Last year, while most swimmers were ramping up for the expected 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, the International Swim League (ISL) dominated swimming news. The league has changed the dynamics of the sports dramatically, attracting a number of high-profile swimmers.
Founded in 2017, the ISL forms an alternative to FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natación), the main, Olympics-sanctioned international swimming organization. It also provides increased transparency, cooperation and shared earnings between competitors and the ISL’s organizers.
FINA reacted negatively to the new organization by discouraging competition in its meets: In late 2018, FINA threatened up to two years of disqualification for athletes who chose to compete in the ISL’s first meet. The ISL cancelled the meet, but, after a year of negotiations, scheduled a full season of events that were FINA-approved, and would count towards the Olympics.
Many athletes supported the ISL because of its more entertaining, athlete-focused format. Its presentation of meets is flashier, with concert-like light shows to welcome the athletes to the pool deck, and enthusiastic, loud announcers. Even the swimmers and teams themselves are more energetic because of the heightened sense of friendly competition that comes from the league’s use of dual meets and mixed-nationality teams. The ISL also utilizes pools of half the Olympic size, modernizing even the organization of the sport. Its teams allow for athletes to be traded like those in other major professional sports leagues, unlike FINA. The league’s competitions also focus on place over time, as there is only one session for each meet without the inclusion of any preliminaries.
The ISL events themselves are also organized differently from FINA ones. Each race hosts two swimmers from each team, and race formats include mixed-gender relays and “skins” races, where the field of athletes is cut down after each round of racing an event. Additionally, there are equal payment and racing opportunities: Each swimmer is offered a base salary with the opportunity to make additional money by competing in more races and earning more points.
In response to ISL’s popularity, FINA created the Champions Series, which didn’t garner as much attention from athletes or the media.
During its first season, the ISL won support and participation from several big-name swimmers, including Caeleb Dressel (United States, freestyle and butterfly), Adam Peaty (Great Britain, breaststroke) and Sarah Sjöström (Sweden, freestyle and butterfly). These athletes and others made up the eight 2019 ISL teams: the NY Breakers, LA Current, DC Trident, Cali Condors, London Roar, Aqua Centurions (Rome), Energy Standard (Paris) and Team Iron (Budapest, Hungary).
The teams competed in seven events across the globe. At the end of the 2019 season, Energy Standard came out on top. Individually, three swimmers stood out as new world record holders. Minna Atherton (London Roar) swam a 54.89-second 100-meter backstroke, Daiya Seto (Energy Standard) finished in 3:54.81 in a 400-meter individual medley and Caeleb Dressel (Cali Condors) raced a 20.24-second 50-meter freestyle.
This year, the ISL added two teams — the Tokyo Frog Kings and the Toronto Titans — but dropped two meets in its schedule as a result of the pandemic. The most recent match was held on Nov. 1-2 with the NY Breakers, Aqua Centurions, Energy Standard and Toronto Titans participating. Sjöström was notably absent, leaving the butterfly field open for two Energy Standard competitors to win the 50- and 100-meter butterfly in her stead. Energy Standard also found success in the distance events: Lithuanian Danas Rapšys broke the ISL records in the 200- and 400-meter freestyle, with times of 1:41.23 and 3:35.49, respectively.
The meet not only brought attention to individual swimmers but to a specific stroke, as London Roar head coach Mel Marshall expressed criticism of several competitors’ breaststroke kicks, which he claimed included undulations (an illegal move except during the pull-out).
With Match #6 over, there are four matches left before championship season begins. All 2020 ISL events are held at the Duna Arena in Budapest, with the semifinals scheduled for Nov. 14-16 and the finals for Nov. 21-22.
The second season of the ISL has revitalized the sport of swimming, a movement that is long overdue and much appreciated by swimmers everywhere.