By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
“Gold Medal” Mel Stewart started the highly successful website SwimSwam.com recently and has been a National Team Alumni Ambassador for the USA Swimming Foundation for three years, but going back a ways further, it’s been almost 20 years since Mel’s own Olympic Trials in 1992 that led to two gold medals and a bronze at the ’92 Barcelona Games. He has some insights on the men’s and women’s potential Olympic team, as well as his thoughts on the Phelps-Lochte rivalry in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Are people going to start talking about Teri McKeever coaching the women’s Olympic team at some point?
Mel: Yes, let me apologize first; my father in law is about to be here and I am (laughs) cleaning the toilets, so I have the scrubber and I am going for it – that’s why you hear all those sounds. It should be a huge deal for the sport, having Teri as coach. I hope she gets a lot of write-ups. I hope big publications do it. They look to USA Swimming, to the swim community, and going into the Games we’re going to be making a big deal out of it.
2. Do you know Teri well?
Mel: I didn’t know her until we showed up at NCAAs – I’ve always been to men’s, but never to women’s. It’s a completely different vibe, and I saw the start of the McKeever dynasty. People start throwing around that term dynasty, but you feel the respect for her and her program on the pool deck. It’s a big deal having her be the U.S. coach. Look at the people, Dana Vollmer and Natalie (Coughlin) and how much they benefit having her as a coach.
3. So can we say Phelps is back and the reports of his demise were woefully premature?
Mel: Gosh, if you’d have asked me that question before the Columbus Grand Prix, I would have told you that Lochte has got him, and I would have said that Lochte will edge Phelps in the the big races – I thought he’d get Phelps in the 200 free or 200 IM; I was guessing one or the other, I thought it was split. I thought Locthe had the edge. I even thought that if Phelps picked him off at Trials, Lochte might come back and beat him in London. But after the Columbus Grand Prix, it seems like Phelps is back and it’s 2008 again. That’s what’s so thrilling about this, I just don’t know who will win what.
4. How did Phelps “turn it back on”?
Mel: I think it’s this simple: He knows when it’s important, that the history books are written on what happens at the Olympic Games. It is the focus on that for which he uses all his energy. The thing that is different now is that he seems like he’s happy, seems like he’s enjoying this. Has this little smile, like he knows something. If I were a competitor, that would make think. There is this drama building. And we all know Lochte doesn’t show his hand until the end of the season. We all know that Lochte has matured so much, we know those things, and we know he hasn’t missed practices even though he’s been building his business as an Olympic star – but still making his workouts. He looks tired at meets, but he’s still swimming fast.
5. This time it seems like even two, three years ago he had the goal of 2012- is that accurate?
Mel: If you think about it, 2010 is a year that people would describe his performances as very disappointing. But what I saw in 2010 is that he was still in touch with the water. He was still competitive, and he swam the fastest 100 freestyle leading off that relay, so he was still always working on something.
6. So all the second-guessing by people out of the loop was just that – water-cooler talk, right?
Mel: Michael’s doing exactly what he needs to do. You sit on the sidelines and judge what you see in front of you, but do you know what’s best for the best athlete ever in the history of the sport? The answer is no. The best answer is that only Michael Phelps and Bob Bowman know. We’re left twiddling our thumbs and guessing. So we could never say, “Look, this is what’s going to happen.”
7. Your 20-year Olympic anniversary is coming up, do you feel anything special about it?
Mel: It feels like a piece of history. I am so far beyond it. It’s really difficult for me to feel it and be emotional about it. You get excited when you swim with kids and remember why you love swimming when you do clinics with kids and age groupers. The Olympic Games almost seem like a dream that happened 20 years ago. I’m not smelling the chlorine in the pool; I can try to go back with sense memory and feel what it was like…okay, maybe I am (laughs) remembering it a bit now!.
8. That 200 fly you won – the toughest event in the sport, the builder of champions, you told me more than once – doesn’t that make you feel a special connection to Phelps since that’s his signature event going back to Sydney?
Mel: The answer is yes. I was inspired by Mark Spitz, and that was his gateway event, the 200 fly. So, sure, I feel close to Phelps because that was his event – that’s what he came to the show with. When you can do a 200 fly, you can do almost everything else, ramp up to a 400 free, or down to a 200 free; you can move in every direction once you’ve suffered that much. You get a lot of versatility from being able to do the 200 fly well.
9. Your new swimming Web site, SwimSwam.com put up some amazing numbers very quickly – what was the key?
Mel: I think it’s just social media, it really is. We’ve been planning this for two years. We were prepared. We felt like we had the social network in place. It was nothing but two years of returning every single email…there was a rule, all swimmers and all swim Moms and Dads – we would take only two hours to return emails answering questions. The questions were along the lines of Did you want to quit? Did you ever not love it? About motivation; standard swimming questions about what you are going through as an age grouper. That’s really what it’s built upon; it is about building a relationship with a lot of people all around the world who were age group swimmers who wanted a conversation with people who have had the experience before. We always try to use someone else, rather than ourselves, as an example.
10. It’s not a “rant site” like many that have fallen by the wayside – is that the intention?
Mel: The rule was, “Report swimming news, and stay very narrow in that box.” Let’s treat swimmers and swim news and swim parents as it should all be treated. We listen to our swimmers, parents and swim fans closely, and give them what they want. They can reach us; we get a lot of emails. We connect a lot through social media platforms, but since we launched, we are getting that connection now through the Web site.
11. So you found a place of your own, really, on the web, right?
Mel: I think USA Swimming has done a good job in the content space. But that is through the lens of the governing body – as it should be. That gave us a little bit of space to be able to create this.
12. You hired Braden Keith and Garrett McCaffrey, two very passionate swim reporters/journalists to have that multi-media expertise, didn’t you?
Mel: We did. Garrett has a journalism degree, so we are always asking him, “how do we handle this.” We are always looking for perspective, “How do we report this?” We have a plan that is narrow, end of day, we want to treat parents and swimmers well. That’s the backbone of swimming; it’s USA Swimming’s base.
13. So your amazing daughter Bayley is an age-grouper, that must be fun?
Mel: I just love seeing that race and competitive spirit. That’s gratifying. I think the same things most swim parents do and have the same questions: How do you keep it fun? How do you keep it positive? This sport is so challenging and so hard. You should be so proud of your child when they swim; few people training for miles and miles to swim for 60 seconds or 120 seconds. If you can do that, you can do most anything in life.
14. Ah, but you – and Bayley – also benefit from having an outstanding “swim Mom” in your wife, Tiffany, correct?
Mel: Tiffany is so supportive, and so much more into it than I am. She brings that consistency to it. Swim Moms are the ones who make champions; they are committed to going to practices, doing the signups, mothering and taking care of the children – you need that to be a champion. More than 9 times out of 10, when you see a great swimmer, there’s an incredible Mom there with them.
15. A lot of talk – and deservedly so – about Phelps-Lochte, but are we ready to say good-bye yet to Natalie Coughlin, who has done everything and more in the sport?
Mel: I’m not ready to say goodbye to Natalie Coughlin. You know, we had great stars in Janet Evans and Summer Sanders. But our biggest star really was Summer, and we wondered if we would ever have someone again like that. We have that again in Natalie Coughlin, 10-fold. Natalie really is a superstar, and she’s the greatest female swimmer of all time. I don’t think she’s going to retire, personally. I don’t think she’s retiring after London. I don’t think she’ll do World Championship in Spain next year, but my answer is, I don’t think she’s retiring – and maybe it’s because I just don’t want to let her go!
16. Back to Trials – so do you think Phelps will do the 400 IM after all?
Mel: I think he’s absolutely doing the 400 IM. He’s doing the 400 IM, no doubt. I am 99 and 999999 tenths sure he is – I’d be surprised if he doesn’t. I think we’re going to see a world record swim or very close to a world record swim, in a textile suit (at Trials). The race will actually be better than it was in Omaha in 2008. I think we are going to be slack-jawed at what we see. I think (Tyler) Clary is going to be part of this; I don’t think it’s going to be a two-man race (between Phelps and Locthe).
17. Besides Phelps and Lochte, who is a male star to watch, is it Clary or Tyler McGill?
Mel: For me, a big story is Davis Tarwater who got third in 2008 (in the 200 fly at Trials), he slipped just a bit and Gil Stovall got second with a dynamite swim. Tarwater is back and he’s versatile – he could make the 4 x 100, 4 x 200, and 200 fly. For me, the redemption story is with this guy. He swam in Phelps’ shadow in Michigan (at Club Wolverine), and became a great butterflyer, he was very consistent, but he got third at Trials. He is not on a lot of folks’ radar, but aside from some standard names, I think Davis will be the one who will slip in and bump out some of those names we’ve (discussed).
18. What do you expect from Missy Franklin at Trials?
Mel: I know Missy is going to perform for one reason: She went to Trials already. When you have all the abilities and you go to big show for the first time, you can get distracted and it takes you out of your game. Not only did she go to Omaha – which I am sure is the most intimidating setting to compete in, far more so than the Olympic Games because Omaha will knock you down – but she did it well, and it’s a combination of doing that and the way she performed in Shanghai; China is like another planet, but she’s done that, and also been to trials. So my answer is, she’s going to perform.
19. Who is a women’s star to watch?
Mel: Someone we haven’t heard a lot about is Caitlin Leverenz. I think she’s really going to perform at Trials – I really do. I don’t know if she’s as talented as I am – if she can clean a toilet and do an interview – but she had that incredible performance at NCAAs. She has Teri (McKeever) at her back, and after that disappointment in 2008 has had the big, breakout performance. She’s smiling on deck, and happy. Swimming fast and being happy – when competitors see you doing that, they know they are in trouble.
20. Michael was smart to step back after 2008, wasn’t he?
Mel: I think it’s too tense, too much stress to go straight through after the Games. You have to remember this sport is a marathon when you only have the event every four years that is going to seal what is said about you in the history books. He has been a pro since 15 or 16, and he swims like a pro. We are seeing that yet again.