What do basketball, soccer and football all have in common?
Lots of things, of course. But if you ask Kevin McCarthy, he’ll tell you that all three sports benefit from performance-enhancing sneakers and cleats.
McCarthy wondered: Why wasn’t there a water sport that utilized footwear to the same degree as land-based sports -- specifically, swim fins that not only make the game faster, safer and more exciting, but also “enabled more people who didn’t have the water-strength to get out and play occasionally?”
So McCarthy, who has a background developing sporting goods, invented one.
It’s called SKWIM. That’s the registered trademark of the non-contact team sport wherein players skip a soft foam hydroplaning disc into goals or end zones at either end of a pool. Key to the game’s rapid pace are SKWIM fins that propel players across the water to score points and defend their goals -- large floating rings that are weighted to the bottom of the pool. These also lend the sport a dynamic element because points can be scored 360 degrees around the goals.
“That does away with the congestion and the bogging down of the offense in front of the goal that you sometimes see in basketball or soccer,” said McCarthy, who lives in Seattle.
The floating rings that mark the goals are optional. Without them, teams can use backstroke flags to designate end zones or toss the disk into the pool’s gutter.
Since its debut 10 years ago, SKWIM has created a minor sensation. There are competitive youth leagues in the Pacific Northwest, several physical education programs have adopted it, and it’s played “at varying degrees of progression,” McCarthy said, at more than 500 pools across the nation and in a handful of countries, including Greece, Kuwait, Norway and Hong Kong.
Now, the water-disk competition is ready for the Big Time.
SKWIM International, the sport’s governing body, has appointed its first dedicated executive director. Mark Rauterkus is tasked with broadening the game’s appeal, securing major sponsors and networking with industry bigwigs who could give the sport a boost. Rauterkus will also utilize his background in journalism -- he’s authored several sports-related books -- to produce educational materials, webpages and textbooks.
Rauterkus has been coaching competitive swimming and water polo since 1976 and he’s been instrumental in increasing participation in swimming programs in Pittsburgh, where he lives.
He also happens to be a big fan of the game.
“I was a customer first,” Rauterkus said.
“He’s got great contacts in the industry, from top manufacturers all the way to the head people in charge of some of the big associations,” McCarthy noted.
The designation of an executive director is significant. It’s the role McCarthy served when he created SKWIM International, a nonprofit operation to officiate the sport. With Rauterkus overseeing that side of the business, McCarthy can function as an adviser, helping with the commercialization of the sport’s official products, which include the disks, fins and goals, through its distributor, eLifeguard, and developing programs at aquatic facilities.
The duo believes the market is wide open for another aquatic team sport -- a rather limited category that includes water polo and underwater hockey.
SKWIM, they say, has several advantages over those sports. For one, it isn’t as physically challenging, inviting participants of all ages.
“Mark is convinced that SKWIM should be the foundational sport for aquatics,” McCarthy said. “It’s the game kids can start training for as young as five years old and play for a lifetime.”
There’s a certification process that aquatics facilities can undergo to ensure the game is played safely and to qualify players at varying levels. Plus, there’s a whole life philosophy attached to it that teaches the virtues of “safety, spirit and sportsmanship.”
It’s also the game water polo players can enjoy when they retire.
“Even serious water polo players will stop playing at 45,” Rauterkus said. “Those people could come back to SKWIM. ... In a certain way, the demographics for SKWIM are much more favorable to exceed the numbers of water polo.”
Not that they intend to siphon players from water polo. Quite the opposite. McCarthy and Rauterkus believe their game is an entry-level watersport that could breed more water polo players and competitive swimmers.
And as far as sheer spectacle goes, it beats underwater hockey -- a sport where all the action takes place below the surface. SKWIM’s potential as a spectator sport could one day call for a new kind of swimming pool facility. McCarthy envisions stadium seating and a pool with varying depths to accommodate players at different skill levels and partitions for separate sports and races. (See slideshow for details.)
While we’re dreaming big, could SKWIM one day be an Olympic sport?
“I love that question,” McCarthy laughed without giving a direct answer.
Rauterkus thinks there are other avenues through which the water-disc game can gain global exposure, such as the International World Games. It’s the Olympics for games that didn’t make the cut.
Still, he doesn’t dismiss the possibility.
Says Rauterkus: “I think there are some places we can visit along the way.”