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Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 18

So in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 17, I talked about basketball and finally wrapped up an altogether too long look at The Big Three sports in America and how they interact with our overall sports system, culture, etc. Primarily it was to show how those sports exist in a ‘system’ more or less identical to most of what’s come before. Massive numbers, huge traditions, access, coaching, incentives. The same story told again and again.

Mainly it was relevant to this overall series because, if they do nothing else, the presence of The Big Three in this country, along with their importance to American sport tends to dilute the talent pool for other sports. All three share certain characteristics in terms of strength, power, explosiveness, etc. to varying degrees and with so many athletes wanting to pursue those sports, that means less great athletes to go into other sports with the same requirements. Cough, cough, Olympic lifting.

But it still made the point that despite our lack of a system in this country in terms of sports, we still do just fine. In fact, in the case of basketball we do more than fine; it’s a game that we have absolutely dominated at the highest levels of international and Olympic competition for nearly 80 years.

Mind you, it’s entirely arguable that our basketball dominance is due primarily to the presence of the professional end of the sport; it’s mere existence drives so many people to pursue the sport that our top non-pros are still incredible. It doesn’t really address whether or not the American No-System Sports System really accomplishes anything in a purely amateur sport that is contested internationally.

Which leads me into today’s discussion. Because last week I pointed out that, in addition to ball sports, two of the sports that the US has consistently and traditionally done well in are track and field in swimming and this contributed greatly to our medal haul in Beijing.  Again, before you do that, please read this.

Both are amateur sports with no real professional version (though track and field is in a gray area with some big paydays for appearance fees for top guys in recent years) but that are not only competed internationally and Olympically but by most countries on the planet. Hence the fact that the US does so well in them consistently is illustrative in terms of everything I’ve been looked at.

Swimming is particularly interesting (and leads into my last two non-OL related days) because it is a sport typically pursued by middle or upper class whites; the economic groups that do not tend to pursue sport out of financial incentives (because they have money). The fact that they do so well without the ‘standard’ incentives may be illustrative in its own right because it suggests that a sport may not necessarily need huge monetary incentives for success to occur.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  First, track and field.

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Track and Field

Track and field, which is either synonymous with, inclusive of or included under the term, athletics has been part of sport since it’s inception. One of the first Olympic sports (back in man-boy loving Greece) was the 100m ‘dash’ and finding out who could run the furthest, jump the highest/furthest or throw heavy stuff the furthest is arguably the earliest form of human competition. All of that evolved over decades and centuries into track and field.

Track and field is predominantly made up of individual events where folks compete head to head. There are some ‘team’ events though, mainly running relays (such as the 4X100m or 4X400m) where 4 athletes run individually but their total time is the overall result. As well, the nature of the competitions means that ‘teams’ (of individuals) often compete against one another for total points. There are no team tactics (in the sense of, say, ball sports) but the team is working to beat the other team on total points.

Track and field encompasses a number of different disciplines. This includes running events such as the sprints (100, 200, 400m), middle distances (400, 800m) and distances (1500m up to the 10,000m), hurdles (low and high at different distances) along with steeplechase (a running event with hurdle and a water obstacles).  Some include racewalking and cross country running under the athletics banner.

There are also the throws: the shotput, discus, javelin and hammer.  And the jumps including the long jump, high jump, triple jump and pole vault. There are also some combined events such as the decathlon with an individual competes in 10 different events and their total score is based on math.  I’d note that, for most of the time track was competed in the US, we didn’t use meters, our events were run in yards. This is one of the few places where, as a concession to sport, we have switched to metric distances. But even that didn’t really happen until the 60’s and 70’s or so.  Point being we’ll adapt to the rest of the world for sports; but not for anything else.

And mercifully for my readers, I will not attempt to detail every event in terms of rules or physiology. That’s what Wikipedia is for. The main take home message is that track and field is huge, with a number of events all of which can require different characteristics. This allows a stunning number of potential athletes to go into it and outside of dominance of certain ethnic groups in specific categories of events (i.e. West African blacks in the sprints), you wouldn’t expect any singular group to overwhelmingly dominate the sport (as you see in professional basketball).

I would mention that one potential ‘advantage’ of track over some other sports is that many of the events are either universal or at least related to normal human movement patterns. About half the events are related to running and everybody knows how to run; it’s just a matter of how fast and how far.  Even some of the jumps share elements with the sprints/running. Long jump and triple jump is a sprint into a one (or three) jump, pole value is a sprint into doing something really wreckless with a pole, high jump is a run into jumping up over a stick.

I’m not saying that any of them are easy to do well but they are at least related to activities humans sort of know how to do which shortens the learning curve (and kids starting sport usually have to see success quickly to keep doing it). The throws are probably the least related to normal human movement patterns (as shown by Crosfitters inability to throw a softball) but everybody can get behind throwing something for distance. My point being that track and field is not this absurdly foreign activity to humans like something like swimming, speed skating, or I dunno, Olympic lifting is.  Hint: I didn’t pick those three by accident

Which brings me to US dominance and the reasons for it. Because track is a sport that the US has done exceedingly well in since the beginnings of the sport. Quite in fact, nearly 30% of our total Olympic medals since the dawn of the modern games in 1896 have come from track and field (technically athletics).

For example, as shown on the page United States at the Olympics, the US has won 311 gold medals, 238 silvers and 189 bronzes for a total of 738 medals, this is about one third of our total summer Olympic medal haul. We also crush every other country in terms of total medals as shown with data from Athletics at the Summer Olympics which I’ve excerpted below. It’s not even close.

Medals in Athletics
Country G S B Total
USA #1 311 238 189 738
Soviet Union + Russia 82 77 94 253
Great Britain 49 79 61 188

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The ‘dominant’ GDR is down in 5th place (they simply kicked our asses for few Olympics during their heyday) although I’d mention that the US has been at the summer games since it’s inception and that skews the medal haul. Not too bad for a country that isn’t set up like Commieland ™ and I’d suggest again that they need to look at our sports secrets, not the other way around. So we do well in track, let’s look at the other variables to figure out why.

Access to track and field is relatively simple as most of the events require minimal, if any equipment. A track certainly helps but you can mark off distances without one and do most of the events. And at this point, most high schools and colleges have tracks, usually combined with the football field. And since track and field is a spring sport and football is winter, you can just switch off and use the same playfield.

Since high school track is big, there’s lots of coaching there. USA Track and Field seems to do a pretty good job with it’s coaching program as well. Smaller schools may have a single coach, others have general sprint, distance or jumps coaches. At the highest levels, there is usually more specialization with each coach focusing on a single sport. Some of the best coaches, including Bill Bowerman and Dan Pfaff actually coach all events on the track. And they produce. But access is there, coaching is there, since we’ve been doing it over 100 years, tradition is there.

But that still doesn’t really explain why an athlete would pursue track and field over one of the other big three in the first place. There’s not a monetary incentive, there’s not even a fame incentive as most track athletes exist in complete obscurity except when the Olympics roll around.

Certainly in the early part of the 20th century, the big three weren’t at the level they are now. But since about the 40’s with professional baseball, basketball and football being massively incentivized sports for athletes with the talent, we have to ask why any kid would go to the track in the even recently modern era.

Especially given that track and field has never been a professional sport in the way the other big three have been. Even where guys get paid, it’s not the stupid level money of our pro sports. Why would anybody bother?  The big reason here is probably college and scholarships. Because while track is big at the high school level (see next) it is HUGE at the collegiate level with massive rivalries, an absurd competition schedule, etc. And getting a free ride for college education is critical for a kid who wouldn’t otherwise have that chance. And, who knows, maybe they reach the top of the sport while they are at it.

But that still doesn’t really explain why they would pick track and field over one of the big three sports. Especially given the numbers. With all of the professional teams and players they have, the relative probability of being able to turn pro or semi-pro has to be slightly larger than the chance of being the best sprinter on the planet (there can be only one).  And yet folks do it, pursuing track and field. And here’s why I think this is.

I haven’t talked much about the high-school sports system in this country but, sufficed to say, it’s massive because sports are just that important to this country for personal, cultural and financial reasons. And one thing that is exceedingly common, moreso at smaller schools but really everywhere is that top high school athletes are often multi-sport athletes.

Guys with any athletic talent at all often got recruited to play a bunch of different sports. A big thing in US high schools is earning a varsity letter, a patch that you get for making the Varsity high-school team; being a multiple Varsity letterman is huge for boys in this country. It usually gets them girls.

So they may play one or two or even three sports at their school. Football in the fall, basketball in winter, baseball in the spring. Everybody prattles on about Russian multi-faceted training but the US invented it because athletes are rock stars in this country and good athletes play them all at lower levels. And given that most of our big sports revolve around similar physiological characteristics (speed, power, explosion, etc.) an athlete good at one can usually make a decent showing at another.

Amusingly, the same folks who have hard-ons for multi-faceted training often criticize the US system for allowing multi-sports athletes. Because usually our athletes go from one sport to another with at most a couple of week breaks at holidays. And then it’s right back to competing in the next season’s sport.

Those awesome long-term periodization plans that Russia used 40 years ago can’t be applied in the US high school system; athletes just compete year round and then take summers off. And it works at least at the lower level of high-school competition. At some point, some athletes may specialize, either because they think they have the talent to turn pro or to go to college on an individual sport scholarship.  Sometimes specialization doesn’t happen until they get to college.

But even all of the above is related to track and field in this country. Because inasmuch as Americans may have pursued track and field solely for track and field in the early days, now it’s probably more a consequence of the importance of the big three. Because the reality is that some kids who really want to pursue one of the big three aren’t cut out for them. Sometimes they aren’t psychologically wired for team sports and prefer individual competition. More likely they realize that they don’t have the talent to get a college scholarship or turn pro in the big three.

But they already have these skills to play sports at a high level many if not all of which crossover with the requirements of track and field. A running back in football is a sprinter in pads that has to cut, a receiver is a sprinter in pads who has to sprint downfield catch a ball and not get demolished by a tackler.  Sort of. If you have the raw speed to do the first, you can become a track sprinter.

Someone not cut out for basketball (good but not great) probably has raw speed and jumping ability both important to the sprints and jumps.  A guy who’s big and strong but doesn’t want to be on the line in football can be a thrower.  Baseball has enough speed and/or power requirements for there to be crossover as well.  At the very least they could dominate the Crossfit games softball throw.  And with that background, switching may make sense if they get to go to college at it or simply have a better overall chance of success.

So if they already have these highly developed sports skills they can switch to track (if they aren’t already involved in it as part of being a multi-sport athlete) and, with less total competition since everyone else is still pursuing the big three, coupled with our huge collegiate track program, they may still get a full college ride out of it. And education is not cheap; this is still a big incentive. So a good but not great football receiver converts to the short sprints and gets to go to college.

Which combines with our insane collegiate track and field system. It’s massive, with huge rivalries and it’s a sport that big colleges have a big stake in and put quite a bit of money into.  There’s also a reason that the big track programs are typically in places with moderate weather (Florida, California); athletes can train year round which is a huge advantage for sports where you need to do speed training more or less year round. Mind you, most non-summer states still have track programs. Since it’s a summer sport, the harsh winters do’t have as much an impact but at the higher levels you need to practice your sport year round.

Mind you, Bill Bowerman was doing the same thing in Oregon back in the 50 and 60’s and had multiple world and Olympic record holders in nearly every track and field events (mind you this was before the Eastern Europeans and West/East Africans came to power). And that was in rain soaked Oregon. He still got it done and I’d highly recommend the book Bowerman and the Men of Oregon: The Story of Oregon’s Legendary Coach and Nike’s Cofounder by Kenny Moore for a look at not only one of the great coaches of history but a truly fascinating man and the tradition he personally created (along with helping to create Nike). One of the best books I’ve read this year.

There is also an absurd competitive schedule at the collegiate level (which is where most of our top track stars come from).  Schools have constant meets and, in contrast to European countries which set up long term periodization schedules to focus on one or two key events, American track stars just run themselves into shape competing every weekend (Charlie Francis in the aforementioned Speed Trap, talks about this).  Other countries plan, Americans race.

You see different training approaches in the US for this reason compared to other countries; the competition schedule is so heavy things have to be approached differently.  Yet another reason attempts to impose the European approach onto US athletes is often so misguided; you not only have to take into account the culture in this country, you have to account for the critical importance of the collegiate competition schedule to the athletes (who only get to go to school for free if they compete under the school’s banner).

In any case, the monstrous collegiate competition schedule in track and field acts as yet another Darwinian selection process, determining who is the best and driving everyone to higher levels of performance.   With competition going on constantly (in this case for school, state and personal glory), athletes are driven not only to improve but the best of the best are selected for and rise to the top.

Those best athletes then become our Olympians and go win medals for the US.  Explaining why we do so well in a sport that we don’t always ‘get’ or watch or care about as Americans.  It’s just a function of the huge benefits (scholastically) available to folks who pursue track and at least some of that comes out of the Big Three, at least indirectly.

Of course, it helps having the ethnic diversity of the US (and the fact that a lot of countries without our college system do send their athletes here for school) do certainly help: both blacks of West African descent and blacks of East African descent can be found in the US and that contributes to our success in certain events (sprints and distance running respectively).  That’s both the folks born here as well as folks from other countries that come to the US for sports, academics or both.  Mind you, those athletes are just as likely to compete under their home country’s flag when the Olympics come around. So that’s clearly not all that’s going on.

We’ve also got every other group going into sport so we can find the right body types and physiologies to throw stuff far or jump high or far.  You get the idea and I’m not trying to say that we do well at track smply because “America has lots of black people”.  Track and field is incredibly mixed racially outside of some real specialization in the short sprints and distances.

And I think it’s just an outpouring of overall interest in the Big Three where athletes without the raw talent to go all the way (or who don’t like team sports dynamics) are either involved in track or switch to it opportunitistically.  The same massive numbers who pursue the big three often end up in track for various reasons so we still have the numbers to throw at the sport to find the world beaters. Which we do.  And have done for nearly 100 years.

Which is all a long way of saying that USA Track and Field is still quite similar to everything that’s gone before even if it gets there through a slightly different path. It’s accessible and prevalent, we have a history in the sport (stretching back to the early 20th century and everybody remembers Jesse Owens handing it to Hitler’s ‘Aryan superman’ at the Berlin Olympics; even the most racist American overlooked that he was black because he owned Hitler), lots of coaching, enclaves of talent (usually at the university level) which provides an incentive in the form of scholarships.

And for athletes who can’t make it in the big three, track is an outlet for their already developed strength/power or speed or endurance abilities so they can still get some benefits so the numbers are there. So we produce in track and field for the same reason other countries produced in other sports. This also means that track and field further dilutes our potential strength/power athletes from other sports. Because even the guys who can’t make it in the big three still have more opportunities in track and field than they’d have in say, I dunno, Olympic lifting.

Moving on.

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Swimming

Swimming is a bit unusual as an American sport for reasons I’ve alluded to in previous parts and want to briefly explain again. One point I made is that the presence of a huge underclass in this country, with few options, often pursue sport as a way out or towards a better life. It’s similar to what happened in other Eastern European countries, just for slightly different reasons. That our underclass happens to possess a certain set of physiological characteristics to dominate certain sports was just a happy coincidence given the requirement of certain sports.

But swimming is not like this, it’s a sport traditionally pursued by middle or upper class whites (though see below) who typically don’t have that same financial/get out of the ghetto drive of the underclass. They have money, they don’t need sport to make a living (or even necessarily go to college).  Yet they often pursue certain sports (and swimming is one of them) with a zeal that puts America near the top. And has for nearly 100 years. And that oddity makes it worth looking at.

Perhaps the oddest part about swimming is how much humans suck at it. We expend enormous amounts of power in the pool and we are arguably the worst swimmers on the planet; the average fish can go faster than the best human with 1/10th of the power outputs. This is because we are terrestrial creatures and our primary movement pattern is bipedal and walking related.  And swimming is nothing like this.

Swimming is a massively technical sport, one in which little kids with great technique can dust adults who are stronger and fitter (at the highest levels, athletes have both technique and conditioning). Technique continues to change and evolve in the sport and, in 2011, nobody is exactly sure how humans move through water.  Models have changed over the last 30 years from paddleboat to scull back to paddleboat to some new combined models (Google ‘fling ring’ sometime to get an idea of this).  Nobody knows for sure.

There is also a ‘feel’ aspect of swimming, called water feel where athletes can sense how the water is moving over their bodies and make subtle adjustments to what they are doing in the pool because of it. Supposedly, some are born with it, some learn it over time, some never get it.  It’s mainly predicated on either luck or having tons of access to a pool from a young age. If you are really interested in this, I recommend the 800 page monstrosity Swimming Fastest by Ernest Maglischo. I’ve read it twice cover to cover and I’m still not clear on most of it.  Maybe another half-dozen readings.

Swimming is like track in that it is made up of a lot of different but related events. There are four strokes (freestyle, breaststroke, butterfly and backstroke) and events vary in distance from 50m to 1500m with others in-between. There are medley events (where a single swimmer must swim all 4 strokes in order) and relays (where 4 athletes race individually for the best total time). Like track and field it’s another ‘team’ sport where it’s primarily individuals (outside of the relays) trying to earn team points.  But the only team tactics really revolve around winning points.

Where swimming is very different than track and field is that it’s quite common to see one swimmer doing all or more than one stroke and varying distances.  Some of this comes out of the medley event where the swimmer has to be at least decent at all 4 strokes (most swimmers have a best stroke), a lot of it is because swimmers learn all strokes early on to avoid specialization, and  I think a huge part of it is that a swimmer with the right feel and physiology just has an inherent advantage across the board.  Some of it is actually related to an oddity of swim training whereby most swimmers do most training in freestyle for reasons I’m not going into.  Get the Maglischo book.

Outside of technique, swimming does have some requirements for success, some are purely physiological but some are physical and biomechanical.  Swimmers are usually taller and having big hands and feet helps because they act like swim fins or flippers (Michael Phelps has size 14 feet and the ladies can imagine what else that implies about him).

Some swimmers are either double jointed or can hyperextend their joints as this also has benefits for various reasons related to the oddity of swim technique.  Swimmers work tremendously on flexibility from an early age but if you’re not born with long arms, big hands and feet or double joints, you’re at a disadvantage to someone who is.

I would note that the length of swim events ranges from about 25 seconds for the ‘sprint’ to 1-2′ for the 100 and 200m to maybe 15 minutes for the longest event. It’s all in that gray area physiologically speaking.  It’s not purely aerobic (though swimmers do a staggering amount of aerobic work) or anaerobic. Looking solely at that you might not expect any given group to dominate the sport from a purely physiological point of view. It’s too non-specialized although you do see sprint and distance specialists within the sport.

That said, swimming has been an almost exclusively white sport around the world. Again this mainly reflects that many countries in the world don’t have large black populations.  But the US does. And almost none of them swim.  And this is most likely a socioeconomic and tradition issue more than anything else.  Pools are not cheap, they require a lot of space and are neither cheap nor easy to build nor maintain.  Hence they are not universally accessible. Most pools are not covered either (certainly more are indoors in the modern era) which sort of limited year round swimming to areas with moderate weather like Florida and California.

Most are found in middle or upper class white neighborhoods and where pools are found in poorer urban areas, they are often unmaintained or ignored.  Even pools in public parks are often unmaintained or sit drained for lack of public money for upkeep. They are great for skateboarding. There’s also not been any tradition of blacks in the sport; they were probably too busy pursuing sports that could make them money or that were accessible like basketball.

For years there has also some belief that blacks are less prone to be good swimmers since they have, on average, denser bones and often less body fat; both tend to make folks sink which is a disadvantage in the pool (energy that should go to forward propulsion goes into keeping the body afloat).

Although there is some indication that the above ideas may be more myth than reality. In recent years, there have been a number of top black swimmers, primarily coming out of the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation swimming program, which focuses exclusively on inner city black youth. The documentary Pride was about this very topic and one great black hero in the sport might be sufficient to start a tradition in the sport.  Time will tell.

But none of this really explains our success in swimming. Because while it is an internationally and Olympically contested sport, it might as well be ignored in this country.  Swimmers are only recognized every four years when the Olympics are on and only then when an American like Michael Phelps is kicking ass. The rest of the time nobody in this country except other swimmers, niche enthusiasts, and their family members care about it.

And yet once again, swimming is a sport that the US dominates. In Beijing we won 31 total medals including 12 golds, 9 silver and 10 bronze crushing second place Australia with 20 total medals of which 6 were gold, 6 were silver and 6 were bronze. Great Britain was back in third with only 6 medals. Looking at overall medal count over the history of the summer Olympics, yet again we crush the world.

Medals in Swimming
Country G S B Total
USA #1 214 155 120 489
Australia 56 54 58 168
East Germany 38 32 22 91

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So swimming accounts for 21% of our total summer medals and, again realizing that the US has been at more of the games, we simply own. In a sport that the country doesn’t care about and which has historically been pursued almost exclusively by middle and upper class whites with no real incentives like money, fame or even school.   This is different than what has gone before and needs explanation.

In addition, swimming requires specialized coaching, at the highest levels it’s not automatically cheap (hell, a membership to a swimming facility isn’t cheap). I would mention that the US has the advantage of both USA Swimming and the YMCA swimming programs both of which appear to have competent and accessible coaching.  For people desiring to pursue the sport, who can afford it and have access to a pool, they can get coaching (and the Y program is based around weekly competition, identifying talent and teaching kids to race). But it still doesn’t explain why the sport is pursued at all.

And this sort of ties in with the comment I made about track and field above, why some people who don’t like team sports may pursue individual sports instead.  Middle class white kids living in certain areas who weren’t interested in baseball or the other team sports tend to be drawn to individual sports like swimming and cycling.   Since they’ve already got money (which also means support from family I might add) they don’t have to choose a sport with major financial incentives.  Like I said, you can be picky when you’re rich (or at least not poor).

Which still doesn’t explain where the drive comes from.  Now, endurance athletes often come with a certain psychological profile, one that is distinct from guys who pursue sprint or strength/power sports.  It has to be this way because of the training involved to succeed.

For example, you can’t really get bored as an endurance athlete (remember my comment about Kenyan’s ability to run distance may be related to their lives; boredom doesn’t bother them).   But runners can run together and chat to pass the time for a 1-2 hour run; cycling is trained in groups as much because it mimicks racing as to people sane by talking sports and girls for 6 hours in the saddle.  The boredom can be dealt with.

Swimming, and therefore swimmers, take this to the extreme.  Because swimming is a dreadfully solitary sport where swimmers spend up to 24 hours per week swimming in silence staring at a black line in a pool.  They live their training lives in silence (ears are underwater) staring at the bottom of the pool.  It’s only recently that underwater MP3 players became available to help pass the time.  You have to be pretty driven to do this.  And while other countries had the whole Communist/Socialist ‘do it or else’ plus incentives program, American swimmers don’t.  Why would anybody put themselves through this shit?

And the explanation for this is suggested by another oddity about swimmers: they often have the highest GPA of all the collegiate athletes at the school, often having a 4.0 GPA in addition to being elite athletes.  Effectively, guys who pursue swimming are mildly psychotic internally driven perfectionists who prefer individual activities.   And swimming fits that bill in spades.

Swimming is a technically demanding sport and swimmers spend years perfecting their strokes. The training is dreadful and boring; you swim 2-4 hours per day 6 days per week and most of it is staring at a black line in the water and doing it in silence.   For no incentives.   And about the only reason anybody would be insane enough to do that or to drive themselves to the top is this:  they want to.   They have that massively internally motivated personality style that does it simply for the sake of doing it.

There isn’t even a high school reason since few schools have high school swim programs (this is simply a reality of the economics of the American public school system).  Some do but it’s not universal like track and field.  Swimmers are unknowns at their school, disappearing morning and afternoon (most swimmers train twice daily) to the local aquatic center to train in silence with the team and coach.  They go to meets nobody knows about, watched by bored family members (there’s no point in cheering, the swimmers can’t hear it) and they do this for years.

If they are good enough, they move up in the rankings (meticulously kept up by the obsessives who run the sport) and get to attend one of the collegiate swimming powerhouses.  Because while there is very little high school infrastructure in swimming outside of a few areas, collegiate swimming is huge in this country just like collegiate track is in this country.    In that sense, pursuing swimming is a way to academic degrees.  But even there the motivation is often reversed.

Upper middle class white kids with good grades can already get an education if they want it; they don’t need swimming to get them there and they often pick the college they go to based on the swim program rather than the academics. They go to Stanford because it’s where you go to reach the next level in swimming, not because the school is great (it is).

Let me reiterate that: many swimmers will pick the college they go to based on the swim opportunities less so than the educational ones.  They may pick a lesser college with a better swimming program than the reverse.  Which gives you another indication to their motivation.  It’s almost exclusively just this psychotic internal drive to be the best.

At which point they are thrown into another competition meat grinder like track and field (and the swimming powerhouses have coaches who have been producing for decades), racing against other schools with massive traditions and rivalries in the sport (Collegiate Swim Championships being huge in the sport), which just brings the best to the top.

They then compete in the most brutal Olympic’s selection process conceivable and our best go to the games to hand the world it’s ass.  I say brutal because the US only sends the top two finishers at trials (apparently the worst thing in the sport is to finish third at trials) and it’s often felt that the US’s depth in swimming is so great that our third and fourth place finishers could dust most of the world.  Our swimmers are that good.  And they become that way based primarily on internal drive which is simply channeled into this odd duck sport.

So with it’s own nuances mainly the differences in what group pursues it and the motivation involved, swimming exists similarly to the other sport I’ve talked about: tons of people (although a bit more selective of a group, primarily middle class or upper middle class whites) with access to facilities and coaching, early competition, personal incentives which lead them to the collegiate system which weeds out the best of the best. Who then just destroy the world. And have for nearly 100 years.

Source
In addition to the Maglischo book, which I actually do NOT recommend unless you really want to get into the details of swimming, I’d re-source Gold in the Water by PH Mullen which is where most of the above come from. Still one of my favorites.

And with that I’ll cut it for today, having discussed two sports that exist outside of the Big Three but both of which produce consistently at the International level.  I finished with swimming since, as a sport primarily pursued by middle and upper class whites it segues into the last two American sports I want to discuss.

Read Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 19.

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