Swimming surfaces as more prominent sport after Phelps' Olympic gold rush

Swimming is perceived by many as a once-every-four-years spectator sport for most of America. After perhaps the single greatest performance in United States sports history took place four months a
Mark Hazelwood
Aug 25, 2010

Swimming is perceived by many as a once-every-four-years spectator sport for most of America.

After perhaps the single greatest performance in United States sports history took place four months ago, Sandusky High School head swimming coach Tommy Patterson thinks that is changing.

"He made it that we're not a back-of-the-sports page sport anymore," Patterson said, referring to the performance of U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps at the Beijing Summer Olympcis in August.

Phelps has become a household name throughout the world after winning an Olympic-record eight gold medals in all eight events he competed in at the Summer Games and just recently made sports history again as local high school swimmers got their respective seasons under way.

It was announced Dec. 8 that Phelps had been named the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, marking the first time ever a swimmer was given such an honor to again give the non-mainstream sport a shot in the arm.

"It's just been real exciting," Patterson said. "I've been following him since he was 12 years old, and I met both his coaches. It was exciting to watch, but deep down inside you knew he was going to do it."

But the more the Beijing Games become a distant memory, the question often asked currently in the swim community is can the momentum of Phelps hold up?

St. Mary Central Catholic head coach Michele Gallagher knows that answer without thinking twice.

"He was a great teacher," Gallagher said of Phelps. "It's really two-fold, because the kids were able to recognize what he did and we talk about the techniques behind his finishes and starts.

"There were a lot of great teaching moments with his swim, and the kids get excited and understand that. The Olympics are always good for swimming every four years. You always see an increased interest and attendance, which has a tendency to make it more well known."

One of the teaching moments Gallagher often points to is Phelps' performance in the 100-meter butterfly event that saw him win by the tip of his fingers at the finish, a winning margin of the smallest possible time, .01 seconds.

"We refer to it all the time with our kids," she said. "And they know exactly what you're talking about, which is neat because they pick it up immediately. To have those kids know what we're talking about was neat to see, especially when they are learning and watching other kids swim and learn at the same time."

According to usaswimming.org, there also has been an increased interest in swimming since the Olympics ended.

"USA Swimming has seen unprecedented growth at many of our 2,700 swim clubs across the country since the 2008 Olympic Games," said USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus on the Web site. "And we know that we owe this post-Olympic membership boost in large part to the awe-inspiring performances by Michael and his Olympic teammates this past summer."

Gallagher reflected on what it was like to be involved in swimming during Phelps' magical run.

"It was great with all the hype and it put swimming on the map a little bit," she said. "It's not a mainstream sport like football or basketball, and it's nice to have talented athletes do so well. The kids that do swim appreciated what he accomplished for the sport.

"People came to work tired because they had stayed up to see the finals. That's a real help to the sport. And when articles were written during that time, they got educated with Michael's swim so that now they'll understand a little more about it. It was a fabulous time to talk about his events and it was so much fun that when it was over there was withdrawal when it was done."

It was also a chance to see how difficult the preparation is for the sport.

"We can really appreciate the hard work that it took because it is a very grueling sport," Gallagher said. "Your average joe wouldn't make a tenth of the practice, and a few years back we had the wrestling team come practice with us and those kids didn't realize what the sport is all about. It is more of conditioning than anything else, and I had wrestlers actually come back and want to work out with us, because it was such a great workout."

Included in that group of wrestlers that found themselves coming to the pool to swim before their season would begin were members of the prestigious Opfer family, the quartet of brothers who combined to win eight state championships.

"These kids talk, so we invited them, and it was the best thing that could have happened to our sport because all of the sudden they couldn't do the workouts," Gallagher said. "But that is because nobody can. You can't just walk off the streets and do this.

"Then, of course, the next couple years we had kids coming back to want to train with us before going on to wrestling, including some of the Opfer boys. Drew started that six or seven years ago, and it was a great thing that he did, because it helped the sport at SMCC."

Local swimming coaches insist the sport deserves its 15 minutes of fame for the unique benefits it offers athletes. Swimming has long been touted as great cardiovascular exercise with almost no impact. Because of that, it's a sport young and old can enjoy -- a true lifetime sport.

"The regular person is more aware of it now, and I think it does have a trickle-down effect," Patterson said. "I don't see anything different with the number of kids coming out, but I think the general public realizes how difficult swimming actually is.

"With the exposure Phelps got, people saw it wasn't just going down to the pool and jumping in. I think people are more educated about what it takes to actually be a swimmer."

So, while the coaches want to capitalize on Phelps' unprecedented success, they try to make it clear to prospective swimmers they don't have to get to the Olympics to have fun.

Swimming is a great individual and team sport, they say, one in which you can participate for a lifetime.