Cullen Jones

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.

Déjà two all over again

BARCELONA -- With Michael Phelps watching from the stands, the U.S. men took a lead into the final leg of the men's 4x100 relay here Sunday night at the Palau Sant Jordi. As the old building roared, what happened in the next 48 or so seconds was either a bad case of déjà two all over again or a matter of the Americans playing not for short-term glory but for long-term reward. Depends on your point of view.

Just like last year at the Olympic Games in London, the French ran the Americans down in the final 50 meters. Last year it was Yannick Agnel showing Ryan Lochte no mercy. This time, Jeremy Stravius showed Jimmy Feigen how it's done, the French winning in 3:11.18, the Americans 24-hundredths back.

Russia took third, another 20-hundredths behind. Vlad Morozov ripped off a 47.4 third leg but it was not enough.

"We wanted to win. What can I say?" Agnel -- who has been training in Baltimore this year with Phelps' longtime mentor, Bob Bowman -- said afterward.

Bowman, who is the U.S. men's coach here, said, "We could definitely do better. We are disappointed with that."

You think the U.S. men could have used, well, Phelps?

"Those four guys did an amazing job," Natalie Coughlin, the veteran U.S. racer said after the American women's 4x100 relay team won gold, buoyed by Megan Romano's thrilling anchor leg. Coughlin quickly added in a reference to the U.S. team overall but one that served as a punctuation to the men's relay, "Yeah, we miss Michael."

That's because Michael -- who was quite the presence Sunday in Barcelona, signing autographs, posing for photos, doing his thing as swim ambassador, his right foot in a walking boot -- understood fully that the 4x100 free relay traditionally has been an American priority, whether at the worlds and the Olympics, and that winning it is technically fairly simple to diagram if nonetheless difficult to execute.

The men's freestyle relay now has evolved to the point that it takes all four guys swimming in the 47-second range. If one guy rips off 46-something, all kinds of things are possible.

This is what Jason Lezak showed in Beijing in 2008 with his out-of-this-world 46.06 anchor leg, after Phelps himself opened up with a 47.51. Garrett Weber-Gale, swimming second, went 47.02; Cullen Jones, third, 47.65. The Americans won by eight-hundredths of a second over the French.

In 2009, at the world championships in Rome, Phelps led off in 47.78. Lochte went next, in 47.03. Matt Grevers followed in 47.61. Nathan Adrian closed in 46.79. The Americans won.

In 2011, at the worlds in Shanghai, Phelps led off -- in 48.08. Weber-Gale went next, in 48.33. Lezak went third, going 48.15. Adrian swam 47.64. The Americans took third, in 3:11.96. The Aussies put together four 47s, and won in 3:11 flat.

Last year at the Olympics, Adrian kicked things off in  47.89. Phelps went next, in 47.15. Jones, back in form, turned in a 47.6. Then Lochte went 47.74. Should have been good enough, right?

Except that Agnel went 46.74.

The French won in 3:09.93, the Americans taking silver in 3:10.38. Just like this year, the Russians took third.

The American line-up Sunday night was Adrian, Lochte, Anthony Ervin and Feigen.

Feigen swam in the prelims in the 4x100 relay in London, going 48.49. He also has pulled recent national-team duty at the world short-course championships -- that is, in a 25-meter pool -- with comparatively few fans in the stand.

This would be his first turn on the big stage.

In Sunday's prelims, Ervin went 47.38. Ricky Berens, a national-team veteran, rocked a 47.56. Like Feigen, Berens swam in the London prelims. Berens is a two-time gold medalist in the 4x200 relay.

Bowman and the other U.S. coaches opted to go with Feigen and, moreover, to put him in the anchor slot.

The French countered with Agnel, Florent Manaudou, Fabien Gilot and Stravius.

Manaudou won gold in the 50 free in London, in 21.34. Gilot went 47.67 in the London relay win. Stravius was the unknown -- having gone 48.32 in the London relay prelims. At a news conference a couple days ago, he had said he was "happy to be here."

Agnel turned in -- by his measure -- a sub-par 48.76; after his swim the French were seventh. Manaudou went 47.93, lifting them back up to fourth. Then Gilot ripped off a 46.9.

Meanwhile, Adrian went 47.95, Lochte 47.8, Ervin 47.44. It seemed the Americans were heading toward victory.

Stravius, though, went 47.59.

Feigen? 48.23.

Three Americans went 47, one went 48.23 and the U.S. lost by 24-hundredths. There, essentially, is your race.

To his credit, Feigen -- who absolutely is an up-and-comer -- was straight-up about it all afterward. He said Stravius "ended up wanting it more than I did, and that showed." He said, "I've got to learn to swim my own race," acknowledging his breathing pattern was slightly off as he came toward the final wall.

"You know what?" said Ervin, the 2000 Sydney Games 50 free gold medalist who is now 32 and has since seen a lot of life. "You can't win them all. When you can't win, what you get is experience."

"It's kind of a learning experience," Feigen said. "And hopefully, I can get better every time."

Which, Bowman said, is the point. If you're not going to win, there's Rio and 2016 to consider.

Asked if the Americans were missing Phelps Sunday night, he laughed and said, "We were on that relay, I think.

"You know, it's the way it goes. These guys are learning. We are trying to figure out where people should go, really, in 2016. We want to win all these. But, these guys, it's the first time in a new [quadrennium]. Everybody gets kind of a shot to see where they are."

Asked if the French were glad Phelps wasn't swimming, Agnel said, "I don't understand the question." Which he totally did, because he then smiled a very big smile.

Bowman added that Phelps had been texting critiques of the race from his perch in the stands.

"He was disappointed we got beat," Bowman said, adding a moment later, "He was just giving me his analysis of the race, things I could have done better." Which was? Another laugh. "I'll keep that to myself."

USA Swimming's night to celebrate

NEW YORK -- Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps' coach, came first. At a filled-to-the-max ballroom here at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square, Bowman won USA Swimming's "coach of the year" award at its annual gala, called the "Golden Goggles," and when he took to the stage he had this to say: "Michael, it has been a privilege to be your coach. It has been even better to be your friend."

A few moments later came Phelps, introduced by the strange-but-awesome pairing of Donald Trump and Gary Hall Jr., the former sprint champion -- on a night when the invite said, "Black Tie" -- wearing, indeed, a funky black-and-white tie draped over a black T-shirt that blared out in pink letters, "Barbie," the ensemble dressed up with a black jacket.

Phelps, Trump allowed, was "a friend of mine." He riffed a little bit more, "You think he's going to win?

Of course he was going to win for "male athlete of the year," and when Phelps got to the stage, he said, referring to London 2012, his fourth Games, "This Olympics was the best Olympics I have ever been a part of."

No one in the American Olympic scene -- arguably not even the U.S. Olympic Committee -- puts on a show like USA Swimming. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was also among the celebrity presenters. The comic Jim Gaffigan came out for a 20-minute riff that only marginally touched on swimming but did include references to Phelps and Subway sandwiches as well as Gaffigan's much-applauded routine on Hot Pockets, the microwaveable turnover.

Out in the hall there was a silent auction with all manner of stuff for sale -- including a framed picture, signed by both Phelps and Serbia's Milorad Cavic, of the 2008 Beijing 100-meter butterfly, which Phelps famously won by one-hundredth of a second.

It's not simply that American swimmers are so good.

It's that the culture of the U.S. swim team creates success.

That is what was fully and richly on display Monday night at the Marriott Marquis ballroom: a program that dares to dream big and that celebrates the role everyone plays in achieving those dreams, from support staff to coaches to athletes.

Indeed, when the night began with introductions across the stage, it wasn't the athletes or the coaches who came first. It was the support staff. And they got just as loud a round of applause from those on hand.

There are other well-run national governing bodies -- the ski and snowboard team, for instance, which claimed 21 of the world-best 37 medals the U.S. team won in Vancouver in 2010.

That said, virtually every other U.S. Olympic federation could learn a little something, or maybe a lot, from how the swim team gets things done. In London, the swim team won 31 medals -- 16 gold, nine silver, six bronze.

As good as the U.S. track team was -- it won 29 medals -- the numbers don't lie. The No. 1 performance in London came in the water.

It was observed by NBC's Bob Costas, the night's emcee, that if the American swim team had been a stand-alone country it would have finished ninth in the overall medals table -- and fifth in the gold-medal count.

When the 49 athletes on the London 2012 team were introduced, two by two, they showed just how much they genuinely liked each other -- the fun that was so vividly on display in the "Call Me Maybe" video they had produced before the Games, which became a viral internet sensation.

Ricky Berens and Elizabeth Beisel didn't just shake hands when they met at center stage; they executed a chest-bump. Missy Franklin did a twirl, courtesy of Jimmy Feigin. Cullen Jones and Kara Lynn Joyce struck "007" poses.

Time and again, the winners Monday took time to say thank you to their families, coaches, staff and teammates.

"It's just -- just amazing to be here," said Katie Ledecky, the Maryland high school sensation who took home two awards, "breakout performer" and "female race of the year," for her dominating 800 freestyle victory in London. She said of the London Games, "I just had a blast … I got to be inspired by all of you."

Nathan Adrian, the "male race of the year winner" for his one-hundredth of a second victory in the 100-meter freestyle, said, "One last note. Thank you to my mom. I know you're watching online. I love you."

"I've never been on a team that was a close as this one," Dana Vollmer, the 100 fly winner who swam in the world record-breaking, gold medal-winning 4 x 100 women's medley relay, along with Franklin, Rebecca Soni and Allison Schmitt, said.

Of the relay team, she said, "We were called the 'Smiley Club.' "

Echoed Franklin, "My teammates are the best people you would ever meet in your entire life." She also said, "With Thanksgiving coming up, I realized I don't have a single thing in my life not to be thankful for."

Phelps provided the valedictory. He was up for "male athlete of the year" against Ryan Lochte (five medals, two gold), Adrian (three medals, two gold) and Matt Grevers (three medals, two gold).

Phelps followed up his eight-for-eight in Beijing with six medals in London, four gold. He became the first male swimmer to execute the Olympic three-peat, and he did it in not just one event but two, the 200 IM and the 100 fly. His 22 Olympic medals stand as the most-ever. Eighteen of those 22 are gold.

Trump, ever the sage, opined, "No athlete has ever come close," a reference to the arc of Phelps' dominating career, adding, "I don't think they ever will."

All of that is why Phelps, who has repeatedly announced that London marked his last Games as a competitive swimmer, had to be the slam-dunk winner. And if it felt Monday like USA Swimming was maybe -- if reluctantly -- turning the page from the Phelps years, there was that, too.

In London, Phelps embraced his role as veteran team leader. He showed anew Monday how much that meant to him.

The others in the "male athlete" category? "We were all in the same apartment in the [Olympic] village," Phelps said, making it clear that while they might sometimes be rivals in the pool, they were, beyond that, teammates, now and forever.

And, he said, as for that "Call Me Maybe" video: "At first I didn't want to do it. And now I'm really glad I did it because," like the swim team's Olympic year and the celebration Monday of that season, "it turned out to be something really special."

Anthony Ervin's fantastic journey keeps on keeping on

OMAHA -- After one of the early rounds of the 50-meter freestyle here at the U.S. Trials, Anthony Ervin came out of the water and went over for one of those quicky interviews with NBC's Andrea Kremer. Everyone knows the deal. Except with Anthony Ervin, nothing is ever quite you expect. So, Anthony, Andrea asked, what does swimming mean to you now? Andrea, a pro's pro, knew full well that he was the 2000 Sydney Games gold medalist in the 50 free and had come back to the sport after a long break during which he'd done some other stuff, a lot of which was really interesting, some hugely introspective, huge chunks of which we may never know about. That's all part of being Anthony Ervin.

"I know you want a short and sexy answer for TV," he said with a big smile. "I'd have to write a book about that one. I've had such a journey. It has been circuitous. What was light was dark; what was dark was light. And the path was wonderful."

The shortest journey between two points in a 50-meter pool is a straight line, metaphysically speaking, and takes just over 21 seconds,. For Anthony Ervin, the path Sunday night led him back to the Olympic Games.

Before 12,406 roaring fans, Ervin, now 31, both arms covered in tattoo sleeves, his head adorned in a California Golden Bears yellow-and-blue swim cap, Anthony Ervin sprinted the 50 meters in 21.60 seconds, by far a personal best.

The resurgent Cullen Jones won the race in 21.59, just one-hundredth of a second faster, and when he finished Jones raised his right hand and then punched the water.

There was no such reaction from Anthony Ervin. That's because, in part, he needs glasses to see the scoreboard. He relied on Nathan Adrian, with whom he had been training at Berkeley, who finished third, in 21.68, to tell him what had happened.

Those times -- 21.59 and 21.60 -- were the second- and third-fastest in the world this year. Only Cesar Cielo of Brazil has gone faster, 21.38.

When swimmers come out of the water, they come off the deck and go underneath to what's called the "mixed zone," where they meet with reporters. Typically, the press officers of USA Swimming gently limit the racers to answers of a few seconds.

Anthony Ervin spoke for four minutes and 51 seconds in what was immediately agreed was a candidate for the best mixed-zone speech of all time, full of joy and gratitude for his friends -- they were in the stands wearing black and pink T-shirts that read, "Tony Ervin is Rock 'n Roll" -- and several coaches.

He said he had, at points along the way, been a "very fragile mentally person" who had been nurtured and developed, whose talents had been refined and allowed to blossom.

"Competition isn't meant to be easy," he said. "It's meant to be challenging."

Anthony Ervin won his gold medal in Sydney when he was 19. A few years later, he decided he'd had it with competitive swimming. He sold his 2000 gold medal for $17,101 and donated the money to relief efforts for the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia; he now says he was a "mystic" at the time.

He played in a band. He taught swimming to kids in New York City. He slept on his friend Elliot Ptasnik's couch. He earned got his college degree.

Two years ago, he moved out to the Bay Area. After the Cal men's team won its first NCAA title in March 2011, he decided he wanted back in to competitive swimming. He asked the Cal women's coach, Teri McKeever, if he could train with her team.

Earlier this week, he explained that there were no regrets about any of it. It his life hadn't followed  the straight and narrow -- you know, life isn't always like a swimmer in a pool looking down at that black line.

"How do you move forward with one’s life if you hold on to regret? If you turn around, you’d be like Lot’s wife. You’d just be a pillar of salt. What could have been? I don’t know. All I know is what did happen and I feel lucky and privileged and glad to be here right now."

Coming into the Trials, Anthony Ervin had come nowhere near his personal best in the 50, 21.8.

In the prelims, he went 21.83, fastest in the field.

Then, in the semifinals, 21.74, again fastest in the field.

Elliot Ptasnik, before the race, declared, "He'll make the Olympics. I have no doubt."

Swimming in Lane 4, Anthony Ervin went out and slammed that 21.6 to make the Olympics.

Asked what his expectations were for London, he said that of course he hoped to win a medal.

But there was a bigger picture, and understand the connotation here, because there's nothing sinister in his words, only the joy and gratitude of a 31-year-old man who has found profound beauty in testing himself, because in that test there is deep meaning in competition at the highest level: "I just want to keep the fun train chugging."

Setting the scene for the 400 free relay

OMAHA -- Garrett Weber-Gale was back in the pool Thursday, swimming rounds of the 100 meter freestyle. Cullen Jones, too. And, of course, Jason Lezak. Michael Phelps was at it, too, in the 200 fly, winning his signature event in 1:53.65.

It was all enough to evoke memories of that electric moment in Beijing in 2008, when those four guys, and especially Lezak, summoned one of the most incredible performances in Olympic history, winning the 400-meter freestyle relay.

The huge challenge now awaiting the 2012 U.S. team is to bring back relay gold again. It took a miracle four years ago. Bluntly, and everyone involved with the U.S. swim community knows so, even if they won't say so publicly, it may take more in London.

Why? Because the Australians have gotten that good. The French are good, too. The Italians, Russians and South Africans have gotten way better.

And the Americans, who have tradition and pride and history on their side, all of that -- it's not clear who the Americans are going to put into that relay beyond Phelps and the current No. 1 American sprinter, Nathan Adrian.

The prelims and the semis of the 100 free Thursday, of course, aren't the finals, which go down Friday. But rest assured that after reading the times the leading Americans posted Thursday the Aussies probably weren't breaking into a cold sweat.

Adrian led the semis with a 48.33. Jimmy Feigin was next in 48.48. Matt Grevers, who won the 100 back the night before, came third in 48.71.

Weber-Gale? Seventh, in 48.98. Jones? Eighth, in 49.03.

Lezak finished ninth, in 49.05. That left him out of Friday night's final -- for all of about a moment. Ryan Lochte, who had finished in a tie for fifth, with Scot Robison, told Lezak on his way off the pool deck that he would be scratching out of the final, to concentrate on his Friday night double, the 200 IM and the 200 back.

So Lezak lives to fight on, at least for one more day.

Grevers, meanwhile, also scratched out of the 100 final, again to concentrate on the 200 back. That  gave a spot in the 100 final to David Walters, who had finished 10th, in 49.34.

Again, the semi times are not likely to be the finals times. Even so, all involved well understand the complexity of the situation as it relates to the relay.

"We'll put together four good guys and hope for a Lezak-type swim," Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, said with a smile.

The 2008 400 free relay was awesome and awe-inspiring and to watch it, no matter how many times you watch it, is an occasion for chills. Even if you're French.

To watch Lezak's anchor leg is to take in the power and potential of human will. Lezak swam 100 meters in an other-worldly 46.06 seconds, overtaking France's Alain Bernard at the very end, the Americans winning in world- and Olympic-record time, 3:08.24.

Phelps swam the lead-off leg on that relay. He won eight golds, of course, in Beijing. He went eight-for-eight in Beijing in measure because of Lezak.

If you want to know why, among other reasons, Phelps has consistently downplayed any eight-for-eight talk at the 2012 Olympics, it's best to understand how significantly the sprint scene has changed since four years ago in Beijing.

The Americans had won the 400 free relay at the 2005, 2007 and 2009 world championships -- Adrian bailing them out in Rome in 2009 with a stirring anchor leg -- and in Beijing in 2008.

Swimming can sometimes be an intensely technical sport. A breakdown here of the American Beijing relay splits:

Phelps swam his lead-off leg in 47.51 seconds. Weber-Gale followed in 47.02. Jones went next, in 47.65. Then Lezak, in 46.06.

At the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, the pre-race focus within the American camp was Eamon Sullivan, the Australian anchor. He had gone a then-world record 47.05 in Beijing, at the Games.

The Aussies' lead-off guy was James Magnussen. No one knew much about him except he was tall and 20 years old.

Everyone learned fast.

Magnussen went 47.49. Compare that to Phelps' Beijing lead-off leg.

Phelps, who was in decent but not tip-top shape in Shanghai, turned in an eminently solid 48.08. That put the Americans in second place.

The Americans never did lead in that race. In Shanghai, Weber-Gale swam second; Lezak, third; Adrian, anchor. The Americans dropped to third during the second leg; fourth with Lezak; Adrian pulled them back up to third at the finish.

Final standings: Australia, in 3:11 flat. France, 3:11:14. United States, 3:11.96.

Along with Magnussen, each of the four Aussies on that relay swam in the 47s: Matthew Targett, Matthew Abood, Sullivan.

The Austrialians are just flat-out loaded with sprinters. There's another Australian guy on the scene: James Roberts. At the Aussie Trials this past March, he swam a 47.63 in the 100.

Magnussen is a cool customer. Asked in Shanghai what it was like to swim against Phelps, he said, "No biggie."

Magnussen went on to become the first Australian in history win the open 100 at the worlds, going 47.63 in Shanghai.

Earlier this year, he swam a 47.10, fourth-fastest ever. The world record is 46.91, held by Brazil's Cesar Cielo. You can bet that Magnussen has his eyes on that record in London.

The French, meanwhile, have a young gun of their own, 20-year-old Yannick Agnel. In March, he swam a 48.02 open 100. Fabien Gilot typically anchors for the French; in Shanghai, he swam a 47.22 anchor leg.

Asked late Thursday how the U.S. team is likely to stack up against the world, Phelps said, "I mean, you can look at times but you'll never know until … we all get together. We look fairly decent; I think some of the things we'll probably have to work on and get ready for. I think the 400 free relay and the 400 medley relay are going to be very challenging events.

"But I think we'll be able to come together as a team. We always have. We have been able to do that very well, I guess, throughout my experience on the international level. I have no doubt we'll be able to come together and get behind one another and prepare ourselves the best we can to represent our country."

UPDATE, Friday 5 p.m. Central: USA Swimming, which on Thursday announced Grevers had scratched out of the 100 final, has posted a sign in the media workroom saying that's not so. He's in the final. Lochte is out. Grevers is in.


Women's 100: let's have a run-off

EUGENE, Ore. -- There's a simple and elegant solution for USA Track & Field as it wrestles with the dilemma posed by the dead heat in the women's 100 meter Saturday between Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh. It's right there in the other marquee Summer Games sport, swimming, and it happens all the time.

It's a swim-off.

USATF should put Felix and Tarmoh to a run-off. It's the only fair way to settle this. It's the American way.

Carmelita Jeter won the 100, in 10.92 seconds. Tianna Madison finished second. They're both going to London.

Originally, Tarmoh was declared the third-place finisher and Felix fourth. The official scoring sheet said Tarmoh had edged training partner Felix by 0.0001 seconds. Tarmoh was even brought to a news conference, where she said she was "so thankful" to make the London team.

She also said, however, amid rumblings that something might be going on, "I have no idea what happens if it's a tie."

As that news conference was ending, USATF communications director Jill Geer took to the dais to announce that, in fact, the two runners had ended in a dead heat, both timed in 11.68 seconds.

What happened, Geer said, is that two cameras are used to determine photo finishes. One is on the outside of the track. The other is on the inside.

The outside camera in this race proved inconclusive because both runners' arms obscured their torsos.

The inside camera is shot at 3,000 frames per second. It was analyzed by timers and referees. They simply could not separate the two racers, and declared a tie.

USATF has no procedure in place to break such a tie.

This, let's be candid, is a major flaw.

This is the kind of thing that leads to litigation.

This is the kind of thing that leads to absurdities that the matter be settled with rock, paper, scissors; or the drawing of lots; or dice; or a hand of poker.

It also lends itself to observations that Felix is a three-time world champion who has two Olympic silver medals and the support of major corporate sponsors, while Tarmoh has two NCAA second-place finishes. In the abstract, which of the two do you think those sponsors would like to see pursue her much-publicized double?

Further, it puts enormous, and unfair, pressure on Felix to be magnanimous by stepping aside in favor of Tarmoh and let her rival and training partner take the spot. Doing so might earn Felix considerable public goodwill. But this is the Olympics. The Games come along every four years. Why should Felix, who ran a 10.92 earlier this year in the 100 in Doha, give up a medal shot?

This is why the only fair solution is a run-off.

Don't bother with any noise that Olympic sprinters can't be bothered with running an extra race, that doing so would put an unfair burden on their bodies.

Olympic swimmers do it with regularity.

Just last year, for instance, Josh Schneider and Cullen Jones, SwimMAC club teammates, had a swim-off to determine who would claim the final 50-meter freestyle spot on the 2011 world championships team in Shanghai.

The swim-off was required because they had tied, at 21.97 seconds, at the 2010 nationals. The swim-off was held in May, 2011, in Charlotte, N.C.; Jones finished in 22.24, Schneider in 22.28, and that was that.

Schneider didn't complain afterward, saying of Jones, who won a gold medal swimming with Michael Phelps in the 2008 Beijing 400-meter freestyle relay, "He is a gold medalist for a reason. It's hard to topple a giant like that."

Similarly, in 2009, Jones tied for second with Garrett Weber-Gale (who also swam on that Beijing 400 free relay) in the 50 free, at 21.55. They swam it off two days later to see who would swim in Rome at those Rome world championships. Jones swam 21.41 to break Weber-Gale's American record, 21.47. In Rome, Jones finished fifth, the top American in the event.

In December, 2010, meanwhile, at the world short-course championships in Dubai, Schneider's semifinal time of 21.29 tied him with Australia's Kyle Richardson for eighth place. At the end of the session, the two guys swam it off. Schneider went 21.19, Richardson 21.28. In the final, Schneider, swimming in the outside lane, Lane 8, got off to a great start and won a bronze medal, behind Brazil's Cesar Cielo and France's Fred Bousquet.

If they can do it in swimming, and they not only can but they do, they not only can do it in track and field but they must. It's the only fair solution.

Valley High's American dream

This is a story about diversity, about tolerance, about the make-up of California and, more, the United States of America as it really is now. There were seven girls on this year's Santa Ana Valley High School water polo team. Six are Latino. One is Vietnamese-American. "We had to find some way to communicate to become a family," said one of the team's seniors, 17-year-old Bianka Baeza. It's about one really great coach, Fred Lammers, a 59-year-old biology teacher who has been at the same school since 1976, who gets up at 4:30 every morning and then rides his bicycle to and from work, who is on the pool deck before dawn, who believes in the elemental mission of helping young people become the best they can be.

Finally, it's about the thing that sports teaches if you're willing to go there. "If you believe in yourself," the team's senior captain, 17-year-old Liz Silva, said, "anything is possible. You just have to do it."

When they joined the program, most at the start of their freshmen year at Valley High, none of the seven players on the team knew how to swim. Literally, none could swim. Each had to start by blowing bubbles in the shallow end of the high school pool.

Now they are the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Division 7 water polo champions -- and for the second straight year.

In the championship game, played recently at nearby Irvine High School, Valley defeated Los Amigos High, 8-7, senior attacker Jazmin Hinojoza scoring with 2:40 remaining to seal the deal. Jazmin, who scored five goals in the game, was later named the section's player of the year.

Again -- four years ago she couldn't even tread water.

"I would be in the shallow end," Jazmin, now 18, said of her childhood and pools. "I would float." But as for the deep end, and swimming itself? "I would never feel the need to."

Water polo is maybe the toughest game there is. It's back-and-forth swimming and constant contact, above and below the water. A California high school game is four seven-minute quarters.

At the start of every school year at Valley, Lammers advertises -- over the internal public-address system -- for recruits. He is under no illusions. Valley opened in 1959. According to its most recent report, it now serves roughly 2,400 students, of whom 96.7 are Latino and 93.3 are "socioeconomically disadvantaged."

Liz Silva's mom works in a fabric factory, sewing backpacks. Jazmin Hinojoza's mom is a bus driver. Bianka Baeza's mom doesn't have work right now; her stepdad does maintenance at an apartment complex.

Drowning is the second-leading cause of childhood accidental death. Five years ago, USA Swimming launched a program called "Make a Splash." It now features -- among others -- Cullen Jones, a gold medalist from the 2008 Beijing Games 400-meter freestyle relay, who himself nearly drowned as a boy.

On Thursday, the program announced $300,000 in grants to partners in 20 states; overall, it has worked with 515 providers in 47 states. Michael Phelps' foundation has also launched learn-to-swim drives across the country.

Similarly, USA Water Polo is now giving its "Splashball" program free to programs such as YMCAs, JCCs, Boys & Girls Clubs and parks and recreation departments.

The urgency behind these initiatives is obvious: the drowning rates are alarming, and they're nothing less than horrifying for children who come from minority households. Four of 10 white children, according to USA Swimming, can't swim. In Latino households, that number is six of 10. In black households, it's seven of 10.

"I don't get anyone who knows how to swim," Fred Lammers said. "If you throw them into the deep water, you'd better jump in and save them."

Remarkably, the school is the site of a 50-meter pool, same as an Olympic distance, installed just four years ago, after a successful bond measure. It was built with one quirk. There's a shallow end.

That's where swim lessons at Valley High start.

"When it was time to go to the deep end," the second week of swim lessons, Bianka Baeza said, "I was like, 'Are you serious? Already?' I was so scared.

"I was saying to myself, 'I don't want to drown.' "

Liz Silva said, "I thought I'd be able to swim in a week or two. I was wrong." It took a month just to get the strokes down, then another to get comfortable in deep water.

What kept her going, she said, was support from Lammers; from her two older sisters; and something else. She said, "I'm very competitive. I wanted to beat everybody in the water."

It's not just the learning how-to-swim element of the story that makes Valley's championship story so compelling. As well, each of the girls has good grades and, assuming finances can be worked out, is heading for college.

What makes the water polo part itself so improbable, if you know the sport, is that because there were only seven girls on the team there were essentially no substitutes.

As Claudia Dodson, USA Water Polo's director of club and member programs, said, "To overcome the swimming obstacle and go on to win a CIF championship with no subs is as close to a miracle as I can imagine."

The 2011 Valley team won the Division 7 championship but then graduated three players, leaving only those three seniors and junior goalkeeper Gabriela Chavez. To repeat? With three new juniors -- Vanessa Santos, Minh Le and Merab Romero?

Well -- why not?

"With water polo or any sport, you learn responsibility, you learn teamwork and you learn working with others. You learn so much being on a sports team," Bianka said.

Lammers said, "My favorite time of the year is toward the end of the season. I ask them for a minute, just to listen to me. Then they are out there and … they are running the game."

This, of course, is what every coach wants -- for his players to take control.

You want control? You want family?

Liz, a rising senior, and Minh, an incoming junior, knew before the school year began that they would be playing on the same side of the pool. Polo is like basketball, or soccer, in that regard.

So, last summer, Liz took it upon herself to go to Minh and learn the Vietnamese words and phrases for certain things they both knew would come up time and again. Like, "Go get the ball." Or, "Come in." Or, best yet," Shoot!"

Liz said it was hilarious when the two of them would be talking away in games in Vietnamese and players on the other teams would be looking at them in bewilderment: "The other girls were like, 'What are you telling her?!' "

During the 2012 regular season, Valley stormed to a 20-7 regular season record. On Jan. 31, Valley defeated Los Amigos, 4-3, with Minh lobbing a perfect lob shot into the far corner for the winner in sudden-death.

After making it through to the CIF championship game, the plan against Los Amigos was to get Jazmin the ball as much as possible.

Minh scored. Vanessa scored. Bianka scored. And Jazmin scored five.

The victory, Jazmin said, was dedicated not only to her coach and her teammates, but to her father, Richard, who died about a year ago, on Feb. 7, 2011. "I was feeling overwhelmed," she said. "I was thinking of my dad. It was hard. But I knew what I had to do."

She said, "It's, like, overwhelming how much we can accomplish in a short period of time. It's amazing. It was coaching. It was our determination. It was us, as a team."

Small-town guy Tim Phillips goes big at University Games

SHENZHEN, China -- The Summer University Games are hardly the Olympics or world championships. They're not the Pan American Games. For swimmers, they don't even offer a stage on the order of the Pan Pacific championships. Even so, these Games always herald the potential for breakthrough.

If, at next year's U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Tim Phillips makes the team that goes to London it won't be a huge surprise to swimming insiders. He announced himself here with four medals overall, two gold, the top U.S. swim performance of these 26th Summer University Games.

Phillips, who has finished two years at Ohio State, won both the 50 and 100 butterflys. He swam the second leg in the gold medal-winning 400 free relay. He swam the fly portion of the silver medal-winning medley relay.

His effort capped a performance that saw the U.S. team win a competition-high total of 29 swim medals. Japan took 27. New Zealand, intriguingly, took third, with 13.

A couple weeks ago, at the world championships In Shanghai, the U.S. coaches said the American program held unusual depth. Wait, they said, until you see some of these college swimmers.

Again, that's what in large measure makes these University Games such a novel proposition -- the notion of seeing tomorrow's stars today.

Rebecca Soni, for instance, the current Olympic and world breaststroke champion, was a gold medalist in the 200 breast at the 2005 University Games. Dana Vollmer, winner in Shanghai of the 100 butterfly, was also a member of that 2005 U.S. University Games team.

Though the fields here would obviously not match up with those at worlds, it's not as if there wasn't talent in Shenzhen. Hungary's Laszlo Cseh, arguably the third-best all-around swimmer in the world, along with Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, raced here, winning three gold medals, in the 200 fly and the 200 and 400 IMs.

Phillips grew up in West Virginia, of all places, where he went to Parkersburg High School. But he comes from an Ohio State family. His dad, Tom, swam at Ohio State. As a boy, Tim Phillips went to Buckeye football games. He went to Ohio State summer swim camps.

Signing with Ohio State, and coach Bill Wadley, and the new pool there -- one of the best in the country -- was pretty much a slam dunk.

In his first year at Ohio State, Phillips helped the Buckeyes win their first Big Ten championship in 54 years.

At the 2010 U.S. nationals, he finished third in the 100 fly, behind Phelps and Tyler McGill, in 52.41.

A couple weeks later, at the Pan Pacs, he finished ninth, winning the B final, in 52.21.

This is where things started getting even more interesting for Tim Phillips.

At the end of his sophomore year at Ohio State, Phillips moved down to Charlotte, N.C., to train with SwimMAC and coach David Marsh, along with the likes of Cullen Jones, Nick Brunelli, Nick Thoman and Josh Schneider, other U.S. national team members.

There are two spots up for grabs next summer at the Trials in the 100 fly. Unless something goes horribly awry, Phelps is going to get one of those spots. He's the Olympic and world champion in the event multiple times over, including again in Shanghai in 2011, when he wasn't even in tip-top shape.

At the 2010 nationals and 2010 Pan Pacs, McGill finished second, behind Phelps.

The 2011 U.S. nationals took place after Shanghai. Phelps, having already won worlds, opted not to race at nationals. Both McGill and Phillips, though, were there. This year in the 100 fly, Phillips came in first and McGill came in second -- Phillips in 51.69, McGill in 51.84.

For the math-challenged -- Phillips is roughly six-tenths of a second faster in 2011 than he was in 2010. That's a marked improvement, and 2012 is yet to come.

Here in Shenzhen, his winning 100 time, 52.06, reflected more the end of a long summer of racing than a suggestion of anything else; he led the race at the turn and won by more than half a second, over Tom Shields of Cal-Berkeley, who touched in 52.62, making it a 1-2 race for the Americans.

Phillips is an immensely likable 20-year-old from Small Town USA. When he got done swimming at this year's nationals, he said, he had dozens of text messages on his phone, "from, like, everyone at home."

When he won the 100, he pointed to the American flag on his cap. Representing the United States, he said, is "always a big deal for me."

"Every time he goes on a trip," said Wadley, his coach at Ohio State, who was here in Shenzhen,  "he comes back hungrier, he comes back better, he comes back more excited. It has been quite a trajectory."