The ISL: Something to Celebrate

SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please send them to [email protected]

This week’s submission comes from Tito Morales, an award-winning swimming author, Cal swimming alumnus, and freelance writer.

Talk about making a statement.

When news first came of the formation of the International Swimming League, few could have imagined that over the course of the next 15 months the start-up would gather all of the world’s greatest swimmers, divvy them up into teams, and stage a series of innovative matches across Europe and the United States that would culminate in a glitzy championship finale at the
posh Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas.

The last time anyone associated with the sport concocted such a brash plan was when Michael Phelps made it be known that he was going all in to try to win eight gold medals at the
2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Michael, as history shows, delivered. He completely turned the sport on its ear by one-upping the great Mark Spitz’s accomplishments at the 1972 Munich Games.

And now that the dust has settled on the ISL’s inaugural season, it’s safe to say that Konstantin Grigorishin and his team have similarly succeeded in pulling off the seemingly impossible.

This is truly something to celebrate.

I think what struck me most about the gaudy end-of-the-season spectacle was not the state-of-the-art pop-up pool or the high energy, mind-blowing showmanship. It wasn’t the
unique event schedule or the creative competition format, which placed a premium on team rather than individual performance and fit neatly into a two hour window. And it wasn’t the fast
swimming, tight finishes or even the edge-of-your-seat drama created by the elimination skins competition.

What left the biggest impression was the fact that all of the dozens of swimming superstars who descended upon Las Vegas were happy and completely engaged.

Whether they traveled from San Diego, Florida, Canada, Australia, Spain, England, South Africa, Sweden, Brazil or Japan, they were equally united in both their wide-eyed excitement at being a part of this groundbreaking new enterprise and their hardened resolve to help raise the profile of their sport once and for all.

* * *

Some swimming purists may have found the pulsating laser light show and ear-splitting hip hop music to be off-putting. The accomplishments of our sport’s greatest athletes, I’ve heard
it argued, are in danger of being overshadowed by all of the razzmatazz.

But if we’ve learned nothing else since our sport became a staple of the modern Olympic Games, it’s that competitive swimming is a hard sell.

When Lionel Messi dribbles through defenders and scores a goal or LeBron James finishes a fast break with a two-handed slam dunk, even those who have never set foot on a soccer field or a basketball court can appreciate their graceful athleticism. It’s right there before our very eyes.

If only swimming were so self-evident.

To most observers, swimming is eight indistinguishable men or women, their faces partially concealed by caps and goggles and their bodies half obscured beneath the surface of the water, stroking and kicking as fast as they can across a pool.

The most prized gifts of a Caeleb Dressel or a Sarah Sjostrom, namely finely-tuned technique and superhuman cardiovascular fitness, are virtually invisible to the untrained eye.

And yet, despite all of its inherent shortcomings, swimming continues to be one of the most popular spectator sports at every summer Games, particularly in this country. The Olympics flourish on nationalism, and as long as the U.S. fields world-beating swim teams it’s a sure bet that the sport will always feature prominently in NBC’s coverage.

But that’s precisely why swimming desperately needed someone like Grigorishin to step in and shake things up.

Somewhere along the line, swimming became classified as an “Olympic sport,” which, as time would reveal, was both a blessing and a curse.

* * *

The original message put forth by modern Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin was that “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”

It’s a noble idea, but that building-a-better-world-through-sport stuff could only push the Olympics movement so far. At some point the Olympics needed to become a commercial enterprise because staging the Games, as cities like Montreal found out the hard way, is a very expensive proposition.

Rio de Janeiro spent some $13 billion on the 2016 Games. Tokyo is on pace to equal or surpass that amount for the honor of hosting this year’s edition.

However outlandish that figure appears to be, though, the new Olympics business model must be working because the IOC never seems to have a shortage of suitors wanting to bid on future Games and NBC, which handed over $4.38 billion dollars in 2011 for the rights to broadcast the Games through 2020, would never have upped the ante another $7.75 billion to extend those rights through 2032.

Once big advertising dollars entered the picture―and the mainstream media created a formulaic, easy-to-digest product―de Coubertin’s message was completely reworked and distilled so that it could fit onto a tidy little country versus country Medal Table graphic.

The Olympics became a medal arms race, with an over-emphasis on the color gold, and no one could ever accuse Team USA’s swimmers of not doing their part to keep the dollars churning as they continue to be a dominant force in each and every Games.

On the one hand, the Olympics put competitive swimming on the map. For eight glorious days every four years our sport is front and center. On the other hand, though, the sport has become a slave to the feast or famine Olympic cycle because the established model has a way of trivializing everything that occurs during the 208 weeks when the Games aren’t being staged.

Let’s face it. If someone like Michael, the greatest of all time, couldn’t nudge the sport’s popularity needle in between Olympic cycles, the system was broken and something drastic needed to be done.

* * *

Enter the ISL.

Team Grigorishin gets it. The sport of swimming deserves better. Its fans deserve better. And its top athletes, who are usually treated as afterthoughts as soon as the lights go down at the conclusion of the closing ceremonies, certainly deserve better.

Our sport will never garner the respect it deserves until it forms its own identity. It will never reap the rewards it deserves until it stops being content to simply ride along on the coattails of the Olympic Games. And it will never reach its full potential as a spectator sport until it understands that the Olympics needs swimming just as much as swimming needs the Olympics.

Yes, there will always be a place for the Olympics. It is too big and beautiful and grand and it has come way too far to fail.

But the ISL has shown us that there is also room for more. A lot, lot more. So as we turn the corner into 2020 and barrel toward what promises to be another thrilling swimming competition in Tokyo, I, for one, am just as excited to also see what the future holds for the ISL.

Suddenly the possibilities seem endless.

And maybe that realization is the real reason why all of the swimmers I saw milling about at Mandalay Bay looked to be so happy and energized and filled with optimism.

Tito Morales is a longtime freelance writer based in Los Angeles.  A competitive swimmer at the University of California, Berkeley, he rediscovered the sport later in life and now participates in Masters swimming with UCLA.  He is the author of the literary fiction novel Forward Swim, the anthology Meb, Deena, and the Return of the Great American Marathoner, and he co-authored Karlyn Pipes’ memoir, The Do-Over: My Journey from the Depths of Addiction to World Champion Swimmer, which earned the International Swimming Hall of Fame’s Buck Dawson Author’s Award.

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“This is truly something to celebrate.”

“Suddenly the possibilities seem endless.”

Let’s keep up the great work and get those crowds to the meets!!


A few candid thoughts from a huge swim fan: I love the ingenuity of the ISL idea, and it was about as good as we could hope! I fully support the effort to try something like this, but I’m also not sure how broad the reach will be. I attended an ISL meet and brought my kids. I loved it! They liked it. And the venue was sold out. But everyone there was already from the swim community, and I’m not confident we will break through to the casual fan outside of the Olympic games. I enjoy track more than the random sports fan b/c it’s a fellow “Olympic sport” with similarities to swimming, but even so, it’s extremely rare… Read more »


I agree. I would have liked the article to talk about what the ISL needs to be viable going forward. Having a wealthy benefactor fund this, is great. Hey, we’re all swim fans here. BUT, all investors have time horizons before they pull the plug (Can we get an interview with Grigorishin to get some of these questions answered?). I hope the ISL gets that TV contract and finds ways to get the mainstream ESPN audience to take a look and tune in.


Not just an issue in the USA. I’m from the UK and would much rather have BBC or someone like that broadcasting the event over Eurosport as Eurosport aren’t really great at advertising the sport.

Lane line

I’d love to get this on the BBC somehow. It would really encourage fans from outside the swim community. It’s a shame the head of BBC hates swimming though, I doubt we’ll even get Olympic trials on tv

Lane line

I’d love to get this on the BBC somehow. It would really encourage fans from outside the swim community. It’s a shame the head of BBC hates swimming though, I doubt we’ll even get Olympic trials on tv


Agreed. Don’t think it’s out of the question as the BBC do show highlights of every single meet of the Diamond League which is pretty much the athletics equivalent of the ISL.


Great great great article here.

Coach Mike 1952

Yes, thank you Tito!