Watching Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky win multiple gold medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics could help both the high school and club swim teams in Elkhart County grow.
And don’t forget the moxie of Indiana native Lilly King, who stood up to and then beat a Russian swimmer who was suspended twice for Performance Enhancing Drugs.
Joe Keller, head coach of the Northridge High School swim team and club director for the Northridge Area Swimming Association, said USA Swimming has noticed at least a 10 percent growth after each Olympic games.
And with U.S. team winning 33 medals in Rio – including 16 golds – Keller isn’t expecting that to decline.
“I really see it in our club program, but not quite as much in high school,’’ Keller said. “In high school there are a lot of other factors at work. For instance, my friend is swimming so maybe I’ll go out for swimming. But the variables are different with the youth programs, the kids and parents get excited about the Olympics and you see more younger kids getting involved.
“Now, there are times when older kids will look at Phelps or Ledecky and decide to give it a shot. Or maybe they swam in club before and then love what they see and come back to the sport as high schoolers.’’
According to USA Swimming, after the 2012 Olympics in London, the national federation went over the 400,000 mark for members, an increase of 13.2 percent from the previous year. After the 2008 Games, in which Phelps won eight gold medals, the increase was 11.3 percent.
“Obviously, we don’t condone everything he’s done outside the water, but we do call the bump every four years the ‘Michael Phelps effect,’’’ Keller said. “When he started winning gold medals, he brought a lot of media attention to our sport. He’s easily recognized, he has a great work ethic and this year, with the great comeback and winning more gold, he’s helped create more opportunities for our sport to be out front.”
As a member of the Indiana Senior Steering Committee, Keller is pleased with how state swimmers swam in Rio, but also the growing number of high school swimmers that are posting times fast enough to qualify for the Olympic trials.
Northridge’s Spencer Lehman, a state champion in the 500 last February, became the school’s first swimmer to qualify and swam in Omaha at the U.S. Trials.
In addition to King, an Evansville native now competing at Indiana University, Valparaiso’s Blake Pieroni was a member of the 400-relay team that won a gold medal – even though he didn’t race in the finals – while Indiana’s Cody Miller was a bronze medalist in the 100 breaststroke. Four other IU swimmers were on teams from outside the U.S.
Penn graduate Bethany Galat also just missed qualifying for the U.S. team in two events.
In addition, Carmel’s Claire Adams, who won the maximum 16 state titles in her four years of high school competition, was a likely member of Team USA before being injured early in the summer and not being at full strength for the Trials.
That’s quite a change for the state, which saw minimal impact in 2004, though that was also the year that Lindsay Benko of Elkhart qualified for the second time.
“After 2004, our steering committee wanted the number of 18-and-under qualifiers go up every year and that’s exactly what’s happened,’’ Keller said. “It’s been a lot of hard work by coaches and swimmers in the past 12 years and it’s really paying off. This year, only four other states had more kids post times fast enough to qualify for the Olympic Trials (California, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia).’’