Do you think it will lead toward more of a focus on freestyle, especially for young swimmers who might decide that beyond a 400 they only have to concentrate on one stroke?
RG: Well, I don't think it's the freestyle aspect so much as it is a distance aspect. These days some swimmers want the easy way out. Look at what our distance program is compared to what it was 30 years ago. It's changed dramatically. Obviously we have some great distance swimmers, but we don't have the same caliber as we did 30 years ago. So hopefully that open water aspect will give hope to some swimmers and they'll say "It's not just a 400 or a 1,500. I also have another event that I can swim."
This past August, some of the most exciting Olympic moments in history happened in the pool. Since then, have you noticed a surge of interest in swimming, from youth to the Masters level?
RG: Absolutely. I was talking to Rob Butcher [the executive director of U.S. Masters Swimming] and he said, I can't remember the exact jump percentage-wise, but [the increase in participation] was humongous. It was like four times as many as they have in an average year.
It's the same thing with USA Swimming. Normally they get a three to five percent jump in sign-ups. Supposedly, it was more like 17 percent. A lot of clubs are saying "We just don't have enough room anymore!"
It's unbelievable what this Olympic Games has done. First and foremost you have to give a lot of credit to Michael Phelps. It became a living soap opera during those eight nights.
And to go along with that, it was live. Our last two Olympics were on tape delay. You could go online and get results and the interest really waned due to that. Because it was live it made a huge difference.
How was the experience for you?
RG: It was unbelievable. This was my fifth Olympics and the other four combined couldn't hold a candle to this one. It wasn't just Michael. It was race after race after race. Things happened there that you don't expect in a lifetime of swimming. It all happened in one meet! You had two races decided by 1/100th of a second. You had people like Rebecca Soni who came out of nowhere to win a gold medal. One after another. Dara Torres at 41 years old. It was unbelievable.
How fast do you think you could have gone in one of the Speedo LZR suits?
RG: [Laughs] Well, I went 49.3 in a Speedo suit with the less the better, sized 24 just zipping around my waist.
Were you looking at those suits thinking "Aww man, if I only had one"?
RG: You know, I would've maybe eight years ago...12 years ago. Time has passed me by so much that I don't have those feelings anymore. Up until '96 and even a little bit in 2000 I felt like I could still be competitive if I really wanted to. But I don't have those feelings anymore.
It would definitely have made a difference, but it would have made a difference for a lot of us. And you know what? They're going to say the same thing in 20 years. There's going to be some different suit in 20 years that is going to make this suit look obsolete.
You coach swimmers of all ages through your clinics. How do you see the team aspect helping an athlete's development? More specifically, how would you encourage parents to sign their children up for the swim team or for individuals to join a Masters program?
RG: For me, I kind of relate it to my own personal story. I didn't start swimming until I was 17 years old. I was a junior in high school when I went out for my school swim team.
The reason I did was because I failed at making five other teams. I went out for football, baseball, basketball, golf and tennis and each one I got cut in. I really wanted to be a part of a team and yet try to excel on an individual level as well.
I tell parents that it's never too late. Your kids can achieve their dreams no matter what age. I'm living proof of it. And I think swimming—obviously I'm biased—but swimming is the best sport to teach that. Nobody sits on the bench in our sport. Everybody gets to participate. And relays have a big impact on the team aspect of it. Everybody can do it in one way or another.
Getting back to Race for the Oceans, you used to live in Colorado Springs, which isn't very close to a coastline. How important is it for swimmers who rarely, if ever, get the chance to swim in the ocean to be concerned for this cause?
RG: First of all, there's a lot of water in this country. There is a lot of opportunity to swim in water, not just the ocean. But everybody will be affected one way or the other by this cause.
Like I said, I grew up on the beach my whole life, so this holds a special place in my heart. I do believe it's one aspect of the environment that needs to be protected. We all go to the ocean at some point in our life to go on vacation. I know that's a bit simplistic, but it's true.
I've seen some of the things that have happened to our oceans before, specifically red tide down in Florida. Red tide has affected the ocean so much in Florida, you literally cannot go down to the beach [when red tide is present] because of the toxic fumes. Fortunately with red tide, it comes and goes, it's not there to stay, but you kind of get a sense of what could happen to our oceans if it could become permanent.
This is something that really means a lot to Aaron. He's sort of like me; we both grew up around the water. There are a lot of good people in the sport of swimming, but there's nobody better than Aaron Peirsol. He is perhaps the nicest guy in the entire sport.
He's very passionate about something like this. I think we're on the cusp of something great, not only from an open water standpoint but also from an environmental standpoint of awareness, of what potential problems are out there for our oceans.