15 Swims for 2015

15 Swims Worth Remembering in 2015…

The year before an Olympic year is often a bit of a buzz kill. It’s a time when everyone is usually gazing out at the near horizon, with the goal of the Games superseding anything that happens one year out. But not this year. In 2015, we were treated to some all-time performances, from a collection of young and old-ish, from an unknown Turkish teen to the ultimate bold-faced name in the pool.

So, with swimmers immersed in Christmas Training across the globe, and a new Olympic year about to dawn, enjoy this highly subjective look at 15 swims worth remembering in 2015… (NOTE: Links to each swim are provided where possible.)

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The Brand of a Club

Three years ago, the Curl-Burke swim club was rebranded in the wake of Rick Curl’s sexual abuse disgrace… Today, the renamed Nations Capital Swim Club is the number one ranked club team in America, led by Katie Ledecky. While the old name has been erased from record, the legacy of excellence never skipped a stroke. Thanks, in large part, to the club’s owner and CEO, Tom Ugast…

He stood up there at the height of his profession. On a fine recent Sunday evening in Los Angeles, Bruce Gemmell received his third straight Golden Goggles award, as the Doc Counsilman Coach of the Year. He’s Katie Ledecky’s coach, after all, and whoever’s coaching that girl is doing something right. But behind the podium, delivering remarks filled with his usual humility and selflessness, Gemmell stood for a lot more than Ledecky’s leader.

Here was the guy who represented the Nations Capital Swim Club – the one that not so long ago was called Curl-Burke – and it was hard to envision a figure you’d rather have leading your organization. Gemmell oozes integrity. Some people have that way about them, you can smell it a mile away. Some pretend to, some puff out the chest and say all the right things, deliver all the right results, but you can sense something off underneath.

The parents and swimmers of Nations Capital should know. The guy who used to run the place was like that. Rick Curl could coach, no one ever begrudged him that, but as a man there was a fatal secret. This was a man who sexually abused a 13-year-old girl, when he was 33. A guy who got away with it too, for years, despite widespread whispers, until the culture finally caught up to the outrage his crimes deserved. Now Curl is serving seven years in prison, his name verboten on pool decks. Yet somehow the club he founded 37 years ago never missed a beat.

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The Bravest Man in the NCAA

Two years ago, Schuyler Bailar joined Katie Ledecky on a NAG-record setting relay… Now he’s a member of the Harvard men’s swim team, and the first openly transgender swimmer in college history…

Consider your identity, how you might describe yourself in the most basic of ways. Name, age, gender, race, that should get things going. Then you may go on to where you’re from, where you live. Then your basic specs – physical appearance; sexual orientation; occupation; relationship and family status; maybe you’ll feel it’s necessary to mention your faith or political affiliation. What else? The driving passions of your life, perhaps. If you’re reading this, swimming will probably get a shout out.

Now try subtracting some those defining qualities. You’re not from New York, you’re from Milwaukee. You’re not six feet, you’re five-two. You’re a brewer, not a business owner. You’re not Catholic, you’re atheist. Are you still “you”? Of course not, you think. At least I did. And those are the easy items. Location, height, career, religion – either they’re subject to change or you can’t do a damn thing about them.

For Schuyler Bailar, and for many others struggling out there, the question of identity goes much deeper. Born a girl physically, Schuyler was always psychologically a boy. One of those core four identifiers – name, age, gender, and race – was hardly fixed. Since he was a kid, this is something he just knew. As much as you can be confident you know your age or race, Schuyler knew the soul-deep conflict between his exterior sex and his interior one.

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FINA is Doomed

The sport’s international governing body faces a reckoning and a rebellion… It may soon cease to exist at all.

The instinct with institutions is that they’ll always be there. The inevitable monolith that will always lumber on in control, behind the scenes, no matter the level of failure or incompetency. Too big to fail, to implacable to replace. Except that’s never been true. Nations are born, corporations crumble, bureaucracies are buried.

That’s where FINA now finds itself. Like its more famous, dastardly cousin FIFA, the organization that reputes to represent swimming has long been about as competent and transparent as soccer’s filthy world governing body. Finally, leaders on pool decks across the world are declaring that they’ve had it. It’s time FINA went the way of Sepp Blatter.

Last week at the American Swimming Coaches Association conference, bold moves were made. Enough is enough, said the collection of coaches. Whether it’s about drugs or negligence in competitions or just plain good governance, no one can trust the folks who claim to lead this sport from its summit in Lausanne, Switzerland. So, at the ASCA conference in Cleveland, the decision was made, to quote Swimming World’s Brent Ruttemiller, that “they were not going to try to reform FINA, they were going to replace FINA. That was made very clear here.”

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Suspicious Mind

A no-names attempt to understand when it’s fair to suspect doping…

The outrage is inevitable. Arm yourself with all the red flags you like, if you’re going to speak up and start pointing fingers at potential cheaters, you’re courting trouble. That’s the life cycle of these things, don’t pretend you weren’t warned.

Yet the outrage goes both ways. You can’t watch certain achievements, hear the chatter, witness the apparent signs, and keep quiet. That old Edmund Burke quote whispers to you like a priest behind the confessional: The only thing necessary for the spread of evil is for good men to do nothing… So, you say something. And then, here comes the anonymous impotent army of raging commenters, the keyboard cops howling at you to take it back. You knew it was coming.

Consider this a thoughtful step back. No names, no insinuations, just a series of factors that help us answer this question: When is it fair to suspect an athlete of doping?

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Women Rule the Worlds

With four world records in the first two days of competition, the World Champs in Kazan are all about the ladies…

The script was already written before the first final in Kazan. This was going to be a story about the women. Or as Karen Crouse put it in Sunday’s New York Times, these world championships have “a decidedly female-centric marquee.” All the leading ladies are here. There’s Ledecky and Franklin, Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrum, the Aussie sprint sisters, Cate and Bronte Campbell, and of course a certain Hungarian ‘Iron Lady’… 48 hours into the meet, the most important competition in the lead-up to Rio, it’s the female swimmers of the world who have declared this event an eight-night ladies night.

As for the men: There’s no Phelps in Russia. He’s still serving his penance for that drunk driving arrest last fall. The world’s current best swimmer on earth – Japan’s Kosuke Hagino – is also absent. So is Australia’s “Missile”, James Magnussen, the two-time defending champion in the men’s 100 free. Those two are both injured. The stars who are present – Lochte, China’s Sun Yang, Great Britain’s newest breaststroke legend, Adam Peatty – these guys still have loads of star power, but there’s something distinctly second fiddle about the men’s competition. Not many world records are on call. Not many opportunities to gasp at standards shattered.

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Welcome to Cap & Goggles, the Relaunch

New look, more content, same original commentary…

It’s been four years, the yardstick of time by which swimmers tend to measure themselves. I think our internal clocks will always be tuned that way, no matter how long we’ve been out of the sport. It seemed an apt time to reconsider and relaunch this blog that was first born in the wake of the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai. Another Worlds is under way in Kazan, Russia as we speak (plenty more on that in the coming days), but first a quick intro on this new site you’re looking at…

The commentary or periodic essays or whatever you’d like to call it – that will continue. Writing about swimming, getting folks excited and stirred up and passionate about our sport, that is something I’ll never stop doing. Writers have to write, no choice in the matter, it’s a compulsion that can’t be denied – without unraveling into insanity. So, in the interest of avoiding straightjackets and padded cells, that will continue.

But the hope is that this new incarnation of C&G will be much more. It will be a destination to celebrate the ‘Aquatic Arts’. Books, Art, Photography, Videos – anywhere that swimming finds artistic, creative expression. Those new sections are pretty sparse as we launch; they will fill quickly.

As for the collection of past Cap & Goggles stories, those can now be easily accessed in the Archive section – where each story has been categorized under seven headings: Swimmers, Issues, Olympics, NCAA, Junior, Drugs, and Coaching. Take a spin through the archive whenever you have a moment.

Also, a note about the sidebar: The idea is to feature a rotating theme of images. From best swimming books to photographers and artists working in the aquatic medium to swim videos and films. The first theme seemed obvious, as it’s based on the image that first inspired this blog – the surface tension shot of swimmer breaking out. To me, those photos will always capture swimming at its most aesthetic moment in time.

Finally, I want to send immense thanks to my friend and colleague, Armando Garma-Fernandez, the man responsible for this entire redesign. It was completed just as he welcomed his first child, daughter Zaia, into the world last week.

Ok, enough preamble… Back to watching Worlds! Stay tuned…

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How to Dope and Not Get Caught

French study reveals: Take a little, take it at night, never fail a test… See your results soar.

The next time you hear someone proclaim innocence by pointing to all the drug tests she’s passed, try not to laugh. If a cheater is versed in the latest in the dark art of doping then there’s little chance of ever testing positive.

In a study publicized by the television station France 2, the massive benefits of ‘micro-dosing’ were laid bare. In a medical trial, eight athletes were injected with EPO, human growth hormones, corticosteroids, and other drugs – all in tiny doses. While the micro doses left no trace in drug tests, their benefits certainly showed up in performance. One of the runners reported an astonishing drop of 31 seconds in the 3,000 meters – in under a month of testing and clean results.

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Michael Turns 30

Michael Phelps always swore he’d never be swimming at age 30… He is.

A man’s entitled to change his mind. A kid’s expected to change his mind, plenty. As both a young man and a teenage kid, Michael insisted over and over that you would never catch him on the starting blocks when he was 30 years old. At times he said it with a note of disdain, as if yeah right, I’ll be long gone by then, when I’m, like, old. A few years ago, in the wake of London, he said it with a note of relief. He was sick of the sport in 2012, ready to move on with his life, and he did. Or he tried to. But when you’re the best ever at something it’s not so easy to swim away. You realize the view’s a lot better from the top of a mountain.

And so, Michael Phelps did what most expected him to do. He came back. He picked up where he left off – at the top of the world rankings, the straw that stirs the drink of USA Swimming. His arrest and subsequent suspension for drunk driving last fall left some wondering if the comeback trail would dry up, but in the time since the man has professed to do some soul-searching. According to Bob Bowman (aka the Great & Powerful Oz behind the curtain), he’s also been putting in the work. Something that Bowman hasn’t proclaimed since, oh, around 2008.

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The Smell of Smoke

Katinka Hosszu is the best all-around swimmer on earth right now… What everyone is talking about, but no one wants to say…

There is no proof. There never is, not when it matters, not when it’s needed most. So, this is what happens: the coaches grumble; the experts roll their eyes; the athletes offer lukewarm congrats at the end of each eye-popping race. Everyone talks, but no one speaks up. Because only amateurs fail drug tests, and without that proof positive test it’s all just jealous hearsay.

Except the chatter is often true, and the visual evidence – on the body and the scoreboard – generally doesn’t lie.

Our latest Exhibit A: Hungary’s “Iron Lady” Katinka Hosszu. FINA’s reigning World Swimmer of the Year; three-time world champion; holder of five short course meter world records; and the woman who, last fall, became the first swimmer ever to surpass $1 million earned solely in prize money in the pool. She did this, of course, by globe-trotting the World Cup circuit and swimming a superhuman number of races at almost every stop.

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The Swimmer’s Library

TheRiverSwimmer The Swimmer as Hero SwimmingStudies Swimming to Antarctica LynnSherr Barracuda