Pro swimming league launches with radical commitment to gender equality

"This is a step in the right direction."

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 19: Competitive swimmer Ryan Murphy (L) and Simone Manuel speak during the 2018 Golden Goggle Awards on November 19, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 19: Competitive swimmer Ryan Murphy (L) and Simone Manuel speak during the 2018 Golden Goggle Awards on November 19, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

Outside of tennis Grand Slams, gender equality is not a concept that is embraced by professional sports, particularly not team sports.

But the International Swimming League (ISL) is changing all of that. This week, the ISL announced its four U.S. teams: Los Angeles Current, DC Trident, San Francisco-based Cali Condors, and New York Breakers.

In addition to the fact that it is the first pro sports league for elite swimmers, the ISL stands out because each team will be balanced in terms of gender, with 12 women and 12 men competing on each team. The leadership will be balanced, too. Two of the four general managers are women — Kaitlin Sandeno in Washington, D.C., and Tina Andrew in New York. (There will be four teams in Europe, too, though they have not been officially announced yet.)

According to Sandeno, a gold medalist from the 2004 Olympic Games, gender equality was a founding principle of the league.


“Bringing in a female G.M. was definitely something that was high on their priorities,” Sandeno told ThinkProgress. “I just jumped at the chance. I thought it was amazing for our sport, and for women in sports.”

She wasn’t the only one excited about the progressive vision for the sport. It was a big reason why world record holder Katie Ledecky agreed to join the Trident and serve as an ISL ambassador.

“Jumping in the pool for the ISL really means a new era for women since it’s one of the first leagues to emphasize gender equality as one of its values,” Ledecky told the Washington Post.

In addition to Ledecky, top American swimmers Nathan Adrian, Simone Manuel, and Ryan Murphy will all compete in the ISL and serve as its ambassadors. Swimmers will sign a contract with their individual teams and a contract with the ISL as a whole, providing them with multiple avenues for revenue streams.

According to Inside The Games, the launch of the ISL wasn’t all smooth sailing. Konstantin Grigorishin, a Ukrainian businessman who is funding the league, believes that swimmers should accept nothing less than 50 percent of revenues from competition organizers — a concept that has created clashes with FINA, the international governing body for swimming. FINA’s own accounts show that it only shares 12.5% of revenues with its athletes via prize money.


FINA has shown reluctance to sanction ISL competitions. Late last year, for instance, the ISL was forced to cancel a test event in Italy when FINA said that any swimmers who took part in the event would face bans. In January, FINA walked back that threat, following a class-action antitrust lawsuit filed by three top associates of the ISL.

“This is a step in the right direction to free swimmers to compete more and earn more,” said Andrea di Nino, managing director of the ISL. “FINA’s capitulation comes in reaction to ISL’s and elite swimmers antitrust lawsuits that exposed FINA’s illegal threatened ban of swimmers who participate in ISL’s events”

The meets will begin October 4, and be held nearly every weekend through November 24, with the finals taking place in Las Vegas, Nevada, December 20-21. The format will include fast-paced short-track competitions, in which each individual or relay swimmer will be competing to earn points for his or her team as a whole.

Sandeno is busy at work in D.C. hiring a team — one that she wants to be predominantly female, from her team manager to the team doctor to the coaches to the physical therapist.

“I just believe that I’m given an opportunity to make a difference and break some glass ceilings,” Sandeno said. “And I believe there’s some very strong women coaches out there.”

There are a lot of details still to figure out — from sponsors to broadcast partners to exact prize money amounts — but so far, there is a lot of excitement and star power supporting the budding league, which hopes to provide swimmers with the same year-round, money-making opportunities available to other elite athletes. Building something new is never easy, but it’s much easier to put the work in when values are properly aligned.


“We’re creating new opportunities, we’re being so progressive,” Sandeno said. “And at the same time, it kind of makes me sad that this is like, unheard of. But I’m so honored to have this opportunity.”