Coming soon to the small screen: pro swimming?

Hall sees it as win-win for sport, competitors

Notebook

Olympics

May 23, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

If figure skaters and bass fishermen can turn their skills into paying propositions seen on television, why can't Olympic swimmers?

That's a question gold and silver medalist Gary Hall Jr. asks with a straight face.

As the 29-year-old, second-generation Olympian prepares for the Olympic trials in Long Beach, Calif., in July, he also is spreading the word about The Race Club, an international team he founded last fall to bring more attention to the sport.

"I've always felt it is a sport with great potential. Very little has been done to see how well this sport would do as a spectator sport. I can't wait around any longer," said Hall, an eight-time Olympic medalist.

He envisions a professional circuit that markets the personalities of the swimmers and helps foster rivalries similar to those between NASCAR teams, with spectators encouraged to root for their favorite competitors at match races and round robins.

"I think swimming should be marketed like boxing, highlighting individuals rather than lining them up in caps and goggles for a big splashing frenzy," he said.

The Race Club has a coach: Jon Olsen, who won five medals, four of them gold, in two Olympics. The strength coach is Tim McClellan, who has supervised training for professional athletes such as Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and 2002 American League Rookie of the Year Eric Hinske.

Hall said his concept is catching on with other world-class swimmers. So far, he has attracted about a dozen athletes from eight countries.

American Aaron Peirsol, a 2000 Olympic silver medalist and the world-record holder in the 200-meter backstroke, is intrigued by the idea.

"I think swimming is an exciting sport for TV," he said. "It's kind of a noble cause, if you think about it. We put ourselves through a lot of pain for not a lot of financial return. And look at our athletes. Guys like Gary and Michael [Phelps] are really cut."

Hall sees another benefit of the professional circuit: a recruiting tool for a new generation of swimmers.

"What Michael Phelps is doing for the sport is terrific, but what a large group of elite athletes can do together is even more powerful," Hall said.

Kupets coming back

U.S. gymnast Courtney Kupets continues to recover from last summer's injury to her Achilles' tendon, tying for first place on the uneven bars and taking second place on the beam at the U.S. Classic Challenge in Rochester, N.Y.

Kupets, the reigning U.S. all-around champion, did not compete in the vault or floor exercise at last weekend's event. Instead, she flew to Texas to compete in an international invitational at Bela Karolyi's gymnastics training center.

The Montgomery County gymnast tore her Achilles' last August at the world championships in Anaheim, Calif., and was up against the calendar in her bid to make the U.S. team.

Her coach, Kelli Hill, said she will compete next month at the national championships and then return to Anaheim for the Olympic trials.

At least two injured members of the U.S. squad are expected to bypass both events next month and petition team officials to qualify at a final selection camp July 13-18.

Chellsie Memmel, who helped rescue an injury-depleted squad as a last-minute substitute at the worlds, is recovering from a fracture in her left foot.

The co-world champion on the uneven bars expects to have the cast off her foot in a week and begin rehabilitation.

"Missing the trials is OK," she said.

Blaine Wilson also is in rehabilitation after he tore his biceps during the Visa America Cup in February. His teammates and U.S. team coach Kevin Mazeika said Wilson is about three weeks ahead of schedule.

"We were shocked," said Paul Hamm. "He just came to the gym and started doing stuff. He recovers faster than anyone I've ever seen in my life."

The U.S. team no longer uses just team trials to set the roster of six men and six women. Coaches and officials assess the entire season, the readiness and consistency of the athletes and their international experience. The process is appreciated by the athletes, who say it removes the element of luck.

"Someone could have a great meet, but it could have been the only good meet they had," said Hollie Vise, who tied Kupets at the U.S. Classic on the uneven bars and beat her on the beam. "Then they get to the Olympics and they're not as good.

Too fast for fastest

Maurice Greene may be one of the world's fastest humans, but the gold-medal sprinter's reflexes were no match for the offerings of the world's best softball pitcher.

Greene and Lisa Fernandez, a two-time gold medalist, faced off in New York's Central Park last weekend during an exhibition by the U.S. women's softball team.

The talkative Greene picked up a bat and began some good-natured trash talking.

Laughing members of the U.S. squad responded by dropping their gloves and taking up an exaggerated drawn-in infield.

Fernandez, who delivers pitches clocked in the mid-60s from 40 feet away, blew the ball by Greene.

"I was nervous," Greene said after he failed to connect on any offerings. "It got up there a lot faster than I thought it would. I'm an athlete; I think I can do anything. But even if I had calmed down, I probably only would have hit one out of 10. It's not as easy as it looks."

Fernandez's teammate, University of Arizona standout Jennie Finch, has struck out the New York Mets' Mike Piazza and the Colorado Rockies' Larry Walker.

Games at a glance

When: Aug. 13-29

Where: Athens, Greece

Sports: 28

Countries: 202

Athletes: 10,500

Events: 296

TV: NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo

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