Growing up in Baltimore, Giles Smith’s summers were spent swimming and following the Orioles. But as Smith began to develop into a top swimmer at McDonogh, he wondered whether he’d have the chance to extend his career professionally, like baseball, football and basketball players.
“I kind of was having success in swimming, and I kind of thought, ‘Wow, this would be cool to do this for a living,’ ” he recalled.
That opportunity has arrived for Smith, who is one of several dozens of swimmers who will compete in a new professional swimming league later this year with the chance to win prize money and attract sponsors.
The International Swimming League will feature eight teams from Europe and the United States with meets beginning in October in six American and European cities, leading to a championship final at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino’s 12,000-seat arena in Las Vegas in December. One of the matches will be hosted by the University of Maryland’s Natatorium at the Eppley Recreation Center in College Park in November.
The 27-year-old Smith — a butterfly specialist for the DC Trident, which will be headlined by five-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky — has high hopes for the new league.
“I think it is swimming’s version of the NFL or the NBA,” said Smith, who won the gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly at the 2015 Pan American Games and was the first high school swimmer from Baltimore to finish the 50 freestyle in less than 21 seconds. “It’s going to allow the best swimmers in the world to be on teams. It’s going to allow swimmers to swim for fans, and it’s going to be really exciting. There will be a lot of international travel. So fans from all over the world will be able to see their favorite swimmers compete and the best swimmers in the world compete.
“There’s never really been a true league to do this as a sport. Hopefully, it can make our sport — for all the work that we put in — more than just a four-year sport.”
The ISL is funded by Ukrainian energy entrepreneur Konstantin Grigorishin, who is an avid swimming fan. In 2017, he invited professional swimmers to take part in a competition to be held in Italy and came to a stunning realization, according to Dmytro Kachurovskyi, the ISL’s director of development and a former president of the Ukrainian Swimming Federation.
“Konstantin was shocked by how underpaid the world's top athletes were and saw the need to create a concept where the best athletes, who dedicate their lives to swimming, will be able to make a decent living out of their hard work and exceptional talents,” Kachurovskyi said via email.
The ISL, however, ran into the International Swimming Federation — perhaps better known by its acronym, FINA — which refused to sanction an ISL meet scheduled for December 2018. A month and a few lawsuits later, FINA changed its stance and agreed that swimmers are permitted to compete in competitions arranged by independent organizers.
Before the ISL, there have been few professional options for swimming professionally — the TYR Pro Swim Series in the United States, as well as the FINA Swimming World Cup and FINA Champions Swim Series abroad. The Champions Swim Series was introduced this year.
The eight teams in the ISL will each field 24 swimmers — 12 men and 12 women — with several teams competing in each meet. Two swimmers from each team will be required to compete in a single race in short-course pools of 25 meters in length, and there will be no preliminary events.
The team format has been embraced by swimmers who competed at the NCAA level and have missed that type of camaraderie.
“Once I graduated, I think in my first year as a pro, I struggled a little bit with the feeling that I didn’t have a team,” said Bethesda resident Andrew Wilson, who will swim for the Cali Condors and won gold medals in the 100 and 200 breaststroke at the 2017 World University Games. “It was now just me swimming. But with a team, you’re swimming for each other as much as you’re swimming for yourself. So having an ISL team is going to be a great thing because it’s going to get you back into the feeling of a college meet.”
World record holder Adam Peaty, five-time Olympic gold medalist Nathan Adrian, two-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Manuel, three-time Olympic gold medalist Ryan Murphy and Australian Olympic gold medalists Cate and Bronte Campbell and Kyle Chalmers have been reported as participants in the ISL.
But outside of Olympic champions Michael Phelps and Ledecky, swimmers are not usually household names in the United States. The ISL hopes to turn that thinking upside-down.
“The objective is to build commercial value for the league, the clubs and all the members involved, including the coaches and the athletes," Kachurovskyi said. "Athletes like Adam Peaty and Katie Ledecky are equally talented to other professional athletes, but right now, their commercial value is unfortunately low, and the league aims to change that.”
Swimmers were recruited by teams, which then signed them to contracts. Grigorishin told Reuters that a leading swimmer on the winning club could earn about $120,000 a year in appearance and prize money.
DC Trident general manager Kaitlin Sandeno said the swimmers deserve the chance to try to gain some financial stability.
“Some of these athletes are the best athletes in the world, and they’re trying to represent their countries, and they have to find other opportunities to pick up some type of financial income to support their dreams just because the amount of money is just not really there,” said Sandeno, an Olympic gold medalist and world champion. “They get highlighted every four years and then they’re just forgotten.
“I think what’s great about this league’s timing is we’re helping them build their brand and their visibility into 2020, but on the athletic side, we’re giving them an opportunity to stay on that high and ride that emotional and physical high that they’re going to be at.”
Natalie Taylor, director of aquatics at Maryland’s University Recreation & Wellness, said the ISL reached out to the center in March about hosting the two-day meet Nov. 15-16. She said placing a competition just outside the nation’s capital made sense.
“The local swimming community of a couple counties in Maryland, D.C. and Northern Virginia is one of the largest in the country,” Taylor said. “We’re the smallest in terms of geographic area, but the second largest in the country outside of California. We’ve produced the likes of Katie Ledecky, Michael Phelps and a number of other strong swimmers who have made several Olympic teams — not only for the U.S. but for other countries. So to have this type of competition in their backyard, several swimmers have already reached out to us and said they’re really excited to be here and witness this event.”
Baltimore’s Smith, who gave up swimming to sell tables for a nonprofit organization for two years after failing to make the U.S. national team in 2016, decided to return to the sport in March 2018 for a shot at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. He said he views the ISL as another avenue to further enhance the opportunity to represent the U.S. at the Olympics.
“I’m really excited for this, especially because it’s a short-course format,” he said. “I think I’ll do extremely well at it because I’m pretty good underwater and that kind of favors me with the turns. I’m excited to travel. We have a meet in Naples, Italy, and I’ve never been to Italy. So that will be exciting. I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time in Asia and South America, but I really haven’t spent as much time in Europe. So this will kind of be a fun way to cross that off of the bucket list.”
What to know about the ISL
Oct. 4-5 – IU Natatorium on the campus of IUPUI, Indianapolis
Oct. 12-13 – Piscina Felice Scandone, Naples, Italy
Oct. 18-19 – The LISD Westside Aquatic Center, Lewisville, Texas
Oct. 26-27 – Duna Aréna, Budapest, Hungary
Nov. 15-16 – Natatorium at the Eppley Recreation Center, College Park
Nov. 23-24 – London Aquatics Centre, London
Dec. 20-21 – Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, Las Vegas
New York Breakers
Los Angeles Current
* — Two European teams to be announced
Swimmers to know
Chad Le Clos