Haunts of the Black Masseur – The Swimmer as Hero

Exploring the cultural history of swimming across the world… A brilliant work by Charles Sprawson

I picked up this book while wandering a used bookstore outside of Dallas in 1998. The title made no sense to me, but the subtitle certainly did. Especially at the ego-drenched age of 23, before careers began and humility gets forced upon you when you realize that no one cares about your pool-bound exploits. The swimmer as hero, indeed. I could relate to that. Swimmers, particularly those who’ve stood atop podiums, are not lacking in self-regard.

I took it home and opened it up and waited for it to confirm all my heroic impulses. It didn’t. Instead, I found a deep scholarly look at the true character of swimmers – isolated souls that somehow find fulfillment in a lonely sensory-deprived act. In his introduction, the author writes that, at a young age, he formed “a vague conception of the swimmer as someone rather remote and divorced from everyday life, devoted to a mode of exercise where most of the body remains submerged and self-absorbed. It seemed to me that it appealed to the introverted and eccentric, individualists involved in a mental world of their own.” Ok, guilty as charged, I thought.

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Moving Water – A Summer of Jim Harrison

America’s greatest living novelist… and his obsession with rivers, dams, and the way we move through water…
I’ve been told to read the man for years. Told by reviews and trusted folks with trusted taste, but mostly by an uncle who’s lucky enough to count the man as a friend. Jim Harrison has loomed large for a long time, one of those elders whose wisdom you know you’ll get to when you’re ready. Save for a handful of his novellas I wasn’t ready until this summer. Until I picked up a book called The River Swimmer, and then went backwards and forwards, consuming everything I could by a writer who seems to be a Zen master in the art of Living Well.

It should not come as a surprise that Jim Harrison is also obsessed by water and our relationship with it. For the last four decades his books have been awash in rivers and dams and fishing and the life-lusting men and women drawn into the currents. The eponymous River Swimmer is a 17-year-old farm boy named Thad, living on an island in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – the rich wild terrain of so much of Harrison’s work. Thad is drawn to the water with a compulsion that only a swimmer can understand. Or maybe a writer drawn to the keyboard, or an addict to a favored drug… or hell, any other passionate soul that can’t quite feel at home in the world.

(I realize this isn’t your accustomed Cap & Goggles ‘inside swimming’ post. Bear with me. This is the Aquatic Arts at its finest…)

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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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A Queen and a King, Putting in the Work

Katie’s the best ever and Michael’s at his best since Beijing… while a slew of questions remain for the rest of Team USA…

Adjectives fail us. Her times are too much to comprehend. After the Worlds in Kazan, Katie Ledecky is the Olympic story for next year’s lead up to Rio. 8:07 in the 800. 15:25 in the mile. Gold across the board, from 200 to 1500. I grew in the generation of Janet Evans, when her times were in a different stratosphere. Katie’s made Janet’s old unreachable standards look quaint. Nate Silver’s always brilliant 538 blog posted a collection of charts and analysis that helps put Ledecky’s swims into context. Though, when you watch her, nothing really can. All respect to Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey, but right now Katie Ledecky is the most dominant female athlete on earth.

Then there’s Michael the GOAT, back seated comfortably on his watery throne. There’s plenty of criticism of Phelps on these pages in the past. Hopefully, fair and warranted, but some of it harsh nonetheless. Now some heartfelt praise where it’s due: Phelps’s performance at the U.S. Nationals in San Antonio last week was astonishing.

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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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