The American Swimming Team – Dominant or In Decline?

  22 Gold Medal Mel Stewart | October 17th, 2012 | Featured, National, News

Chuck Warner, author and coach, is an old friend. Thoughtful and passionate about the sport, he has studied the details behind what it takes to achieve swimming excellence.

CHUCK WARNER: Lessons From Legends

By any account the American Swimming Team’s performance in London, represented by the 2012 USA Men’s and Women’s Olympic Team was one of the most dominant in Olympic history.

The USA brought home 31 total medals equaling the combined total of the next three most successful countries, Japan, China and Australia. In gold medals the USA was even more dominating; eight gold medals for men, eight gold for women, compared with two for the Chinese men and three for their women. Australia could only muster a gold in the women’s 400 free relay and Japan didn’t win a gold medal at all.

American Swimming has been celebrating ever since and rightfully so. But the American Swimming Team is much more than the Olympic team. It is a wide pyramid of athletes, coaches and swim clubs challenging one another to become faster. How successful was the entire “team” over the last four years?

One way to look at the benefits of having great competition in America is to look at the USA’s success a step or more below the Olympic medals. A good first step below Olympic medals is to analyze the events in which America had three of the top ten ranked swimmers in the world and how it translated into Olympic medals.

USA Men’s events in 2012 that had three of the top ten world ranked swimmers and Olympic medal production:

  • 50 Free (4!) – Silver
  • 200 Free – no medal
  • 1500 Free – no medal
  • 100 Back (4!) – Gold & Silver
  • 100 Fly – Gold
  • 400 IM – Gold

In the women’s competition the transfer of events with three US swimmers ranked in the top ten to winning medals is even stronger:

  • 400 Free – Silver
  • 800 Free – Gold
  • 100 Back – Gold
  • 200 Back – Gold & Bronze
  • 100 Breast – Silver
  • 200 IM – Bronze

If competition at the very top of the pyramid helps Americans win medals then looking at a step down the pyramid may be cause for concern. The average number of USA men ranked in the top 100 in the world dropped from 22.6 in 2008 per event to 17.7 in 2012. In the men’s 100 backstroke the USA had 33 of the top 100 in 2008 but only 18 in 2012. Even so there was a one-two sweep in both Games by the red-white and blue. With five less Americans in the top 100 in the world in every event the Olympic results didn’t look much different from 2008 with a drop off of just one total medal and one gold medal.

A look at the women’s world rankings over the last four Olympic years shows the American women in 2012 at their lowest average yet. In 2000 the USA had 23.6 average in the top 100, in 2004 22.7, in 2008 24.6 and the average in 2012 the top 100 dropped to 21.69. The biggest drop was in the women’s 200 freestyle from 30 in the top 100 in 2008 to 20 in 2012.

Obviously the drop in the women’s overall depth at the world level didn’t seem to hurt an Olympic performance that was one of the very best in history. The six individual gold medals from the American women was triple the number in 2008 and equal to the combined gold medals from the 2000 and 2004 Games.

We all know that great swimmers come from all over the world, therefore having a decreasing number of Americans in the top 100 in the world could be acceptable. But should it be?

Despite the improvement in programs around the world America continues to have by far the most assets in terms of number of swimmers and access to facilities to train and compete in the world’s largest age-group swimming program. Perhaps the greatest advantage in America is a collegiate system, unlike any other in the world, which provides both incentives and opportunities to combine a college education with developing as a more mature physical and emotional athlete.

Therefore can the USA improve it’s world class depth by increasing the number of top 100 swimmers in the world? Wouldn’t that help us improve our chances at Olympic medals?

Each time an LSC improves it’s contribution to the number of Americans ranked in the top 100 in the world, it improves the chances of America having three swimmers in the top ten in the world and consequently the chances of winning Olympic medals. You make a difference and your team makes a difference to our Olympic success even if you don’t ever get to the Olympic Trials. Cooperative competition at every level is the key to challenging swimmers through the pyramid of the American Swimming Team  and leads to dominance at the Olympics.

Do you have too many obstacles to make a contribution? Too little pool time, parents get in the way too much, or not enough talent? For nearly 100 years that might have been said about swimmers coming out of the state of Maine. There had never been one that had ever made a US Olympic Team. But that changed too. A high school teenager named Ian Crocker, his supportive parents and Coach Sharon Powers helped hurdle the barriers to success. Here is a short excerpt from the book …And Then They Won Gold to help describe some of the obstacles in front of the first Olympic swimmer to ever come from the state of Maine.


No response other than the customary “noise.”

“Ian!” Gail Crocker yelled louder from the living room of their home.

 Ian’s time after school and before swim practice was dominated by his diligent approach to learning how to play the guitar. He had taken some lessons in eighth grade, but they were hard to sustain with his swim schedule. Fortunately, Ian’s teacher taught him how to learn notes by ear. As a result he was developing the ability to quickly connect the music from the radio to the guitar strings, the strings to his fingers and his fingers to his brain. Ian had fantastic concentration—when the activity was something he enjoyed. More often than not, hours of guitar practice would pass before his mother called him for dinner while to Ian it had felt like he had just arrived home a few minutes before.

“Dinner already?” Ian yelled. He heard his mother walk up the stairs and down the hall toward his room. She knocked on his bedroom door.

Gail opened Ian’s door and stuck her head inside his room. Ian stopped playing the guitar, leaned back in his bed and waited. “Sharon just called. There’s fecal matter in the pool. Practice is canceled tonight.” 

“Fecal matter?” Ian questioned. “Mom, you mean someone pooped in the pool again.”

 “Well, yes.”

Every few weeks a child in the preschool program seemed to have an “accident” in the Reiche Pool, and by regulation it had to be shut down for at least 24 hours.

“We’ve missed three practices in the last three weeks,” Ian complained.

 “Make it four, dear; they won’t get it sanitized until tomorrow afternoon. So you guys are out of there tomorrow morning too.”


 “We’re supposed to have 12 inches of snow tonight, so at least it saves your dad another 4 a.m. bout of shoveling of the driveway.”

At 17 years old Ian Crocker became the first Olympic swimmer to grow up and train in the state of Maine. He joined other high school age swimmers Michael Phelps and Aaron Peirsol on the 2000 Men’s Olympic Team. Like the remarkable improvement of Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin in London, few people would have predicted the type of Olympic success that they had. Ian Crocker ended up earning a spot on the USA 400 Medley Relay and was asked to hold off an Australian charge on the butterfly leg. It was the last event of the Sydney Olympics and the American men had yet to win a relay gold medal. This is what it looked like:

Legendary Mullings:

… Four Years ago, Coach Todd Schmitz and Coach Yuri Suguiyama were not well known in coaching circles. This year they will be speaking all over the world, including Moscow in November, on how they coached Missy Franklin and Kate Ledecky. Who will be in those shoes in 2016?

Chuck Warner has been a swimming coach for more than forty years. His teams have won seven national Y team championships, been runners-up for the NCAA Division II championship three times, been a USA National Team coach three times and Big East Conference coach of the year four times. Chuck has authored two books: “Four Champions, One Gold Medal” about the training and race for the 1500 meter gold medal in the 1976 Olympics. “…And Then They Won Gold: Stepping Stones To Swimming Excellence – Volume I” is out now. It is eight short stories of some of the greatest male swimmers in history. The second volume devoted to women’s swimmers is due out next year. He is the founder, President and CEO of Arete Aquatic Services and owner of the ARETE Swim Camp.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON ORDERING“…And Then They Won Gold” go and access “Books/Media.”

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22 Comments on "The American Swimming Team – Dominant or In Decline?"

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4 years 9 days ago

I think the women are still dominant; many of the top swimmers have not peaked yet. The men will naturally lose a bit of dominance with Phelps retiring. The men did well at Junior World/Pan Pacs but I noticed NCAA’s were relatively slow this year, so there may be a bit of a lull until some of the juniors move up to try to fill in the slack left by Phelps retiring.

4 years 9 days ago

Interesting stats. Wonder if there is a correlation in the number of international athletes training in the U.S. in college in the four years leading up to the 2008 Games versus the number training in the U.S. leading up to the 2012 Games. I suspect this may account for some decrease in the top 100 times representation; just a hypothesis.

Craig H
4 years 9 days ago

Sorry to be THAT guy, but why is everyone suddenly using “dominate” as an adjective? I’ve been seeing phrases like, “Is he as dominate as he used to be?” all over the place recently. Last I checked dominate was still the verb form, as in “to dominate,” where as dominant is the adjective.

Sorry, pet peeve I guess, sort of like not tightening the lane lines enough.

4 years 9 days ago

I’ve noticed that too! It’s all over Facebook and twitter misspelled like that.

4 years 9 days ago

Well, the state of Maine is cold and small that’s why no 50 meter pool. New Yorkers and New Jeresey people moved to Virginia and North Carolina and Florida for cheaper living.That’s why swim Mac has developed in the new sunbelt. Granted, North Virginia isn’t cheap.

4 years 9 days ago

In that YouTube clip Ed Moses had a pretty blatant butterfly kick coming off of his turn so I guess Kitijima was not the first one to get away with that in a race for Olympic gold

4 years 9 days ago

Usa swimming needs to read the us census to find growing areas of young people and children.

bobo gigi
4 years 8 days ago

Excuse me but when I have watched the olympic games and as a swimming fan I was very impressed by the american team. Your results have been fantastic. These are facts. Which other sport in USA can bring 16 gold medals? You have destroyed the entire world. Of course with the retirement of Michael Phelps it will be tougher on the men’s side in the next years but plenty of young and talented swimmers are coming. And there are no problems on the women’s side with your young stars. Yes other nations are improving like France only on freestyle, Japan, China, yes there’s a much bigger opposition from all over the world but at the end the american team continues to dominate and 2012 will stay as one of the most dominant years in the american swimming history.

Jean Michel
4 years 5 days ago

totally right !!! Great Us team it was in London . and fortunately i knew it and saw it coming .

bobo gigi
4 years 8 days ago

Just a question. How many swimmers are there in american clubs? It’s just to compare the swimming base with here in France. The number is tough to find here in my country but I believe it’s around 250 000-300 000. If I count well with the 5 more bigger american population it would be around 1 250 000-1 500 000. Thank you for the answer.

bobo gigi
4 years 8 days ago

Excuse me for my english. I’m correcting. If I relate this number with the 5 times bigger american population it would be around 1 250 000-1 500 000 in USA. But I believe it’s much less. Thank you for the information.

4 years 8 days ago

The USA Swimming athlete membership number is just about 300,000. Chances are there will be an Olympic “bump” perhaps pushing it over the 300k for the first time. The number has doubled since 1988.

bobo gigi
4 years 8 days ago

Thank you for the information. It’s not a big number for a country with a population above 316 000 000 people. Your olympic results are all the more impressive.

4 years 7 days ago

There are also a lot of recreational league and high school team swimmers who compete outside of USA Swimming-sanctioned meets, and may not be registered with USAS.

4 years 8 days ago

Wild to see the team I am coaching (PPSC) mentioned in this article. And I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Ian, he is one of the nicest guys in the world! I happened to bump in to him once out around town and he talked to me for 20 minutes like I was his lng-time neighbor! When we talked he did reference the affor mentioned, “brown outs”. I have been lucky that we have had only 1 in 4 years.

Everyone should see Reiche someday…four lanes, 8 yards across 6 feet deep in the middle and 4 at the ends. It is less than ideal, as is the pool time in Portland, but we all make it work – coaches, parents, board, and city facility operators…in the words of Schulberg, “water is water.” In order to make any age group program “work” I believe there has to be a ton of cooperation from many different angles and in many different facets. We don’t even have a long course pool in Maine! So what did we get, we got a Power Tower donated by one of our generous families. Though to be fair, we do also use a 6 lane, 25m pool (complete with depth and starting blocks!) for roughly 40% of our practice time.

Sharon Power made it work the best that she could as well. And she didn’t have only Ian, she also helped to develop Matt Rickett (BU, 46.00 1FL) & Nate Stevens (UA, 18th ’04 trials 100 BR). Our senior kids (adopted from NOVA-VA model) swim every mon, wed, fri 5:20-7:20 AM, Tues & Thurs 5:20-7:00 AM, and Mon, Wed, Fri 3:30-5:00 PM. That is their sschedule. I am also on deck from 7:00ish-9:00ish every night – that leaves about 5-6 hours for sleep! In the words of many, where there is a will, there is a way.

Personally, I look at our limitations as a way to be better. Adversity is a good thing, it tests how much someone really wants something and forces them to make goals, not simply dream.

To speak more to the article, I think it is a fresh take on what we are witnessing right now in terms of cut times, NAG times, etc. Yes, all of these times are getting better. But, is that the only indicator that we are using to gauge progress at the Age Group level? And, are those results at the 18 & under level leading to better collegiate gains than what has been seen in the past? What are other indicators, developed or not, could be use in order to tell if our best Age Group/Senior talent is translating in to International success?

This is a philosphical argument for sure, and one the I think ASCA has been trying to establish with features on Bob Bowman and his perspective and capacity training vs. performance training, and I think that it is one that needs to be continued (for now with the current landscape) I think we will feel the “Phelps” void in 2016 though swimmers like Chase Kalisz in programs like NBAC give the country hope in filling the void.

4 years 8 days ago

It’s probably a cycle thing. US men were really dominant, but US women kinda over-performed.

4 years 8 days ago

I wonder what the drop-off, if any, was there for other countries as well. If the USA’s numbers dropped over the past four years, who took our spots? Did one country increase their Top-100 performances significantly? Just some questions that would have some interesting answers, especially if the increases all came from one country. Would also be interesting to see if the USA still held the same number of spots in the Top-50 as in 2008. The Olympic success is an interesting stat, definitely what drives the youth of our country and the sport. For piece of mind, let’s look at the World Record board (minus 50’s of fly/bk/br). Our men own 6 individual and all 3 relays. The next closet countries are Brazil and Germany with 2 WR a piece. The women own 6 individual and 1 relay. The next closest country is China with 3 individual and 1 relay. Ultimately, we are a country with a very competitive background (in all aspects of life) and I have to believe that come 2016 we’re going to see many of the same results we’ve been seeing over the last several Olympic Games. Losing Phelps is big, but when we lost Peirsol I bet we all thought we were screwed in Backstroke, yet we still win both the 100 and 200. Maybe I’m just very optimistic but I think we’ll see some of the same great American results again in 2016.

4 years 8 days ago

That is a very “top-down” perspective, which I think is very narrow and short sighted. From my understanding of it, I think Chuck was driving at a “bottom-up” question, and will the USA continue to be able to provide the Gold answer with the diminishing top-100 placings (which shows either that the high-end quality at the top in the USA is being diluted, or that other countries are catching up. AND if they catch-up, are they going to be able to pull ahead of us).

4 years 8 days ago

It might be top-down but that’s what we’re talking about – Gold Medal performances. The elite level athletes in our sport are still there, still swimming fast. I really don’t think there is much of a correlation to the diminished number of Top-100 performances and what we face in the future of American swimming. To justify that, we really need to look at how our youth are performing, i.e. – How do the number of Junior National level swimmers compare to those of 2008 (2004/2000)? These are the swimmers that will be at Trials in 2016 competing for a spot on the team. Also, we have seen an increasing amount of athletes in swimming still competing at later stages in their careers (28, 29, 30+). Meaning that a younger swimmer looks to have much more time on their clock now than in the past. Someone who misses the team at 17 or 18, has a significant shot at 23, 27 and even 31. When talking about the Olympics a top-down approach is really all that matters, as long as our numbers in the Top 25-50 are still remaining relatively stable. I would also like to see what improvement (if any) we made on the Top-100 rankings, do we have more or less Top 25-50 performances even if we dropped off on the overall Top-100.

4 years 8 days ago

I wonder what the correlation is between a country’s number of Top-100 performances and their Olympic Medal count. Does more equal more medals?

Jean Michel
4 years 5 days ago

I also don’t care about statistics : BoBOGIGI is right ! We have never seen a so strong Us team since a long time at these Olympics ! just watch the backstrokes events : 4 golds + one world record …it shows the power of that swimming nation . Ledecky on 800 while the entire Uk was waiting their swimmer to win , crushed the whole field with such a fast pace . Not to mention Adrian coming strong in all races and Tyler Clary winning the 200 back .
With Phelps retiring , some gaps will be filled soon …with the young talents . They just need more good freestyle sprinters for the relays ….
Women’s side has never been to amazing …………

4 years 4 days ago

Although Phelps has been a dominate individual who has helped USA Swimming significantly, one person does not make a team. The “Phelps” effect” will be realized 4-8 years (maybe more) down the road. Young eight year olds who saw the phenomenal performance in 2008 and became inspired to try swimming will start to reach maturation levels in 2016 and 2020. USA Swimming dominance will continue to thrive because of the legend of Michael Phelps. His legacy will long be felt!


About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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