Every four years competitive swimming has a very big moment. For two weeks there’s global interest in the mechanics of the breast, back and butterfly strokes, the art of the dolphin kick and converting meters into lengths of a swimming pool. Rewind through the years, months and days of training leading up to that point, and it isn’t difficult to grasp the high stakes, huge pressure and life-changing rewards that come with Olympic territory or why many gifted swimmers never reach that level.
Back in the day, Stephen Frink could hold his own in the pool, enough so that swimming landed him a college scholarship, but not so much that he was dueling with Olympic contenders.
While he did leave the competitive swimming pool, he never left the water and picked up a camera shortly after school. Frink has a way with whale sharks, grouper, coral reefs and other marine life that has landed his photographs of such subjects in the pages of Newsweek, Time and Scuba Diving magazines and for clients such as American Express, Rolex and Victoria’s Secret. A prolific marine photographer, Frink has traveled the globe capturing life in the water. He spent 17 years with Skin Diver magazine, nine years with Scuba Diving magazine as director of photography and is now the publisher of Alert Diver magazine. He’s also a Canon Explorer of Light and is the only marine specialist within this elite group of photographers.
Still very connected to his former sport, Frink also shoots America’s top-ranked swimmers as they train for the Olympics. Before the 2008 Games, Gary Hall Sr., who’s a three-time Olympic medalist in swimming and whose son, Gary Hall Jr., won 10 medals over three Games, opened a training camp for elite swimmers in the Florida Keys, where Frink lives. There, he was able to get up close with the swimmers in practice, shooting them from angles and at distances that aren’t possible during a race.
“With most of the other sports photographers, this all has to be done with remote cameras because they’re shooting these athletes in competition,” says Frink. “For me, it’s not so much about execution; it’s more about training, and that allows me to be in the water with them.”
To get those below-the-swimmer shots that become crucial when a race is tight, cameras are set up at the bottom of the pool and controlled using a handheld trigger to operate the shutter. Without the pressure of a race, Frink is able to swim along with his subjects as they prepare for competition. In this setting, his access is more intimate, plus he gets to shoot outside under more favorable lighting conditions. What’s more, he understands the athleticism, talent and discipline needed to reach the upper echelons of this sport and that, in turn, helps him see and capture those moments that reveal the essence of competitive swimming today.