The Outsider: Think Michael Phelps can handle Class IV rapids?
July 2, 2016
The Rocky Mountains are home to plenty of watersports and swimming isn't one of them.
In fact, when folks around here use the term "swim," they're usually talking about the heart-wrenching moment when a kayak, canoe, raft or some other river craft gets flipped. By then, every option for dry escape has been exhausted and the paddler is forced to leave the safety of rubber or plastic for the unknowns of whitewater: rocks, logs, crags, strainers, eddies, waterfalls, bridges — the list goes on and none of it is good.
For a lifelong swimmer like me — the sort of swimmer who does laps at an indoor pool, not lines through Class IV rapids — this past week has been like Christmas Eve, Copa America and the opening game of the World Series, all wrapped into one: It's trials time for the U.S. Olympic swim team. And, after what feels like a lifetime of dominance from Michael Phelps and Co., a young crop of new (and relatively unknown) athletes are turning heads in Omaha, Nebraska, where any kind of watersport is better than sweltering in the Great Plains heat. (It doesn't hurt that weather in Summit has been prime for TV watching.)
Olympic trials reminds me of my time as a swim coach in Denver, when we'd pull small groups of swimmers from the pool to watch highlight footage from trials the night before. The weeklong event always comes about six weeks before the opening ceremony — right around the Fourth of July, when everything, everywhere turns shades of red, white and blue — and everyone was feeling the energy. The coaches loved poring over technique, the kids loved taking a break from intervals and all of us loved seeing elite American athletes at nearly their absolute best: young Ryan Lochte in the 200 IM, legendary Natalie Coughlin in the 100 backstroke, 41-year-old Dara Torres in the 100 freestyle, super-human Phelps in just about everything but the 100 breaststroke.
Like gymnastics and track, swimming seems to disappear every four years, only to reappear with a vengeance (at least on TV) when NBC begins blaring the Olympic horn. And, like gymnastics and track, it's always one of the most popular events at the Games, trumping powerhouse team sports like basketball, soccer, baseball (set to return in 2020) and even beach volleyball.
But why? Most casual Olympic fans could care less about Phelps' ho-hum showing at the 2015 World Championships, or the fact that Coughlin and Colorado native Missy Franklin lost to 21-year-old backstroke phenom Olivia Smoliga at the trials.
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My theory: It's surreal to live vicariously through elite athletes as they do the nearly impossible. Not only is it impressive to see America's best at their best, it's impressive to see anyone move the way they do, just as it'll be impressive to see 700 mountain bikers move confidently on Breck's nastiest singletrack for the Firecracker 50 this Fourth of July. Team accomplishments are good and all, but solo wins just feel more personal, more intimate for fans and athletes alike.
Which brings me back to the river. Earlier this week, I was talking with a veteran raft guide who just returned from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. The seven-day trip lived up to its legendary billing, but on the first day — mile two, actually — she had the worst swim of her life when her PFD got caught on the oar slip and dragged her along for nearly 10 minutes.
I might be a swimmer, but rafting and kayaking have never been my thing and her story reminded my why: A whitewater swim sounds terrifying. But she's a veteran — a river athlete — who never lost her cool and lived to tell the tale. For me, that's just as impressive as watching Phelps dominate at trials in a manmade pool. The venues might be different, but the concept is still the same: Water is not our home environment, and only the best of the best make a swim look like second nature. The rest of us have to settle for living vicariously, and that's just fine with me.
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