As a kid, nothing about the origin story of non-MCU Marvel supervillain Tiger Shark struck me as being out of the ordinary. Athletic dynamo Todd Arliss was simply the best aquatic athlete in the world during his era, effortlessly racking up simultaneous Olympic gold medals in all of the swimming and diving events before circumstances prevailed and led him down the path of evil.
But as an adult — and having just witnessed another Olympic rotation pass us by — this now strikes me as totally preposterous. Despite swimmers and divers frequently sharing the same water and competing on the same teams, swimming and diving are two entirely different sports that attract two very different types of athletes. And it’s certainly something no actual human has ever come close to accomplishing — not even Michael Phelps or Mark Spitz, as close to an IRL version of Arliss I can think of, have sniffed such an Olympic feat. So is this merely more comic-book fantasy, or could Tiger Shark’s aquatic triumphs actually be replicated someday?
At first, University of Florida head swimming coach Anthony Nesty was surprisingly optimistic about the idea. “Can someone be world class in both swimming and diving? Can both be done? Of course!” he tells me. “Sometimes you look at what athletes these days can do and you just say, ‘Wow!’ Nothing surprises me anymore.”
He speaks from experience. In 1988, Nesty shocked the world at the Seoul Olympics by defeating favored American Matt Biondi in the 100-meter butterfly by one one-hundredth of a second. In winning the race, Nesty captured a gold medal for his home nation of Suriname, becoming the first Black athlete in history to win Olympic gold in swimming.
That said, he immediately reconsidered the possibility of someone achieving the “Tiger Shark” after thinking about the differences in body types between divers and swimmers. “In swimming, you want your body to be like a canoe,” he explains. “You want the long, skinny vessel because it goes faster. You can’t teach height, and if you have it, it’s a good thing. The average world-class diver’s height is like 5-foot-7. In the world of swimming, that’s small. Swimmers also have to factor in starts and turns, and if I’m 5-foot-11 and you’re 5-foot-7, I automatically have the upper hand, especially if we’re talking about world-class athletes.”
Florida diving coach Bryan Gillooly, who is a highly accomplished diver in his own right, agrees. “Generally we’re shorter than swimmers,” he tells me. “That really stands out at the NCAA Championships, where I just came from. I’m walking around at the waist level of some of the swimmers there. You can tell who’s a diver and who’s not when you’re at these meets. There was a guy from Arizona who was 6-foot-2, and he was freakishly tall for a diver — and that would be average for a swimmer, if not on the short side. It helps to be shorter in diving; you can spin faster and things like that. Heights can vary a little bit, but shorter guys generally have the advantage. The guy who won the NCAA diving championship this year is 5-foot-6.”
And although Gillooly believes it would be easier for a trained diver to transition to swimming than vice versa, he doesn’t think a diver could ever generate the endurance necessary to be competitive as a swimmer at the highest levels. “Swimming is endurance heavy, and diving requires a specific skill set with gymnastics, flexibility, spatial awareness and spotting the water,” he explains. “With shorter races that don’t require as much endurance, maybe you could toy with that a little bit more, but once you get past 100 yards or meters, divers don’t have the time to put in to get that kind of endurance.”
Similarly, Nesty says he doesn’t see how an athlete could excel within the constraints of the most important swimming and diving meets of the year. “Swimming and diving at the SEC Championship is a brutal schedule,” he tells me. “The athlete would have to swim prelims, and when our swimmers are resting, the divers are performing. If the diver is one of our best 50-yard swimmers, they would have to swim a relay, which would be prelims, then dive during the 3-meter prelims, then come back in the finals and swim whatever leg they’re on, then come right back and dive in the finals. When the rest of the swim team is eating and napping, the athlete attempting to do both would have to go back and do their dives. And that’s just the conference meet. Trying to manage swimming and diving like that at the Olympics would be crazy.”
Still, Gillooly admits, “I like the idea. It’s definitely something unique that hasn’t been done before. It would be a two-sport person like Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders, and those guys were special. The thing is, we’re talking about swimmers and divers, who hate being grouped together. The sports are two totally different things. It would be like comparing a track-and-field runner to a gymnast. Or better yet, like comparing a speed skater and a figure skater — the only thing they have in common is that they’re both on the ice.”
As the best evidence as to why he thinks the “Tiger Shark” will remain forever unattainable, Gillooly cites the world’s greatest active swimmer, Caeleb Dressel, a University of Florida graduate who still trains in Gainesville: “Caeleb Dressel is a pretty decent diver as far as swimmers go. He can do a front one-and-a-half dive. I could probably put a full dive list together for him, but he would need a few weeks of training just to be able to complete them all. Beyond that, for him to ever be competitive in diving past a local, amateur, Junior Olympic level? That would be impossible.”
With all of that in mind, I hereby call on the IOC — and Marvel — to strip Tiger Shark of his gold medals, finally ending this stolen Olympic valor sham.