Given that I’m a semi-trained, quasi-professional sports-watcher, this is a bit embarrassing to admit. But I have a plausible defense – nobody at the USC vs. UC Santa Barbara dual swim meet I attended recently ever made mention of a winning team. I wasn’t even positive they were keeping score.
Let me tell you about my day, and let you decide if I am guilty of Negligent Spectating…
First of all, I know I’ve previously gone on record proclaiming that ALL aquatic events should be conducted outside – but I was young and foolish then. It was the sunshine and 75 degrees talking. It was now January however, and I was wearing layers to an outdoor aquatic event. Be careful what you ask for.
What I really meant was that there was no more deference paid to him than to any of the other swimmers during the preliminary heats for the men’s 100 meter butterfly competition. It was Day 3 of the ConocoPhillips Swimming National Championships, and things were moving along at a clip that would make process engineers green with envy.
So there wasn’t much time to reflect on Michael Phelp’s 783 (or so) Olympic medals – or much of anything for that matter, as a parade of swimmers went through 14 heats in each of five different events.
In the twenty seconds or so that each swimmer stood on their starting block in preparation for their heat though, I got a good look at what makes Michael Phelps different. Of course, he has the swimmer’s classic V-shape torso, with massive shoulders tapering down to a slim waist. And his arms are long. Very long. But then again, so were most everyone else’s.
At the end of those long arms though, are massive hands. At first I thought he had purchased a couple of those foam “We’re # 1” hands at the AquaZone souvenir shop, and had forgotten to take them off. Upon closer inspection though…yup – those are actual hands. Hands capable of scooping prodigious amounts of water away from one’s path.
Phelps is taller than most swimmers, and here’s the thing – that additional height is not evenly distributed across his frame. It’s all in his upper body. He has the torso of a very tall man and the legs of a much shorter man. So when those XXXL arms and hands go to work in the water, it seems to me that they are carrying along a considerably smaller person in comparison to his competitors.
That would be my understanding of the mechanics involved. But then again, I’ve never completed a “some assembly required” project without having some important-looking bits and pieces left over. So maybe none of the above matters that much. In which case I’ll just go to my fallback explanation for Phelp’s dominance – he’s a wicked good swimmer.
For every top dog there’s a perennial contender. For every Roger Federer there’s an Andy Roddick. For every Tiger, a Phil. And for Michael Phelps there is Ryan Lochte – a swimmer that would be The King Of The Pool were it not for Phelps. Lochte has come agonizingly close on many occasions to unseating Phelps as the top American in multiple events, and has a pretty good winner’s resume of his own. But if you say “swimming” to any random American in the post-Beijing era, they will reply “Phelps”.
If at this point you are beginning to feel the least bit sorry for Ryan Lochte, let me spare you the effort.
First of all, the guy is by all accounts a truly classy competitor who is well-respected by his peers. And nothing that I saw in my admittedly limited exposure to him appeared to contradict that reputation. He’s also getting more than his fair share of endorsements – in fact, Speedo was using these Championships as a vehicle to launch a new line of Ryan Lochte footwear.
And then of course, there’s the girls.
The word went out in the morning prelims that Lochte and fellow swimmer Peter Vanderkaay would be appearing at 4:30 in the Autograph Zone, a tent set up in the expo area that fronted the event venue. I happened to be returning to the site for the evening session right around that time and was greeted by a line of about 300 people, roughly 297 of which were female.
Vanderkaay arrived in the Autograph Zone first and took his place without much fanfare. Lochte arrived a few minutes later. With much fanfare. It wasn’t quite The Beatles at Shea Stadium, but let’s just say that if you happened to be in the vicinity of the Woollett Aquatics Center at that time…you noticed.
I’m comfortable enough with my masculinity to admit that even I was on the verge of a swoon.
I stood off to the side and watched the proceedings for a while, and while I was very impressed with the way that Lochte interacted with his star struck fans, I was even more impressed with the way he acted to make sure that Vanderkaay was not overlooked by the fans who were clearly there for one reason.
As much of a hit as Lochte was with the fans though, it was Michael Phelp’s night in the pool. The only event in which he was entered that day was the men’s 100 meter butterfly, and while he had just barely won his preliminary heat in the morning, he dominated the final. His winning time of 50:65 seconds proved to be the fastest time in the world this year, and was just 0:15 seconds slower than his gold medal winning time in Beijing.
But as soon as he was done swimming, he seemed to fade into the background. I almost had to remind myself that I was watching one of the most decorated Olympians in history. He received his medal with a smile, did a brief interview and then slipped through the gate into the athlete’s private area of the venue.
Maybe he’s more publicity-shy than I had originally thought. Or maybe he was just in a hurry to try on a new pair of Ryan Lochte brand Speedo footwear.
The site constructed to host the ConocoPhillips National Swimming Championships was not too overdone, showy or aesthetically assaulting. Nor was it too minimalist, leaving people to wander around Irvine, CA looking for the event. It was welcoming, well-marked and user-friendly.
This shouldn’t really have been a surprise, for USA Swimming, the National Governing Body of amateur swimming in the country, is one of the “haves” among NGB’s. Among “second-tier” sports in this country, swimming is one of the glamour children, primarily because every four years the Olympics make a household name of one or more American swimmer.
This draws sponsors, which in turn provides the funding to train more and more athletes and to stage bigger, better events for them to swim in. I vaguely remember this type of thing being called a “virtuous circle” in PowerPoint presentation-ese.
Let’s recap: As an organization, USA Swimming wants for nothing.
So you think that they would have someone who could communicate to the public what time the ConocoPhillips National Championships start. Well, you would be thinking wrong.
It was Day Three of this premiere event in the world of swimming and I was up early – you know – to get a jump on the Brett Favre “will he or won’t he” news of the day. Frankly I’m not sure how the country used to manage getting through a summer without knowing what Brett was thinking about. Every. Single. Day. But while waiting for that life-affirming information, I begin to plan out my day’s travel.
A quick virtual trip over to the USA Swimming web site…a subsequent link to the ConocoPhillips event site…a little digging…a little more digging…still digging. Now I’m down to the athlete’s “Heat Sheet” – which I’m not entirely sure was meant for Sports Fans, but nonetheless manages to impart that the first “Suit Ready” time is…well, pretty much now. Uh-oh.
I was packed and in the car within 10 minutes for the hour’s drive to Irvine. And when I got there, I found out that the reason for the unusually early start was that the day’s competition was split into two sessions. That morning’s session consisted solely of preliminary heats – with the finals of each competition to take place in a completely separate session. Six hours later. This tiny detail was not mentioned on the web site.
And the worst part about the whole thing? I blew out of the house before learning of Brett Favre’s plans for the year! Now I’ll NEVER find out!!!
As soon as I arrived at the Woollett Aquatics Center though, I was comforted in having had to make that sacrifice. For I had barely settled into my seat when Heat #4 of the men’s 100 meter butterfly prelims was announced. A heat that just happened to feature Alexander Forbes of Central Florida University.
Having spotted his name in the Heat Sheet earlier I was looking forward to seeing him race. See, the name Alexander – which is not exactly a common moniker – appears time after time in my particular branch of the Forbes family tree. Adding to the intrigue was the fact that I had lived just across town from the Orlando home of Central Florida University for years.
I was thinking that in a weird, time-warp-y, black hole kind of way, that this guy was actually a proxy for ME in the swimming world. And except for the chiseled body, remarkable swimming ability and African-American ethnicity, it just as well could have been.
As I watched the prelims unfold, I was taken by what a model of efficiency they were. Almost every available second was filled with bodies in motion – either swimming or diving into the pool to begin another heat. It was so precisely choreographed that swimmers that had just completed one heat didn’t even climb of the pool until the swimmers in the next heat had begun – by diving into the water over the heads of those clutching the wall and catching their breath.
The introduction of the athletes in each heat actually took place while they were swimming, which actually took a humorous turn during the men’s 50 meter freestyle heats. The time needed to complete a heat in this event was less 25 seconds, and the P.A. announcer had to revert to his best impression of a Southern auctioneer in order to get everyone “introduced” before the race had ended.
While we’re on the topic of introductions, I can’t even begin to describe the difference that a good Public Address system makes on an event. And in this particular event, both the announcer and the P.A. system were top-notch. Relevant information was provided on a consistent basis throughout the day and you could actually make out what was being said.
That may sound simple and basic, but trust me when I tell you that it is the exception rather than the rule for an event to provide quality in both content and sound – two things that differentiate a muddled sports event from a compelling one. You heard it here first, and with crystal clarity, no less.
Reflecting on this and basking in the sunshine that had won the day from the morning fog, it snuck up on me that a member of the royal family of heavily chlorinated water had entered the pool deck. Michael Phelps.
I don’t know whether I expected him to be trailed by Jared Fogel carrying a Subway party tray or what, but he didn’t seem to draw much attention from anyone – not the other swimmers, not the officials, and not even the fans. As he took his position atop the starting block for Lane 4, he looked like just another swimmer.
To be continued…