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Something in the Water

Feb 23, 2014  - Casey Barrett

Don’t let the medal count fool you. Team USA currently stands atop the medal standings at the Winter Games in Sochi, one ahead of Russia, with a weekend remaining. They’ve won 27 total medals, thus far. A few more are sure to be in store over the next two days, including, maybe, a bitter bronze in men’s hockey… (Yes, some medals count more than others.)

Of those 27 medals, a dozen have come in either freestyle skiing or snowboarding. Meaning, NBC must be immensely grateful for the X-Games… Anyway you cut it, Team USA is guilty of medal-padding, by adding American-made pseudo-events like the “slopestyles” on skis and snowboards. It’s hard not to be cynical when you look at some of these less-than-universal sports, and then have to listen to the manufactured drama over national medal counts.

Winter Olympic sports should look to swimming

In the traditional Winter Olympics sports, the Americans have been, to put it mildly, underwhelming. Speedskating has been a well-publicized disaster, as U.S. skaters haven’t won a single medal on ice, and no, it’s not Under Armour’s fault. Ice Dancing gold aside, they haven’t been particularly impressive in figure skating either.

But before the bashing continues, this column isn’t about the failures of American Winter Olympians. It’s about the outsized success of American athletes in melted ice. In the pool. See, this is about the time when leaders of National Governing Bodies in many winter sports start scratching their heads and wondering what they’ve done wrong. Then, they look to a group that continues to do it right. They ring up the folks at USA Swimming and they all ask a simple riddle: How the hell do you guys manage to be so good, Games after Games?

USA Swimming powerhouse

In 2012 in London, the swimmers of Team USA won 31 medals. More than the entire US delegation will win in Sochi. As a Canadian Olympian who grew up in the US system and witnessed the Americans’ pool domination up close, this used to be galling to me. It’s always been the case. Every damn Games it’s always the same. The American swimmers come swaggering in, and you can just see the look in their eyes. They know they’re going to kill it. They just know. I’ve sat on the other side of the looking glass at international meets and watched that blind confidence just seeping from them. It’s not always a pleasant sight. But this is sport, and the objective is pretty clear: You’re there to compete. The evidence can’t be denied; American swimmers have always been very, very good at that. Better than any Olympians, in any other sport.

So, the question is, why?

I had the chance to spend a few days at USA Swimming’s headquarters in Colorado Springs this week, and I got a few clues. First, I received a copy of their 2013 Demographics report. Last year, there were over 340,000 year-round swimmers in America. A 13% increase from 2012, and more than double the amount from a generation ago. That’s a big pool of talent. But more importantly, they’re not going anywhere. The report went on to point out that a swimmer who stays with the sport in the US past the age of 13 is almost definitely in it for the long haul. Swimmers simply don’t quit if they make to middle school, and if they get the opportunity to swim in college, they’ll stay with it through their early 20s. If they’re good enough to rank high the world, post college, chances are they’re going to stay with it longer than that.

Thanks to the Athlete’s Partnership Agreement, post-college ‘pro’ swimmers now earn approximately $39,000 a year as a National Team stipend from USA Swimming. Ancillary income from prize money or endorsements are up to them. Now, $39K might not get you too far in New York or LA, but in college towns and smaller cities, where most elite swimmers train, this can be a solid income that can keep you in the sport through you’re 20s and, perhaps, beyond.

It doesn’t get much simpler than retention

Have a huge, growing base, and keep your best athletes in the sport for as long as possible. That’s the biggest piece of the puzzle, and it’s something that speed skating and figure skating and plenty of other sports simply haven’t done.

What else is there? Call it the structure of success. In terms straight out of MBA 101, it’s: bring in the best, create the best possible situation for them to achieve, and get out of their way. That last bit might be the most important. If you have a huge pool of talent, and a club culture that fosters that talent, have enough confidence in the system to get out of the way. The tinkering and second-guessing at the top of so many national governing bodies, in so many countries, have proven that’s not the way forward.

Of course, when faced with Olympic failure of shaming proportions, as USA Speedskating has faced in Sochi, the instinct is to do the opposite. In a less-than-classy rant, American speed skater Maria Lamb, laid her team’s failures at the feet of her sport’s leadership. Denial can be an embarrassing thing to behold. If it’s not the suits, then it must be the bosses. Because it can’t, can’t, be the athletes.

Actually, it can. It always is. And if you want to fix your problems, don’t start at the top. Start at the bottom. Figure out how to grow your sport. Figure out how to attract the best. (Memo to USA Speedskating: I’m pretty sure NHL players can skate fast too…) And then have the confidence to step back and let the best do their thing.

That Olympic swagger doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s the product of generations. It’s the product of top to bottom faith in a culture.

It happens every day at swimming pools across the US. If you’re in another lane, wearing another cap, that can be hard to accept. But it’s true.