April 27, 2013


When you walk inside Canham Natatorium, the first thing you notice is the museum. It’s a relatively newer (“newer” Canham Auditorium (medium) because it wasn’t around when I was a younger swimmer) display of plaques, pictures, and posters about the history and tradition of Michigan Swimming.

You read about Michigan’s legendary coaches, from Matt Mann to Jon Urbanchek and Bob Bowman. You read about how Michigan’s coaches were all selected as Olympic coaches, the only such college program to achieve that. You scan trophies and awards, Olympic photographs and accolades, and eventually, you get to a small sentence at the bottom of placard about “The Bob Bowman Era” that says this:

“Mike Bottom became Men’s coach in the fall of 2008. Is this the start of a new Era?”

Next, you walk inside the pool. You see banners. They line the ceiling’s perimeter in maize and blue, perfectly in place, hanging like reminders. They date to days when our grandfathers and grandmothers were born. The 1927 Big Ten Championship. A string of 1930s NCAA Championships. They surround the pool, engulf it, so by the time you’re staring upwards, you don’t notice the work taking place in the pool itself.

A few weeks after Michigan’s men’s NCAA Championship title, I visited the team during finals week workouts. They divide themselves into three groups: sprinters, who swam on the far side of the pool, middle distance, who swims in the middle, and distance swimmers, who occupy the first two lanes. You couldn’t tell they just achieved the highest peak of NCAA swimming. Swimmers were back to practice, slogging the miles once more. There was no banner signifying the 2013 NCAA Championship. In fact, there’s not room to do so. There were no championship rings on swimmers’ hands. The only thing I noticed was that coaches wore suit and ties, a result of having come from a congratulatory meeting with Michigan’s Board of Regents.

Practice continued on, and so did Michigan’s program.

But the story of Michigan Swimming does not begin in 2013. Not with this team. Not with last year’s team. Michigan Swimming goes back before we were alive, back during times of typewriters and black-and-white silent movies. Michigan Swimming is a story of tradition, of great stretches of success, of legends who came before and continued this program through a World War, numerous Presidents, and technological change. Though recently it took Michigan Swimming 18 years to recapture its NCAA Championship after last winning in 1995, their men’s program has been consistently good, and it has done so for primarily one reason:

Distance swimming.

Think back to the names. Dolan. Thompson. Vanderkaay. These now legendary names, names you can read about at the museum, are not accidentally created. They are manufactured in these lanes in Canham, under these maize and blue banners, under the watchful eyes of those who are now in charge of this tradition. When Mike Bottom, a coach who was famous for putting sprinters like Anthony Ervin and Gary Hall Jr. on the Olympic medal podium, took over Michigan’s program, there were whispers about what would happen to this hallowed distance group. Would it change? Would it continue to be as dominant as it was?

Mike brought in Dr. Josh White, a swim coach and former Kenyan swimmer with a doctorate in human performance. Analytical and amicable, Dr. White has not only embraced the distance program here at Michigan, but he enhanced it. He’s done so with a core of three swimmers: Connor Jaeger, Sean Ryan, and Ryan Feeley. Together, these three scored 1st, 4th, and 6th at the NCAA Championships in the 1650, arguably swimming’s most grueling and tiring event.

To underscore the importance of this core distance trio, there is a photograph hanging in White’s office. It depicts these three Michigan swimmers, Jaeger, Ryan, and Feeley, huddled together before the Olympic Trials final of the 1500m. It was a special and perhaps bittersweet moment for White, one in which he knew at least someone would not make the Olympic roster. But it’s not every day you have three swimmers – each of whom have won the 500 freestyle Big Ten Championship the previous three seasons – be so dominant, so consistent, and such a continuation of a storied group like Michigan’s distance swimming.

In 2008, Mike Bottom took over a storied program. He added a sprint dominance to the game, his specialty. But he also, to his credit, continued the distance tradition, and by doing so, it has resulted in a new era for Michigan swimming, and a new NCAA Championship.

To Swim The Mile Fast, Do Not Swim The Mile Slow

Michigan (medium)

Jaeger, Ryan, and Feeley sit down with me in Canham’s stands. It is raining outside in Ann Arbor, and the pool’s lights are faintly buzzing overhead. It is an hour before practice starts. When we sit, after getting to know each, I want to hear about this magical 2013 swim season. I want to hear how Michigan – and this distance group -- prepared to have such success in the distance events. So I ask the question: How many times do you have to swim the mile in order to prepare to swim the mile fast?

The answer was surprising.

“We only swam the mile a few times during the season,” Jaeger told me.

Not only do they not swim the mile that much during the season, they actively try not to. Dr. White shared with me his philosophy: That to swim the 1650 requires a great amount of energy, and if you are not prepared to swim the 1650 at a fast speed, it can be mentally counter-productive.

So how were they able to swim so fast at the end of the season with a limited amount of mid-season 1650 preparation swims? How were they able to go 1-4-6 in the 1650 at NCAAs? Connor Jaeger, the NCAA champion in the mile, says that it all comes down to one thing:

“Training,” Jaeger says. “By the time we have to swim the mile and swim it fast, we are prepared.”

Dr. White adds: “The thing about swimming the mile is that it takes an incredible effort. Not that other events don’t, but in other events, you’re not ten minutes into an incredible effort and still have five minutes to go. There’s more time to have mental give-and-take,” White said. “When you ask someone for that kind of effort, you don’t want to do that all the time. You want to set them up so when they do it, they’ll do well at it.”

It is a group of both analytical coaches and analytical swimmers. It makes sense that this is true, given the amount of time both spend isolated inside one’s own thoughts during long and grueling distance sets. Jaeger explains that many of the workouts are written by White, but are also collaborative between coaches. For instance, at the end of a long distance day, they’ll step up to the blocks and swim two sprint all-out 50s from the blocks.

“It’s really a collaboration between the coaches,” Ryan agrees. “We switch it up every so often, swim all-out sprints at the end of a practice, and that’s Mike’s influence.”

“It’s a huge team and coaching effort,” White says. “One of the things that’s really important to our success has been an understanding of team. You’ll find in other places distance swimmers and sprinters not understanding what the other does. We want to maintain as much cohesiveness as we can. Part of that is that the groups have to be intertwined.

He adds: “All of the groups need to be comfortable with the coaching staff and learning from different people on the coaching staff. There’s a true team effort here.”

Communicating When Not Communicating

Swimming is largely isolated. Especially distance swimming. I was curious: How can you formulate a good bond between swimmers when verbal communication between the individuals during practice is so limited? How do you facilitate a team-like atmosphere in a distance group?

“Even though you can’t talk, there is a lot of communication that goes on,” White said. “They can bond just by going through a workout together without talking to each other. They can form a relationship. It happens all the time.”

He adds: “We’ll do sets where people leave the wall at the same time, regardless of what group it is. They might do different stuff after they leave the wall, but they come together for that moment, look down the pool, and see everybody. It seems like you can’t talk during a practice, but moving together is a really powerful thing.”

For a while I sat and watched the practice continue on. Above the pool, a large, red, digital clock ticks: “Countdown To Rio.” The numbers continue to decrease as each swimmer slogs another lap, another set, another mile. They are chasing dreams, wild ones, but also communicating with each other as they churn onwards: Go faster. Swim harder. I’m right here. I’m with you.

They are competitors. They are athletes who swim against each other not just every day in practice, but on the ultimate stage at the Olympic Trials. But they are also teammates. Jaeger, Ryan, and Feeley are so comfortable training with and against each other that they wanted, with some urgency, to be in that final heat together at the NCAAs. To swim together in the 1650. I thought back to that picture hanging in Dr. White’s office, the one of Jaeger, Feeley, and Ryan together.

“They wanted to be in that final heat together at the NCAAs,” White said. “Just like that photograph from Trials.”

Moving together can be a very powerful thing.

Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer with USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.


THE DEATH RACE FUNDRAISER 2012 (Oakland University)

October 18, 2012
Hey everybody!  Check this out.  On September 29, 2012, immediately prior to the school's annual Alumni Meet, Oakland University's Athletic Director battled its Head Swim Coach in what is being dubbed "The Death Race Fundraiser 2012."  Former NCAA Champion Tracy Huth faced off against OU Head Coach and Former NCAA Champion Pete Hovland in an effort to raise money for the school's swim program.  Tracy competed in a 400 I.M. against Pete, who swam a 400 Free.  Check it out:


RYAN LOCHTE: Peeing in Pools (Funny or Die)

August 26, 2012

ANTHONY IRVINE: The Road Less Traveled (USA Swimming)

July 2, 2012


OMAHA – At some point sitting across from Anthony Ervin at a German restaurant in the East Village, I gathered he was not a “prototypical swimmer” – whatever that means. 

We had just spent the day at a diversity clinic in Flushing, New York. Anthony was brought in to teach nearly 100 kids from the greater metro area some stroke techniques. He showed up in tight-fitting pants and a black Imagine Swimming polo. He had tattoos down the full length of both arms. He looked the exact opposite you’d think an Olympic gold medalist freestyler “should” look.

Somewhere along the line, people assume elite top-level athletes must look like buff, brutish, All-AmericanAnthony Ervin (medium) linebackers. Anthony Ervin is not linebackerish; he has more the body of a punk rock guitarist than linebacker. Then again, Ervin has not approached the sport like prototypical grind-it-out athletes. After winning an Olympic gold medal at 19-years-old in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Anthony – “Tony” to friends – decided he wanted to explore other things. Other endeavors. Other interests.

And suddenly, it’s big news. Why don’t you want to win more Olympic gold medals? Why don’t you want to keep going? Don’t you love to swim? Don’t you love the sport?

Ervin joined a rock band, moved to New York, and lived life – like every single other twenty-something person I know. And yet, the level of media scrutiny that pinpoints on these “in-between years” is significant. Everyone wants to know. Everyone wants the scoop. Many want to exploit Ervin’s story in some way, some shape, some form. And I’m sure there are scoops, details, and fascinating stories. But doesn’t everyone have these? Why -- simply because Ervin can supremely swim between two walls potentially faster than anyone on Earth -- are these “in-between” years (that have nothing to do with swimming between two walls) that fascinating?

The answer, of course, is that people want to understand what they don’t understand. So they can dissect it. Compartmentalize it. Analyze it. Break it down into something logical and understandable. Which is a totally illogical thing to crave, and yet, we do so anyway.

Heading into this evening’s gargantuan Olympic Trials final of the 50m freestyle, as 14,000 eyes attempt to understand Tony’s “SLEEVE TATTS,” (a phrase Comedy Central’s Anders Holm tweeted to me last night, apparently a huge fan of Ervin’s), his persona, his using of words like “vicissitudes” in press interviews -- people will try to figure him out. And we won’t. We never will. Partially because Anthony won’t let us.

And why should he?

Imagine Swimming
For years, Anthony has taught swim lessons. He’s been involved with the water, around the sport in some capacity. Though that’s not the easy story to write – the easier story is that Anthony “came back” to the sport after eight years of disappearance.

Ervin didn’t come back. He was never really gone.

I know this because we worked for the same company here in New York City – Imagine Swimming. Co-founded by Olympian Casey Barrett and NCAA champion Lars Merseburg, Imagine Swimming is not only a wonderful group of kids, but teachers. All sorts of swim instructors and coaches come in through the Imagine Swimming doors -- many artists, many swimmers and former competitors, many of them tattooed, many who are passionate about the water, like Ervin. All of them are engaging, articulate, and caring.

See, when you work with kids, you see things as they do. Which can be fresh air for the burnt-out competitive swimmer. I remember teaching one little 6-year-old girl how to pull with her arms. I was going through the motions, showing her how I had been taught, using too many words and not enough imagination. Suddenly the girl’s eyes lit up. “So it’s like scooping a big bowl of eyeballs, right?” she asked. At Imagine, you learn to go with it – you teach the kids how they learn best. So I nodded, and scooped the eyeballs too. “Yes,” I said. “Just scoop the big bowl of eyeballs like this.”

How can you not fall in love with swimming when your day consists of conversations like that?

Last night, if you were in the CenturyLink Center stands, maybe you saw the Imagine Swimming crew. They have printed and packed special Trials T-shirts that read, “TONY ERVIN IS ROCK AND ROLL.” Maybe you saw Anthony flash a rock and roll hand signal at them upon destroying his personal best in the semifinal of the 50m freestyle (a time two tenths faster than his 2000 gold medal performance.) This Imagine Swimming/Anthony Ervin connection is bound together by mutual love of water, of education, of a passionate lifestyle – something that means much more than simply swimming fast.

And maybe that’s why Anthony resists explaining every iota of his personal life to the media, strangers, and anyone else who asks. He’s not going to tell everything that happened in those eight years of his life when he wasn’t swimming 50 freestyles. Why would he explain that portion of his life when the one in front of him – his relationship with the water – is happening before our very eyes? Isn’t it frustrating that the guy can swim a personal best time, do something he’s never done before, and walk into a media zone and be asked if he has ever had any regrets?

Of course he’s had some. Of course he’s had none at all. He’s seeded first as a 31-year-old heading into the Olympic Trials. Everything he’s done has led him here – and isn’t “here” a pretty good place to be?

The Road Less Traveled
In Flushing at the diversity swim clinic, the kids ate it up. Devoured everything Anthony told them. Listened attentively, mimicked his movements, asked him for autographs, took his picture, conversed with him, played with him, high-fived him.

For Anthony, it was another day of water education – and I mean that in the best and most genuine way. He even taught me a new drill, something that sort of looks like a gorilla-like freestyle drill. I asked him how he came up with that. He responded that he just sort of invents different drills and ways to move through the water. It’s a reflection of his cognitive approach to the sport rather than just taking any coach’s word.

Like other great artists across many facets of life, Ervin simply wants to learn.

Cal Swimming has long been at the forefront of alternative training approaches. Which could explain why they are – and have been -- so successful. Their two most individualistic and strongest personalities, Ervin and 29-year-old Natalie Coughlin, are also two of the sports most inventive, innovative thinkers. They tinker. They ask. They learn. They reflect. It’s no secret they both are still involved in the sport at an age once considered “ancient.”

It’s this alternative, individualistic, cerebral thinking about the sport and the water in its most elemental form that makes Ervin different than most swimmers he competes against. Ask most swimmers about their practices, they’ll tell you set times, repeats, paces. But they can’t tell you why. Ask them about races, they can tell you splits and strategies, but they can’t tell you the philosophy, or the precision, the music, the rock-and-roll essence of the thing itself.

This constant, never-ending why has led Ervin to his successes, his “disappearances,” and his emergences. It’s this why that has led him to where he is now – still striving to learn. Learning his body. Learning how to adjust through the element. He’s grown up – or as he likes to phrase it, he’s “turned 30.” But old dogs can learn new tricks.

They swim best times, too.

And maybe that’s why Ervin is back in the competitive gauntlet. Maybe he was teaching another swimmer, and maybe he pushed off the wall to grab a discarded toy, and maybe he zoomed through the water like no one in history has ever done, and maybe thought, “Hey, maybe I should---”

There I go again. Trying to compartmentalize Ervin’s journey.

Later, near the end of the Metro Diversity Clinic, Anthony stepped up on the blocks and raced. The kids screamed, wild with glee. The parents filmed. Anthony swam something astronomical – like a 20-point. The coaches smiled and turned to each other and said, “WOW.” We didn’t yet know what we were witnessing. And maybe another reporter would tell you this race at this small swim clinic was the start of Anthony’s “comeback.”

But it wasn’t. Anthony Ervin was never gone. He simply took a different path.

Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer with USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him at @MikeLGustafson.