Best of 2008
You don't know me, Lord of All Aquamen, but I'm a former NCAA Division III champion whose Olympic swimming record doesn't quite rival yours. The closest I ever came to making it to the Trials was back in '84you weren't even a tadpole thenand "close" might be stretching things a bit. I went on to make zero Olympic appearances and win zero medals, and this year I failed (nobly, of course) in my attempt to qualify for the Olympic Trials at age 45.
But enough about me. This is about youspecifically, what you can do with your hard-earned, intergalactic fame to help boost the sport we both love so much. You've made it clear you care. "I want to raise the bar in the sport of swimming," you've said, along with "I think people see swimming as an every-four-years sport. I know it's tough with the NBA, NFL, NHL, and all the other sports around. But I would like swimming presented as an everyday, every-year sport."
Instead of buying a Gulfstream or some other tacky bling, you took that $1 million bonus you got from Speedofor tying Mark Spitz's record of seven Olympic goldsand started a swimming foundation, putting your pile of cash where your mouth is. My understanding is that the money will be used not only to promote swimming but also to teach kids to live healthy, active lives.
That's cool. I salute you. And I'm just writing to add one tiny thought: Please do more, and please hurry, because American swimming needs all the help it can get.
Aside from your eight wins, U.S. swimmers grabbed only four other individual golds in Beijing, continuing our sport's steady spiral down to Davy Jones's locker. This is happening because our farm system has been eroding for years, especially where boys are concerned. Compared with female swimmers, the number of males competing in amateur meets at every level has been dwindling for a while now. And since the seventies, at least 64 colleges have dropped male swim teams from their varsity lineups, claiming they don't have enough money because of the funding demands of Title IX. (Meanwhile, some of these same broke universities can afford plenty of football scholarships for players who warm the bench on perennially losing teams.) Why would boys want to excel in a sport that can neither help them get into college nor even allow them to compete at the intercollegiate level?
This matters because, as you know, swimming is the greatest participatory sport in the world. Think about it. There's hardly any other (somewhat) popular athletic activity in which boys and girls train together day in and day out, share the same lane, do the exact same sets, and work to exhaustion side by side, starting before they can read, even. Through proximity and repetition alone, swimming teaches gender blindness. And except in your case, Your Neptunitude, girls beat boys in practice on a daily basis. I can't begin to count the number of times a female beat me in a distance set when I was a kid or in college. (It happens still.) Getting trounced creates respect for the opposite sex, making swimming a sport that, for the sake of gender relations alone, deserves to grow in popularity.
But please give up on the idea of making swimming as popular with "sports fans" as football, baseball, and basketball. Ain't gonna happen. There's no way you're going to get the typical beer-guzzling, Slim Jimchomping yahoo to add swimming to his roster of obsessions.
That's OK, because your job is much simpler: Make swimming more popular with people who actually want to jump into a pool and do it. Toward that end, your role model isn't Jordan or Jeter or a Manningit's Lance. Road racing was so far down the American athletic totem pole before he came along that pro badminton probably had more fans. He succeeded in boosting cycling's profile and participant numbers, and he won only seven Toursnot your lucky eight gold medals.
The good news is that, thanks to you, things are already looking up. Before your heroic splash in Beijing, only 285,000 swimmers were participating in events sanctioned by USA Swimming, the sport's governing body, but teams across the country are already seeing a significant spike in enrollment, which may result in a 10 percent increase nationwide. That's pretty goodthere was only a 7 percent jump after Athens, where you won six goldsbut we can do better. Say, 50 percent?
Michael, while you perform these sober duties, it's cool for you to date actresses or rock stars and reap endorsement moneyand everything else Lance did. Just don't get too far away from the water. Remember: You race, you dominate, the whole country begins to swim. It's that simple.
Your loyal subject,