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Pro swimming league making big waves in its debut season: Russell

The seven-event pro series has been able to attract an eclectic bevy of Olympic and world champions from every part of the planet. As Scott Russell writes, the ISL has grown from being known as a Russian oligarch's pet project into a legitimate event - and its success is making waves.

Many see the ISL to be part of the natural evolution of high-performance sport

Canada's Sydney Pickrem says that her time in the ISL has been a blast since "an enthusiastic audience makes all the difference when racing." (File/Getty Images)

The popular refrain has become that the International Swimming League (ISL) is the pet project of a Russian oligarch with a tonne of money.

But professional swimming is charting a new course for the sport and Konstantin Griorishin, a Russian-Ukrainian energy backer and his colleague, Daniel Hoffman, an ex-CIA operative, may be onto something.

The seven-event pro series has been able to attract an eclectic bevy of Olympic and world champions from every part of the planet. At events in Europe, and to a slightly lesser extent in North America, it's making waves.

Initially rebuffed by the sport's governing body, FINA, which threatened champions like Hungary's Katinka Hosszu, Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden, and Caeleb Dressel of the United States with two-year suspensions if they took part in the ISL, the league has played to sold out crowds in Budapest and Naples. They also expect to attract a lot of attention at the upcoming North American and European Derbies in the Washington, D.C. area and London, England, respectively.

There's a boatload of prize money at stake, the fan experience is vibrant, even reminiscent of the TV show American Gladiators and the team atmosphere being fostered, which brings together athletes from diverse countries, is becoming infectious.

There are 13 Canadian swimmers involved including four-time Olympic medallist Penny Oleksiak, who competes for the Energy Standard team which is owned by the league's founder Griorishin and based in Turkey.

'People love it'

Kylie Masse, the two-time world champion in the backstroke, is one of the stars for the Cali Condors club that looks good to qualify for the grand finale in Las Vegas in December where every member of the winning club earns a $10,000 US bonus.

"ISL is really trying to showcase our sport and help bring its popularity up," Masse said, as she prepared for this week's North American derby. "I think people love it, from what I can tell. It's actually great timing for me as my university eligibility is completed so I needed some more meets of a good calibre and the ISL works perfectly."

Indeed the professionalization of swimming is following the lead of other high-performance sports. One thinks of the IAAF Diamond League, a pro track and field loop which co-exists with the world championship and Olympic schedules. It's proven to be very successful, particularly in Europe, where this kind of sport has a loyal and substantial fan base year-in, year-out.

"It's gaining traction. In Europe there's more focus on Olympic sport between Games. This is bringing more focus to Olympic sport in North America," said Ben Titley, the head coach at the High Performance Centre in Ontario. Titley also coaches the Canadian swimming team at the Olympics.

Canada's Kylie Masse, shown in this file photo, in just one of many world champion swimmers that were drawn into competing in the debut season of the International Swimming League. This is a new direction for our sport, but it seems to be catching on and it should help to grow swimming," Masse says. (File/Reuters)

He'll be travelling to the European derby in London to work with swimmers on the ISL's Energy Standard team and he'll bring Olympic medallist Taylor Ruck along as observer. He likes what this kind of competition can mean to aspiring swimmers once they get to major championships.

"I like anything which gives back to the athletes financially and terms of exposure. It shakes up the status quo," Titley reasoned. "We've tried to get across to our swimmers that it's a great opportunity to race world class competition and improve in order to be better for the Olympic trials.

"Our young women are finding themselves on the same relay teams as international superstars and they're realizing they can compete with them."

The powers that be at Swimming Canada couldn't agree more. High Performance Director and National Coach, John Atkinson welcomes the increase in workload and travel for Canadian athletes, which is required in order to compete in the ISL.

"It's different than the national team and gives the athletes another experience against world class competition with multiple races and that can be described as a form of training," Atkinson said.

"It's great for the exposure of the sport to be shown in an innovative way, and our Olympic athletes can use this to prepare for the trails next year. For swimming to grow we need to reach new people and this is a start on that."

Expanding the schedule?

The budget for the ISL in its first year of operation is $20 million U.S. There have been good gate receipts in Europe but there has been very little revenue generated from broadcast rights. Still, the word is that the Grigorishin and ISL organizers are planning a more robust schedule next year, perhaps as many as 20 events worldwide.

The athletes have been overwhelming in their endorsement of the vision the ISL is putting forward. They say it creates a fan-friendly spectacle, promotes a global approach to the sport, and, most of all rewards the athletes for winning performances.

"The environment is amazing," enthused Sydney Pickrem, the 22-year-old Canadian medley swimmer and four-time world championship medallist who competes for the London Roar.

"An enthusiastic audience makes all the difference when racing. The best races are when the crowd has an infectious energy," she says. "That added pressure of a crowd is when I swim the best because I'm just having fun.

"This is truly the future of swimming and I'm so proud and honoured to be a part of this."

Canada's Penny Oleksiak, shown in this 2018 file photo, competes for the Energy Standard team in the ISL. (File/Getty Images)

Masse is in agreement.

"Swimming is a fantastic activity to participate in and to spectate," she says. "This is a new direction for our sport, but it seems to be catching on and it should help to grow swimming. I really hope it does."

In an era where Olympic athletes are gaining more control over what they do while acquiring rights and responsibilities as professionals, the ISL is seen by many to be part of the natural evolution of high-performance sport.

And while there is less training time and increased travel associated with participation, most see a bright future for the league and the sport.

"If it goes to 20 events federations will have to adjust how they prepare for the major games, but that can be done," reckoned Titley. "The current generation of athletes needs more exposure to things that they deem to be exciting. The athletes want to do this and I happen to agree with them. They should."

It's a case of navigating new waters for swimming. 

And so far, the swimmers say, the ISL is on course to make a big splash in the foreseeable future.

About the Author

Scott Russell has worked for the CBC for more than 30 years and covered 14 editions of the Olympics. He is a winner of the Gemini Award, Canadian Screen Award and CBC President's Award. Scott is the host of Olympic Games Prime Time and the co-Host with Andi Petrillo of Road to the Olympic Games. He is also the author of three books: The Rink, Ice-Time and Open House."

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