STAMFORD -- For a sport to truly grow across the country, the stars at the top have to pass along their experience and knowledge to the young minds of Generation Next.
U.S. Olympic swimmers Misty Hyman, Jason Lezak and Kristy Kowal were performing that service this weekend by holding a two-day clinic at Chelsea Piers Connecticut in Stamford for approximately 70 young swimmers of varying ages.
"The overwhelming growth of swimming is amazing to watch," said Hyman, who is a personal swim coach in Arizona. "More and more countries are competing at the Olympic level now. But the U.S. is still No. 1. Young swimmers keep getting faster. The accent on technique through the use of technology. The good information on the internet is accessible to everyone now. It's fun to watch and great to be a part of."
Hyman, Lesak and Kowal are a good trio for a clinic since their talents mesh so well. Hyman's success came in the butterfly and backstroke, Kowal ruled the breaststroke while Lesak earned both Olympic and World Championship gold in freestyle relays.
Lesak believes television has been a crucial element in the growth of swimming.
"There are more kids swimming now than ever before because there's more swimming on television than ever before," Lesak said. "People are excited about swimming more than just every four years at summer Olympics time. TV has brought a personal face to a lot of swimmers. The success of swimming helps as well. In the U.S., fans like to see winners. The love of country comes into play at Olympic time. Just like the World Cup is doing for soccer right now."
More exposure leads to more role models for young swimmers to follow.
"When I was age 8, I saw Janet Evans at the Olympics and I wanted to be her," Kowal said. "As swimming recognition grows so do the number of role models. There is so much more opportunity in women's swimming. In our era, Misty (Hyman) and I were ground breakers. The sponsorship of athletes by companies and corporations was just starting. It's booming now."
Better support. Better techniques. Better training. Better nutrition.
It all adds up to faster and faster event times.
"At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the question with the fast times became `Was it the new swimsuits or the swimmers?' The London Olympics in 2012 was a turning point," Kowal said. "The sport of swimming got back on track because it was clear the swimmers' talents produced the fast times. You still shook your head and asked `Oh my gosh, how did they go that fast?' Rebecca Soni won the 200 meter breaststroke in 2:19. That is mindblowing."
The Olympians were also happy to see Michael Phelps back in the pool and working toward another Olympics appearance.
"Part of me is surprised and part of me isn't," Lesak said. "He's young enough (Phelps turns age 29 on Monday). He just needed a break from swimming the first time he stopped. But in his heart, Michael loves competition and he loves racing. In this comeback, he's sticking to the shorter events so he can be much more specialized in his training."Read Full Article
"Michael Phelps is good for the sport of swimming, period. He is the greatest swimmer of all-time," Kowal said. "What I like is he seems very content with his place in the swim world right now."
Although the trio are all in their 30's, they all love the sound of being called gold medal winners.
"The Olympic gold medals (four relays) helps me have an impact on young kids," Lesak said. "If I can inspire kids to succeed, that's priceless."
"The gold medal (2000 Olympics, 200 meter butterfly) is a wonderful rare gift in my eyes," Hyman said. "I realize more as time goes on just what it took to achieve it. So it means more every single day."
"I have two World Championship golds from 1998. But my Olympic silver medal (2000 in 200 meter breaststroke) means so much more," said Kowal, who followed in her mother's footsteps and became an elementary school teacher (3rd graders). "I missed making the Olympic team once by .17 seconds and once by .01 seconds. So when I did get there, I appreciated the achievement of the silver medal so much."