Wow. I’m having trouble putting into words my reactions to watching the dominance of the United States swimming team at the Beijing Olympics. The U.S. has always been competitive in swimming, but we are hardly alone in the world. The Europeans, Great Britain, South Africa, and particularly Australia have always been very tough competitors. The results from the first three days of competition hardly reflect that however. Standout performances include Michael Phelps’s 200 free, where he blew away his own world record by two seconds, Aaron Piersol and Natalie Coughlin’s wins in the 100 back, and the men’s 4×100 free relay, featuring Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones, and the incomparable Jason Lezak. (Not sure what relay I’m talking about? Refresh your memory with this slideshow.)

One of the most remarkable aspects about all this is the fact that the United States has no state-sponsored swimming program, occasionally cited as a weakness. Our Olympians hearken from swimming programs sprinkled across the country. Michael Phelps is still coached by his age-group coach, Bob Bowman and Jason Lezak coaches himself, a feat any swimmer will recognize as just plain remarkable–the bottom of the pool is hardly dishing out inspiration.

What we do have, however, is one of the best collegiate swimming programs in the world. This is largely do to the dominance of our post-secondary schools in general. Our universities and colleges attract the best students in the world so it’s only logical athletes are part of that equation. These institutions have the funds necessary to run first-class athletic programs and offer scholarships to elite athletes from around world. In this respect, the United States is indirectly responsible for Olympians from smaller European and African countries who are recruited as college athletes to swim for the best coaches in the world. Many end up staying in this country to train for the Olympics literally in the same lane as American athletes. A state-sponsored program would never support such an open-door policy.

Let me cite an example: As I was listening to Rowdy Gaines cover the semi-finals of the women’s 100 backstroke, I was struck by a name he mentioned. Gaines was talking about the Zimbabwean swimmer, Kirsty Coventry, seeded first in final heat (where she was out-touched by Coughlin) thanks to the world record she set in the semi-finals. Coventry was coached by Kim Brackin at Auburn University, one of the powerhouses of United States collegiate swimming. Kim (McDonald) Brackin was co-captain of my very own high school swim team in Ithaca, New York during my sophomore year. Kimmy went on to swim four years at the University of Albany and I’m sure I would have lost track of her forever had I not stumbled across an article in a reception-room magazine featuring an interview and picture of Auburn swim coach, Kim Brackin, instantly recognizable to me as Kim McDonald.

Apparently, the name lodged itself in some corner of my mind because when Gaines mentioned Kim Brackin at Texas, it jogged my memory. Anyways, I couldn’t be prouder to know her. She is not yet 40, the head coach of one of the best swimming programs in the country, and coach of several Olympic athletes. Pretty damn impressive, lady. SHABA.

In an indirect way, Kim Brackin and Kirsty Coventry illustrate my point about the virtues of a laissez-faire sports program. Athletes in the United States have a lot more say in who coaches them than they would if we adhered to a state-sponsored model of athletic development. Swimmers choose the coach and program that best fits their needs, such as Kirsty’s decision to swim for Kim. These programs are enriched by the presence of foreign athletes, who better their chances by training in world class programs while spurring on homegrown athletes to higher achievement as well.

So, while the rest of the world debates why so many swimming world records are broken at the Olympics, I’m casting my vote for our hands-off model of athletic development. More of the fastest swimmers can be found in the U.S. than any part of the world, propelling the sport forward at an exponential rate. Let’s learn from this model.

Advertisements