2011 Minneapolis Grand Prix


Back in the, er… Kneepads

It’s the start of a new swim season, and I have to say I’m stoked.  Partly it’s because I love to travel, but mostly I’m excited about achieving a longstanding goal: photographing an entire USA Swimming Grand Prix from start to finish.  This being an Olympic year, London looms large in the minds of all deck walkers, and it’s bringing out the best in National Team veterans and hopefuls alike.  It’s also bringing some of our best back into the pool: Hansen, Evans, Ervin… I can’t wait to see how it all unfolds!  On a personal note, I also can’t wait to kick off the season hanging out in Minneapolis with the TakeItLive crew, my friends from LA who stream the Grand Prix live to your iPad, and with my friend Tommy, the rock star (literally) coder who wrote the software for my shopping cart.

Killer Instinct

The swimming in Minnesota didn’t disappoint.  I’ve photographed Michael Phelps many times before, and it’s always the case that the wire photographers focus on him to a fault.  This time, however, he really was the story.  Not so much because of his times, which were blazing as usual, but for a reason that’s as hard to articulate as it is to see from the stands.  The best way I can describe it is this: the look in his eye says Phelps is back to taking swimming seriously.  No more losing the 200 Fly.

For whatever reason, I’ve never seen Phelps look hungry like this since I started shooting fulltime in 2009.

Standing close enough to swat him with a kickboard, I could literally feel the energy in Phelps’s start Saturday night.  It was like a dirty bomb of ATP going off on deck, and it startled me.  I mean, in your head you know he’s fast.  But you don’t really get a sense of just how explosive he is until you’re that close.  Maybe I’ve just never noticed it before, but my take is that Phelps is tired of losing events he knows he can win and with the one competition that truly matters to him a clip meet away, he’s ready to compete for-realskies again.

Brendan Hansen was the other swimmer conspicuously sporting the “eye of the tiger” in Minneapolis. To my knowledge, he hasn’t said as much on record, but the look in his eye says, “the rest of you guys are playing for second.”  For my part, I’m glad to see him competing again, and I even have to acknowledge a small part of me that enjoys seeing 30 by his name in the heat sheet.  He’s no Dara Torres, but seeing him still swimming at the highest level somehow makes me feel better about turning the big 3-0 in April…

Hansen prefers to wear his heart on his swim cap instead of his sleeve.

Here’s a gallery of my shots from the meet:


Best Money I’ve Spent in a While

Outside the swimming, Minneapolis was a great time.  I kicked it concierge style with Chris (a.k.a Big Clundie) and the TakeItLive crüe (a.k.a. America’s Stream Team a.k.a. LiveSwim.net) for the duration, and we even had the good fortune of meeting Tubby Smith on the way to the pool one morning while feeding my bagel addiction.  It also may or may not be the case that we ate a power lunch at an undisclosed location Thursday before touring White House Custom Colour, one of the nation’s largest and best photo labs.

Hanging out with the boys – Ms. Cludnie is watching!

The coolest part of the meet was getting picked up last-minute by USA Swimming to shoot the Golden Goggles next weekend(!) in LA.  I’ve had this on my radar, especially since the Catalina Swing Dance Festival is also next weekend, but I hadn’t heard back about whether or not I’d be shooting it.  When I got the good news, I immediately booked my flight and full weekend pass for Catalina SDF from the media room (well, media hallway anyway).  You know it’s going to be a good event when the suggested attire is top hats and tails one night and zoot suits the next.

So there I was, owner of a freshly minted Golden Ticket, thoughtlessly babbling on about my own good fortune in the media hallway, when fate smiled upon me one last time: I caught the ear of PressWire’s stringer for the event, the friendly and talented Greg Smith.  A fellow romantic, Greg suggested I fly my fiancé, Megan, out for Catalina too.  10 minutes later, Megan had both a cross-country flight and a hole punched on her dance card.  Next weekend is going to be – wait for it – legendary!

Twin Cities Swing

I should have mentioned: I’m a bit of a swing dance junkie in addition to being quasi-homeless.  My particular vice is the lindy hop, an 8-count version of swing I learned from Eric and Stephanie Simpson while teaching high school English.  As part of my Grand Prix Odyssey this season, I plan to hit up the local lindy hop scenes, and I got things started off on the right foot with Twin Cities Swing at the Social Dance Studio in Minneapolis:

The place was packed – what a great scene!

Yours truly

I CANNOT WAIT for next weekend – stay tuned for images and stories from the Best Coast!

America’s Swim Photographer

Well!  This post has certainly been a long time in coming, and I think the way to begin in earnest is to relay a brief history of how I came to my current self-proclaimed role as America’s Swim Photographer…

The Journey Begins

The journey begins with with my time as a 35y freestyler at Georgia Tech: it was pretty fast.  The full 50y, however, nothing to write home about.  Perhaps my crowning athletic achievement at Tech was being out-touched by Anthony Ervin in the 12.5y freestyle by .03 seconds (Ervin’s 3.82 to my 3.85) in a high-altitude sprinter’s delight versus Cal Berkeley my sophomore year.  We’d moved the bulkhead in at Colorado Springs during Christmas training to practice breakouts and turns, and I guess the coaches thought it’d be fun to see if Ervin could break 30 seconds on a 7-flipturn 100.  I’m still good to give “the old college try” for 3.85 seconds to most activities.

I’d love to post some sweet action pics of myself shredding water, but unfortunately I have only this hatchet job GT Sports Information used on me for four years and a few loosely composed, super-noisy pictures my dad took from the stands at one of our dual meets:

I’m fairly sure our team nutritionist, Rob Skinner, shot this (he was, at the time, an avid amateur photog).  And I thought we were friends…

So I was a swimmer in college, and one of my hobbies was taking pictures of my friends with the Nikon F601 film body my dad had given me to use on my first trip abroad.  The thing I liked best about photography at that time was getting pictures back after I’d eventually exposed a whole roll of film – always a happy memory I’d forgotten!

The Journey Gets Slightly Closer to Talking about Swimming Photography

In addition to being a lactic-acid-plagued water type and hobbyist photographer, I was also a summer league swim coach in my glory days for the Leafmore Creek Park Dolphins of Decatur, GA.  Notorious for the funky chicken cheer I learned from Jim McGinnis (the current Head Coach of Tidal Wave Swimming), I loved being “Coach Mike” and letting the 6-and-Unders draw on me with sharpies to get themselves pumped up for their races.  Our team parents had put the ix-nay on ceremonially scalping a fake stingray (shark, marlin, etc.), but seeing me chicken walking around the pool under the influence of sharpie fumes seemed to do the job of intimidating most other teams’ 6-year-olds.

Pictured here is David, one of my favorite swimmers of all time.  He’d grown his hair out all summer to prepare for county, and I got to give him his war mullet.  You may have seen swimmers like Dan Madwed of Club Wolverine sporting mustachios around the Grand Prix as a Samsonian tribute to David.

One fateful day while I was coaching, I got the bright idea of buying a waterproof housing for my Canon S50 pocket camera so we could have cool pictures to include in the banquet slideshow.  Here’s a selection of some of my favorites:

I love the angle of the action shots because you get a natural view of the swimmers’ faces when they’re not gasping for a quick breath between strokes.  The surface lighting is also neat, and the ripples provide an interesting background without being overly distracting.  One day I intend to resume taking underwater action shots commercially.

I thought the images really turned out well, and having a touch of the entrepreneurial spirit, I decided I’d try to sell the pictures to our team parents as a supplement to my coaching and swim lessons income.  So I bought a couple of 6’ tables, had a banner made for “Coach Mike Photography” at the local Fast Signs, and setup a fledgling e-commerce site.

More Matter, with Less Art

Thus were the beginnings of my life as a full-time sports photographer.  Bitten hard by the photo bug, I started buying Popular Photography at the grocery store and commandeered my dad’s D70 and 80-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor for action shots above water (this has become a tradition: I now shoot with his D700 body, which I borrowed after having to sell both of my D700s to raise cash in 2010).  My big break came when meet director ne plus ultra Ed Saltzman called me out of the blue one day because he needed a last-minute stand-in to cover the 2006 Southern Zone meet in Atlanta.  He’d apparently heard I was shooting some local summer league meets.  Having no clue what the job would require, I put a used Nikon D2H, first-generation autofocus (push/pull) 80-200, and a couple of laptop computers on my credit card.  I also enlisted the help of my dad and a few of my friends – Terry Bardagjy, Daniel Truran, and Dr. Joe Weissman – who didn’t know better than to say “no.”  Despite losing a disk of original images and almost burning up my dad’s flash with AAs during awards, we had a lot of fun and learned a lot too at Zones that first year.

Since then, whenever people have asked what exactly it is that I do, I tell them I’m a full-time event and editorial photographer who only covers the sport of swimming.  Our site relays our mission: “to bring true professional photojournalism to swimmers and their families.”  By this I mean I want to give Joe Swimmer (like myself) who has invested an enormous amount of time, effort, and resources in a largely unglamorous sport, the opportunity to have his picture taken during the peak of his physical fitness and doing the sport he’s sacrificed his otherwise wavy and well hydrated hair to.  It means telling the “story” of a race – behind the blocks, dive, action, finish, talking to coach, and anything I can add by way of details – before photographing the swimmer two heats later on the other side of the pool.

It also means delivering quality.  Until last year, USA Swimming (USAS) hired Getty Images to do all of their event photography on the Grand Prix and at international competitions with good reason: their photographers lead the industry in creative imagery.  When I was first getting into all of this, Donald Miralle (a member of UCLA’s last men’s swim team), was one of Getty’s big guns, and his work has been the inspiration for what I do.  Though I’ve never met him, I owe him a debt of gratitude for showing me through his work how to think outside of the frame and push the limits of what’s possible in a 2D medium.  I modeled ProSwim’s Web site after his, and I’m sincerely hoping to meet him at Trials this year.

Fin (Sorry, Can’t Resist a Pun)

I said “until last year” for Getty’s USAS coverage because in 2011 they hired me to cover three events on the Grand Prix instead.  Miralle, I believe, no longer shoots on staff for Getty (only special events), and I’m sure it’s less expensive for USAS to hire me.  But the victory here in my eyes is that the quality I’m producing is on par with what USAS would expect to use in Splash. This year, you’ll see images I’ve taken at Trials and at every Grand Prix leading up to London on www.usaswimming.org -> News -> SwimCam Galleries.  Here is a direct link.

Here’s me on deck shooting for USAS at PanPacs in 2010.

So why “America’s Swim Photographer”?  I’d like to think it’s not hubris, but rather my contribution to USAS’s America’s Swim Team campaign.  As a member of America’s Swim Team, age groupers around the country get to feel the camaraderie of being a part of Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin’s same team.  As America’s Swim Photographer, I want to ensure Joe Swimmer has the same access to truly professional photography as do his superhuman teammates.

Hello world!

UP! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

-W. Wordsworth

Two years ago today, I left my job teaching English at a North Carolina public high school to become a full-time sports photographer.  It has been an amazing journey, and through this blog, I hope to share a little bit about the passion that has taken me across the country and back and the pictures I’ve taken along the way.

Mike Comer

UP! up! my Friend, and quit your books; 

Or surely you’ll grow double:

Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;

Why all this toil and trouble?

-W. Wordsworth

Two years ago today, I left my job teaching English at a North Carolina public high school to become a full-time sports photographer. It has been an amazing journey, and through this blog, I hope to share a little bit about the passion that has taken me across the country and back and the pictures I’ve shot along the way.

~Mike Comer