If I polled subscribers to Inside Texas to discover their top 10 UT sports, Im betting that the top four would be football, football recruiting, spring football, and then August two-a-days. Lance Armstrong would probably single-handedly rank fifth. Basketball and baseball would surely make the top 10. But what about swimming? Id bet my last dollar you didnt know that 14 former Longhorn swimmers and divers will be competing in Athens and could realistically bring home 14 Olympic medals.
Granted, swimming isnt the sexiest of sports. Sure, butterfly looks impressive. But unless youve been a competitive swimmer, watching swimming is about as interesting as watching paint dry. Even when swimmers swim incredibly fast, they still look slow. Maybe if we put an offensive lineman in Lane 8 as a point of reference, itd make for better spectator sport.
Still, as a member of that strange caste of society, the fanatical legions of Longhorn sports fans, you have a lot to be proud of in UT Swimming if you only knew. With a little luck, the series of articles youll see over the next few weeks will raise your swimming IQ and get you to look for a host of Longhorns who will make history in Athens. Besides, should we be hanging our heads once again come the second Saturday in October, just think of all the snappy one-liners you can toss out at the nearest Sooner, like, "Oh yeah, well how many gold medals did you Sooners win in Athens?"
Even if youve been hiding under a rock this summer, youve likely heard of Michael Phelps, the 19 year-old wunderkind from Baltimore who will be trying to break Mark Spitz record of seven gold medals set during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Simply put, Phelps is the most talented swimmer the world has ever seen. He owns the world record in the 200 butterfly and 200 and 400 individual medleys and he qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in an unprecedented six individual events.
Josh Davis, a former Longhorn (1990-1994) and two-time Olympian who was the most decorated U.S. athlete at the 1996 Atlanta games with three gold medals explains, "With all Michaels success, it was inevitable that the media would set the expectation of his topping Spitz seven golds in 1972. I mean, Phelps will swim eight events in Athens. In each of his five individual events he either has the world record, or hes close to it. But he wont win seven golds, and its absolutely insane that the media will consider that a failure."
So whats likely to prevent Phelps from breaking Spitz record? Longhorns, of course -- namely Ian Crocker and Aaron Piersol.
Crocker just finished his eligibility at Texas, having won his marquee event, the 100 butterfly, four years in a row at the NCAA championships. Despite this success at the NCAA level, it wasnt until last summer at the world championships that Crocker burst upon the world scene, running down Phelps in the 100 fly (Phelps held the world record in the event) to shatter the 100 fly world record and capture the gold medal. In a repeat showdown at the U.S. Olympic trials, Crocker went on to defeat Phelps again, and once again shattered his own world record. If Crocker can maintain form in Athens, he will deny Phelps gold in two events the 100 butterfly, and the butterfly leg of the 400 medley relay, which the U.S. is heavily favored to win. Three of the four legs of that relay will have Longhorns Piersol in the backstroke, Brendan Hansen in the breastroke, and Crocker in the butterfly.
The second-half of the Longhorns' left-right combo to Phelps is Aaron Piersol, who is favored to win gold in three events the 100 backstroke, the 200 backstroke, and the 400 medley relay. Piersol also had a well-publicized showdown with Phelps at the U.S. Olympic trials last month, in the 200 backstroke. Piersol has been the world-record holder in the event since 2002. Yet with the high expectations placed on Phelps, the media was looking for an upset. Piersol held off Phelps in the 200 backstroke and world-record holder Lenny Kryzelberg in the 100 backstroke.
Piersols win over Phelps in the 200 backstroke was so dominating, that Phelps, despite finishing second and qualifying for that event, decided to decline that Olympic spot so he could focus on the other events in his unprecedented Olympic program. Phelps will swim in five individual events and up to three relays, with as many as 18 swims over the course of the Olympics. The smart money has Piersol winning the 100 and 200 backstrokes and the 400 medley relay in Athens, all in world-record time.
Yet another former UT swimmer, breaststroker Brendan Hansen, comes with lofty expectations in Athens. At the 2000 Olympic trials Hansen finished third in the 100 and 200 breaststrokes the worst possible finish because the top two make the Olympic team. Despite that setback, Hansen has been a dominant force at Texas in the breaststrokes, winning both the 100 and 200 breaststrokes at the NCAA championships in each of his four years. To put those wins in perspective, only one other swimmer has accomplished that feat before former Olympic gold medalist Pablo Morales. Hansen was the breakout swimmer at the Olympic Trials last month, winning both of his events in world-record time, stealing headlines from Phelps in the process. Expect Hansen to win gold in three events.
Here are the other Longhorn swimmers and divers (both men and women) to look for in Athens.
- Neil Walker (1995-1998) in the 400 free relay. Walker won gold and silver on relays in the 2000 Sydney games.
- Nate Dusing (1998-2001) in the 400 free relay. Dusing won silver on the 800 free relay in Sydney.
- Gary Hall, Jr. (1994) battles for gold in the 50 free and the 400 free relay. Hall spent only one year at Texas, but will be competing in his third Olympiad, having won two golds and a bronze in Sydney, and two golds and a silver in Atlanta.
- Scott Goldblatt (19982001) will again swim on the 800 free relay, looking to improve on his silver medal from Sydney.
- Nate OBrien (2002-2005) will be swimming the 200 backstroke for Canada.
- Colleen Lanne (1997-2001) will swim the 400 free relay.
- Joscelin Yeo (2000-2003), who was recently named a Rhodes Scholar, will represent her native Singapore.
- Troy Dumais (1999-2002) will be diving in the 3 meter and 3 meter synchronized events. Troy also competed in the 2000 Sydney games.
- Justin Dumais (2001-2002) will be diving with brother Troy in the 3 meter synchronized event.
- Laura Wilkinson will seek to defend her 2000 gold medal in 10 meter platform diving.
- Vera Ilyina will compete in 3 meter synchronized springboard diving, representing her native Russia.
In running down this list of competitors, you may notice that most of them are former Longhorns whose eligibility finished up long ago. Until recently, swimmers careers ended when they graduated, when the real world and a real job became the reality. This has changed dramatically in the past decade.
Indeed, 17 of the 21 men on the U.S. team this year are "professional swimmers." As recently as 1988, only three swimmers (men and women) were pro. And while these swimmers arent exactly making Ricky or Roy money, they can do pretty well for themselves, enabling them to continue their careers long past their college eligibility.
Take former Longhorn Josh Davis, for instance. Davis finished his UT career in 1994. He may well be the grandfather of U.S. swimming these days. In addition to his three gold medals from Atlanta, he won two silver medals in the 2000 Sydney games. Davis competed in the U.S. trials last month, despite the fact he is expecting his fifth child this December, so obviously, hes making enough money as a professional swimmer and speaker to keep the local grocery stocked-out of diapers. He has not ruled out Beijing in 2008.
The arrival of professional swimming certainly is a new trend and, in my book, a welcome event. No longer does a swimming career end at the tender age of 21. Instead, our best athletes are significantly extending their careers, enabling physical and mental maturity to take them to a higher level of performance. Just imagine what the world would have missed if football, basketball and baseball players retired at age 21. Its no different in swimming, and the result will be some very fast swimming and a very good U.S. Swimming Team that has a decidedly Burnt Orange shade.
NBC will provide comprehensive coverage of the Athens games. Opening ceremonies are August 13. Swimming competition is Aug. 14-21; diving is Aug. 14-28.
Look for more feature stories and Athens updates here on Inside Texas!
David McClellan is a former UT swimmer (1986-1989) who was part of several national championship teams at Texas. He is, of course, a rabid UT Football fan, which goes over real well in Chicago, where he lives.