To the emotional rescue of a twilight zone swim championships

To the emotional rescue of a twilight zone swim championships

GWANGJU, South Korea — If ever there was an event that suffered from an Olympic hangover, these 18th FINA world aquatics championships would be right up there on the list of leading candidates. Indeed, a longtime FINA official said, these were the championsihps from the twilight zone.

Some 18 months after the hugely successful — and bitterly cold — PyeongChang Olympics over in South Korea’s northeastern mountains, the action shifted to this nation’s southwest, and Gwangju, into the heat and humidity and, as it turned out, virtually non-stop rain. Strike that. These championships went down to the percussive beat of seemingly endless thunderstorms. There was lightning, too, as immediately before the women’s water polo final, won by the United States over Spain.

They tried to sell this event as a peacemaker: “Dive into Peace,” read the white-on-turquoise slogans plastered all over the venues and, indeed, around town, a nod not just to events on the peninsula but, as virtually everyone in South Korea knows, the events of May 1980, when a democracy uprising climaxed in a bloody battle between the military and locals, the victims now honored in an expansive national cemetery near town.

Instead of peace, however, a balcony in a packed nightclub near the athletes village collapsed early on the morning of July 27, killing two Koreans and injuring at least nine athletes, including four American water polo players.

Meanwhile, inside the venues, athletes from Australia and Britain staged medals-stand protests, purportedly over doping matters tied to the Chinese swimmer Sun Yang. Attendance proved spotty at best; it would be charitable to say there were even hundreds of people on some days at the diving events that opened the meet’s 17-day run. Even the internet — and South Korea is known for its robust internet — didn’t work, and why?

It was thus left to Katie Ledecky, on the meet’s next-to-last night, to provide the emotional rescue — the stuff, the inspiration — that, truly, makes Olympic sport different from everything else. 

Essentially, Ledecky all but saved these championships.

Caeleb Dressel and the ridonculous hype machine

Caeleb Dressel and the ridonculous hype machine

GWANGJU, South Korea — As our gaze turns inexorably toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, you could feel here Saturday night at the 2019 FINA swim championships the red, white and blue hype machine kick-starting Saturday into full-on gear, the jet fuel pouring into hot engines already burning orange, ready to zoom to white hot, the Caeleb Dressel rocket about to blast off soon enough like a Saturn V, epic, enormous, ridoncolous in every regard.

You might even say — Phelpsian.

The problem with the comparisons that surely will be drawn between now and next July 24, when the Tokyo Olympics get underway, is elemental.

Caeleb Dressel can break — has broken — Michael Phelps’ race records. Here, for instance, he smashed one of Phelps’ singular achievements, 49.82 seconds in the 100-meter butterfly. Dressel went 49.5. In the semifinals, for goodness sake. 

That is hype-worthy. No doubt. But for all the hype, each and every bit of it, Caeleb Dressel has a math problem. Six is not eight. Seven is not eight. It’s that problematic. 

Vulnerable, not dominant, Katie Ledecky summons the will to win

Vulnerable, not dominant, Katie Ledecky summons the will to win

GWANGJU, South Korea — Over the course of her brilliant career, Katie Ledecky has had all manner of memorable swims.

There was the race in London in 2012 when she announced herself to the world by winning gold in the 800 freestyle as a 15-year-old. The 1500 free at the world championships in Barcelona in 2013 that made for 15 minutes of thrilling theater. The 14 world records in the 400, 800 and 1500. And on and on.

Maybe no race, however, tested Katie Ledecky like the 800 free here Saturday night. 

Typically, Ledecky goes out hard and fast puts the race away. Not this time. She had been sick all week. She was vulnerable. She knew it. Everyone knew it. Incredibly, she fell behind in the middle of the race. Even so, she somehow summoned the heart, the soul, the will of the great champion that she is — one of the great athletes of this or any time — to come back late and win, in 8:13.58.  

Mob rule is no way to make a stand

Mob rule is no way to make a stand

GWANGJU, South Korea — After the events here this week involving the Chinese star Sun Yang, here’s hoping that both Ryan Lochte and Madisyn Cox not only make the 2020 U.S. Olympic swim team but, moreover, go on to win medals.

Then we can see whether the sanctimonious, self-righteously moralistic and, moreover, self-appointed doping athlete police apply their same rigid and inappropriate black-and-white standards to Americans tagged for “doping” — Lochte, eligible again Wednesday after 14 months off for a rules violation tied to an IV drip, and Cox, who got six months for tainted multivitamins.

Or — and let’s be real — if there’s something more. 

You’d be hard-pressed not to smell the whiff of colonialism, imperialism and racism at work involving an athlete from China. Imagine, if you will, the outrage across all 50 states, red and blue, if had been an American who got snubbed on the medals stand, as Sun Yang did by athletes from Australia and Great Britain. As Sun Yang said, “Disrespecting me is OK, but disrespecting China was very unfortunate and I feel sorry about that.”

On Weibo, the People’s Daily — the official paper of the Chinese Communist Party — said, in part, “Sports should be purely sports. It’s not for someone who wants to make a splash. It’s not for someone to make trouble out of nothing, to be deliberately provocative. Let sports return to a normal state. Shame on them.”

If Sun Yang is shown to be liable of a doping violation, he deserves what he gets.

Until then, here is what he deserves — the benefit of the doubt, the presumption of innocence.

Back in prime time: the Caeleb Dressel show

Back in prime time: the Caeleb Dressel show

GWANGJU, South Korea — The American Caeleb Dressel was out like a shot Thursday night and at the turn, the only turn in the men’s 100-meter freestyle, he was so far ahead it was breathtaking. 

It’s not supposed to happen like this. By definition, these were the eight best sprinters in the world. These, of course, are the world championships. And Dressel was making this race like it was him and then seven other guys. The only question was whether he was going to break the world record.

Not quite.

Dressel touched in 46.96 seconds, an American record and just five-hundredths behind Brazilian Cesar Cielho’s world mark, set 10 years ago.

Ryan Lochte, Madisyn Cox -- now, what will Lilly King say?

Ryan Lochte, Madisyn Cox -- now, what will Lilly King say?

Suddenly we have two — two — top athletes out of this week's U.S. swimming national championships. For doping-related reasons.

What will Lilly King say?

Ryan Lochte got himself suspended Monday, again, this time for 14 months, and every time one thinks the Ryan Lochte story has taken a weird-enough twist it just gets weirder.

And then there is Madisyn Cox, who is out for two years and whose case bears remarkable similarities to that of the Russian Yulia Efimova. That's right. The same Efimova who King decided to make the villain in a Cold War-style doping drama that far too many people lapped up as if it was Rocky and Ivan Drago.

Imagine the glee this week elsewhere, and particularly in Russian media. Two Americans! This is where, again, it's useful to remember that as an American athlete on the world stage a healthy dose of humility goes a long way.

Reminder: you don't see Katie Ledecky, ever, calling anyone out.

No one, ever again, should have to go through this

No one, ever again, should have to go through this

When our youngest daughter was just 18 months old, we were at a friend’s house here in Los Angeles. In the back was an unfenced pool. In a flash, she had toddled out to the pool and jumped in. Alertly, my wife ran across the house and jumped in — fully clothed — after her.

Another story. When I worked at the LA Times, we were at a party down in Orange County with some newspaper friends. We were all much younger parents then, and there were all kinds of little children around. I happened to be on duty at the hot tub when one of the kids, who was just 2, just that fast, sank to the bottom. I fished her out. 

Our daughter went on to do years and years at the LA County junior lifeguard program and a couple days ago finished her freshman year at Northwestern. That 2-year-old just graduated from Michigan.

These stories have happy endings. 

Way, way, way too many don’t.  

Please: let’s come together in the aftermath of the sorrowful drowning death of 19-month-old Emeline Miller, daughter of Olympic ski star Bode and his wife, Morgan, the professional volleyball player.

Let Emmy’s death be a call to action.

Alfred E. Neuman as swim spokesdude: What, Team USA worry?

Alfred E. Neuman as swim spokesdude: What, Team USA worry?

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.

Caeleb Dressel: the present and future of swimming

Caeleb Dressel: the present and future of swimming

BUDAPEST — Swim geeks have known for years about Caeleb Dressel.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, near and far, no matter where you are, what we have here is our next big, big star: with three years until Tokyo and the 2020 Summer Games, let the red, white and blue hype commence.

Dressel, just 20 years old, on Saturday won two gold medals at these 2017 FINA championships in 33 minutes, three in just under 100. In sequence, he won the 50-meter freestyle, the 100-meter butterfly and then helped the U.S. win the mixed 4×100-meter freestyle relay.

He is the first — the first — to win three gold medals at a FINA world championships in the same finals session. Michael Phelps never did that. Ryan Lochte won four individual titles at the 2011 championships in Shanghai. But not three in one day.

Phelps and the shark or, like, a great swim meet?

Phelps and the shark or, like, a great swim meet?

BUDAPEST — Did you know, my 18-year-old daughter said to me over FaceTime, she in California, me here in Budapest at the FINA world swim championships, that Michael Phelps raced a shark?

Did you also know, she went on, that it wasn’t really a real shark? And Michael had a monofin? And Michael went 38.1 seconds and the shark 36.1 seconds? He was close!

So, I said to the darling daughter, now that you have told me everything about Michael and, as it were, the ultimate example of jumping the shark, what can you tell me about what’s going on here? Because, I said, this is a great meet.

To switch animal gears, or something, here was her response: crickets.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the existential dilemma of Olympic sport in 2017.