Michael Phelps’s return to competitive swimming at the Arena Grand Prix in Arizona has been greeted with excitement by both the media and his huge fan base. He is one of just a few swimmers in the world who can attract global media attention. He’s been collecting Olympic medals since 2004 and breaking world records since he was 15. He has 22 Olympic medals and many more from major international competition.
But what if he were an open water swimmer? Let’s assume he could have bent his considerable talents to achieve the same level of dominance in the 10km marathon as in the pool. What could he have won? Marathon swimming has only been an Olympic event since 2008, and there is only one open water event, so his maximum Olympic tally would be two individual golds. World championship events and other major meets (such as the Pan Pacific Games) would have given him the chance to collect a few more medals. At world championship events there are four open water events: 5k, 10k, 25k and the team 5k. However, Phelps has regularly won five or more medals at major events. Then there are the FINA world cup series races, assuming he could have secured the funding to travel to them all.
In short, his medal tally, and his net worth, would almost certainly be considerably diminished if he were an open water swimmer.
In fact, open water swimming does have a couple of giants perhaps comparable to Phelps, but their names are barely recognised outside of swimming circles. When you talk to top marathon swimmers and ask who they admire, one name keeps popping up: Petar Stoychev. This Bulgarian marathon swimmer has accumulated more than 60 marathon swimming victories in his career and was previously the English Channel world record holder. However, as a long distance specialist the 10k Olympic distance is a little on the short side and while he competed in both London and Beijing he finished outside the medals in ninth and sixth.
The only open water swimmer to win medals on both occasions the event has featured in the Olympics is Thomas Lurz of Germany (silver in London, bronze in Beijing). In the 2013 world championships Lurz won a medal in every open water discipline (i.e. 5k, 10k, 25k and 5k team). He’s been winning world championship medals since 2002. There are few athletes in the world who have achieved his level of success but how well known is he – and how much can he generate in endorsements compared with Phelps?
Making comparisons of athletes across disciplines is not really fair but there are a couple of conclusions we could draw from this. Firstly, could open water swimming receive a further boost in popularity if more events were added to the Olympic programme? If open water swimmers had the opportunity to collect multiple medals in a single Games, as Phelps has done in the pool, would that help create more widely recognised heroes?
Secondly, could someone please persuade Michael Phelps to give open water swimming a shot? He’s been a fantastic ambassador for pool swimming. He now says he’s got nothing to prove and he’s back just because he loves the sport and loves racing. He’s switched his focus to shorter events but what if he decided to give open water a try instead and sprinkle some of his star dust on our sport? It wouldn’t really matter how he performed. If the mass media get the coverage right it could really show the excitement of top level open water racing at its best.
Sadly neither of the above seem likely to happen but it’s sometimes fun to ask, what if...?