BUDAPEST — In the land before time, when there were no cellphones, those of us of a certain generation were sent out of the house by exasperated mothers who didn’t know the first thing about bicycle helmets and, truth be told, didn’t much care. They just wanted us out until it was dark.
So off we went, baseball cards in our spokes. It was a very exciting day when the new edition of certain magazines would show up in the racks at the Ben Franklin five-and-dime store. It was super-exciting when Mad magazine would show up, with stupid Alfred E. Neuman on the cover, grinning, “What, me worry?”
Now that these 2017 FINA world championships are in the history books, can we finally acknowledge Alfred E. Neuman as Team USA’s unofficial spokesdude?
No Michael Phelps, no Ryan Lochte, no Missy Franklin. No worries.
Sparked by the emergence of Caeleb Dressel and the steady brilliance of Katie Ledecky, the Americans dominated these 2017 worlds, with 38 medals overall, 18 gold.
In the meet’s final race, Dressel staked the U.S. men’s medley relay to a lead of about one second on the third — butterfly — leg. Olympic champion Nathan Adrian brought it home for the win, in 3:27.91.
It was that kind of night Sunday, that kind of event — the what-else punctuation to a championships that saw Dressel win seven golds. Before Dressel, only Phelps (eight golds, Beijing 2008 Games; Melbourne, 2007 worlds) and Mark Spitz (Munich 1972 Olympics) had won seven golds at a meet.
The previous U.S. medal high had been 36, in Melbourne and, before that, at the 1978 FINA championships. To go along with the 18 golds: 10 silver, 10 bronze.
Evidence of how lopsided this meet was and the disparity between the United States and the rest of the world: Britain had the next-most total of gold medals: four. China, Russia and Australia had the next-most overall totals: 10.
The U.S. swim team’s dominance highlights a facet little understood outside the often-closely knit world of swimmers, parents, clubs and college programs. Such dominance nonetheless ought, like the U.S. women’s water polo team — rulers, too, of the Budapest pool — to be studied, and better appreciated, in the wider American sports landscape.
How does a winning entity like the U.S. swim team withstand the loss of its two, arguably three, greatest-ever talents and — still — dominate? Still churn out young swimmers the likes of Ledecky and Dressel?
Remember: these two are college kids. It’s like seeing one-and-done’s fully running the NBA.
As Dressel and Ledecky are ever quick to point out, it’s hardly just them:
There’s Chase Kalisz, a Phelps protegé and winner here of the 200-meter and 400 men’s individual medleys, the 400 IM in Sunday night’s second event a work of performance art Phelps himself doubtlessly would have appreciated — a championship-record 4:05.9.
There’s Lilly King, queen of the50- and 100-meter women’s breaststrokes. Her worlds tally, including relays: four golds, four world records. Simone Manuel, winner here in the 100 free, just as at the Olympics last year in Rio, and anchor Sunday night of a world-record U.S. women’s 4x1 medley relay, 3:51.55.
A couple obvious big-picture factors are in play, as in the case of the women’s water polo team:
— Title IX is huge for American women.
— The American way calls for club programs to feed into the NCAA-overseen university system. The NCAA can rightly be called to task for any number of faults. But this must be acknowledged: the NCAA system produces the world’s best swimmers.
There are outliers — for instance, Phelps, who did not go to college.
But pretty much everyone else wants to go to college. Ledecky. Franklin. Almost everyone from anywhere else — someone like American-born Farida Osman, who swims at Cal-Berkeley. She grew up in and swims internationally for in Egypt. On Saturday, she won a bronze medal in the women’s 50-meter butterfly. The Egyptian swim federation has been around since 1907. In all its years, Osman’s medal is its very first in world competition.
These elements — Title IX, the NCAA, world-class athletes and coaches — mean the Americans can withstand the sort of systemic change that might rock another federation. Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming’s longtime executive director, died in April; the pieces were in place for his successor, Tim Hinchey.
There’s more change yet to come. Frank Busch, the team’s long-serving national team director, announced in January he will step down from the position Sept. 1. These worlds were thus the last at which his calming — but forceful — presence will anchor the team.
To be clear: USA Swimming is the farthest thing from perfect. All you have to do is read the headlines to grasp just some of the complexities and controversies it has confronted.
When it comes to racing, meantime, the big change can perhaps be summed up in a three-step progression. Across the United States, an entire generation of kids has seen Phelps swim. They see world records fall. They ask, why not me?
Of course, a significant question in the background, looking toward 2020 — as it has been since the day he announced his first retirement, after London in 2012 — is Phelps.
The man says he is done.
Having heard this before, maybe it will even prove true: Phelps is in a totally different place mentally and emotionally than before (married, father of a son, having done the hard and rewarding work of rehab and seemingly gotten himself right).
As 2013, post-London, was Year One in the run to Rio 2016, so 2017 is Year One to Tokyo in 2020. At the 2013 world championships in Barcelona, Phelps did not swim. But he was there, physically — not to swim, but for a sponsor appearance and, his foot in a walking boot — and emotionally, too, from the stands texting longtime coach Bob Bowman his thoughts on the U.S. team’s disappointing performance in the men’s 4x1 free relay.
Budapest? Phelps? Not here. Worried? What?
At the same time, consider: Phelps’ winning time in Rio in the 200-meter individual medley would have won here by a full second. He is one of the most competitive human beings ever. At some point, does that competitive streak kick in, again?
It’s not like you can’t swim and win in your mid-30s. Phelps is now 32, would be 36 in 2020; at 35, Anthony Ervin won gold in Rio in the 50-meter freestyle. Here in Budapest, 37-year-old Nicholas Santos of Brazil became the oldest-ever to win a world championships medal when he went 22.79 for silver in the 50 fly.
Obvious question: who wouldn’t want Phelps around for the 200 IM and the relays?
“We miss Michael,” Ledecky had said at a news conference opening the meet. “We miss his presence on the team. Whether he’s retired or not, we will see. We will see.”
As for Lochte, and his prospects going forward — when he is in shape and his head is in the right place, he is a force.
Those, though, are two big if’s.
Franklin, when she is not contending with injuries, is world-class in every way. In and out of the pool. Any U.S. team with a healthy Missy Franklin can only be that much better.
Ledecky, simply put, is so good that she must contend with an expectation that is wholly unrealistic: if she doesn’t break a world record every time she dives into the pool, some significant number of people go, what’s wrong?
People, Katie Ledecky just won five gold medals and one silver. Are you serious?
She had a choppy final 50 in the 200 free, and it cost her the race. It happens. In her other individual finals, the 400, 800 and 1500, the rest of the best in the world did not seriously threaten her.
Here is a better approach: kudos to Katie Ledecky for sustained excellence.
As for Dressel, who like Ledecky is just 20 years old:
All he did was make himself the breakout star of a team that, absent Phelps and Lochte, was suddenly on the lookout for a young breakout star. Nathan Adrian and Matt Grevers were here; they won medals; both are also Olympic gold medalists in their own right; but, as Adrian said late Saturday, something is always impossible until someone — in this instance, Dressel — does it.
On Saturday: three world championship medals in one day (50 free, 100 fly, mixed 4x1 free relay). That’s unprecedented.
Before the meet began, Ledecky, making like a prophet, had said, referring to Phelps, “I think not having Michael any more really sort of, I think, has raised the game on the men’s side. And I’m excited to see some swimmers like Caeleb step up. I think the men’s is really going to be really good. I think our relays are going to be really good. I think we’re we’re excited to take our first step toward Tokyo.”
Like — why?