Say what you will about the format and concept of the International Swimming League, but I think there’s one thing we can (almost) all agree on: the quality of the broadcasts has been, overall, outstanding. From the on-screen graphics to on-deck interviews, they’re unlike anything we’ve seen in swimming before, especially outside of the Olympics.
The duo of Bernie Guenther and former world champion swimmer Karen Pickering (with an assist from Mark Foster and Rebecca Adlington) have deftly guided viewers through the brand-new endeavor. SwimSwam caught up with Guenther before he headed to Budapest last month to hear how things have been going from his perspective.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
SwimSwam: How did you get involved with the ISL?
Guenther: I grew up as a swimmer, and got a chance to swim at the University of Florida. Then right after getting an opportunity to do that, I really was blessed to get into broadcasting right away just because of some of the work that I had put in in Florida and the connections that I had. So I started calling the SEC Championship in 2005, then when the Big Ten Network started in 2007-ish, they brought me on board to call men’s swimming and diving. Some of the same groups of people that had worked on some of the shows started to put together the International Swimming League, and had reached out to me to see if it was something that I was interested in. And of course, swimming, being a love and a passion that I had growing up – I also coached – it was something that was almost a dream come true, if you will.
SwimSwam: When was the last time you had the chance to call international swimming?
Guenther: I called the Singapore games for the Olympic Broadcasting Service, and London 2012 were the two main ones that I did. But if you think about it, in the United States, as far as swimming is concerned, there’s just really a handful of people that do it on NBC. As far as being an “American voice,” it would probably fall to Jason Knapp and a handful of others. Those are probably my big experiences: working with the OBS, and 2012 in London, and also working with Singapore for 2010. And then my son was born in 2016, so that basically took me out of getting an opportunity to work the Olympic games there.
SwimSwam: It’s been a while, then, since you last called international swimming. What was it like to prep for the ISL and catch up on the current landscape?
Guenther: That was the hardest thing: just trying to get caught up on the teams, the rosters, and who is there, everything that’s put together. I mean, obviously, once I got brought into the League, that’s probably the biggest thing you’re trying to do is just get as much information as you possibly can from all the coaches and managers and teams of just who’s on the roster, who’s not on the roster. And there’s a lot of names that I’m familiar with, or swim in America, but then obviously there’s a lot to get caught up on internationally. It was a fairly tight turn around, but I think they did a good job of trying to get us as much information as we possibly could and as the weeks have gone on, they’ve done an even better job of giving us an idea going into the week of who’s swimming which races just so we can start to prepare for what matchups we might see, or won’t see.
SwimSwam: It’s not often in a broadcasting career you get to call an entirely new league. Were you nervous about that?
Guenther: I don’t think I was necessarily nervous going in. I would say probably more excited. I mean, as a broadcaster, these are the types of opportunities that you dream of. On the flip side – I don’t want to compare it to live dual meets – but I know that at the Big Ten Network, I think that we were one of the first to try to do a dual meet live on television. So I had a little bit of an experience of what that two hours might be like. I had a really good understanding that it was going to be tons of swimming, and that you had to get everything in order as quickly as possible about who the races were — what the stories were going into it.
I think overall, to me, it was just a huge excitement to be a part of this process and huge excitement for the sport of swimming, that finally we have a platform like this, where, you know, my daughters are swimming now at six years old, and they can maybe one day dream of being professional swimmers. It’s just something that I, growing up in Fort Myers, never really even dreamed about having this possibility. Think about all the Americans growing up — only two athletes make the Olympic Games. Now, this opens the door for so many more swimmers to continue their careers. So just kind of an excitement, I guess, to try to tell those stories.
SwimSwam: ISL broadcasts seem more typical of what you see in major professional sports — on-deck interviews, fancy graphics, etc. — compared to the ones we’re used to in swimming. Is that noticeable to you, too?
Guenther: I would tell you that to me — I’ve been a part of a lot of great things: broadcasts on ESPN, doing college basketball, Big Ten Network, Fox Sports — the level of production that they’re putting into this is equivalent to the way that we would treat a Sunday Night Football game or a Monday Night Football game with the augmented reality graphics, and obviously trying to get as much information from the swimmers as possible.
I mean, last week [in Lewisville]: when have we ever heard somebody ask a question right before a relay? And to get that interview with Cate Campbell that Karen Pickering did — it was just incredible to be able to have that type of access.
They’ve got some really great swimmers [as interviewers] as well that bring the European knowledge of how they grow up and how they train, which is a little bit different obviously than what we do here. So it’s just trying to get a world view, if you will.