They call it “the Olympic spike.” Every four years non-mainstream sports are thrust into the limelight.
The country gets swept up in patriotic pride, coming together to back its athletes, some of whom are rarely recognized. And then, people get motivated.
“[Our enrollment] increases probably 10 percent around every Olympics,” said Mark Eldridge, a Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club coach and Rockville Municipal Swim Center Superintendent. “USA Swimming realizes it on a national level, they send out material on how to take advantage. I think it truly is the exposure. There's not a whole lot of a time where swimming is at the forefront. But the Olympics come on and its on prime time every night. People who might know of swimming never see it in as much glory as it is in the Olympics.”
Eldridge also said the success of the U.S. swim team adds to the piqued interest. Led by eight gold medals from Michael Phelps, Team USA won 31 medals in swimming at the 2008 Olympics in China, more than any other sport.
“There are a lot of great stories as to how those people became great swimmers,” Eldridge said. “It's not through just falling into the sport and becoming a superstar. It takes years of dedicated hard work. And certainly every swimmer looks at [himself] and has dreams of being in the Olympics.”
But it's not just about being the best.
A combination of factors contribute to the Olympic spike, including local ties, accessibility and the sheer cool factor of some of the more extreme sports.
With 12 Olympians, Maryland has the 13th-most of the 50 states. But they only make up 2 percent of the 530-athlete Team USA roster.
Six members of the Maryland contingent have ties to Montgomery County.
Montrose Christian graduate Kevin Durant (basketball) is the only mainstream athlete out of the bunch.
The others include Winston Churchill graduate David Banks (rowing), rising Stone Ridge sophomore Katie Ledecky (swimming), Bethesda's Julie Zetlin (rhythmic gymnastics) and kayakers Scott Parsons (Bethesda) and Caroline Queen (Darnestown).
Joe Jacobi, the chief executive officer of USA Canoe/Kayak and a Bethesda native, said two local athletes and the adventurous appeal of whitewater kayaking could be a huge draw for the small sport.
The Potomac River, one of the few bodies of water in the nation that runs through a major metropolitan area and also provides consistent whitewater, and the Dickerson Whitewater Course, built in 1992 as North America's first artificial whitewater course, have made the Washington Metropolitan Area a mecca for the extreme water sport.
“I think you'll probably hear similar things from all the different sports, but the opportunity to take this very traditionally small sport and have the opportunity to be seen on the world stage is incredible,” said Jacobi, a 1992 Olympic gold medalist. “It really brings credibility, status and opportunity. And I think a lot, as an organization, we try to think a little more strategically about it, what people want to remember and how we want canoe/kayak to stand out.”
Queen has done a particularly good job, he added, at being accessible to her fans through social media.
Banks came back to visit this winter with the newly formed Churchill crew team.
Though no Montgomery County diver qualified for the London Olympics, Montgomery County Recreation hosted the 11-athlete U.S. Olympic Diving Team for a four-day training session Thursday through Sunday.
All practices were open to the public and athletes took the time to talk to young fans and sign autographs.
Second-year Montgomery Dive Club Program Director Doug Beavers said that accessibility and exposure to the highest level of diving is a huge formative experience that he hopes will help generate even more local interest in the sport.
“The reality is, these are good-looking young men and women standing up there in incredible condition performing under the greatest pressure you could possibly imagine,” Eldridge said. “America can take a lot of pride in the fact that we have the best swim team in the world. And people get reminded of that every four years.”