Swimming has long been one of the most popular Olympic sports among American television audiences, with marquee matchups in the London 2012 Games drawing upward of 28 million viewers. Those are big time numbers, nearly twice what single games of the NBA Finals drew earlier this month. Worldwide, those 2012 Games were the single most-watched television broadcasts of all time, drawing an estimated 3.6 billion global viewers.
It’s in that vein, both the Olympic popularity and the global reach of the sport, that the International Swimming League was formed. This fall, eight teams — four internationally-based and four American, including one right here in the D.C. area — will compete in the inaugural season, barnstorming around the globe.
The D.C. Trident, based out of the Eppley Aquatic Center at the University of Maryland, will be led by hometown hero Katie Ledecky, fellow Olympic legend Natalie Coughlin, and run by another Olympic medalist, Kaitlin Sandeno.
Despite living in Southern California, once Sandeno agreed to take on the role of a GM in the fledgling league, she knew she wanted to take advantage of the D.C. area’s love of swimming and run the team out of the Washington region.
“When I was thinking about the opportunities across the country, D.C. really stood out for the excellence and the love and the support that the swim community has out there,” she told WTOP. “That was definitely something that was on my radar, and I lobbied pretty hard to pick up D.C.”
Once Sandeno was on board, she knew she needed some strong ambassadors to help form the core of the team. So she reached out to Coughlin who, despite not competing since 2016, had never officially retired from the sport.
“When I was putting my team together and I was thinking about the strong women and the leaders I wanted on my team, I couldn’t help but think about Natalie,” said Sandeno. “Because when I think about women in swimming, I think about Natalie.”
The decision was a little tougher for Coughlin. She’ll be 37 before competition begins this fall, and is the primary caretaker of her 8-month-old daughter. She’s also increasingly busy running Gaderian Wines, her post-swimming life fully established.
“At first I laughed,” said Coughlin, when Sandeno reached out. “I hadn’t swum in over two years, I just had a baby.”
But for the owner of a dozen Olympic medals, including three golds, that itch to compete never really went away.
“The competitive fire is still there. You just can’t get rid of that. It’s impossible,” she said.
While Coughlin is excited to get back in the pool and have a purpose to whip herself back into competitive shape, she’ll be just as much ambassador as athlete for the Trident. And she wants to be clear — this isn’t some precursor to some larger comeback attempt.
“It’s the perfect motivation I need to be in shape, but I’m not training to try to make another Olympic team,” she said.
Coughlin is looking forward to reuniting with her teammate, who was a fresh-faced 15-year-old when she brought the house down in London with her American record-setting 800 meter gold medal swim.
“I will never forget that 800 free in an Olympic final. That was the most exciting 800 free I’ve ever witnessed,” said Coughlin.
The natatorium at Eppley features a full, 50-meter pool, but with movable bulkheads to shorten the distance to 25 meters, which will be the lengths competitors will swim at for ISL meets. That’s perfect for Coughlin, who plans to swim only selective, shorter races, like the 50-meter backstroke.
For the Eppley Center, it’s a chance to bring a major event to town to show off their facility. Despite competing in one of the most prominent athletic conferences in the country, the University of Maryland doesn’t have a men’s or women’s swim team. That means the facility operates mostly to serve the local community and to host the occasional club meet.
“This is something that’s new and different, it’s going to bring really fast swimmers to our facility and to our area, and something that we’re really excited to do, so let’s just run with it,” Natalie Taylor, assistant director of aquatics, told WTOP.
With the draw of hometown hero Ledecky and some of the world’s best swimmers, Taylor hopes that they can pack the stands not just with hardcore swimming fans, but also expose the sport to those who might not even realize the building exists.
“Not everyone’s going to get to the Olympics, but we want everyone to be able to swim and to be able to enjoy the sport throughout their lifetime,” she said. “We’re hoping that a lot of people in our area who have a tangential interest in swimming will talk to their friends, who will come out. That will maybe inspire people who maybe don’t swim at all to look into swimming, to get swim lessons.”
ISL athletes will be paid salaries both by the team (splitting $150,000 in the first year) as well as the league (from media/global sponsors), which will split its revenue evenly with the athletes. The swimmers will also compete for bonus prize money, though specific sums have not been publicly released yet. Each club will include 12 men and 12 women on the roster. The league is also currently in discussions with networks on possible television deals, but none have been finalized to date.
The season opens October 4-5 in Indianapolis and will hit the District the weekend of November 15-16. The College Park meet will be the fifth of the six regular season meets before the finals, which take place the weekend before Christmas in Las Vegas. There will also be a meet in the Dallas suburbs, while the three international locations include Budapest, London and Naples.
Each of the eight teams will participate in three of the six meets, meaning a different combination of the four teams will compete at each event. The local meet — also the last in the U.S. before the final — will be the only one to feature all four American squads.
The D.C. Trident will also swim in the opening meet in Indianapolis and the next week in Naples, then getting three weeks off before their home meet. The top two American teams and top two European teams from the regular season will advance to the finals.
The other U.S.-based teams include the Cali Condors (San Francisco), LA Current, and NY Breakers, while the international clubs are the Aqua Centurions (Rome), Energy Standard (Paris), London Roar, and Team Iron (Budapest). The cities and countries represented target powerhouse swimming areas.
As with any startup, there have been speed bumps, beyond just coordinating global conference calls at all hours of the morning or night. The league has a zero-tolerance policy on doping, which has already cost the Trident one member, Brazilian sprinter Gabriel Da Silva Santos, who has been temporarily suspended after testing positive for a banned substance. There is also a scheduling conflict with British Swimming, which will cause those swimmers to miss at least one of the early meets.
FINA also initially threatened to ban anyone who participated in the ISL, but has backed down, settling on not recognizing any records set during the competitions.
Sandeno understands these things come with the territory, but also knows how important it is to start strong this year heading into the 2020 Olympics, if the league is to take off.
“This is our first year, so we need the first year to be successful,” she said.
Bringing more people to the sport benefits both the Eppley Center and the league. And events like this will provide a level of the competition to the public usually reserved for Olympic and World Championship level events. Coughlin thinks that will create appeal for all levels of interest.
“I think it will be a really, really fun event, whether you’re the biggest swimming nerd, or you’ve just heard of Michael Phelps,” she said. “I think it will appease every level of sport fan.”
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