Taped above Ed Moses' locker in the University of Virginia Men's Swimming locker room was a slip of paper with four words on it: "Nothing's easy, nothing's hard." That was in the fall of 1999, when I was visiting UVa as a prospective student-athlete. It was less than two years after Ed first swam a serious workout in the pool and less than nine months before he would win a relay gold and an individual silver at the Olympic Games in Sydney.
"I still try to live by that today," Ed says over the phone. "It's not going to be easy, what I have to do. It's one of the hardest things in the world to do, to be the best at swimming. But at the same time, it's not going to be too hard to do. You've got to believe in yourself. If you want a way, you're going to find a way."
Most people in Ed's position, regardless of how much belief in themselves they could muster, would consider what he is attempting quite hard indeed – so hard, in fact, as to seem nothing shy of impossible. After a meteoric rise to success and fame in 2000 that kept Ed in the swimming limelight for four years, he missed the 2004 Olympic Team by a tenth of a second and, staggeringly disappointed, Ed walked away from the sport.
He stayed away -- far away -- for almost six years. Until the fall of 2010, Ed says, "It was never, 'When I’m ready I'll come back.' It was, 'I am not coming back.'"
But against all his prognostications and against quite a few odds, Ed is back in the pool and back on the list of Olympic Trials entrants, giving the sport's ultimate laurel wreath one more run for its money.
Nothing's easy -- Ed Moses has that right. But has he finally chosen something too hard?
The hardest part, at least between now and June 25, 2012, when Olympic Trials begin, is obvious. Moses has to return to form from a six-year layoff. Most Olympic hopefuls train with at least a two-year planning horizon, and the majority of them have not taken any time off. "Swimming is a feel sport," Ed says. "It's something you can easily lose touch with. I’m glad I never got out of shape, but six years out of the water definitely hurt me."
Without a succession of periods of intense work followed by rest and a fast meet behind him, Moses hasn't had the opportunity to step back and assess which parts of the training regimen are working and which parts need tweaking. His first opportunity to do so will be this week at USA Swimming Nationals. In lieu of this kind of trial, error and adjustment, Ed is relying on faith and sheer determination. Which is part of what vaulted him to stardom in the first place.
He's got help in the form of Dave Salo, head coach at the University of Southern California and one of the most respected short-distance coaches in the world. A veritable all-star crew has assembled itself around Salo this year, including several of Ed's contenders: Eric Shanteau, Mike Alexandrov, Irish breastroke sensation Andrew Bree, and Japan's Kosuke Kitajima, who won gold in both the 100- and 200-meter events at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, and is widely considered the world’s greatest breastroker.
"It gets pretty aggressive," Ed says excitedly, "Every day of the year, you’re either trying to get the lane beside someone and race fifties or hundreds, or they’re behind you chasing you."
And "race" is exactly what they do. The traditional swimming philosophy holds that the best kind of yardage is more yardage, which usually requires at least 10 workouts a week. Salo, on the other hand, is a firm believer that older swimmers, especially sprinters, should train very fast only once a day.
The arrangement is perfect for Ed. Some swimmers love to train, love living a life that demands they swim long hours in the pool twice a day. Perhaps because he grew up swinging golf clubs on courses up and down the mid-Atlantic seaboard instead of swimming endless repeats facedown in a pool, though, Ed has always found swim practice to be somewhat tedious.
"Swimming is probably the ultimate sport where there’s not a lot of enjoyment that you get out of it when you train," he says. "You’re pushing your body 24/7 for very little enjoyment."
Enduring the pain and routine of Olympic-level training requires a special kind of determination. Just about every great swimmer has that near-masochism in droves. While Moses has proven, both early in his career and since returning to the pool, that he has the temperament and ability to push himself to be the best, he's also shown one can only trudge for so long. "At my age," he says, "it's hard to put in so much swim yardage. Not just from the reps, but from the monotony."
Between 2000 and 2004, Moses spent about a third of his workout hours outside the pool, and today that ratio tilts even further in favor of dryland. "From medicine balls to weights to different types of yoga," Ed says, "I spend almost equal amounts of time doing dryland as I do swimming." Putting so much emphasis on training outside the pool may very well be a "double-edged sword," as Ed calls it, but he finds the variety necessary "just so I don’t go crazy."
Another way Moses maintains his mental balance is through his ongoing work. Swim clinics, speaking engagements, golf charities and a host of social and business engagements he has developed over the last six years keep him constantly on the go. In 2008, Ed co-founded Mojo Marketing and Media, a sports marketing corporation whose unique mission, according to its Web site, is to develop sporting events that not only entertain, but also "encourage people to fully develop their personal social conscience."
While some of his ventures have had to be sacrificed, Mojo has continued to do well since Ed got back in the pool, primarily because his work schedule is flexible. And he says pursuing his other passion in life simultaneously to swimming offers a measure of security and confidence.
"It's been a blessing to have that," he says. "It's been my insurance policy. Not that I think I’m going to fail, because this whole process is about being successful, but if I’m not, I’ve already set up my life in other aspects that I love and that I’m successful in. I think it helps my swimming out even more right now."
One of Mojo's central tenets, Moses says, is to change "the psychology of 'giving back' -- to shift social responsibility and social conscience from a private to a mass market issue." This amalgamation of promotion and goodwill is evident in many facets of Ed's life. A longtime proponent of and participant in charitable ventures, such as Ronald McDonald House and the Mario Lemieux Foundation, Ed he knows he will continue in this vein when his swimming career ends again – whenever that may be.
In addition to charity work, though, he also plans to give back to the sport of swimming in ways that most other athletes cannot, and has a large-scale strategy to change the landscape in ways that no other swimmer today can.
As in most countries, swimmers in America struggle to find the time and especially the money to continue pursuing their Olympic dreams. Training between 40 and 50 hours a week, elite swimmers are often forced to postpone plans for careers outside the pool. Many of the world’s best succumb to the financial and emotional strain on themselves and their families and give up their passion in order to live a more sustainable lifestyle. This is a decision that Ed is familiar with, having made a similar one in 2004.
Ed's knack for business and his exposure through golf to sports marketing prepared him well to match his rapid rise to success in the pool with an equally accelerated rise to fame outside of it. He is a born personality -- photogenic, confident, witty, and always eager to supply the press with quotable forecasts or reflections -- and he made the most of his decision to relinquish his NCAA amateur status after two years of college swimming and turn pro. With a short course world record and two Olympic medals in 2000, Ed received media exposure and corporate endorsements far in excess of anything previously seen in the swimming world.
After missing the Olympic Team in 2004, however, and with the ascension of Michael Phelps in full swing, Moses faced a financial plateau and he quickly grew disillusioned with the sport and its rigorous demands.
"When I left swimming originally, I thought, "You’re wasting your time,'" Ed says. "'You've got to start setting up your life.'" A few months after 2004 Trials, Ed found himself thinking he was "doing the same [stuff] over and over again. It was my job. Seeing the same people every day. The same alarm going off every day. That’s not five months out of the year. What a lot of people don’t understand is that it’s, say, 350 days out of 365. There’s no off season."
Ed disappeared from the swimming world entirely. "I just left. I could not face it anymore. So I just picked up and left and went down to Florida so I didn’t have to hear it."
While the time away from the pool allowed him to "get my passion back" and "find myself again," Ed speaks with regret about the manner in which he left the sport. "I think I was selfish in walking away and taking everything I had learned and everything I had gained," he says. "I really want to do other things to help promote [the sport] and help get it out there. I think the stuff that I’m doing with Mojo is good, so I’m going to put a lot of emphasis on that and that’ll kind of bridge the gap for me from a personal perspective."
This motivation is part of what compels Ed’s every move. He considers himself a model for what the sport could be, and in point of fact his entire project leading up to the 2012 Olympic Games provides a prototype for a new celebrity American swimmer. While this may seem far-fetched to those who only tune into the summer Olympic Games every four years, and may seem like a pipe dream to many within the swimming community, Ed has concrete plans on how to begin boosting swimming into the pantheon of popular American sports.
A decade ago, this would not have been possible. At that time, swimming was still something to fill the downtime between track and field events and gymnastics routines. The sport has boomed, but not because of him. "We needed swimming to be the biggest sport at the summer Olympics," Ed says. "I think we got there. Michael [Phelps] brought it to the forefront."
The next step is to ensure that swimming does not fade from the general American sporting consciousness between Olympics. To do that, the focus needs to narrow from the Olympics to the Olympians, from swimming to swimmers. "Now it’s all about opening it up and getting the characters that are out there. Once [audiences] are exposed to the people and the lives inside the sport, then they’ll start to love it more and more. There are people out there that have kids, that have jobs, that can’t find a dollar and they’re the best swimmers in the world."
That, of course, is something that would come easily to the enormously likable Moses. So, by leveraging Mojo Marketing and his contacts in the production world, Ed has taken it upon himself to create the first mainstream reality swimming show -- about himself.
Stroke Kings, originally conceived to co-star and standout American swimmer Ryan Lochte, was set to debut on Universal Sports in early July. Lochte has since bowed out, pushing the start date back and leaving Ed to anchor a show that, according to the show’s Facebook page, "delves into the rigorous training of Olympic swimmers who struggle to resist being consumed by the seductions of celebrity and overcome personal hurdles."
While he is not at liberty to disclose exactly who will be some of the other swimmers involved in the show, Ed has said that Stroke Kings will feature a host of international athletes that "will really open up the sport of swimming worldwide."
"The whole show started with how I wanted to do this comeback," Ed says. "I wanted people to see what kind of person I am and just show people that I’m no different, that I came up from the same roots that most people did that get into sports,"
Ed believes heightening the entertainment value of swimming is a step in the right direction of expanding the audience of -- and therefore the endorsement opportunities for -- swimmers. "That’s the goal of everything that I’m trying to do with Universal," he says.
Along with Stroke Kings, Ed says he has "several other shows" with swimmers and other athletes that he hopes to get up and running prior to the Olympics next summer.
The fact of the matter is that Ed is in a perfect position to effect the kind of change he believes the sport needs to get it to the next level of professionalization. Mark Spitz may have had the name recognition, but there was no money to be had in the 1970s and the idea of a professional swimmer was unthinkable. Michael Phelps' celebrity has far surpassed Spitz's, and he inaugurated an era of corporate sponsorship previously unseen. But Phelps never intended to take up all the available money in the sponsorship world. Moses believes he has a chance to put the pieces together to make swimming entertaining year-round to audiences whose size and variety have heretofore been unimaginable.
The question remains whether swimming, which to the vast majority of athletes is an all-or-nothing sport, will reward someone with as many irons in as many different fires as Ed maintains.
Should he make the U.S. Olympic Team next year, Ed would be the second oldest male swimmer to do so in 88 years (Jason Lezak, who is pursuing his fourth Olympic Team, was also 32, in 2008; Duke Kahanamoku was 33 in 1924). The last, but far from the least, of the things that has not changed since Ed first started chasing Olympic gold at age 19 is his motivation. "Sometimes I look back on that and I feel like I'm the exact same person," he says. "I don’t feel like that is someone I can’t relate to, because I can."
It has not been that way since he first got back in the water last fall. "Ten months ago," Ed says, "I think if you asked the people around me they would say that I tried to portray the image that it was 100 percent different. It was about a path that I wanted to at least try and attempt. The first six to eight months, it was about filling a void."
Over the six years he was out of the pool, Ed attempted to reignite his golf game, but continued to fall just shy of making the PGA Tour. His competitive drive needed an outlet. Originally put in the water at 17 to help rehabilitate a golf injury, Ed says, "swimming was something I found quick success in and that satisfied my competitive edge. I wasn’t getting that fix with golf."
The last time he dedicated his energy to swimming, Ed made it into the highest echelons of the sport in record time. "I don't know if that's good in my life or bad in my life that I had so much success in swimming so quickly -- I don't want to say easily -- because it creates this impatience that I have in a lot of stuff that I do in my life." Since he could substitute swim training for the amount of time he was spending on the course and the range, he weighed his options and decided. "It's only a year and a half, and it's not like I have to change a lot of aspects of my life."
In the beginning, when all the signs began pointing him towards a comeback, Ed says, "I gathered up all that information and asked, 'What if I did?' I really couldn't see anything that really hurt me. I convinced myself the results didn't even matter. But that 'What if I didn’t try' -- I'd have to answer that for many, many years.”
Within the last three moths or so, however, since his fitness and feel in the water have come around, his perspective has changed from that of someone setting out simply to fulfill a personal quest. The success he’s had thus far in his comeback has "satisfied that competitive edge a little bit," and every week closer to Trials edges him ever closer to that myopic and intensely driven competitor who swam to medals in 2000.
"The scales have started to tip again," he says. "I knew there was going to come a point when it was going to change to 'Okay, you put yourself out there, people are saying things and have expectations for you and now you’re going to have to go and fulfill them.' That's just my personality. I really care about what other people think, about upholding an image that I hold myself accountable for."
The next 300-plus days will determine whether Ed lives up to that image -- and to the hype he has created for himself.
But when it comes down to it, Moses knows the hype is really after the fact. The final event -- any championship athletic event, the contest itself and the competitors within it -- is focused down to the narrowest aperture of the physical capabilities of a handful of men or women. At the moment of competition, all else -- all hype, all personality, all accomplishment or experience not directly related to physical performance -- becomes utterly immaterial. What are left are individuals and their respective preparation.
Having swum in such contests before, having both won and failed such contests, Moses is fully aware of what is required of him between now and June. What will ultimately matter the most when he steps up on the blocks will be the honest measure of his devotion to his dreams. "When you stand on the blocks and you look around and you ask, 'Did I do everything I could to make myself the best?,'" he says, "if you can answer that 'yes' then I think that you're winning, that you understand what dedication is."