The next stop on the 2011-2012 USA Swimming Grand Prix Series tour is the Charlotte UltraSwim Grand Prix – certainly the most hyped and recognizable of the Grand Prix stops. This year’s meet lost the huge prize-money purse that we’ve seen in past years, but it hasn’t lost the glitter and the glamour that past meets have seen. This meet has one of the best Aquazones in sports, and this year will feature new “Fish” RFID Technology, that will allow fans to get rewards by scanning their aquazone credentials at different booths.
The meet kicks off on Thursday with the non-Olympic distance races (the men’s 800 and the women’s 1500), and then rolls into a full schedule on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. What’s really unique about the UltraSwim as compared to most of the Grand Prix meets is that it features a full-bore, “international-style” meet schedule with 50 meter races of each stroke. Though most Americans brush these races aside as unimportant because they aren’t contested at the Olympics, they are still exciting for casual fans and help make some good training and pacing comparisons for the athletes.
The big-name athletes aren’t backing down from those races, at least according to seeded.
Most of the big names in terms of professionals will be at this meet. That includes the big names Ryan Lochte, Michael Phelps, and Natalie Coughlin. Trojan teammates Rebecca Soni and Jessica Hardy will be in town holding down the breaststrokers. Most of the Cal Aquatics group will be in town, including Anthony Ervin, whose parents live in Charlotte; Dana Vollmer; Caitlin Leverenz; and sub-minute 100 fly postgrads Amanda Sims and Hannah Wilson.
Tucson Ford will be totally absent from the meet. Longhorn Aquatics will be very lightly represented by the likes of Michael McBroom, Garrett Weber-Gale, and Brendan Hansen, but Jimmy Feigen and Dax Hill will be out. And obviously, the full group from SwimMAC will be at the meet
Absent, however, will be another California Aquatics swimmer Nathan Adrian. That’s no surprise though – the three long course meets he’s swum this year are the first three he’s swum prior to May since he was a freshman in college. Tyler Clary also won’t be there. Many (though not all) of the athletes still in college are sitting this one out as well, thanks to it being in the midst of finals season.
The group of potential high school Olympians on the women’s side will be in strong force at this meet – including Katie Ledecky, Lia Neal, and Gillian Ryan. But Missy Franklin, who is working through prom, finals, and a big stretch of training, is staying home in Colorado. On the boy’s side, Ryan Murphy will be at the meet, but Jacob Pebley and Jack Conger (his 200 backstroke rivals) won’t.
Let’s take a look at 10 interesting storylines for the meet.
1. Michael Phelps Light Lifting – Michael Phelps in 2008 was taking a run at big Grand Prix schedules, typically with two races per session. But this year, in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, he’s taken a different tack and only rarely attempts doubles. This mirrors what has overall been a slight decreased in training yardage (though not necessarily intensity) this time around. This meet will be the lightest of the season for him, as he’ll only have four entries, and one of those four is the 50 backstroke. He’ll actually swim a triple on Friday (200 free, 100 breast, 50 back) in back-to-back-to-back events. He’ll then have the 200 fly as his lone event on Saturday, and then he’s done for the meet. This is as compared to the 9 entries for his mega-rival Ryan Lochte, albeit with the 50 fly and 50 back as two of those 9.
2. Targett in Town – Australian Matt Targett, who has locked up a 400-free-relay-only spot on the Australian Olympic Team, will be in Charlotte for the Grand Prix. He’ll swim the 50/100 free, and the 50/100 butterflies. He’s spending a few weeks (this week, the week after) working with former Auburn assistant Aaron Ciarla down in Miami, focusing on power, and speed work, as well as getting in some good gym training. Now that he knows exactly what he needs to focus on for the Olympics, he could be the key leg to the Australian 400 free relay.
Incidentally, this sets up a phenomenal 100 fly final, even without Phelps swimming it. The headline will be Tyler McGill, but he will be followed by Tim Phillips (who I know I’ll be really excited to see), Davis Tarwater, Milorad Cavic fresh out of his first cycle at Club Wolverine, China’s Wu Peng, and Daniel Madwed. All-told, there are probably double-digit Olympians in this race.
3. Sutton’s Six-Beat Kick - The women’s 400 free final is stacked, with the headliner being Allison Schmitt – unlike her teammate Phelps she’s not taking an easy event schedule at all at this meet. If recent history stands, she should be able to break Katie Hoff’s meet record in this race (Hoff will be at the meet as well). One big thing to watch in this race is Chloe Sutton’s kick. Bill Rose has finally gotten her away from her old two-beat kick that has been her standard for so long and into a six-beat kick. For those who don’t speak swim-coach, this should result in a lot more power for her kick. This is the first chance that most of us will get to see the change with our own eyes (though the results at the SMOC are so-far, so-good).
Also check out Brittany MacLean from the Etobicoke Swim Club in Canada, who is making the trip down for the meet. She’s an Olympic qualifier after crushing the National Record in this event a few weeks ago. She’ll be swimming at Georgia next year, and I’m equally excited to see what her future teammate Amber McDermott (one of the freshmen-of-the-year from last NCAA season) will do in long course after making such huge strides in her first year in Athens.
Other swimmers in this race include Elizabeth Beisel, Gillian Ryan, Katie Ledecky, and Venezuelan record holder Andreina Pinto, who trains in Gainesville.
4. Kara Lynn Joyce at Home – Kara Lynn Joyce will make her debut under the blue-and-orange banner of SwimMAC Carolina at this meet (we didn’t see her swim at Masters Nationals with her teammates). Up until a few weeks ago, she was training with Missy Franklin and the Colorado Stars, but she’s now in Charlotte working with David Marsh and his TeamElite group in a move that she’s been planning for a long time. It didn’t take long for Madison Kennedy to acclimate to the group, and this should be a great meet for KLJ to make her debut at her new “home”.
She’ll have a great lineup of competition for this race – Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace, Jessica Hardy, the aforementioned Kennedy, Dana Vollmer, Lia Neal…the list goes on.
5. Amanda Kendall Back to Health – Former LSU swimmer Amanda Kendall, dismissed from the team in March, is at least healthy enough to compete again, though it remains to be seen what that means after recovering from a broken hand suffered two weeks before NCAA’s. She’s now back home in Virginia representing the Mason Makos, coached by her old club coach (and George Mason University head coach) Peter Ward. We still haven’t heard an official decision on her deciding where she’s going to swim next year – though she has been making visits and pondering the choice. She will be entered in the 50 free, 100 free, and 100 fly at this meet, a light “easing” schedule for her first meet since the injury. The clock is ticking short for her between now and trials, so she’ll need to start this return off fast to regain the hype for making the Olympic Team. Making the A-Final in the 100 free would be a great start.
6. Natalie Coughlin Focusing Schedule? - For the second-straight Grand Prix meet, Natalie Coughlin has an identical schedule of 100 free, 100 back, 100 fly, and 200 IM. In Austin (her first meet of the year), she had the same schedule but with a 50 free tagged on. I’m thinking that we’re seeing a swimmer who is settling in on her Olympic schedule. She hasn’t confirmed it publicly yet (and she may not have made it official), but I think this is where it’s headed. That does compress her schedule as she’ll have doubles on the second and third nights of competition at trials, but in both cases it’s a final before a semi-final, and with several events rest in between. I see no reason for her to not try all four at trials, if for no other reason than to decide if she can handle the same at the Olympics.
7. Lochte Entering New Training Phase – Ryan Lochte is swimming the 400 IM for the first time in this Grand Prix season, which is an indicator that he’s pushing forward into a new phase of his training. He is fairly open with the fact that he doesn’t like swimming this race all that often in-season (even though he swims the 400 free fairly regularly). He’s swum this race only three times this year – twice at Winter Nationals, and then once (one round only) at Florida’s Senior Champs meet. He hasn’t yet broken 4:20 since Worlds – seemingly unusual given that he was 4:07′s tapered. I think we probably see him dip under that barrier at this meet with some good competition. Though neither Phelps or Clary will be in the race, he will get to swim against Ous Mellouli, Tyler Harris, training partner Conor Dwyer (who’s looked as good as ever the last 6-months in this race), and Kyle Whitaker.
8. Phelps vs. Lochte – Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps will have two showdowns in this meet. One will be in the predictable 200 free, for the thousandth time. Their other matchup, however, will be in an unusal spot – the 50 backstroke. It won’t really mean much, if anything, but man is it going to be fun to watch. They’ll both explode off of the blocks, crush their underwaters, and roar that momentum through the finish. Hopefully neither gets overly-zealous on the final and breaks a finger lunging for the wall, but it’s going to be fast and awesome. The fact that they’ll never have any idea where the other is will make it that much better – no room for calculated speed, just all out.
9. Sarah Henry Another Aggie Bounceback? – I’m starting to think that Texas A&M might have one of the best medical rehab staffs in the country, based on history. Thinking back – Julia Wilkinson won an NCAA title coming off of a redshirt year for shoulder surgery (and made an Olympic final headed into surgery); Kristen Heiss in 2008 placed 5th in the 200 back at US Trials days after getting out of the hospital with blood clots in her lungs – and as we’d later find out heading into a shoulder surgery of her own, followed 7-months later by a four-medal performance at the World University Games; and last week at Mexican trials we saw Lili Ibanez nearly break three National Records six-months off of breaking three vertebrae in her back. Now Henry has gone under for a second ACL repair.
She’s swum a very modest local meet in yards this year (she’s originally from Raleigh) but obviously wasn’t pushing it too much. She doesn’t have a ton of events in Charlotte, but is entered in the 200/400 free and the 200/400 IM. Avoiding the 800 (a good event for her) is not a surprise, but entering the IM’s this early is. One would imagine that the biggest danger to an ACL would be in the breaststroke; but she’s an outstanding IM’er, so she’ll have to take the plunge at some point.
10. Corrie Clark Back in Action – This one might not be a huge deal to a lot of people, but to true swim geeks (and SMU fans), it’s a quality development. The 30-year old Clark in the past has been a fixture on the Grand Prix circuit; however, this season she’s been invisible, having not swum a serious meet since last year’s Summer Nationals. She looked pretty good shaking the rust off in Indy with a 1:10.8 in the 100 breaststroke; if she can dip under 1:10 at this meet a month later, she becomes a decent upset pick for Trials. At any rate, if she needs a push to do it, she’ll get it at this meet as she will be racing against both Rebecca Soni and Jessica Hardy.