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Forget the suit. I want 'wow.'

OMAHA, Neb. — If this sport were really about the bathing suit, they would not call it "swimming." They would call it Beach Blanket Bingo.

And yet, all you hear about is the suit, mostly because that's what the swimwear salesmen want you to hear. They give their latest little fabric assortments the same kind of names you would give to Jet Skis, names such as LZR Racer, and then rave about them as if you could simply drop a suit into the water and, presto, it would swim across the pool.

If this sport were really about the supplements, they would not call it "swimming." They would call it Walgreens Pharmacy. It would be open 24 hours.

And yet, Gary Hall Jr. spent a good half-hour rambling about which drugs were legal and which were not and how swimming needed an "okay list" to go with its "not okay" list. After a while, you wondered if you needed a prescription to attend the news conference.

So many things are floating in the pool these days, talk of training and tapering, of technique and tradition, that it is easy to lose the point of the sport.

Which is, roughly, one athlete finding a way to get to the wall faster than another.

And bless Natalie Coughlin for reminding us of it.

It was early Monday afternoon at the Qwest Center, and frankly, Coughlin was about to go for a leisurely dip in the pool. She was about to swim her prelim race in the 100-meter backstroke, and she didn't plan to push it. Qualify, move on and save the gas for when she would need it. That was the point.

That was before Hayley McGregory had the audacity to break Coughlin's world record.

Which meant that Coughlin owed it to herself to break it right back.

"I had planned on going a lot easier than I did this morning," Coughlin said, "but I didn't want her to have (the record) for very long."

Turns out, McGregory had it for all of 129 seconds. As reigns go, hers was brief. But McGregory did post a better time in the semis Monday night.

Coughlin's record time was 59.03 seconds, but that isn't the part worth remembering. The part that says the most about Coughlin is the way she responded to seeing someone else's success. How can you help but pay attention in tonight's rematch in the final?

Such are the best moments in swimming — or, for that matter, in any sport. It is when an event is transformed into an a "anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better" moment where the athletes feed off each other.

Did you watch the Michael Phelps-Ryan Lochte battle in the 400-meter freestyle final Sunday night, when both swam faster than world-record time? Phelps admitted that if it had not been for Lochte pushing him, he never would have broken the record.

Monday night, they were at it again. In the 200-meter freestyle semis, Lochte's time was three one-hundredths of a second better than Phelps'. Stay tuned for that final, too.

And guess what? For once, no one is likely to ask Phelps what he is wearing.

It has gotten silly, because when you break it down, all this controversy is about is swimming suits. It's cloth! Let's face it: If it really gave an athlete a competitive advantage, and if it really skirted the rules of fair play, then Bill Belichick would have his players wearing jerseys made out of the stuff. Come to think of it, shouldn't someone check?

Yet, there are those who act as if Phelps has been given the costume of that guy in The Greatest American Hero. Except Phelps, of course, didn't lose the instruction manual.

On the other hand, these trials are being heavily covered by the Japanese media, who seemed to be all a-dither over just which outfit Brendan Hansen was going to wear in the 100 breaststroke final Monday. Hansen, you see, held the 200-meter world record that was beaten by 99/100ths of a second by Japan's Kosuke Kitajima. There has not been this much scrutiny in the sport since Saint Laurent and Versace had their individual medleys down a Paris runway.

Just between you and me: Kitajima and Hansen are wearing the same thing. Won't they be mortified?

Again, give me competitors. Give me moments. Give me rivalries.

Give me Ian Thorpe vs. Michael Phelps. Give me Amy Van Dyken giving the death stare to Chinese swimmer Le Jingyi before their race in the '96 Olympics. Give me Matt Biondi vs. Tom Jager. Give me Gary Hall Jr. vs. Alexander Popov. Give me a race.

On the medal stand, a swimmer can wear overalls if he wishes. Provided, of course, that they help his time.

Forget the suit. I want 'wow.' 06/30/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 1, 2008 7:07am]

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