USA Swimming’s Night To Celebrate

By Alan Abrahamson | Nov. 20, 2012, 1:30 p.m. (ET)
Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin at golden gogglesOlympic athletes Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin attend the 2012 Golden Goggle awards at the Marriott Marquis Times Square on November 19, 2012 in New York City.

NEW YORK -- Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps' coach, came first. At a filled-to-the-max ballroom here at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square, Bowman won USA Swimming's Coach of the Year award at its annual gala, called the "Golden Goggles," and when he took to the stage he had this to say:

 

"Michael, it has been a privilege to be your coach. It has been even better to be your friend."

 

A few moments later came Phelps, introduced by the strange-but-awesome pairing of Donald Trump and Gary Hall Jr., the former sprint champion -- on a night when the invite said, "Black Tie" -- wearing, indeed, a funky black-and-white tie draped over a black T-shirt that blared out in pink letters, "Barbie," the ensemble dressed up with a black jacket.

 

Phelps, Trump allowed, was "a friend of mine." He riffed a little bit more, "You think he's going to win?” 

 

Of course he was going to win for Male Athlete of the Year, and when Phelps got to the stage, he said, referring to London 2012, his fourth Games, "This Olympics was the best Olympics I have ever been a part of."

 

Arguably no one in the American Olympic scene puts on a show like USA Swimming. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was also among the celebrity presenters. The comic Jim Gaffigan came out for a 20-minute riff that only marginally touched on swimming but did include references to Phelps and Subway sandwiches as well as Gaffigan's much-applauded routine on Hot Pockets, the microwaveable turnover. 

 

Out in the hall there was a silent auction with all manner of stuff for sale -- including a framed picture, signed by both Phelps and Serbia's Milorad Cavic, of the 2008 Beijing 100-meter butterfly, which Phelps famously won by one-hundredth of a second.

 

It's not simply that American swimmers are so good.

 

It's that the culture of the U.S. swim team creates success. 

 

That is what was fully and richly on display Monday night at the Marriott Marquis ballroom: a program that dares to dream big and that celebrates the role everyone plays in achieving those dreams, everyone from support staff to coaches to athletes.

 

Indeed, when the night began with introductions across the stage, it wasn't the athletes or the coaches who came first. It was the support staff. And they got just as loud a round of applause from those on hand.

 

There are other well-run national governing bodies -- the ski and snowboard team, for instance, which claimed 21 of the world-best 37 medals the U.S. team won in Vancouver in 2010. 

 

That said, virtually every other U.S. Olympic federation could learn a little something, or maybe a lot, from how the swim team gets things done. In London, the swim team won 31 medals -- 16 gold, nine silver, six bronze.

 

As good as the U.S. track team was -- it won 29 medals -- the numbers don't lie. The No. 1 performance in London came in the water.

 

It was observed by NBC's Bob Costas, the night's emcee, that if the American swim team had been a stand-alone country it would have finished ninth in the overall medals table -- and fifth in the gold-medal count.

 

When the 49 athletes on the London 2012 team were introduced, two by two, they showed just how much they genuinely liked each other -- the fun that was so vividly on display in the "Call Me Maybe" video they had produced before the Games, which became a viral internet sensation.

 

Ricky Berens and Elizabeth Beisel didn't just shake hands when they met at center stage; they executed a chest-bump. Missy Franklin did a twirl, courtesy of Jimmy Feigen. Cullen Jones and Kara Lynn Joyce struck "007" poses.

 

Time and again, the winners Monday took time to say thank you to their families, coaches, staff and teammates. 

 

"It's just -- just amazing to be here," said Katie Ledecky, the Maryland high school sensation who took home two awards, Breakout Performer and Female Race of the Year, for her dominating 800 freestyle victory in London. She said of the London Games, "I just had a blast … I got to be inspired by all of you."

 

Nathan Adrian, the Male Race of the Year winner for his one-hundredth of a second victory in the 100-meter freestyle, said, "One last note. Thank you to my mom. I know you're watching online. I love you."

 

"I've never been on a team that was a close as this one," said Dana Vollmer, the 100 fly winner who swam in the world record-breaking, gold medal-winning 4 x 100 women's medley relay, along with Franklin, Rebecca Soni and Allison Schmitt.

 

Of the relay team, she said, "We were called the 'Smiley Club.’"

 

Echoed Franklin, "My teammates are the best people you would ever meet in your entire life." She also said, "With Thanksgiving coming up, I realized I don't have a single thing in my life not to be thankful for."

 

Phelps provided the valedictory. He was up for Male Athlete of the Year against Ryan Lochte (five medals, two gold), Adrian (three medals, two gold) and Matt Grevers (three medals, two gold).

 

Phelps followed up his eight-for-eight in Beijing with six medals in London, four gold. He became the first male swimmer to execute the Olympic three-peat, and he did it in not just one event but two, the 200 IM and the 100 fly. His 22 Olympic medals stand as the most-ever. Eighteen of those 22 are gold.

 

Trump, ever the sage, opined, "No athlete has ever come close," a reference to the arc of Phelps' dominating career, adding, "I don't think they ever will."

 

All of that is why Phelps, who has repeatedly announced that London marked his last Games as a competitive swimmer, had to be the slam-dunk winner. And if it felt Monday like USA Swimming was maybe -- if reluctantly -- turning the page from the Phelps years, there was that, too. 

 

In London, Phelps embraced his role as veteran team leader. He showed anew Monday how much that meant to him.

 

The others in the "male athlete" category? "We were all in the same apartment in the [Olympic] village," Phelps said, making it clear that while they might sometimes be rivals in the pool, they were, beyond all of that, teammates, now and forever.

 

And, he said, as for that "Call Me Maybe" video: "At first I didn't want to do it. And now I'm really glad I did it because," like the swim team's Olympic year and the celebration Monday of that season, "it turned out to be something really special."

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