Longform

Slow Strokes

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"We are not the leaders in the world anymore," Councilman says. "The leaders look like Australia. They are still going with hard work."

Not only is America's grip on distance events deteriorating in the face of improving times from around the world, America's best male distance swimmers are slower than they were 20 years ago.

Carlton Bruner won the U.S. Olympic Trials this March in the 1,500-meter freestyle with a time of 15 minutes, 12.85 seconds. In the 1976 Olympic games, U.S. swimmer Brian Goodell took home the gold medal in 15:02--ten seconds faster than Bruner's time, and 20 years earlier. There were two other Americans on Goodell's heels in 1976. Bruner's time in this year's trials wouldn't have qualified him for the '76 Olympic team.

The focus on sprints hasn't even resulted in American domination of the short races. While the U.S. is showing strength in the 50-meter freestyle, an event added to the Olympics in 1988, America's current group of male Olympic sprinters is slower than the top sprinters of 20 years ago.

A few weeks after the '76 Olympics, Jonty Skinner set the then-world record in the 100-meter freestyle. Skinner's time of 49.44 seconds--achieved in an old, shallow and wavy pool in Philadelphia--would have won the U.S. Olympic Trials this year.

Skinner is now sprint coach for the National Resident Team, a group of swimmers that trains in Colorado Springs. Skinner says attitudes have changed over two decades. Now, many swimmers just aren't willing to do the work to become champions.

"There doesn't seem to be as many people out there day after day busting their butt to get to the Olympic games," he says.

One possible reason for the apparent lack of dedication is a change in competitive swimming's reward system.

Winning a swimming gold medal in the 1970s rarely translated into instant money and fame. Except for Mark Spitz, most of America's champions faded quickly from the public's eye. Swimmers were driven by internal factors--the desire to improve, the need to perform at their best for mastery's sake alone.

But the commercialism that began with the 1984 Los Angeles games, combined with the entry of professional athletes to an Olympic field that once held the amateur sacred, has brought a new reward to the sport of swimming--big money.

Lucrative endorsement contracts, television appearances, clinics, speaking tours and world travel all await an American swimmer who finds gold in Atlanta.

Such financial benefits have already come to America's best female swimmer, Janet Evans. In many ways, Evans is a throwback to the old days, when distance swimming was the way to the top. But she is swimming nowhere near as fast today as she did eight years ago, when she set her world record in the 400-meter freestyle.

Evans now endorses nine national product lines. There is, of course, no way to know the precise effect money and fame have had on her performance. For whatever reason, though, her drive to win just doesn't appear to be what it once was.

"If I win a medal, that's awesome," says Evans, the only American woman on the team with a world record to her credit. "Whatever I do, I'm going to leave satisfied."

Evans, 24, has proven herself a durable champion in swimming's toughest events. That she's still the best America can offer to the '96 Olympics raises serious questions about the training regimes of younger swimmers.

Naber says American swimmers are overemphasizing the importance of external rewards. The self-gratification of hard work, Naber says, "is being lost because so much attention and so much reward is being placed on the end, the gold at the end of the rainbow."

The rainbow spans more than the Olympic stadium.
The gold that appears to be most effectively eroding the quality of American swimming sits inside natatoriums at the nation's universities and colleges. At the university level, that gold comes not in the form of a medal, but as a scholarship worth $20,000 a year or more.

During the last decade, longtime observers note, National Collegiate Athletic Association swimming coaches have placed so much emphasis on sprinting that there is little incentive for a high school swimmer to train for longer events.

In 1988, 200-yard sprint relays were added to the NCAA and conference championships across the country. Relays are worth twice as many points as individual events in championship competition. Suddenly, a successful collegiate swimming team no longer needed an array of swimmers who could score points in both distance events and shorter races.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty