The biggest story of an otherwise toned down World Championship Trials meet is obvious. There is a generation of teenage stars, particularly male, in American swimming right now of the likes we have never seen before. With the retirement of Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte stands alone as the last prominent member of the previous best generation in American swimming. While there are some good to great American swimmers right now in their 20s, they don’t match up with the star power that Phelps, Peirsol, Hansen and Crocker et al brought with them at the turn of the century. No, that will fall to this next group. Which of course, begs the question: why? Why all of a sudden are there so many future potential stars in the age group ranks?
One reason I haven’t heard discussed is the impact that the great demographic change in the American national team we’ve seen over the last four olympic cycles. As the ages of swimmers at the top has pushed up and up, the club level has become more and more of a developmental rung in the ladder. This was very disruptive, particularly for coaches who had spent their careers trying to work to the top of the ladder and build their clubs, only to find that college swimming and ultimately post-graduate centers were becoming the new top of the ladder. Clubs also had to adjust their development systems for swimmers that had longer careers. No longer was it was important for a swimmer to max out their potential for an Olympic spot in their teenage years.
This has led to a dramatic increase in swimmers progressing well from age group to age group. The prevailing wisdom used to being a top age group swimmer actually meant you were going to crash and burn later on. That is no longer true. Jack Conger and Ryan Murphy are good examples of this. So is Justin Lynch, who just yesterday took down a Phelps NAG record, two years after putting up a 54 second 100 butterfly at age 14. Missy Franklin is a great example of an age group phenom who went all the way to becoming the best swimmer in the world and continues apace.
One critical factor that pushes these results along is the now very easy ability for swimmers and coaches to compare their results nationally. No one gets to live in a bubble, dominating local age group competition. Everyone knows where the bar is being set and works to reset it. Perhaps no coach has embodied all of this more than Sergio Lopez, who had single-handedly completely rebooted what it means to be a “Club Coach” in America.
Sergio’s teams have performed so well over the last few years that it’s probably time we all consign ourselves to the fact that we shouldn’t even say “maybe” before we say “the best swimming coach in America”. One of the biggest common mistakes people make in evaluating coaches is to only look at their best result and judge them on that. This ignores that there is a lot of volatility and chance involved in one top swimmer. It is far more important to keep digging to see what’s beneath. Sergio Lopez (and the coaches around him at Bolles) are having great results with a lot of swimmers. That’s what truly matters.
It’s comforting to know that so much is changing for the better at the club level. The spectre of centralized post-graduate centers has done much to help that over the last year. With college swimming in as precarious a position as it has ever been, I have a feeling that swimming will need the clubs more than ever in the future.