|Commentary by Jeff Commings, SwimmingWorld.TV associate producer
Florida's Brett Fraser and Texas' Dax Hill finished first and second in the 200 freestyle. It was the first time black swimmers had taken the top two spots in an individual race in a U.S. national championship. In recent history, two black swimmers have stood on an awards podium at a major meet in the United States in three separate instances. In 1992, Anthony Nesty and Byron Davis placed first and eighth in the 100 fly at the NCAA meet. In 2009, Jones and Sabir Muhammad accepted their medals in the 50 free at the USA Swimming nationals. Jones was second, while Muhammad placed eighth.
I was part of the other instance, in 1995 when Michael Norment and I finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in the 100 breaststroke at the NCAA meet.
In this era of making swimming more inviting to minorities, Fraser and Hill made possibly the biggest splash since Cullen Jones helped the United States win gold in the 400 free relay in Beijing. About 20 seconds after Hill got his hand on the wall for second place – when my bias toward my alma mater of Texas subsided – the gravity of the race's outcome hit me. This was a big deal. A huge deal. I could only repeat the words "wow" and "awesome" for the next two minutes. I haven't reacted like that since Michael Phelps won the 100 fly in Beijing.
What happened on March 26 was a great step forward for black swimmers. I wonder if Fraser, Hill, their coaches or their parents understood what they were witnessing. I wonder how many swimming fans recognized it. In the days following the meet, it felt like a big tree fell in the forest, and too few people heard it.
Maybe it was the hype of the team battle between California and Texas, but I was surprised the media did not pick up on the history made in the 200 free and share it with the general public. While I celebrated the moment in my living room during the webcast, ESPN had moved on to the next event without as much as a knowing comment from the on-air commentators. Eleven days later on April 6, ESPN2 did not include the race on its TV broadcast that showed – insert air quotes here – highlights from the meet. Ironically, Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace's amazing swims at the women's meet were highlighted on the April 5 broadcast of that competition, but no mention of her being one of the few black swimmers to hold a major record was made.
The image of Fraser and Hill on the awards platform should have been played for days on ESPN's "Sportscenter" and on every national news broadcast. I suppose the color of my skin has heightened the significance of the moment for me, but I have heard from non-blacks involved in the sport who also recognized what the race outcome meant.
I don't know exactly what should have been said on that webcast as Fraser and Hill waved to their respective families and teammates, but recognition of the moment and its importance to the United States' goal of getting more minorities in the sport would have been sufficient. As part of the Swimming World staff covering the NCAA meet, I wanted to make some mention of the moment in our online recap or in our "Streamlined News" video segment, but the hectic pace of the meet and, admittedly, my focus on the big story surrounding the team race took precedent. We were quick to notice that Fraser had taken part in his own bit of history, as one of only two sibling duos to win the same event, but had not looked much beyond that. I felt like I let Fraser and Hill down.
In the days following the meet, I also had not seen Make a Splash mention the 1-2 finish in the 200 free. USA Swimming created Make a Splash to help reduce the drowning rate and get more minorities in the sport. This could be a fantastic PR push for them as the attention to swimming grows in the lead-up to the Olympic year. One could argue that the sport has become colorblind, but that argument doesn't hold water when the biggest swimming superpower devotes much of its money to making us all aware that more needs to be done to make swimming more diverse racially.
Let's keep our eyes open and recognize such achievements when they happen again. Fraser's collegiate eligibility is complete, so we won't get a chance to see history repeat itself at next year's NCAAs. But, could Cullen Jones and Dax Hill occupy the same podium in an upcoming national championship – or, even better, the Olympic Trials? If so, I might not be the only person mouthing the words "wow" and "awesome."
To watch footage of the men's 200 freestyle on ESPN3.com, click here. The race begins at the 1:02:24 mark, with the awards ceremony afterward.
To read the Swimming World recap of the 200 freestyle final, click here.