JustPassingThrough’s gymnastics posts on The Salad Bowl have been so helpful and insightful, they’ve inspired me to try something similar for swimming! Since it’s over, I’m going to just run through the notable moments/athletes. And I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts as well!
“It’s the last goodbye, I swear...” Michael’s pre-Olympics Underarmour commercial made me weep. I’m not gonna lie. And, yes, I am the kind of person who cries at commercials semi-regularly. But they used the incredible “The Last Goodbye” by The Kills, which I love, and just perfectly sums up this conclusion to the career of the greatest Olympian who ever lived.
Michael’s struggles have been both very public and very private, in an odd sort of way. I encourage you all to read this article at ESPN about Michael, his dad, and his coach Bob Bowman (who his son is named after). It’s a really fascinating, heartbreaking, and disturbing look into the emotional life of such an incredible athlete.
For me, as someone who has loved and followed Michael’s career very closely, this Olympics was a joy to watch. I was sad when I heard he was coming back originally, because I felt like he was unable to build a life outside swimming, and that has contributed to his ups and downs in his private life. But I obviously was wrong. To see him be a leader on his team, to see him palling around with other swimmers, to see him holding his baby after races and laughing on the podium warmed my heart so much. There’s a beautiful shot after his final swim, in the relay, where the camera is looking up into their huddle and Michael is laughing and his head is on Nathan Adrian’s chest, and it felt to me like such a perfect shot to end his career. Happy, victorious, and a teammate. Thank you for everything, Michael. I almost forgive you for naming your baby Boomer.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Katie Ledecky swim in the 2012 Olympics. It was the 1500 meter freestyle (that’s about a mile) and she was this tiny, skinny little 15 year old who I’d never heard of. I saw her dive in, sprint out, and got scared. NO ONE goes out that fast. What was she doing?? My mom called me then, and said “I think she thinks she’s swimming the 400. They’re gonna have to pull this little girl out of the pool.” We stayed on the line for the entire race, because we were both so worried, then astounded, then overjoyed at what we were seeing.
Obviously, she backed that up this time. Gold in the 200, the 400, and the 800. Silver in the 4x100 relay. Two world records (which, by the way, were hers originally as well). The fastest 11 times IN HISTORY in the 800 freestyle. But what makes Katie so astounding as a swimmer are two things that may not get picked up on by the lay person. A) Her size. She’s tiny for a distance swimmer. She’s put on some muscle since London, but not nearly as much as the women she’s competing against. Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden (who also captured my heart this time), her only real competition, is much bigger.
And B) her ability to be so fucking dominant at all these distances. I mean, she even split fast enough to get into the 4x100 relay! Which means that she is an Olympic threat in EVERY SINGLE FREESTYLE DISTANCE except the 50. That is absurd. That is like being equally good at every single position on a football team. It takes immense athletic ability to train for all of these events at the same time. Honestly, I’ve been around swimming a long time, and I have no idea how she does it. My only explanation is that she’s God’s way of making up for Ryan Lochte’s hair and American flag grill.
In a sport where significant barriers to entry have kept people of color out, the first black woman to medal in the Olympics is a HUGE FUCKING DEAL. Thinking about little black girls seeing her and saying “I want to do that. I want to be a swimmer” just makes me tear up every single time. Swimming is SUCH an empowering sport for women, and it’s SO important to me that ALL women feel included and welcomed and represented in the sport. So thank you Simone, for breaking that barrier.
Simone also stuck her neck way out there and voiced support for BLM after her win. I’m sure she knew that she was going to cause a stir, that people were going to get angry with her, but she did it anyway because she had a huge platform. I wish more swimmers did that, used their platform and their power to speak up. Simone, you are truly an example in every single way.
Oh, Nathan Adrian. You sweet cinnamon roll. Nathan Adrian is always smiling, which I would be too if I had a smile that brings light to every corner of the room. Nathan did very well, but not quite as well as London. He wound up with bronze medals in the 50 free and 100 free and golds in his relays. This isn’t surprising - the shorter distances are ALWAYS up in the air, and it’s anyone’s game at any time.
The best part of having Nathan Adrian on Team USA is watching him in the ready room or that room where they all watch the races. He makes sure to get each of his teammates pumped before they swim. He makes sure to congratulate each swimmer after a race. And when they show swimmers reacting to other US athletes winning, Nathan is always cheering the loudest and jumping the highest. Because he’s the perfect human man. Someone needs to do a Toast style “If Nathan Adrian were your boyfriend...”
Now moving on to the less pleasant moments....
You’ve probably already seen the coverage of the ridiculous commentating on Katinka’s first gold of the Games - the commentator referred to her husband and coach as “the man responsible for that race.” I don’t feel like I need to explain to you all why that’s incredibly, incredibly fucked up.
Instead, I want to talk a little about the background of Katinka. Her husband’s actions have raised many, many eyebrows in the swimming world. Other swimmers and coaches have publicly stated that they are uncomfortable with the way he yells at her after races where she doesn’t win. She says he’s completely different away from the pool, very loving and supportive, and that they are able to keep up a firm boundary between coach/swimmer and husband/wife. Still, the speculations of abuse are rampant. They were brought up several times by the NBC commentators.
And here’s my issue. If you believe this woman may be in a dangerous situation (which clearly you are aware of, NBC), speculating on that relationship on “live” television is NOT helpful. It’s harmful, it puts them under a spotlight, and it puts much more pressure on her to perform. What’s she gonna do, look at the camera and say “yes, dear entire world, my husband and coach who I spend almost all of my time with is abusing me.” Fucking no. AND FURTHER, if she is in this situation that you have so gleefully, glibly alluded to, constantly reaffirming that she would not have any success without her husband is SO INCREDIBLY DAMAGING.
Maybe he’s abusive, maybe he isn’t. There’s no possible way for us to know that. But he’s definitely a tool.
Ryan had a disappointing trials, and a disappointing Olympics. He qualified for finals in only one individual event, the 200 IM, in which he has the fiercest competition with Michael. Not only did he not win, he didn’t even place, coming in 5th. He did get a gold medal in a relay, the closest relay for the men’s team, so that’s good. He (understandably) seemed down and disappointed in interviews following his last race. He also said he would be “the Michael Phelps of swimming if Michael weren’t there” which... oh Ryan.
Then there’s the stuff outside the pool. We’ll start with the silly stuff - the hair. Before the event, he dyed it gray:
But despite having spent his ENTIRE LIFE swimming, Ryan seemed to be unaware of the fact that chlorine turns blond hair gross. So by the end of the meet, he had full on cotton-candy blue hair. Oh, Ryan.
It reminds me of this one time, in high school, right before states, where one of the older swimmers told his freshman younger brother that they were all going to bleach their hair because they were just going to shave it for the meet anyway. And the little guy did it, and then he looked like Sisqo for a week until it turned green.
But the tragedy doesn’t stop at hair for Ryan. On his way home from a party over the weekend, he was ROBBED AT GUNPOINT while in a taxi with his teammates. Someone needs to check his microchip and call his owners, it’s time for him to go back to his life of barking at the mailman and being fooled by fake-outs while playing fetch. Have I overplayed the labradoodle metaphor here? Possibly.
Those are the big things I can think of. I already wrote about the Lilly King fiasco, and I’m not going to address Natalie Coughlin’s backseat coaching because I think it’s ridiculous. But let me know if I missed anything big!! And let me know what you thought about swimming this time around! I wrapped it up because I thought it was getting too long, but I’ve also loved watching Maya DiRado, Sarah Sjostrom, Adam Peaty, and Ryan Held crying on the podium.