Free! and Free! Eternal Summer spoilers below.
Whenever Free! ends, it really knows how to communicate its core values, whether it’s the original series or Eternal Summer. Ostensibly about competitive swimming, these finales basically say that, unlike so many other sports anime and manga, that winning not only isn’t everything, but it isn’t even that important in the first place.
At the end of season 1, the character Rin joins his old friends for a relay at a high school competition, revitalizing the lifelong bond he’s had with them. They swim better than they ever have before and even win the race, but run into the issue that Rin is from a different school that’s also competing at the event. The team is disqualified, but what’s emphasized here is that getting first was not the point. Rather, what they have truly achieved is strengthening their relationships with each other.
In the final episode of season 2, the main cast reaches the nationals for relay, and during the race each character has a vision of the joy of swimming. The main character, Haruka, is the last member to race, and upon entering the water sees his teammates swimming alongside him. When he reaches the finish line, everyone cheers, and we’re greeted with images of the team smiling and hugging. By all narrative and film convention, it looks as if they had won the whole thing, but later we see that they only got 6th place. They weren’t celebrating their championsip, but their accomplishments as a group. Moreover, Haruka, who throughout Eternal Summer has felt pressure over the fact that becoming a professional swimmer means having to care about trophies and times, ultimately finds that, for him, winning is merely a way to swim more, a means to an end.
Free! is geared towards a female audience. Whether it’s the well-animated flexible and muscular swimmers’ bodies on the cast, gentle yet strong personalities, or their close and sometimes tumultuous bonds, this is an anime that provides visual fanservice in a way that not even series like The Prince of Tennis or Kuroko’s Basketball could offer. Those other series, still grounded in their shounen sports manga formulas, end up emphasizing winners and losers first and foremost, but Free! is all about the relationship known as friendship, reflecting a desire to get away from the stereotypically male desire of victory through competition.
This is not to say that manga for male audiences based in competition necessarily always emphasize winning (see the manga Touch!), nor that there is no such thing as a manga for a female audience that stresses the competitive environment (Chihayafuru). However, when looking more broadly, what I find is that series that try to draw in men and boys primarily will often use friendship and teamwork as a means to victory, while series that target women and girls will do the opposite and use competition as a means to friendship and teamwork.
Sometimes targeting a demographic isn’t wholly intentional, but this is how a fanbase is formed anyway, and other times it can be hard to tell which is which. It might even flip back and forth throughout a given series. Free! doesn’t have any of that ambiguity. It knows exactly what it wants, and in the end we have to wonder for ourselves if winning is that big of a deal.