Events

Team Ryan or Team Matt?

10/2/2013

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Team Ryan or Team Matt?

It’s an outside-the-pool mano-a-mano match-up for 2013’s Golden Goggle Male Athlete of the Year Award. While the U.S. duo have had numerous, down-to-the-last-fingertip battles in the 100m backstrokes, “Ryan Lochte vs. Matt Grevers” take on a new contest. Fans can choose between Ryan and Matt in this year’s Golden Goggle voting, taking place on usaswimming.org. Cast your vote! 
Who will you choose?

I’m as torn as you.

On the one hand, Ryan Lochte was, once again, stellar at this summer’s World Championships. By the numbers, Lochte was the best U.S. male in the pool. He won 4 medals, including the prestigious 200 IM crown – an event that belongs to the world’s best all-around swimmer.

But Matt Grevers was no slouch, either. Though the Gentle Giant “only” earned one individual gold medal, the 100m backstroke, defending an Olympic title ain’t easy. (Just ask Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly.) To underscore how difficult the men’s 100m backstroke was this past summer, Grevers was a World Champion who didn’t even win at Nationals. David Plummer beat him.

For me, though, it’s more than just pool accomplishments. When recognizing the year’s biggest and brightest accomplishments, if we take outside-the-pool leadership into consideration, one very public moment encapsulated one person’s importance to Team USA. And that moment could, perhaps, swing my vote.

It truly defined leadership:

Flash-back to the finals of the 400 Medley Relay at the 2013 World Championships, Barcelona, Spain. The American men dominated. Won handedly. No question, they destroyed the competition. They hoisted their fists and arms into the air while U.S. fans and teammates went appropriately nuts. They had won.

Or so they thought. Turns out, breaststroker Kevin Cordes jumped early. As such, the Americans were disqualified. The DQ ended a fantastic World Championships on a somewhat bitter note. The Americans were visibly crushed, deflated, and frustrated.

Minutes after the DQ, the American squad stood poolside and had to endure an uncomfortable post-race TV interview. And, of course, they were asked about the DQ. And this is the moment where, I believe, our Athlete of the Year stepped up:

Matt Grevers took the blame. The backstroker. The captain. The guy who charged to the wall, swinging his arms on his back, and probably watched as Cordes flew early off the blocks. Grevers stepped up to the interviewer’s microphone and said it was his fault. Grevers, who has almost 10 years on his Arizona training teammate Cordes, said that he himself did not finish properly. That he messed up. Why did he say that?

Because Grevers was doing what any captain could and should do. Because he’s a leader. It wasn’t a planned response. It wasn’t a pre-plotted ploy. They were seconds after being disqualified from seemingly winning a World Championship. Grevers just took the blame, an instinctual reaction indicative of the man he’s grown up to become.

A long time ago, I was once a captain of a swim team that Matt Grevers was on. He was just as tall 8 years ago as he is now, but when I watched him on TV, take personal blame for a huge disappointment for Team USA, he seemed to stand taller than I’ve ever seen him. And I think everyone else watching that moment could see the leadership he provides.

My pick for Male Athlete of the Year is taking a look not just at pool accomplishments, but what that individual brings to Team USA. The backstroker position is a vital one. It sets the tone. It sets the example. By taking blame on National TV for a DQ, Grevers set an example not only for his teammates, but any young swimmer watching; how to act, how to talk, how to walk, and how to stand tall in the face of disappointment.

Matt’s reality TV moment wasn’t pre-scripted. It didn’t have story producers and it wasn’t on E!. It was a simple gesture of accountability and leadership, and that should mean as much as any pool performance.