I know that many people will be probably be surprised to see swimming in a series of columns on the best sport and will think it has no place next to basketball, baseball, tennis, and soccer. Calling something the “best sport” is a loaded statement, one that comes with a responsibility to show why one sport is intrinsically superior to others and is bound to draw out some intense personal opinions, not to mention that this is a statement that can’t really be proved. As a swimmer, I was told countless times that swimming wasn’t even a “real” sport. I now set out to prove to you that not only is swimming a real and challenging sport, it is also undeniably the best sport.
Unlike most of the popular sports, swimming is an individual sport, which puts massive amounts of pressure on each athlete. In other sports, individual performance is still celebrated and remains crucial to success, but you cannot succeed without at least some help from your teammates. A world-class soccer player on a crappy team will not be able to progress in her sport despite abundant individual talent, and on the flip side, having teammates on the field or the court lessens at least some of the stress of competition.
In swimming, it’s all you, on your own, sink or swim (literally). There’s no one to blame but yourself when you don’t get the time or the result that you want, but you also don’t share the spotlight with anyone else when you finally shave a second off your 100 free. Sure, you have the support of your teammates on the sidelines and in practices, but you compete on your own. This makes swimmers very intense, driven athletes, more so than any other sport because their success is entirely and solely dependent on themselves. There is an aspect of team competition in meets that tally team totals, but individual performance is really what matters. Even relays, which are the closest swimming gets to teamwork, actually just add a bunch of individual times together, so I don’t really see it as true “team” competition in the way that teams in other sports rely on each other and work together. After Jason Lezak chased down Frenchman Alain Bernard in the men’s 4x100-meter freestyle relay in the Beijing Olympics, it was his individual performance that was celebrated, even with the team gold medal that was given to the U.S. and the efforts of the other three members of the relay. Competing alone gives swimmers unique mental strength that trumps that of any other sport.
In addition, much of swimming is internal, with just you competing against your time and striving for personal improvement against the stopwatch, which none of the previous sports can claim. Not only do you compete by yourself, you also race against yourself, which separates swimming from most every sport besides cross country and track and field. Liam Leddy’s plug for tennis in his column “Game, Set, Match: Why Tennis Is The Best Sport” (5/20/14) is mostly centered on the fact that tennis is individual, but much of tennis does depend on facing an opponent—swimming doesn’t even have that all the time, since your main competition is simply yourself. Swimming is ruthless. You are only working to better your own times against your previous ones, but once you pass a certain threshold, it only gets harder and harder to continue to improve. In other sports, skill can be relative depending on whom you are competing against, but the stopwatch never lies. As a result of this, swimming requires immense introspection and discipline, making it more challenging than other sports.
This mental strength is also key for the extensive amount of training swimmers endure. I’m positive, and haven’t been proven wrong yet, that swimmers train more than any other athletes. Practices are morning and evening, rain or shine. The only reason to ever get out of the pool is lightning, and even that will only get you a temporary reprieve. The Maroons’ swim team practices eight or nine times a week with each practice lasting from two to three hours, and that’s a DIII team. Swimmers spend hours in the pool each week and supplement their swim training with cross-training and weights. Also, swimmers train and compete year-round—we don’t have “seasons” like other athletes. Even in the club swimming I did in high school, our coach would give people on the team two, maybe three weeks off from training out of the whole year. Swimmers have to have an amazing work ethic to train as much as they do, and sometimes all of this work and time is all to drop just a second or less on an event. Athletes of no other sport train as much or as hard.
Swimming also creates very versatile athletes, with events ranging in distance from 50m to 1,500m and offering choices of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, individual medley, and freestyle. Sam Zacher’s column “Points In The Paint: Why Basketball Is The Best Sport” (5/2/2014) argues that basketball is best for the different skills it requires and the versatility it allows for. In my opinion, true versatility is being able to swim a 1,500-meter freestyle race and finish your meet with a 200-meter butterfly, seeing as these events require completely different skills and mindsets on a whole different level past any versatility in basketball, which gives a distinct advantage to tall people. This isn’t so in college swimming, where height is not as important as all of the other qualifications necessary to be a good swimmer. And even though swimming does clearly favor the tall at the elite level, it is not entirely necessary. Ask Olympic gold medalist distance swimmer Janet Evans, who stands just 5 foot 5.
Most of the time, swimming isn’t fun. You’re not playing a game with teammates; you’re going back and forth in a pool for hours on end, staring down the tiles at the bottom of the pool, going nowhere. It’s downright pointless. Talk to any swimmers, and they’ll tell you all about their extensive love-hate relationship with swimming. On the other hand, talk to them about how they picture their lives without swimming, and they’ll tell you it’s at least very difficult, if not impossible. Since swimming is generally not an injury-heavy sport, a lot of people keep swimming years into their adult life, continuing even past the age of 50. It isn’t just a sport—it’s a lifestyle. The commitment swimming inspires is unlike that of any other sport, giving it its rightful place as the best sport.
This is the final installment of the Best Sport Series. To cast your vote, visit chicagomaroon.com. Voting will begin Tuesday. Results will be posted on the Maroon website.