When the concept of the International Swimming League was announced, a show was promised unlike the sport had ever seen before. That concept was delivered in the form of an “out of this world” first presentation on Saturday in Indianapolis, Indiana at the legendary IU Natatorium where athletes were dressed in futuristic astronaut-like overalls and a live DJ behind-the-blocks spinning space tunes. The athletes even featured in their own intergalactic comic-style introductions.
The world’s best swimmers, including 41 gold medalists from the Olympic Games 2016, are competing on behalf of eight clubs in regular season matches across Europe and the United States, with the Grand Final being held in Las Vegas in December. The league is the largest-scale professional swimming event ever conceived, with an intense focus on team competition.
The ISL has partnered with ten different regular broadcasters, including ESPN in the United States and Eurosport in both Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, for the launch of the inaugural season.
The day was full of innovation from start-to-finish, including a poolside ‘video box’ for each club to sit illuminated by animations of their team logo. This built an intense in-pool atmosphere not often seen at international competition with a hoard of screaming teammates sitting just a few feet from their compatriots in the water.
One of the stars of the first day of competition was Lilly King, who won 2 individual events and received the loudest cheers from the crowd. King is an Indiana native and represents the state’s flagship university in domestic competition.
“This is really like my kind of meet. Everybody is all hyped up, I had a lot of fun swimming and cheering for my team,” said Olympic Champion Lilly King of the runner up Cali Condors. “I think this is the future of swimming, it is making it more exciting, making it more accessible to the viewer, and it is making the athletes a lot more money.”
More than $4 million in appearance money and prize money for clubs and athletes will be awarded during the season, divided equally between men and women.
“Only positives are coming from this for me,” King concluded.
The pace of the meet was unlike anything ever seen before in swimming. A schedule traditionally spread over a week or more is condensed into just 4 hours of racing, which reduced the gap between events from the traditional minutes to just a few seconds.
Energy Standard megastar and team captain Sarah Sjostrom made history when she won the women’s 100 butterfly, which made her the first winner in the history of the league.
“I was so nervous to start the competition”, the captain of Energy Standard said about her historic win while adding about the atmosphere: “This is what I’ve been waiting for…it was like a World Championship finals, with all of the competitors standing out there behind the blocks…This is how it should be.
“Following the points, and the team, usually when I go to a competition I check my team and then I focus on my next event. But now in between events I was trying to follow my teammates and how they were doing and what the score was. It’s so much fun to watch the other races and support my teammates. I have been waiting for this to happen and I am really happy that it happens during my active years”, the 26 year-old World Record holder.
Energy Standard holds a 20-point lead after day 1 of the competition led by a meet-high 22.5 points from Sjostrom.
With teams having a roster of just 12 men and 12 women to fill 28 individual events in 2 days, and with 2 lanes per team in each race, athletes are able to show off a more diverse range of talents.
Freestyle superstar Katie Ledecky, for example, raced the 400 meter Individual Medley on Saturday for the DC Trident. While she doesn’t often swim that event at major international competitions, in short course she is a former American Record holder.
The ISL format gives her the opportunity to show the world that she is not just the greatest female freestyler in history, but arguably the greatest female swimmer in history, period.
“I love the 400 IM, especially in short course,” the 5-time Olympic champion said.
“This is unlike any other meet.I think today was kind of a turning point. This is great for swimming and it is only gonna make swimming better for all of us in the years to come – and beyond.”