By Scott McDonald//Red Line Editorial | Wednesday, May 22, 2019
This year, FINA launched a series of meets that took an unorthodox approach to making its events unique, fast and star-studded.
The inaugural FINA Champions Swim Series consists of three meets, including two that have already happened in Guangzhou, China, and Budapest, Hungary. The final stop will be Indianapolis, Indiana, on May 31-June 1.
Professional swimmers in the Champions Series compete by invitation only. There are only four swimmers per event, there are no preliminary races and, to top it off, there are mixed-gender relays.
Michael Andrew, a 20-year-old sprinter who lives in California, said the Champion Series is a “step in the right direction to grow the sport.”
“The format is quick, and it’s not long and drawn out. For a fan it’s awesome,” said Andrew, between competitions this past weekend at the TYR Pro Swim Series stop in Bloomington, Indiana. “The biggest change from a normal swim meet is that it’s only four athletes, the names and the racing.”
And then there’s the money. Each swimmer walks away from the meet with money in the bank. For individual races, $10,000 is awarded for first place, $8,000 for second, $6,000 for third and $5,000 for fourth.
In Guangzhou, Andrew swam seven events and won $41,000 for individual races and an extra $3,000 for a relay — the top prizewinner for the five Americans that also included Kelsi Dahlia, Molly Hannis, Dana Vollmer and Anthony Ervin. Through the first two competitions, Andrew has earned $60,000, and he's one of 17 swimmers to win at least $30,000.
“FINA has really stepped up to the plate,” Andrew said. “The Champions Series gives swimmers and athletes an opportunity to compete at a top level and make good money doing it.”
Andrew turned pro when he was 14, meaning he couldn’t swim in high school and college. But standing upwards of 6-foot-5 and scorching national age group records — and following the leads of peers like Michael Phelps and others — Andrew said making money at his craft seemed the right thing to do.
The scene in Guangzhou was enlightening for the swimmers, and then Budapest made it feel more like a festival.
“China was great, and Budapest was unbelievable,” Andrew said. “There were the races, awards ceremonies and all kinds of events going on.”
He said sideshows at the swim center were more like festivities seen at typical American professional all-star games, like light shows, acrobats and other local flavors.
“The bar has been raised,” he said, “and I can’t wait to see how Indy steps up.”
Swimmers for the Champions Series are selected and invited based upon criteria that make the races intriguing to watch. Participants are typically world or Olympic medalists, record holders or they have the top world rankings in each event.
Though only a handful of American swimmers have competed so far, 23 are slated to compete next week in Indianapolis, including several 2016 Olympic gold medalists, such as breaststroke specialist Lilly King, men’s freestyler Townley Haas, men’s backstroke specialists Matt Grevers and Ryan Murphy, Jack Conger in the butterfly and others.
The environment at the Champions Series is quite different with a who’s who cast of swimmers.
“It keeps you excited and interested,” said Andrew, who noted he didn’t have time to enjoy the festive atmosphere at times because of the quick turnaround between some of his races. “This changes the whole perspective on a swim meet. It becomes a party, and I think it’s a cool way going forward. Now they have to keep it up and find ways to make it better.”
For swimmers like Andrew, it’s about jumping in the water and competing, and finding ways to incorporate new events like these into their training regimens, especially just one year away from the Olympics.
“Anytime you can get in the pool and race, that’s the best training you can get,” Andrew said.”
Tickets are on sale now for the Indianapolis leg of the inaugural FINA Champions Swim Series. The meet will be held May 31-June 1 at the Indiana University Natatorium on the campus of IUPUI. Tickets start as low as $12 and are available here.
Scott McDonald is a writer from Houston who has covered sports for various outlets since 1998. He is a freelance contributor to USA Swimming on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.