I just watched the documentary Bigger Stronger Faster*. There are hundreds of documentaries on Netflix and this one, above most, hit home with me.
I thought about a lot during the movie. First, about my body and how, for all of my life, I’ve always been the tallest, but as others around me seemed to catch up a bit I felt insecure that I wasn’t by default the fastest and strongest. Because, for much of my childhood, I was all four: bigger, faster, stronger, and taller. When people started to close in on me in terms of strength and speed it really hurt my confidence. I started to believe I couldn’t compete and run with the guys like I used to. Had I not fallen victim to this silly belief, I think I would have been much more successful in collegiate athletics. I started to shed this lack of confidence in the immediate years after I graduated college. I moved back in with my parents for a year, then I got married, moved to Milwaukee, and was really far away from everything I had ever known. But throughout this time I kept training. I was running, doing stairs, pushups, jumping rope, and, sometimes, getting back in the pool.
I was beginning to realize that the playing field hadn’t really been leveled all that much by my peers getting tall and muscular. I imagined it had, but I still had the same advantages and glimmers of talent in the pool. It wasn’t until I took a job coaching collegiate swimming that I regained my confidence in areas of fitness and realized I was still in excellent shape and could still compete with, and sometimes beat, the athletes I was coaching. After that realization, I easily shed any doubt I had in my physical ability as an athlete in the pool and on land. I would run and swim with the athletes in the spring practices. When I ran with them, there were two guys who could consistently beat me if they were in the race that day. In the pool, it wasn’t the same, I had to work quite a bit harder, but I could bust something out that was fast enough over a distance of 25-100 yards that I could beat some of the guys.
Swimming, lifting, and running all throughout college put me in the best physical shape I have ever been in. Having that physique once is like a drug sort of. You want it again, but as soon as your athletic career ends you truly realize how hard it is to get that body back. In a way, I’ve been trying to get it back since 2005. I love being in shape, but I admit, it’s also a body image thing. In a lot of scenarios I am the strongest guy in the room. That’s not what’s most im
portant to me, though. I usually value being the fittest guy in the room more than the fastest, strongest, etc. And part of that is being able to look in the mirror and see a six-pack or, at the very least, feel one hidden by no more than a thin layer of skin and some insulation. Sometimes it is hard to walk the line between being in great shape and being vain. And with the influence of advertising and other aspects of capitalism in America, one has to be hyper aware of what is possible in fitness and what is clearly fabricated—helped by Photoshop or a slew of performance enhancing drugs—and this documentary was acutely aware of that.
Bigger Stronger Faster* is, first and foremost, about steroids. However, by the end of the documentary the director and star of it, Chris Bell, concludes steroids isn’t his problem or his family’s problem, it is just one of many problems or side effects of being American. He interviews many people in the film, professional athletes, body builders, politicians, porn stars, students, musicians, and his family. And, surprisingly, he maintains a very objective stance in all interviews considering he comes from a family with three boys, two of which have been heavy steroid users for a majority of their lives.
One thing Mr. Bell makes very clear is that steroid or performance enh
ancers are present in nearly everything we do in America. What, you’re nervous before a concert? Pop some beta-blockers. You need a boost before you take off in your fighter jet? Here’s some speed. You need some help blasting through that test tomorrow? Well, here’s some Adderall.
If the film focuses on one area of steroid use more than any other, it’s the use of anabolic steroids by professional athletes. The obvious sports with offenders are mentioned: football, baseball, weightlifting, cycling, and track and field. But not swimming, and I wonder, why not? Personally, I never knew anyone who was taking any steroids while I was swimming. But I was at a D1 school in a mid-major conference. I wasn’t competing against the likes of Cal, Texas, Auburn, and Arizona. Those schools are where the Olympians swim, you know, just for fun, just to stay in shape. But we were all tested and the faster you swam, the more you got tested. By that I mean if you made the national team, the drug testers started knocking early and often.
The last swimming steroid scandal I remember is when a Chinese woman tested positive for some illegal substance. It was a while ago and not really shocking because her lats looked like albatross wings and her deltoids attached right below her ears. But honestly, I am shocked there hasn’t been more scandal. We love to see super human
beings doing super human things whether it’s on the court, on the track, or in the pool.
It is articulated in the movie that if one country, team or athlete is using performance-enhancing drugs, then everyone is likely using them. You have to “level the playing field”, right? Theoretically, that is what is going on. So, if it is going on, some level of drug use or another performance enhancing technique is being used in swimming. Again, I have never directly observed someone taking a drug to perform better in the pool, but I feel like it is inevitably happening throughout the sport. Just like in other sports, not everyone is doing it, but there must be some. Everyone wants to be the best. We love to cheat and take things that will work to our advantage. Whether it’s trying out Muscle Milk to see if it does anything (I am currently guilty of this) or making regular testosterone injections, it is all, to some degree, unnatural.
I began to think of what I would feel if a large steroid scandal broke within the swimming world. Obviously, as a former collegiate swimmer and a bit of a purist, I would be disappointed with all those involved. However, I arrive back at the likely truth that if one country’s athletes are taking them then athletes from other countries are on them too. And if everyone is on them, than is it cheating? Does it really change anything besides decreasing swim times across the board? Maybe. Maybe not.
In the 2008-2009 collegiate swim season, body suits had reached the peak in popularity and drag reduction. Speedo and Blue Seventy made suits that not onl
y reduced drag, but the Blue Seventy one especially made you feel like you floated right in that sweet spot on the surface of the water, which is very hard to achieve naturally. These suits cost anywhere from $150 to over $400. If you didn’t get one before your conference meet you were setting you and your team back. Even teams with the smallest budgets had to break the bank to outfit their conference teams in these highly specialized works of art which, I have to mention, are pretty much shot and useless after one week long meet.
Records were broken across all conferences and at NCAAs in the winter of 2009. It was astonishing to watch someone drop over a second in the 50 or two or three seconds in the 100 over the year before. The NCAA outlawed these suits in the 2009-2010 season. The current suits are a drag, literally, on the swimmer compared to their hyper evolved brethren of season’s past. But it was a joy to see a swimmer discover that they could go just as fast and faster after a $500 suit was taken away from them. This was one of the joys of the 2009-2010 season and, of course, hoisting a trophy over one’s head and jumping into the pool afterward.
At a major swim meet last year, the top eight swimmers agreed to race their championship heat in the traditional brief. They marched out on deck to a standing ovation. The crowd roared and applauded the swimmers’ decision to revert to the purest form of racing suit. I smiled the first time I heard the story. That’s great, I said. I hope, perhaps naively so, that everything else is pure too.