On Swim Culture


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OMAHA – Matt Grevers had just come off a dominating win in the 100 backstroke here at the US swim Trials. It was late at night. He was walking across the bridge that connects CenturyLink Arena to the Hilton Omaha and he was walking slowly, very slowly, because about every 10 feet a gaggle of girls was asking for autographs and photos.

He was signing and posing and he could not have been more gracious, even when the girls gave way to a grown man who asked if he would pose for a photo with a picture glued to a popsicle-stick of his hometown orthodontist, apparently a swim dad. Whatever.

Grevers posed for the photo and the guy gushed, “Matt, you just saved me two-thousand bucks!”

“It’s a big family,” Grevers would say later. “Everyone wants everyone to do well.”

Every sport has its own culture. A reason, perhaps the key reason, for USA Swimming’s ongoing success at the Summer Olympics – and why the team that’s being put together here at the Trials is expected to continue that run in just a few weeks in London – is its underlying culture.

It’s no accident. It starts early, when kids start at their clubs in their towns, and it carries all the way through and to the national and Olympic teams.

Just one example of swim culture, and how it contrasts with track and field, which of course will be one of the other marquee sports in just a few weeks at the Games:

In the women’s 200-meter breaststroke heats here Friday morning, 14-year-old Allie Szekely and 20-year-old Gisselle Kohoyda tied for 17th in 2:30.28.

A marked element of swim culture is that swimmers are expected to be tough. About an hour later, after the heats of the men’s 200 individual medley, they held a swim-off to determine who would be the first alternate for Friday night’s semifinals in the women’s 200 breaststroke; with the crowd roaring, Allie won, in 2:30.03.

To be clear: she went faster in the swim-off than she had in the heat itself.

Afterward, she signed autographs and said it was “awesome.”

Compare: in track and field, the dead-heat in the women’s 100 meters last Saturday in Eugene, Ore., is still a dead-heat.

The two athletes involved in the 100-meter tie at the track Trials, Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh, are also competing in the 200 meters. After competing through the early rounds of the 200, both have been escorted through what’s called the “mixed zone,” where athletes meet reporters, with no comment. Both have declined to speak with television crews as well.

The track dead-heat has dissolved into something of a farce. While the protocol that has since been instituted since the tie calls for either a run-off or a coin-flip, the coin-flip rules demand that the 25-cent piece to be used must feature George Washington on one side and an “Eagle” on the other. So the commemorative quarters honoring each of the 50 states, which are of course legal tender and now in wide circulation through a program launched by the US Mint in 1999 – they’re no good.

Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming, said he believes it’s his No. 1 priority – more than fund-raising, organizational charts, anything – to work at culture.

On the blocks, swimming is the most important thing. Off – no. It’s understood that there’s a distinct difference between who the person is as a swimmer and who he or she is as a person.

Moreover, the culture in USA Swimming is to embrace accountability and responsibility and, whether winning or losing, to be humble and gracious.

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