Gary Hunt

Thrilled just to be at a great show


KAZAN, Russia — The best female swimmers in the world cover 50 meters, swimming the backstroke, in about 27 seconds. Fatema Abdulmohsen Ahmed Almahme, a 16-year-old from Bahrain, did it in 40.4 in the first-round heats here Wednesday morning. She was last in a field of 52. Afterward, she was thrilled.

“It’s the biggest achievement,” she said, “because I have only been swimming for one year. I never thought about making it here.”

If it’s indisputable that the track and field world championships mark the coming together of the entire world, with athletes from 214 nations, let it be said that Kazan 2015 boasts swimmers from 189. That's up from 177 at the last edition of the swim world championships, in Barcelona in 2013.

Senegal? Mongolia? Tajikistan? Here.

Kosovo? Ethiopia? Laos? Here.

Papua New Guinea? Nicaragua? Namibia? Yep.

Giordan Harris of the Marshall Islands after his 100 free swim

Swimming’s diversity outreach — what in Olympic circles is called “universality” — is but a key facet of how all water sports have grown in popularity around the world. With exactly one year to go until the Aug. 5, 2016, start of the Rio Olympics, the water has never been more popular and never enjoyed so many opportunities.

Owing in measure to Michael Phelps, "aquatics," as the sport with its many disciples is known, has now — along with gymnastics — joined track and field in what the International Olympic Committee considers an “A” sport in terms of revenue, the top of the Olympic ladder.

Almost everyone everywhere can walk or run. Swimming, synchro, diving and water polo are obviously more problematic. FINA, swimming’s international governing body, has made concerted efforts in recent years to innovate, to make being in and around the water far more interesting and entertaining — lessons that play out in the experience not just of being in but at the meet.

These are lessons that world-class track and field, among other sports, could stand to learn.

Two years ago, for instance, FINA introduced the high-dive event, its take on action sports. It proved a huge success and now stands at the forefront of any serious discussion about additions to the Olympic program.

Miguel Garcia of Colombia competing in  the high dive // Getty Images

There are events for men and women; the men jump off a 88-foot tower, the height of a nine-story building, the women off one just a little lower. It's mandatory to enter the water feet-first -- head-first might, literally, kill you.

In Wednesday's men's final at the Kazanka River, Britain's Gary Hunt won gold. One of his dives: back three somersaults with four twists.

Tuesday's women's final saw American Rachelle Simpson -- who won the high-dive World Cup here a year ago -- take first place.

Rachelle Simpson in the women's high dive finals // Getty Images

FINA has also introduced mixed relays, men and women swimming together. That produced two world records in short order Wednesday morning -- first the Russian team, moments later the Americans. At night, the British team won, in 3:41.71, yet another world record.

Halfway through these championships, there have been 10 swimming world records. In Barcelona two years ago, just six.

Thailand's Kasipat Chograthin in the mixed relays // Getty Images

In the pool Wednesday night, Katie Ledecky added to her amazing run, winning the 200 free in 1:55.16. Italy's Federica Pellegrini took second, American Missy Franklin third.

Ledecky had already won the 400 and 1500; in the 1500, she set two world records, one in the prelims, another in the finals.

The 800, later this week, would appear to be a lock. Understand what Ledecky is doing: not since the great Australian Shane Gould in the 1970s has there been a female swimmer with the range, versatility, power -- and in-pool remorselessness, swimming with zero fear -- that Ledecky is showing here.

Britain's Adam Peaty claimed the 50 breaststroke. He became the first man ever to win the 50 and 100 breaststrokes at a worlds.

China's Sun Yang took the 800 free -- zero surprise, his third straight 800 worlds title. Earlier in the meet, he won the 400 and took second in the 200.

For spectators, Kazan 2015 has featured DJs before the evening sessions whose job it it to amp things up; cheerleaders; mascots (of course, in this instance snow leopards Itil and Alsu); and a “Boss Cam,” the Russian version of a Kiss Cam.

Outside Kazan Arena, the soccer stadium that for the run of the championships features a competition and training pool, there is what’s called “FINA Park,” with food, souvenirs and, pretty much every night, live music. The idea is to turn a swim meet into an experience with your friends or family; FINA Park has been jammed; crowds swarmed the gates just before noon Wednesday, waiting for the park to open.

The athletes — at least those who swim in the evening semifinals and finals — get individually introduced after walking from the plastic chairs in the call room through a dark hall and then out into the noise and light. It's the swimming version of coming in from the baseball bullpen.

It makes for drama and, of course, helps tell the crowd who to root for.

Even for those whose moment in the spotlight is in the morning prelims, it’s all good.

Qatar’s Noah Al-Khulaifi finished last in the men’s 200 fly prelims, at 2:26.71; it was a long way from there up the ranking list to Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh, who recorded the top qualifying time, 1:53.53, and would go on Wednesday night to win the finals over South Africa's Chad le Clos. No matter. Noah, a teen-ager who had felt sick on the plane trip in from Moscow to Kazan, was adopted as a crowd favorite, including an American contingent led by the U.S. standout Conor Dwyer’s parents, Pat and Jeanne.

For 20-year-old Mark Hoare of the African nation of Swaziland, finishing at 59.62 in the 100 free prelims — in 106th place, more than 11 seconds behind the top qualifier, China’s Ning Zelao, at 48.11 — couldn’t have been better.

“It’s an experience unlike any other,” he said. “It’s a great experience meeting the other athletes. And FINA has made us all feel equal.”

He said of his moment under the lights, “I was thinking who at home is watching me. They had better be watching me!”

These championships indisputably underscore the increasingly global reach of swimming. Consider the start lists for the first two heats (of seven) of the men’s 100 backstroke -- not freestyle, the most basic stroke, but the even more technically demanding backstroke.

Heat 1: Lebanon, Kenya, Nicaragua, Uganda, Bangladesh, Qatar, Myanmar, Bahrain, Jordan and the Cook Islands.

Heat 2: Botswana, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Mexico, Macedonia, Jamaica, Morocco, Namibia, the United Arab Emirates and the Dominican Republic.

There is, of course, the matter of swimming. And it is hard to swim 100 meters — two laps of the pool.

Ethiopia’s Robel Kiros Habte, at 1:04.41, finished 115th — out of 115 swimmers — in the 100 free prelims. “The last 50 meters was much too hard for me,” he said.

Then again, he vowed to stick with it: “I want to be famous.”

Giordon Harris of the Marshall Islands finished 99th, in 57.75. This was his third FINA worlds, after Barcelona 2013 and Shanghai 2011. He also competed in the London 2012 Games, in the 50 free, placing 46th.

“This is all I look forward to, all I train for,” he said. “I get to see people I idolize, or I have on posters,” ticking off Brazil’s Cesar Cielho and American Ryan Lochte. “These are the people I see on YouTube. Here I get to swim in the same pool, ride the same bus. It’s a dream come true.”

The Marshall Islands is a remote place, out in the Pacific Ocean, roughly 2,100 miles southwest of Honolulu.

Harris, 22, hails from an atoll called Ebeye. To swim in a pool, he has to go to another island, Kwajalein, 35 miles away, where there’s a U.S. army base. He’s allowed in to the pool, which he said is the only one in the country, three days a week. “Other than that,” he said, “I swim in a lagoon.”

In Bahrain, 16-year-old Fatema said, it’s a struggle still for young women to swim competitively: “Not many know about it.”

When she goes home, she will be in 11th grade. Here, she said, “I learned many things. I have to learn from the best to one day be like them.”

A tremendous next leap


BARCELONA -- The first-ever high-diving competition at a FINA world championship went down Monday and, yes, said Gary Hunt of Great Britain, one of the 14 divers who took part, there is absolutely an element of crazy involved in throwing yourself off a platform 88 feet high and twisting and spinning your way down for all of like, maybe, three seconds until you hit the water at about 50 miles per hour. "It seems crazy for anyone who hasn't tried it," he said, adding a moment later, "You are taking a risk. But it's a calculated risk."

Maybe this high-diving thing -- which might someday be in the Olympic Games -- is, in fact, crazy smart. Perhaps it's a great lesson in the way a savvy international sports federation moves. Quite possibly it offers a striking comparison: on the one hand, there's FINA's dynamism, and on the other, there's track and field's governing body, which goes by the acronym IAAF and in recent years has often seemed more static, the sport itself relentlessly plagued by doping scandals involving some of its biggest stars.

Track and field's most passionate adherents, including Lamine Diack of Senegal, the IAAF's longtime president, often say that the Summer Olympics begin for real only in the second week, when the action at Olympic Stadium, on the track and in the field, gets underway.

It is unequivocally the case that athletics, as it is known everywhere in the world but the United States, has global reach, and a passionately dedicated -- some might say exquisitely particular -- fan base.

That said, a typical night at the track is too often a carnival, unintelligible to the average spectator, with far too many events going on at the same time.

Meanwhile, aquatic sports -- along with gymnastics -- were this year, in the aftermath of the success of last year's London Games, elevated into the top rank of Olympic sports. Previously, track sat there alone, getting a special share of the hundreds of millions of dollars generated by television rights and other deals from each summer Games.

No more.

As for global reach, consider this line-up of countries from the third heat -- of eight -- in Sunday's men's 50-meter butterfly here at the Palau Sant Jordi: Northern Mariana Islands, Gambia, Tahiti, Guyana, Sri Lanka, Mozambique, Mali, Iraq, Pakistan, Tanzania.

The way a championship swim meet works is that the final few heats are the so-called "seeded" heats, with the expected winners. The early heats feature the qualifiers. The butterfly is without question the hardest of the strokes but, as the times in Heat 3 of 8 proved, this was no mere develoment display:

Christopher Clark of Tahiti finished first, in 25.81 seconds. Folarin Ogunsola of Gambia touched last, a more-than-respectable 2.69 seconds behind. Ameer Ali of war-torn Iraq placed sixth, in 27.06.

As these names and numbers show, swimming is doing something right.

What it's also doing right is playing smart politics -- especially in this, an IOC election year.

The IAAF should be surveying the scene and paying attention.

Track has no worries about its place on the Olympic program. But look, for instance, at what wrestling -- which is now fighting to stay in the Games -- is doing. It recently put on an exhibition, deliberately including female wrestlers, at ancient Olympia, in Greece. The message? Sport assuredly must be in touch with its roots, yes. But, and this is the critical part, it has to find new ways to remain ever-relevant.

Surely there are other creative sparks in track like those being shown by Sergei Bubka, the IAAF vice president and IOC presidential candidate, whose 28-page IOC election manifesto is punctuated with creative ideas. Then again, Bubka's mid-winter pole-vault event in Donetsk, Ukraine, is the model for how to take track and field forward -- it's one night, one event and it's a combination of the vaulting itself and whatever music the athletes want to jump to. You don't have to know the basics about pole vaulting to have fun watching it.

Same thing here Monday about high diving. You didn't have to know the intricacies of how you might actually yourself do a front double somersault with one-and-a-half twists to know you were watching the future.  Here were ripped bodies in the hot sun -- these 14 guys from nine nations -- flinging themselves off the platform, then crashing feet-first into the sea, then bubbling up to flash the OK sign. The scores came up to a thumping beat as palm trees swayed in the gentle Mediterranean breeze.

It was postcard-perfect.

"Anything that sticks out of line," away from vertical, "is going to hurt," said Orlando Duque, one of the 14, a Colombian who now spends most of his time in the Hawaiian islands. "If your face is sticking out, it's going to hurt."

Just getting up to the diving platform itself is a test of nerves. It's 120 steps. Learning how to dive from that height, Duque said, took him three full years.

Your lines have to be clean, just like in platform and springboard diving. That's what you get judged on.

Still, he said, the main thing is the rush.  It's like, he said, "when your dog sticks its head out of the window and is enjoying the wind."

Blake Aldridge was Tom Daley's partner in synchro diving at the 2008 Beijing Games; the British pair finished eighth. Now Aldridge is a high-diver. "It's massively different, mentally and visually," he said, adding, "If you get it wrong, there are no second chances."

This is, to be obvious, action sports for the water crowd. Indeed, at high-dive events there are scuba divers bobbing on the surface, just in case.

FINA is run by president Julio Maglione and executive director Cornel Marculescu. Want to know why, under their direction, swimming has moved into the Olympic top-tier?

At the medals ceremony here Sunday night, who appeared on stage to present the medals to the men's and women's 400-meter freestyle medalists? That would be one of the leading IOC presidential contenders, Thomas Bach of Germany, and none other than his ally, the IOC power broker Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait.

On Monday, who presented the medals to the men's 100 breaststroke winners? Singapore's Ser Miang Ng, another top IOC presidential contender.  To the women's 100 butterfly winners? Sir Craig Reedie of Great Britain, an IOC vice president, chairman of the 2020 Summer Games evaluation commission and presumed candidate for the World Anti-Doping Agency presidency.

To the winners of the women's 200-meter individual medley? Marius Vizer, the recently elected president of Sport Accord, the umbrella federation of the international sports federations. Vizer is also president of the International Judo Federation.

This is what's called being smart all around and covering your bases.

This, too:

In recent years, FINA has added open-water events. Here, it announced the addition of mixed relays.

Now, high-diving. "Hopefully, down the line we'll get into the Olympics," said Hunt, who leads the 2013 Red Bull cliff diving series after four events. Hunt has won the last three titles; Duque is the only other man to have won, in 2009.

What has track done to grow the sport? To remain fresh and current? To reach out -- in a concrete way -- to young people?

"The truth is that every year, every day, we are thinking to do something new," Maglione said at a weekend news conference.

Marculescu added a few moments later, "It's no secret today that we are living in a sport business environment. If you don't improve your product every day, or as soon as you can, the value disappears."

One of the jury members in Monday's men's high-diver preliminaries:  the man widely considered the greatest diver of all-time, Greg Louganis, the 1984 and 1988 platform and springboard champion. It's another smart play to get Louganis involved; he is an activist and his voice should be welcomed in the movement.

With Duque atop the leader board, the 14 men now move on to Wednesday's finals; preliminary scores carry over. The women's event, from 20 meters, or 66 feet, is set for Tuesday.

One of the six women who will dive Tuesday, Tara Tira, 27, of San Francisco, said, "It's a tremendous leap," literally and figuratively. She smiled at the inadvertent pun, then said, "It's really cool. It's really exciting for us. It's the next step."