Can't Miss Race at the Charlotte UltraSwim® GP

5/10/2012

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

It seems cliché, expected, and redundant to label another Phelps swim as a “Can’t Miss Race” – but we must. I’m not sure how many more times I can write about “in-season Michael Phelps” and so, with some reluctance, I acknowledge that this weekend’s Charlotte UltraSwim® Grand Prix could be one of the final in-season meets we see Phelps in peak form. Though it might not be “politically correct” to continuously remind fans about a (far from official) potential retirement (the “r” word is incendiary these days), with recent interviews Phelps has given hinting of a post-2012 competition-free lifestyle, to NOT acknowledge this potential end-of-an-era seems, at least to me, exponentially more improper. So, here we go:

The first time I saw Michael Phelps swim was the 200m butterfly at the 2000 Olympic Trials. Like everyone else inCant Miss Race (medium) the stands, I knew nothing about the teenager except that his age – 15 – was younger than anyone else. When Phelps qualified for the Olympics, behind eventual Athens gold medalist Tom Malchow, being an age group swimmer from Michigan, I remember thinking, “Wouldn’t it be neat if Michael Phelps went to Michigan, too?” A few months later, I saw Phelps’ picture in a local newspaper. He was wearing a Michigan Wolverines hat.

Some things are just meant to be. But I never could have anticipated what would come next…

Since the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, few arguments have been waged whether Phelps has brought swimming “to the next level.” There’s nearly unanimous agreement: Things have changed, at least in the way swimming is marketed and promoted in mainstream media. Every once in a while, an athlete comes around that causes everyone to reflect, “Where were we before (insert name of athlete)?” In golf, there was Tiger. Basketball was “Bird vs. Magic.” Swimming, it’s Phelps. It’s as if two time periods exist – Before Phelps (B.P.) and After Phelps. (AP.) Ask any athlete in competition 10, 20, or 50 years ago about those radio-silent, dark, mysterious B.P. days, they say the same thing: “Swimming is a vastly different sport – the media, the hype, the attention. Swimming is a bigger deal in mainstream circles than ever before.”

A few weeks ago, speaking with 1956 Olympian George T. Breen and listening to stories of his Olympic Trials experience, the sport seems a completely different avenue. Back then, anyone who wanted to go to the Olympic Trials, could. For example, at the 1956 Trials, there was no such thing as “time standards.” Breen remembers when they invented goggles – something we swimmers take for granted. Flash-forward to today’s competitive swimming experience, where past Olympic Trials have featured spotlights, pyrotechnics, and 15,000 fans in a converted arena with stadium-style seating.

Just last weekend, I was at a Brooklyn restaurant watching the Kentucky Derby. My buddy, who never swam, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Mike, check it out!” On the large 100-foot screen projection TV, NBC played an advertisement featuring Ryan Lochte. I couldn’t believe it, but at the same time, I wasn’t surprised. During one of the biggest sporting events of the year, the famed Kentucky Derby, an advertisement featured our nation’s second-best male swimmer, and I didn’t even blink.

That’s how much our sport has changed. Because 15 years ago, I would have been floored with astonishment. Now, it’s almost expected.

For the past eight years, the comment I’ve heard most is a broken record from people outside the swimming world: “You swim? Like that Phelps guy?” This, inevitably, is followed with, “How will he do at the next Olympics?” I don’t need marketing reports and demographic analysis to understand Phelps’ impact: Any time I tell someone I work in swimming, I get the same response, from Columbus cab drivers, to Los Angeles barbers, to Grand Rapids dentists, to New York City baristas. I walk down the streets of my small hometown in Michigan – a community of 4,000 with no swimming pool – and anyone on the street knows the name “Michael Phelps.”

Think back. Ever seen another swimmer host SNL? Ever seen another swimmer star in multiple advertisements? Ever seen another swimmer featured on “60 Minutes?” Ever seen another swimmer make $40 million dollars in endorsements? We make a big deal about Phelps because of his imprint on our sport, from the pyrotechnics to surges in membership. And it could be a chicken vs. egg theory – which came first, the popularity or the athlete – but I didn’t start noticing changes until Phelps arrived as a young 15-year-old prodigy, his first steps taking the world by storm…

Some would argue that swimming is swimming, like water is water. Almost unanimously, it’s agreed that Phelps has increased awareness, attention, hype, intrigue, but has the sport itself changed? After Phelps is gone, in those years we’ll refer to as A.P, a few claim that someone else will step up to the blocks, win races, and receive endorsements, commercials, and SNL hosting opportunities. That swimming’s popularity increase was inevitable, like the Olympics, or like college football. Look at Ryan Lochte. Look at upcoming teenage phenoms. Someone will soon overtake the Phelpsian throne, they say. And the media monster will continue to churn on…

Which is exactly why I’ve picked every single event Phelps will swim as this weekend’s “Can’t Miss Race.” Even the 100m breaststroke and 50m backstroke. Watch the 200m freestyle where Phelps will battle Ryan Lochte. Don’t miss his 200m butterfly, his bread-and-butter, his baby, his event. Swim fans have four more opportunities to see Phelps cut through the water, in peak-condition, at the top of his game. I’ve picked these races for anyone who says Phelps hasn’t changed the sport itself, for anyone who assumes what they are seeing will one day be replicated.

I agree: Swimming is swimming, like water is water. But after seeing Michael Phelps swim, I’ll never look at water the same.

And, if you’ve seen him cut through water like no one in history has done before, long into the years A.P., neither will you.


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