Response to “What Will Improve Swimming in the Underdeveloped Swimming Nations: A Thought Piece by John Leonard” from Dale Neuburger


I read with great interest the “thought piece intended to provoke opinions and discussion” from John Leonard regarding the development of swimming worldwide, and I am pleased to respond with my personal viewpoint.

John…you are exactly right: positive role models, whether athletes or coaches, inspire others. Three of the more interesting examples come from Africa.

As we know, Oussama Mellouli has been one of the best swimmers in the world for almost a decade, and his Olympic gold medal in the 1500 meter freestyle was the first ever achieved by a swimmer from Tunisia. But although the bulk of his training has been in the United States, there are young swimmers in his country who have been inspired by his accomplishments. One such young man is Ahmed Mathlouti, who finished 21st in the 200 freestyle in Rome at age 19, with a sub-1:48.00 performance.

For many years, Salim Iles was the most recognized swimmer to compete for Algeria, and he was a consistent finalist in sprint freestyle races on the international level. He, too, did the bulk of his training outside of his home country in France and the United States, but he inspired the “next wave” of Algerian swimmers, including Nabil Kebab, who had a sub-49.00 performance in the 100 freestyle and Daid Sofiane who swam under 1:02.00 in the 100 meter breaststroke in Rome.

And, when South Africa athletes – Ryk Neethling, Roland Schoeman, Lyndon Ferns, and Darian Townsend – won the 400 freestyle relay gold medal in Athens, they enabled young swimmers in their country to “dream the impossible dream.” Although the bulk of their training was in the United States, just a few years later, Cameron van der Burgh, Natalie du Toit, and Gerhard Zandberg have established themselves as standouts in international competition.

All six of these swimmers were undoubtedly inspired by their predecessors who had “blazed trails” to achieve international success. And each did so against the odds. Would it have happened anyway? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

And sometimes inspiring swimmers come from other countries, too.

In January 2009, I was in Riyadh performing some work for a Saudi Arabian sports federation. Coincidentally and totally unknown to me, Michael Phelps was appearing at a business conference at the same time, featuring other Olympic heroes like Carl Lewis. Michael graciously agreed to spend a few hours at the pool at the Olympic Training Center, to “meet and greet” young Saudi swimmers.

More than 500 young swimmers showed up at the pool, some of whom came from more than four hours away, traveling by car, through the desert.

Five hundred Saudi kids…six months after Beijing…traveling enormous distances across the desert, just to see Michael for a few minutes.

The power of inspiring athletes knows no reasonable bounds.

And, although there are swimmers who fit the description in your article, there are also many others who use the FINA World Championships or Olympic Games as their inspiration. For some, merely competing will be a lifelong memory;for others, it will be the impetus for continued training and competition. They swim in the same pool as the heroes of our sport, and even if their success is modest, their motivation is great.

And sometimes coaches take tough positions which inspire great performances.

I am reminded of a brash young coach – Dave Kelsheimer – who coached the National Team of the Cayman Islands. Although two “universality” positions were open to Cayman swimmers to compete at the Sydney Olympic Games, he told his swimmers and their parents that none would compete in Sydney unless they achieved a qualifying time. None did, and no Cayman swimmers went to Sydney. It was not only difficult to take such a stance within his club, but he also incurred the wrath of the Cayman Islands Olympic Committee.

Four years later, Cayman had three swimmers with an Olympic “B” qualifying time – Andrew Mackay, Heather Roffey, and Shaune Fraser. From no qualifiers in the history of Cayman swimming through 2000, to three swimmers at the Athens Olympic Games…that’s real progress!

And, four more years later, Cayman was represented by two athletes – Shaune and Brett Fraser – who came very close to becoming semi-finalists in Beijing, both finishing in the top 30 in their best events. Shaune has since won three NCAA individual titles, while Brett had several top 16 performances leading to a fifth place finish in 2010 for Coach Gregg Troy’s University of Florida team.

It took the courageous (and risky) stance by a coach to help athletes aspire to results they had never before achieved nor imagined. He passed up a chance to be on the pool deck in Sydney, which would be a dream-come-true for any young coach, in order to make a point and to create a platform for long-term success of the program.

Yes, maybe it would have happened anyway…but, I think not!

Swimming has an abundance of role models, both in and out of the water, as athletes and coaches. We need to tell their stories, chronicle their successes, and celebrate their ability to succeed even when the odds are significantly stacked against them.

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