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Where A Word Becomes The Next Wave

Jul 1, 2012  - Craig Lord

Let's be honest (and with utmost respect for all those involved), three hours of 1500m heats does not make for the most entertaining of spectator sports, 91 men racing 30 laps, about 15 of them with a decent shot at a place in a final that will hail the latest two swimmers fast enough to wear "USA" as a badge of honour and pride.

The 30-lap marathon this last morning of heats will doubtless feed into the legitimate domestic debate in the US as to whether USA Swimming made the meet too big in terms of the numbers of entries that resulted from softer cut off times. More than 1,800 swimmers will have competed across 26 events by the time the last flamethrowers put a glow on the crowd's face tomorrow evening in celebration of the last two to make it on a roster of 52.

A lot of swimming, a lot of entry fees, a lot of money in the coffers, not just of USA Swimming but their partners and sponsors too, the hotels, the restaurants, cafes and bars packed to overflowing. A lot of costs to put on a show like this. A huge profile for swimming too, with record NBC ratings for the event (understandably, they don't show all those heats) translating to something like 5m viewers tuning in for finals beyond the in-housed crowds of about 14,000 each night. 

The magnet of Michael and Co is not to be underestimated. It has drawn in an audience from far out beyond the traditional shoreline of the sport. Swimming is the biggest thing in town this week, the lean figures of those who take a daily plunge into dedication and discipline (including a lot of parents in great shape) role models fit to turn sidewalks to catwalks as they stroll past the fries-with-anything culture fattening up for the league of obesity led by the US in a developed world fast catching up. 

There may well be arguments for making the cut tougher but talk of looking for a venue that can take 20,000 or more spectators is the way to go. Somewhere in the mix of those 1800 in the pool and the many more queuing up outside for autographs, photos and a moment in the presence of folk who pave the way in human achievement  is the next wave.

Stand on a beach, watch the tide, the connectivity of every drop, the flow of energy in and through the water a simple and majestic reflection of the way we are. How we connect is up to each of us and will determine the nature of the next wave.

Wave after wave of swimmer has emerged from the pool at the Century Link Convention Centre to talk of the energy they felt from the crowd. To stand in a place where there is a collective will on the wind for those in focus to excel, regardless of who a particular cheer may be directed to, is a powerful thing - and not just for those in the water.

Some of the most inspiring experience I've enjoyed on my voyage through a world of water include encounters casual and meant with achievers, each one like a small battery pack charged  to help you dive off the next rock into another moment richer than the one before. Such things are timeless, the ripples eternal.

In Sweden with Shane Gould and Milt Nelms, in Britain at trials and other events, on a visit to the Gators and Gemma Spofforth in Florida, on a Skype call with Bob Bowman, here at trials in Omaha, inspiration is never more than a breath away. The next wave has been energised. 

It is often said that the champion must have a selfish streak in his alchemy. Too sweeping and never the whole story. As people stepped up to shake Janet Evans by the hand as she bowed out after her last two races in the elite pool, self-agrandisement was out shopping somewhere: her focus was on saying thanks to people around her who she felt had contributed to her experience.

Thanks is one of the most common words uttered at trials this week: Phelps, Lochte, Clary, Summer Sanders, Debbie Meyer, Donna De Verona, John Naber and many more part of a continuum of support and understanding.  I've seen it elsewhere of late too, in Britain at the heart of a new culture: perhaps the biggest gift that Bill Sweetenham brought to Britain in 2000.

Relationships are at their strongest when built on trust, mutual respect, a common appreciation of what it takes. "I think it's absolutely essential if you're going to have that ultimate team performance," says head Britain coach and American Denis Pursley. "It can't happen unless you have that mutual respect that mutual commitment that transcends individual and respects team goals. That's very hard to come by.

"It is the most difficult thing to come by of everything you have to do to have that ultimate team experience. Unless you have experienced it, you don't know what you're missing and you really don't understand in a lot of cases what is required to achieve that. Everybody wants the team to do well, to see Britain succeed but do we understand what the price of that is and what it means to have - as I keep saying to the team over and over again - to have that team-first attitude and concept. It's kind of like the John Kennedy thing: ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country."

He saw it in practice in 1988, when Tom Jager (USA) took bronze in the 50m free in 1992 behind Alex Popov (RUS) and Matt Biondi (USA). Jager was eaten up, he hated to lose "more than any other swimmer perhaps", Pursley recalled. The coach thought that Jager might find a quiet place to sit and lick his wounds. The medals presented, Jager returned to the stands, stood with his teammates "and started cheering the next guy in the next race, whistling, waving his towel ... it was magical. It lifted the whole team, it had a profound effect."

If the show is in the water - and how good was the one put on by Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte this week regardless of the room for improvement that both spoke of on their way to showdown in London - the lessons for all who come to watch, to listen to soak up the events like those this week in Omaha, like those back in Barcelona 1992, like those to come in London this month, are heaped high for any who care to see, hear and act upon it all. 

A word, a gesture, an encouragement in the right place today is a lifetime of meaning tomorrow. My father was a coach and a story teller, his tales of swimmers and coaches, times and training sets, against-the-odds challenge met, all of it settling into conscience like an acorn nestling into earth.

He took me to Crystal Palace in London as a wide-eyed boy with autograph book in hand. Shane Gould, Roland Matthes, Debbie Meyer, Karen Moras, and many more names found their way on to the pages of a tiny brown-leather-bound book that day. I still have it. Rolf Harris came to watch the Aussies the same day and I cornered him too (he wrote "I used to swim backstroke" under his name). Then there was Forbes Carlile.

I can still see him saying "What've you got there..." before he took the book out of my hand and flicked through the pages. "Well, you've been a busy boy," he said, ruffling my hair before writing a note of encouragement in the book. "All the best, Craig, because giving your best is what its all about".

Years later, Forbes, in his 90s now, asked with a boyish wonder in his eyes "what? I wrote that in your book. Imagine that." He couldn't recall the moment he met me the boy but the boy will always remember him. That's how it works. 

Take this truly wonderful tale told by reporter Karen Crouse at the New York Times that features a pay-off line from Mike Bruner, 200m Olympic champ on 'fly in a world record of 1:59.23 in 1976 ahead of two teammates, Steve Gregg and Bill Forrester, in the days when a nation could put three in an Olympic final.

I looked the final up in The Complete Book of the Olympics, a good tome that leans towards the American tale above all others in many places. No review for the Bruner final. Time there was. Not just a fine read but a tale of inspiration from the pool that spills out into life crackling with positive energy as it goes.