In This Year’s Olympics, Swimming Was King
by Alex Edel | Middlebury College
If watching the Olympics means seeing history made, controversy, incredible shows of athleticism and some pretty stunning bodies, swimming was the place to turn during this Olympics. Lasting just one week, the world’s biggest swimming event involved over 900 athletes, some with breathtaking finishes, like Ye Shiwen in the 400 individual medley, and others with less desirable finishes, like Ryan Lochte in some of his later events.
Why were the swimming Olympics so incredible to watch this year? Well, first and foremost, spectators got to see and experience the last races of “The best Olympian of all time.” Michael Phelps finished his swimming career at the end of this Olympics with an incredible 22 medals — 18 of which were gold, double the amount of gold medals won by any other Olympic athlete ever. Swimming officials actually gave Phelps a trophy with the inscription “To Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympic athlete of all time.”
Never again will one be able to experience the excellence that Phelps proved in the pool each Olympics that he competed in. Watching him swim was like watching an actual Olympic god compete. However, what made it better was the fact that he didn’t always win by a lot — he had to work for each race, showing his perseverance and fierce competitive streak. Watching his final race was inspiring not only for the swimmer inside of me, but also for the young American that I am. After watching him swim, one really feels privileged to be able to see someone so great compete.
For me, the swimming events at the Olympics are also special for personal reasons. I have been a competitive swimmer since I was six years old, and for two weeks every four years I get to see the best swimmers in the world compete on the big screen, an event that does not happen often, as swimming is not typically considered a spectator sport. Watching the underwater film is particularly incredible, as I can really learn and admire the swimmers’ unbelievable butterfly kicks, the way they are able to pull the water back with finesse and ease, all combining to create shots of film that are beautiful and amazing to see, especially when I have experienced just how hard it is to do the things these athletes make look easy.
Beyond just the beauty of the sport, something I think everyone can appreciate, this year there were some particularly incredible performances in the pool that anyone watching should have felt privileged to see. From the French-American rivalry in the 400 free relay to the outstanding swims by the extremely young Shiwen of China and Katie Ledecky of the US, one really felt the incredible excitement, energy and overall spirit of the Olympics.
Everyone should take a minute to appreciate that fact that watching Shiwen easily overcome the world record in the 400 individual medley was an exceptional occurrence. She swam a perfect race, famously going faster than Ryan Lochte’s final lap of his strong showing in the same event. She finished with a time of 4:28.43, crushing her previous best and the world record. Of course, this brought on much controversy over her possible doping. While it is always possible, I would like to think 16-year-old Shiwen just brought forward an inspired race, setting the stage for the next generation of swimming stars. For those of us watching at home, this race was an exciting piece of history that will never be forgotten.
For us patriots, the incredible showing of Katie Ledecky, the 15 year old swimmer from Washington D.C., provided a sense of honest pride and love for our country. In this truly inspired race, Ledecky marked the second fastest swim of all time and became the American record holder in the event. After a great swim at Olympic trials, Ledecky was not about to let her achievements end at just making it to the Olympics, and she dropped almost five seconds off of her original time to dominate and win the event.
I know there are young competitors in all of the sports, but the fact that in the swimming events there are 15 year olds competing against 30 year olds really makes it something special. It is interesting and fun to see the camaraderie and competition between old and young competitors, to see the bonds and mentoring that form between team members and also between competitors. While this can be seen in other sports, I think the length of the competition, the amount of coverage it receives, and the extreme variety of ages of the competitors really makes swimming the event to watch.
While there was friendship and camaraderie among the athletes, there was a good amount of rivalry, as well. From the French-American teams in the relay to the continual and much hyped rivalry between Lochte and Phelps, swimming did not disappoint in this arena. While the Americans did fall in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay after using a risky technique of putting Lochte last, the race still got the blood pumping for all of us sitting on our couches at home. The French may have gotten their revenge this time around, but there is sure to be another showdown in Rio.
The other much anticipated and publicized rivalry was between Lochte and Phelps. The two were considered each other’s toughest competition going into the Olympics, facing off in many similar events. Lochte came out strong, convincingly winning the 400 individual medley, but after that struggled throughout the rest of the meet, falling to Phelps in the 200 individual medley and not winning another individual gold at the games. I will be the first to admit that everyone has off meets, and how could you not admire Lochte for continuing to wear his American flag grills throughout it all? There also seems to be a level of mutual respect between the two athletes that was both admirable and enjoyable to watch. With the amount this rivalry was publicized in the US, their relationship could have turned ugly, but instead both athletes kept it polite and classy throughout the games.
Throughout this article I have only grazed upon the swimmers that had life-changing swims during these games. But one that cannot be forgotten is U.S. swimming sensation Missy Franklin, who won the hearts of America and four gold medals over the course of the competition.
I admit that swimming on the whole can be boring to watch. I have sat through enough eight-hour swim meets to know that watching the same race swum over and over and over again is not exactly the same as watching a basketball game. But the Olympics are different. First of all, the races are completely streamlined into just a few, so you are never stuck watching the heats, but instead just the semifinals and finals. This means that the stakes are high in every single race you see, the athletes are poised and seeking greatness, and you are bound to see incredible, inspiring performance.
And if this is still not enough to convince you that swimming reigns supreme, let’s talk about swimmers’ bodies — they are gods among men.Alex is a rising Junior at Middlebury College majoring in Political Science and minoring in Film and Media Studies. She grew up in Pacific Palisades, California.