Courtesy: D. R. Hildebrand
Over the last few months, the international swimming community has been captivated by a flurry of exceptional achievements. Six swimmers—Li Bingjie, Tomoru Honda, Kliment Kolesnikov, Katie Ledecky, Maggie MacNeil, and Ruta Meilutyte—set individual world records. Australia, France, Italy, and the United States combined for eleven more, in relays. Chad Le Clos saw a resurgence; Summer McIntosh solidified her stardom; Jordan Crooks discovered his stardom; and at the age of 42, Nicholas Santos became the oldest world champion ever.
All of this, and more, happened in short course. Across numerous national championship meets, the World Cup, and the World Championships, a universal swimming conversation took place. It was part of a dialogue that has developed over decades, that ebbs and flows with the seasons, that brings nuance to a sport that only the most observant understand. One country, however, year after year, discounts this discussion. The United States participates, but reluctantly, ineloquently, never in a way that best serves the athletes who represent it.
The myopic among us, including some at USA Swimming, view long course as the sole standard of our sport. We see this most acutely in the U.S. federation’s short course selection process, which utilizes a long course rubric. By fixating on long course to such an extent that it silences short course, USA Swimming is not just ignoring the clear differences between the two formats; it is demoting athletes whose strengths do not conform to their standards, and, inadvertently, weakening the federation.
Swimming is not the sport it was 25 years ago. A little thing called money has entered the chat. The definition of amateurism is not what it once was. Swimmers can now earn tens of thousands of dollars at various high-level short course meets. If making a living as a swimmer keeps them swimming longer, and if swimming longer affords them the opportunity to improve more, and if more improvement contributes to heightened competition, why wouldn’t we choose to foster it? How does sending our swimmers to a meet we haven’t hosted ourselves help accomplish this?
USA Swimming has the opportunity to join the conversation by doing one easy, obvious thing: hosting at least one major short course meet per year. It could be a part of the Pro Swim Series. It could be Spring Nationals. It could be its own new meet. Whatever it is, no swimmer hailing from the most decorated swimming nation in the world should have to travel abroad to find it.
Ideally, this meet would be held the first weekend in April. At this time, NCAA swimmers and elite age groupers are completing their yards training. They can extend their seasons and tapers from yards—which is more akin to short course than short course is to long—to attend the meet following their yards competitions, and register times that could qualify them for an international short course meet. That is, assuming USA Swimming decides to reimage, in part of in full, its short course selection process.
At the 2022 Golden Goggles, USA Swimming honored Carol Zaleski with its Impact Award. Ms. Zaleski served as the organization’s president for eight years and in various other capacities within the sport for 45. As she received the award, she said something that brought the audience to its feet in applause. The late Richard Quick, she said, who coached six U.S. Olympic teams, used to say, “If you’re doing what’s in the best interest of the athletes, you’re doing the right thing.”
What’s in the best interest of the athletes is simple: to increase, not decrease, their opportunities. These include opportunities to compete, to gain experience and confidence, to gain recognition, to gain sponsors, to gain world rankings and records, accolades and earnings.
USA Swimming can join the short course conversation without abandoning its long course goals. The former would only benefit the latter. The more elite swimmers who have not yet flourished in long course but who remain in the sport, inspired by their short course success and the support they get from their federation, the more the sport is elevated as a whole. This is, quite literally, USA Swimming’s vision statement: “To inspire and enable our members to achieve excellence in the sport of swimming and in life.”
Excellence in the sport of swimming: long course, short course, open water. It’s all swimming. It’s all a conversation, a competition in which the best American swimmers should be inspired and supported to participate.
David Hildebrand manages a private swim club in Philadelphia. He competed for the College of William & Mary and now races Master’s with Club Tribe.