the aerobic base is what your teenage daughter should be doing. Also, who qualified your teen as a “sprinter?” I also bet her favourite strokes are freestyle and backstroke.

Dave Salo does not believe in high volume yardage, but I don’t see him producing sprinters either. Sonny lost 100 breast by the way. I hope someone is taking a look at what Austrialians are doing.

Mikey Isuzu
4 years 26 days ago

Regarding Dave Salo and sprinters, he currently coaches Jessica Hardy and has worked with Jason Lezak in the past. Lezak is a big fan of Salo’s approach and has been successful with it as a sprinter.

Jean Michel
4 years 26 days ago

Veryy good point Alex !!! need to be deepened for sure in some training clubs ….

bobo gigi
4 years 26 days ago

Why are there so many young australian sprinters in the 100 free who are very fast and most important who improve very quickly compared to the best young american sprinters who at the same age are almost 1 or 2 seconds slower? They are all men, they have the same age. Is the sprint training not very efficient in USA? Is there a secret in Australia? If somebody could explain me the reasons I take them because I’m very surprised by the overall bad american level in the 100 free for many years now and especially the lack of new talents. I think the biggest talent on sprint in USA since 2000 is Anthony Ervin. And I’m happy to see him again in the water. But since him in 2001 no american sprinter has won a big competition in the 100 free. And same lack of results on the women’s side for many years now. It’s curious that the 100 free which was so strong before in USA with historic champions is now a weak race.

newswim
4 years 26 days ago

I think there are two different questions here. One, is why the Australians seem able to develop sprinters at a young age and the other is why the older US sprinters seem to only excel in sprinting. I cannot answer why Australia has produced a handful of world class sprinters at a relatively young age since I’m not very familiar with their training (or more correctly the training for the dominant Australian clubs). On the US side, most age groups program shy away from training and emphasize either IM or distance type training. There are exceptions no doubt but they are the minority. Also most age group programs in the US are only now slowly adopting dryland which may be another factor.
However, one would expect the post grad US swimmer to excel at sprints with strong emphasis on dryland and speciality training. Are the US key post grad programs putting too much emphasis on dryland/strength training at the expense of the endurance required for a world class 100 long course free? I DONT believe its too much focus on SCY since the overwhelming majority of post grad programs have a LCM focus.

newswim
4 years 26 days ago

*I mean excel in the 50 only…..

aswimfan
4 years 26 days ago

In swimming, I believe things go in waves and cycles.
Just look at Australia: 15-6 years ago, their men middle/distance were the most dominant in the world, and now, they almost didn’t qualify for 1,500.

the state of sprint in the USA is not that bad, relatively it looks bad just because USA has set the standard very high for themselves in most events.

Also, these days, more and more older US male swimmers stay in the sport, and this makes it very difficult for younger swimmers to have a breakthrough unless they are truly exceptional talent. And even for exceptional talent like Ryan Murphy, he couldn’t even get himself into the national team to accelerate his development further.
Had Murphy been any other nationality, say an australian, he would have gotten into their olympics team, and into their national team at a younger age.

Danielle
4 years 26 days ago

“This year, we’ve got no swimmers who are both pros and used up less than their full share of college eligibility.”…What about Hersey?

newswim
4 years 26 days ago

Also Clary….he left Michigan early to join FAST

tallswimmer
4 years 26 days ago

Someone mentioned in another thread, here or collegeswimming.com, about the negative effect that the NCAA has on our LC 100m Freestylers. The NCAA puts such a premium on relays and sprints, that it does not translate well to the 100 Free. There’s so much more swimming (as opposed to turns) long course, that those who do well in college generally struggle with the 100 long course. Also the reason, as was mentioned, that Phelps and Lochte, two Mid-D guys, do such a good 100.

PsychoDad
4 years 26 days ago

Also, college coaches “discovered” underwaters. They recruit 5’7” backstrokers who can streamline their way through 100 and 200 backstroke but are non-factor in LC.

newswim
4 years 26 days ago

I disagree….I don’t think its due to the emphasis on SCY….if so then backstroke would be our weakest stroke because that is the stroke where the turns have the biggest factor, all other things equal (such as speed). Just look at the conversion charts. Yet, we are quite strong in backstroke both at the high school through post grad and I would argue its BECAUSE of the emphasis on SCY.
Further if there were true then our 50 LC should also be weak. I suspect the reason is the kind dryland that our elite sprint programs use…..just a theory.
Middle distance free, really the 400, is a different story. I think the US weakness is due to the cycles that ASSwim refers to elsewhere here.

aswimfan
4 years 26 days ago

I’m curious about David Nolan.

What happened to him?
Is his LCM THAT bad compared to his SCY?
Or did Stanford have THAT bad of an effect to him?

newswim
4 years 26 days ago

Look at his previous LC bests….compare them to his most recent swims. Look at the trend beginning with last summer, before he joined Stanford . You should find your answer in those data points.

don
4 years 26 days ago

You are simplifying things and it is not that simple. You need to take into account freshman year, training and the individual. I saw an interview with Nolan before he went to Stanford and frankly, he looked burned out. For a kid that loaded with talent, he was flat when it came to swimming. I was hoping the atmosphere might be what he needed.
Everyone thinks it is just talent and potential but its not. It is heart too and if that is missing and you don’t have that extra X factor,you will be a really ,really good swimmer but not a great swimmer.
Look at Erik Vendt. not the most talented but incredible, work ethic, heart, determination and guts.
Don’t go blaming the program. I saw Nolan and he looked pretty good, probably in a good place.

bobo gigi
4 years 26 days ago

About the bad results of american sprinters for many years now in the 100 free I see the facts. I’ve made some research and correct me if I’m wrong but it’s impressive. The last time an american sprinter has won a big international competition like world championships or olympic games in the 100 free on the men’s side was Anthony Ervin in 2001. And on the women’s side it was Nicole Haislet in 1991. It’s incredible when we know all the historic american champions who have won this race before. And this losing streak will not stop this year.

bobo gigi
4 years 26 days ago

Ok it’s Nicole Haislett.

aswimfan
4 years 26 days ago

Bobo,

You are incorrect.

The last american woman to have won worlds/olympics 100 free was the legendary Jenny Thompson in 1998 Worlds in Perth.

The last american woman to have won 100 free olympics were Nancy Hogshead and Carry Steinseifer in the boycotted 1984 LA Olympics in a not so impressive 55.92 when the WR from 1980 was 54.79

The last American man to have won 100 free Olympics was the legendary Matt Biondi in 1988 Seoul, after clocking an amazing 48.42 WR in US trials in Austin.

Here’s some of legendary American 100 free gold medalists:
Duke Kahanamoku, Johnny Weissmuller, Don Schollander, Jim Montgomery, Rowdy Gaines, Matt Biondi.

Nathan Adrian needs to step up.

bobo gigi
4 years 25 days ago

Ok thank you for the correction about the last american woman. You are an encyclopedia! But admit even 1998 it seems such a long time ago. 2001 on the men’s side and 1998 on the women’s side, it’s incredible for the biggest team in the world.

bobo gigi
4 years 25 days ago

And yes 48.42 in 1988 looks absolutely amazing if we compare with overall times today.

cupofjoe
4 years 25 days ago

I find it amusing that whenever the U.S. comes up with a week event in an Olympic year everyone starts looking for reasons. I will tell you why Australia has better sprinters than us right now: James Magnuson. Just like in the late 90’s and early 2000’s we were saying the same thing about Australian distance swimming. The truth was Thorpe and Hackett were just BETTER than anyone we had. Look at them now. No great male distance swimmers in the past three years. And during that period of Australian dominace we had Janet Evans, Brooke Bennett and later Ziegler on the women’s side. So what is it–we knew how to coach women and not men? Come on. And to blame college swimming for our weakness in springting is a joke. It’s just the opposite. Remember we had Biondi, Jager and we won the 400 free relay in 08 and 09. Was Biondi benefitting from superior coaching or was he just better? Why would we be so good in the 100 back and 100 fly and not the 100 free? I believe that a great American sprinter will come along in the next few years and all the talk will stop. America has had dominant swimmers in every event at some point over the past 30 years and the talent goes in cycles. Do you really think that America has better IM coaching than anyone else? I’m sure most people realize that Lochte and Phelps are just better.

Kori
4 years 25 days ago

Co-signed

aswimfan
4 years 25 days ago

I agree with this.

Swimming goes in cycle, although the cycle in US swimming is much shorter than any other country due to large swimming population base, great facilities and coaching, etc, and thus new talent is always coming up whenever an older champion retires.

It just so happens that new sprint great talent is coming up a bit late than in any other events (but then again, the men middle/distance actually fares a lot worse).

bobo gigi
4 years 24 days ago

Yes but I talked about the 100 free. It’s curious. 2001 on the men’s side and 1998 on the women’s side. It looks an eternity for USA. And I don’t see the streak with an end in the next years with the australian rockets on the men’s side. For me the only american swimmer who can break this streak before 2016 is Missy Franklin if she specializes in this race.

Rafael
4 years 24 days ago

and if Tang Yi and Kukla/McKeon does not show they can become much better also.. even with the youngsters on 100 free Missy is not “alone” as a future star.

Who is younger? missy or kukla?

bobo gigi
4 years 24 days ago

Yolane Kukla is a little younger but excuse me in terms of pure talent Missy is by far ahead of the other swimmers. Now if she wants to dominate this race she will have to train only on sprint. And I don’t think it will be the case. She’s an all-around swimmer and I believe she wants to stay an all-around swimmer.

aswimfan
4 years 24 days ago

Missy has much more upside than Kukla.

Kukla is much shorter than Missy, and cannot get much faster.

Among australian young talents, I think Emma mckeon, Bronte Campbell and Brittany Elmslie have greater potential than Kukla.

And don’t forget that Sjoestrom is still 18 yo!

junker23
4 years 24 days ago

This is a thing I was going to say.

The US’ll be OK. Could be better, could be worse, but we’ll be OK.

WHOKNOWS
4 years 22 days ago

There were many “pro” female athletes that ventured to FAST starting at the end of 2009. It seemed as the athletes were doing well…. then turmoil happened! These girls were left out in the cold and they searched all over the USA for a training program jthe year ust before the OlympicTeam Trials. I say that if this program had continued it pattern of success, many of these “LOST” females would have made the Olympic team.

don
4 years 22 days ago

I agree, most of those girls went to swim with Hutchison and when he split, some stayed with Urbanchek who has a different style and methods.So many of those girls were in limbo, not sure what to do or where to go. It is really a shame that program succumbed to the drama of Hutchison and Jewell, .Good thing Urbanchek was there to pick up the pieces and provide stability,couldn’t have been easy for him.

JackedAndTan
4 years 20 days ago

Thank you, CupofJoe! It’s beyond funny reading these comment threads with pseudo-experts spreading their wild theories. I’m gonna point out Bobo Gigi, just because his are the easiest to argue against.

There is no such thing as cycles or “an eternity since last victory”. Dominance is not something you choose for to happen. Becoming Olympic/World champion takes a combination of many factors, not just talent, not just looking to and imitating what (insert whatever country is dominating that particular event right now) are doing. America may right now be filled with freak athletic talents who could all go 46 in the 100 free, they just happened to pick up football, judo, crime or basket weaving. Or perhaps they just stayed on the couch. Who knows?

America isn’t “destined” to be great at 100 free. As long as there is freak talent out there somewhere else (Popov, Hoogenband, Cielo etc), America will never ever again in the history of swimming win the 100 free. All it takes is one at a time, that doesn’t mean “America is doing something wrong”. And I personally don’t think Adrian has what it takes. He’s very good, just not freakish.

And this whole “she needs to train for this and that if she wants to win”. Haha, you’re talking about humans as if they were machines. Program them to do this, then they’ll respond. Doesn’t always work that way. Matt Grevers went to Arizona as a backstroker, trained a whole year for the 100 free, knowing that was his best chance to make the 08 team. His body responded by improving in backstroke, go figure.

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The most common question asked about Braden Keith is "when does he sleep?" That's because Braden has, in two years in the game, become one of the most prolific writers in swimming at a level that has earned him the nickname "the machine" in some circles. He first got his feet …

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