Features 19th June 2019

Swimming is about to come out of the dark ages

New York is a city known for doing things in a big, brash and fearless way. Three adjectives I consider fairly fitting for the city’s brand-new Professional Sports Team, for which today I had the pleasure of being officially announced on the team’s roster of professional swimmers. And also three words for which I also feel I’ve had to display in abundance just to get to where I am today, as Vice-Captain and Co-owner of the New York Breakers.

These are exciting times for New York, as we become the ninth Professional Sports Team joining the likes of the Yankees, Mets, Giants and other major names vying for the attention of the city’s sports-loving public, and they are also exciting times for swimming. Late last year, I joined two other professional swimmers (Katinka Hosszu and Tom Shields) as named plaintiff in a class-action suit against the global governing body FINA because I believed the anti-competition way in which the sport was being run, the blocking by FINA of the 2018 Energy for Swim meet that was supposed to be hosted in Italy, was draconian and out of keeping with how athletes should be treated in modern-day sport.

I fully understood the risk the action would have for me potentially not being able to compete at the Tokyo Olympics, but I took the decision anyway because the future of swimming was at stake, a future in which athletes needed to be treated catalysts for modernizing and transforming the sport; helping the sport engage with new fans and reach the potential that it hints at every four years at an Olympic Games. The way FINA has operated is stuck in the dark ages, but now as I proudly stand here as Vice-Captain and Co-owner of New York’s newest Professional Sports Team, I can say I feel proud to do what I felt was right to get to this point, because in just four months’ time I and my fellow New York team mates will be able to do all our talking in the pool as the International Swimming League (ISL) gets underway.

It’s no overstatement to say swimming is about to come out of the dark ages, it’s about to change in a way we’ve never seen before. Bigtime. With the advent of the ISL comes a no-tolerance position on doping, a stance that I personally am a big fan of.

It also means, and in contrast to FINA’s culture beforehand, a culture that will allow swimmers an opportunity to have a real stake in the team; something I’m only too aware of and grateful for, having been offered the opportunity to co-own the New York Breakers, alongside my parents who are equally committed to propelling this sport into the mainstream. And today also heralds a great new era, opening the gates for swimmers to become media stars and gain real earning potential – two things that are both long overdue for a sport that is the best-watched sport at an Olympic Games.

I believe we’re about to see swimming switch its attention to being more entertainment-focussed; this is something that in the United States at least has long been inherent within professional sport and I think fans will come to love swimming if we’re able to tell the story in a more compelling way than we have done to-date. Until now, swimming has been too closed, too controlled and has been too shy.

If there’s one thing The New York Breakers is going to be it is fearless. Fearless of doing things differently, fearless of being unconventional and fearless of going places the sport has not gone yet because we get the bigger picture. We get that every sport has to fight for its place among sports fans’ hearts. We get that every sport needs to move with the times. And we get that swimming has failed to do so. Until now, that is. 

As a World Champion, I am only too aware of the potential that I can have to encourage others to get involved in our sport and be part of history. I’m hugely excited and humbled by the prospect of doing just that, and today I’m delighted to be a member of what I hope in five to ten years’ time will be a team mentioned in the same breath as other New York greats, the Yankees, Mets, Rangers and Knicks. Watch this space.

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