When it comes to realistic detail, new film Swimfan is all wet

Jesse Bradford stars as a high-school swim phenom/stalking target in "Swimfan"  Credit:  2002 Twentieth Century Fox Corp
Lets face it. Comparatively speaking, swimming has been relatively underrepresented when it comes to sports movies.

Sure, the sport has made fleeting appearances in films like Mermaids, Gattaca, Ordinary People, and, for the real film buffs out there, Burt Lancasters little-seen drama of over 30 years ago, The Swimmer.

But surfing has Blue Crush, Point Break, Big Wednesday, and In Gods Hands.

Running has Pre, Without Limits, Personal Best, and Chariots of Fire. Cycling has Breaking Away and Quicksilver.

So where are the definitive swimming movies?

It was with this question in mind that I attended the premiere of 20th Century Foxs new movie, Swimfan, held recently at an Olympic-sized swimming pool at the UCLA campus. I had waited years for this: a movie with not just Swim in the title (Swimming with Sharks, Swimming to Cambodia, for example), but one with swimming as an integral part of the plot.

Surely, I thought, here was a chance for Hollywood to present the world with a portrayal of a sport that deserved some long-overdue recognition and publicity.

The plot of the movie (which opened nationwide on Sept. 6) had me a little worried, though I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt (beggars cant be choosers). In a nutshell, high school swimmer Ben Cronin has it all: a high GPA, a devoted girlfriend, and a coveted scholarship to Stanford University much like I did in my own high school career (well, one out of three aint bad ... I had the scholarship to Stanford).

Then, one day, Madison Bell appears. Madison is the new girl in town, but you know shes a bad apple because she dresses like Britney Spears in the Hit Me One More Time video even though she doesnt go to a Catholic Girls school. Madison sets her deranged sights on Ben, and a Fatal Attraction-style series of events lead to adultery, betrayal, anabolic steroid use, and of course, (gasp!) murder.

As more of an authority on swimming than I am a movie critic, Ill stay away from reviewing Swimfan and let the above plot speak for itself. Those who find merit in watching such melodrama are probably the films intended demographic anyway, and there is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying a little exploitation in the name of Speedo swimsuits if its done with style and tongue-in-cheek fun.

Unfortunately, Swimfans biggest laughs are unintentional, especially for those of us familiar with competitive swimming and blessed with even the littlest dose of common sense.

Below is a partial list of a few oversights, misconceptions, and fallacies that the producers of Swimfan could have avoided had they consulted the swim pages of Active.com.

  • Early in the movie, Ben Cronin tells his coach that he did a set of 100s on the 1:05, holding about 50 seconds per 100. While this would not be impossible, its pretty unrealistic for Ben to claim in the same sentence that he could probably bring em down to 45s! 5x100s at 45 seconds would add up to be a 3:45 for a 500-yard freestyle. The fastest time on record (ever) for the 500 is a 4:08.75. I dont think so. Even if Ben was taking steroids.

  • Speaking of steroids, Madison spikes Bens urine sample with banned substances (dont ask how, it is never explained). This integral plot point sets in motion a drastic chain of events that unravel Bens perfect life. What the filmmakers failed to realize was that tampering with athletes drug test samples is next to impossible given the standard security measures involved. First, a drug-test administrator watches the athlete create the sample; leaving very little room for a third party to tamper, spike, or alter what goes in the cup. In addition, a swimmer usually supplies two samples that are sent to the lab separately after being sealed and signed by the swimmer himself. If one sample were to be tampered with, the other would be intact. Most laughably, Ben tests positive within minutes of finishing his race and supplying a sample, when in reality drug test results take several days.

  • The swimming pool where Ben trains is a poorly lit, mahogany-lined, gothic pit that looks more Addams Family than elite-level training facility. During the few practice sessions shown, its surprising that the swimmers can see where theyre going during their repeats. It makes for creepy atmospherics, but most pools are lit with harsh fluorescents, leaving few dark places for psychotic swim fans to hide. There are also no backstroke flags in the pool, probably because they weren't aesthetically pleasing and got in the way of the cameras but details are important.

  • In the crucial seduction scene that kick-starts the protagonists female troubles, Madison slowly enters the pool where Ben is practicing and saunters toward him. She flirtatiously explains that she never learned how to swim (of course, this factoid crops up again conveniently in the ending, where at least one character must be dispatched in the gothic pool). For someone who cant swim, Madison is very comfortable playing out her seduction in chest-deep water, and what follows indicates that any reservations she may have had entering the pool must have gone the way of her swimsuit top.

  • When Ben confides in his goofy, over-the-top swim coach that his waning performance in the pool may have at least something to do with his troubled personal life, the coachs gruff response is Then fix it! Im not sure, but in my experience a coach at this elite level (especially one assigned to be in charge of emotionally volatile teens) would take a slightly more pro-active role in helping his star athlete clear his head (or in this case, get a restraining order).

  • Finally, Speedo Authentic Fitness was the official product placement provider for all swimming-related props featured in the movie. Curiously, there was a notable absence of the elite-level swimsuit currently of choice, Speedo's Sharkskin Jammer. Rather, the athletes in the movie are all shown wearing small Speedo racing suits, which predictably (and unfortunately) elicited the usual titters from the crowd at the premiere. One would think that the filmmakers, with Speedo's blessing, would have opted for "Authentic Fitness" indeed by showcasing less joke-prone swimwear. Speedo missed an opportunity to showcase the Jammer suit while presenting an image of their company that was not synonymous with the teeny-weenie-bikini style that they've tried getting away from in recent years.

    Granted, one should not complain about Swimfan given the dearth of swimming-related entertainment in the marketplace. But when the most exciting part of a movie premiere is anything but the movie, you know youre in trouble.

    20th Century Fox pulled out all stops for the event, claiming it was the first Pool Premiere Party in history. A bevy of models was hired to wear Speedo swimsuits in the pool and during a pre-movie fashion show (on a floating runway in the pool). Caterers and staff (dressed as swim coaches, complete with stopwatches) supplied food, beverages, and towels if guests were inclined to get wet.

    A giant screen built at the far end of the 50-meter outdoor facility made for a pleasant movie-watching experience, even though the best seats in the house were understandably in the pool.

    As opulent an extravaganza as it was, there was no denying that Swimfan was in need of an "authentic fitness" reality check. While it will certainly not be remembered as the worst movie ever made, calling Swimfan the best swimming movie ever made would be faint praise, however accurate.

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