The U.S. swim team has been on fire in Rio, thanks in part to gold medal winning moments from Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Lilly King.
Moments like these make USA Swimming CMO Matt Farrell’s job easier, he admits. “I think anyone could be chief marketer of USA Swimming during the Michael Phelps era,” he laughs. “We’re always thinking about how to ride the Olympic wave. If I sit next to somebody on a plane and tell them I work for USA Swimming, the first question they ask me is, ‘What do you do the other three years [between the Olympics]?'”
USA Swimming actually takes Olympic moments and uses them to stoke membership on swim teams throughout the year. “Because the U.S. swim team has been so strong, if we did nothing, we’d probably see growth. But what we try to do is add jet fuel to it, to make the wave bigger,” Farrell said.
USA Swimming definitely enjoys an “Olympic bump”: There was a 7 percent increase in swimmers after the Athens Olympics in 2004, an 11 percent increase after Beijing in 2008, and a 13 percent increase after London in 2012. A typical non-Olympic year has a one to two percent increase in growth, Farrell said.
To keep interest in swimming high, USA Swimming works with local swim teams on their recruitment programs. This year, the organization launched adorable ads with home videos of today’s Olympians like Phelps, Ledecky and Ryan Lochte swimming as kids, and encouraged swimmers to post their own content under the hashtag #SwimUnited.
“It’s become a rallying cry for the sport, and it’s how we stand out among the Olympic team. We’re trying to create attention, just like gymnastics, track and field and judo are,” Farrell said.
The stars of the Rio Olympics are helping them do just that: Ledecky has so far won two individual gold medals in Rio, and is likely to add more to her tally. King got kudos from fans and media for calling out – and then defeating –Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova, who was twice suspended for doping before the Rio games. Phelps, who captured his 21st gold medal last night, starred in one of the games’ hottest memes: #PhelpsFace, his reaction to a bizarre shadowboxing routine by South African swimmer Chad Le Clos before the semifinals of the 200m butterfly, which Phelps later took gold in.
Moments like these are bound to inspire future generations of swimmers, Farrell said.
“We think [#PhelpsFace] is hilarious. We always want to talk about swimming beyond who touched the wall first,” he said. “Katie Ledecky, as a person, just personifies talking about swimming beyond splits and times. We embrace it, and love it. What Lilly King has done as a 19-year-old, to have the guts to say what she thinks, to speak out against drugs, is amazing. You want to see people be genuine and authentic and show personality, and we’re getting that in spades right now.”