Watching Michael Phelps win a history-making eight gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics was a once-in-a-lifetime event on a world stage. Aquatics professionals now have the opportunity to transform the drama and excitement Phelps created into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for their facilities and programs a ?turbo charging? of swimming that may never happen again.
Michael Phelps is to swimming what Tiger Woods is to golf. Just as Woods helped golf explode worldwide in every imaginable manner course construction, prize money for tour players, clothes, equipment and accessories, to name a few Phelps can do the same for aquatics. He has already done something no commercial or new product can do: pique the interest of millions of Americans of every size, age, race and gender.
With the Olympics months behind us now, it?s tempting to dismiss the effect Phelps will have on swimming. After all, every four years, the Olympics gives a temporary boost to competitive swimming and the field of aquatics in general, as any aquatics professional can attest. But the spike created by Michael Phelps is more like a mountain peak that professionals must have the fortitude to climb if they are to appreciate its value and capitalize on its majesty.
That?s because while millions of children and their parents now are primed to become the next Michael Phelps, the reality is that Phelps is not reality. He has many aspects working in his favor, the starting point being his unique anatomical makeup. Specifically, he has arms that span nearly 7 feet, large hands, size 14 feet, and short legs. This rare combination of short legs with a long torso makes for tremendous efficiency in the water and a swimming phenomenon.
Phelps also is able to produce and metabolize high levels of lactic acid, and has an incredible lung volume as a result of his natural genetics and years of intense training. Most aspiring young swimmers will not have these natural advantages and will be limited in being able to develop them, even with intense training and the best coaching.
The ?Phelps Phenomenon? has emerged at a time when significant endorsements enable him to train without worrying about finances. Phelps hopefuls and their parents will not have that luxury. Intensive swim lessons and training of the type Phelps received can be very costly. A family can spend hundreds and, if they so choose, thousands of dollars on coaching, training, equipment, suits and accessories. Of course, travel and lodging expenses for swim meets are a line item in the family budget that can add up very quickly.
The time investment by parents and families can be a huge commitment. If a swimmer really wants to ?go to the top,? he or she had better be ready to do all the work required. This includes a serious, multiyear commitment of six days a week, minimum (and, in some cases, seven), and practicing twice a day in most instances.
Many kids and parents in today?s society don?t want to make a commitment such as this. Others simply do not have the natural physiological capacity to sustain the effort without incurring significant injuries.
Aquatics professionals must be able to talk knowledgeably and compassionately to parents and their children about realistic expectations and the reality that few individuals make it to the top. At the same time, professionals do not want to discourage potential swimmers. We don?t have the solid scientific knowledge to foretell who possesses the innate potential to become a champion. Besides, becoming a champion is not the only, or even the most important, long- term outcome associated with participating in competitive swimming.
The challenge is to harness the excitement Phelps? success created, and to encourage enthusiasm, yet temper expectations. This is where the parent-coach-athlete dynamics can come into play. Whether the interactions involve the swimmer/coach, swimmer/parent, coach/parent, or the ?triangle? of swimmer/coach/parent, a multitude of important issues must be addressed and, more importantly, kept in a consistent perspective. If not, problems can develop and cause bad feelings about the whole competitive swimming experience. A faulty understanding can be a hindrance to the overall big picture of Phelps? positive influence not only on competitive swimming, but on aquatics as a larger profession.
Aquatics professionals need to get in front of the many issues and educate patrons about those commitments and expenses required, and why they exist. Even if swimmers can?t become superstars, they can still receive a lifetime of enjoyment and health rewards that the water and swimming provide. And, don?t forget, having adequate swimming skill can save someone?s life in an emergency.
The interest and respect Phelps? accomplishments inspired also can help save some swim programs, resurrect others, and revive teams. His achievement can encourage people of all ages, abilities and positions in life to appreciate and respect aquatics as an exercise modality, an avocation and even a profession.
But these outcomes will happen only if aquatics professionals seize the moment and do the work necessary to educate the public. People need to know why aquatics programs are so valuable, and the rationale for the costs associated with quality programs. In other words, we have to connect Phelps? accomplishment and the pride we all feel in it to the psychological and economic value of aquatics.
With the economy sputtering and many aquatics programs facing the very real prospect of budget cuts, it is imperative to help the public understand our product?s value. It seems the timing of Michael Phelps? achievements could not have been better for our industry. Just as he had to work so hard to attain his incredible milestones, so, too, will we aquatics professionals have to work diligently and intelligently to capitalize on the opportunities that present themselves. Don?t waste this rare chance to promote aquatics.