Both the men’s and women’s distance races will have a lot of youth involved, and whenever there’s youth involved there’s unpredictability. Picking these races are a big battle between confidence in the veterans, and the possibility of the young stars.
Men’s 1500 Free
What the United States lacks in a top-level contender to compete with the likes of Sun Yang and Ryan Cochrane in this men’s 1500 free, they make up for with incredible depth. In 2008, even with bigger, faster suits, it took only a 15:22 to final at the Olympic Trials in the 1500 free, and four years before that it took only a 15:38. But this year, one could expect under 15:10 to final without too much of a stretch.
The top of the American pile this year is Chad la Tourette. The American Record holder in the 1650 yard free (a record that had stood for more than a decade) is now back in Mission Viejo training with their legendary distance group under the tutelage of Bill Rose. Crazier things have happened in the men’s mile, but it would be hard to see him left off of the men’s team in this event, given how good he’s been the last two years.
He’s only raced this 1500 once in long course this year, with a 15:06 at the UltraSwim. That’s not bad for a guy who usually has one big taper swim a year in this event. He’s also got a little bit more speed in him this year than he did last – with a 3:55 in the 400 already in 2012, it’s still not truly “fast,” but it is better, and he should be a contender for a spot in that 400 as well.
The other relative star of the American distance scene is Peter Vanderkaay. After the 2008 Olympics, he sort-of gave up on the 1500 to focus on the 200 and 400 freestyles instead. But in 2010, one of the biggest stories of the National Championships was Vanderkaay’s return to the distance – and he didn’t fail to impress. He swam a 15:03.86 that he didn’t again break until a 14:54 at last year’s World Championships.
And those two are well ahead of the field coming into the meet, and will have the benefit of probably expending the least amount of energy to navigate the prelims safety. That can be a huge advantage in this race.
But they won’t want to mess-around too much in prelims, because of the amazing youth and depth that the Americans will display in this race.
That starts with Georgia swimmer Andrew Gemmell and the Michigan duo of Sean Ryan and Ryan Feeley. All three have dabbled in open water for the last 18-months, but with that spot sealed up for Alex Meyer a year ago, all three will be focusing on this 1500. Ryan and Feeley didn’t even race at Open Water Nationals this year. Gemmell did, though, and won the 10km swim. He took a year off in 2011 from college swimming to focus on his open water preparations in California. When he returned to Georgia, he had a decent year with a 5th-place finish at NCAA’s, but that was still 17 seconds behind La Tourette. Gemmell has always been better long course than short course, however, so one would imagine that gap to be considerably closer at Trials.
Michael McBroom, the 2011 NCAA Champion who was only 8th at this year’s meet, will also be a contender in this meet. Based on his recent history, he’s going to be the guy who pushes the pace of this race early, as neither La Tourette or Vanderkaay are known to be too aggressive in this event (though La Tourette definitely moreso than Vanderkaay). Of course, we’re speaking in relative terms, so that’s not to say that McBroom will have a lead over those two at the 500-or-600 meter mark.
Michael Klueh, as we discussed in the 400 preview, is sort of in limbo between the 400 and the 1500. This year, he’s been a bit better in the 400, but he’s within a shout of 15:00 in this race as well.
Another Michigan man, Connor Jaeger, has made a huge move in the distance frees the last year. As of last October, he had never swum the longest race in either yards or long course, at least not in an officially-recorded swim. He did have a single 1000 yard free from a mid-season meet in the 2010-2011 season; and an 800 in the summer. But never the full-blown mile swim.
As a sophomore in Ann Arbor, something clicked between him and coach Mike Bottom, and the middle-distance freestyler bloomed into one of the country’s top distance freestylers (and his middle-distance went to a whole new level as well).
In Charlotte, a meet that looked like a personal test of where he was capable of in the 1500, he swam a 15:07, to make himself a serious contender in this race.
The other young swimmer to watch is Arthur Frayler. He’s already been on an international team in 2010, when he made the Pan Pacs roster, though the distance landscape has changed drastically since then. He’s just wrapped his senior year in high school, but his best time was done two years ago in the summer before his junior year. A 15:09 in Indy, though, indicates that he’s ready to break back through this year.
Evan Pinion is a year younger than Frayler, but has similar potential. He is the defending FINA Junior World Champion in both the 800 and 1500 freestyles. He has been laying very low this year; outside of Winter Nationals, he’s swum mostly local meets. He had a good year in yards, but it wasn’t as good as it was the year before.
Zane Grothe from Auburn is a good darkhorse candidate. He’s the 4th-best American miler in yards since 2010, which includes being faster than Gemmell thanks to a 4th-place finish at NCAA’s last year. If he puts a long course race together, there’s no reason for him to be 15:10 or better.
Chip Peterson is another name that has been coming up as a possible contender in this race, but he’s said recently that he has “not really been training.” He also hasn’t competed in 4 months. Eric Hedlin is another swimmer who is high in the American rankings, but he is now competing for Canada and so also won’t be a factor.
This race comes down to four in my mind: Vanderkaay, La Tourette, Gemmell, and McBroom (though to buy that McBroom will be involved, you have to believe that the whole of the Texas team is going to have a big bounceback from NCAA’s). Vanderkaay is dead-on his in-season targets; specifically at the Charlotte UltraSwim, he was exactly one-tenth faster this year than he was last year. Of course, that time is a 15:44 – not a number that will scare anybody. If he full-tapers, he’s most likely a top-two. But in 2008, after a full-taper for trials, he wasn’t even close to as fast at the Olympic Games.
I think we’ll see an upset in this race for the 2nd spot. Gemmell will be too focused as compared to Vanderkaay, who will spend a lot of attention on the 200 and 400 as well.
Our Top 8, with seed times and college/club affiliations.
1. Chad La Tourette (Stanford/Mission Viejo) – 14:52.36
2. Andrew Gemmell (Georgia/FAST) – 15:01.31
3. Peter Vanderkaay (Michigan/Gator Swim Club) – 14:54.99
4. Michael McBroom (Texas) – 15:06.22
5. Sean Ryan (Michigan) – 15:01.43
6. Michael Klueh (Texas/FAST) – 15:04.24
7. Connor Jaeger (Michigan) – 15:07.29
8. Arthur Frayler (Florida/Germantown Academy) – 15:07.37
Next Four Out (no particular order) – Ryan Feeley (Michigan) – 15:06.48; Evan Pinion (Pilot Aquatic Club) 15:11.03; Danny Thomson (Stanford/Hindsdale Swim Club) – 15:28.65; Zane Grothe (Auburn) – 15:34.98
Women’s 800 Free
There are a whole lot of different dynamics present in this women’s 800 free.
There’s a pair of swimmers who have just gone to new training grounds in Kate Ziegler and Katie Hoff (if Hoff swims the race at all). There’s the comeback swimmers like Janet Evans. There’s a ton of young swimmers in Katie Ledecky, Gillian Ryan, Becca Mann, Rachel Zilinskas, Leah Smith, Lauren Driscoll, and Leah Smith, to name just a few.
But those dynamics are all fairly similar to what we saw in the women’s 400. But there’s two specific factors that make this race vastly different.
One is that these young swimmers are, as a whole, much better in the 800 than the 400. These young swimmers will dominate the action, so there will be a lot of pressure spread across this field. Ten out of the top 15 seeds in this 800 free headed into Trials were teenagers when they swam their seed times, including a 15-year old as the third and fifth seeds (Ledecky and Ryan), and a 14-year old (Becca Mann).
There’s a lot of psychology that can be played into so much youth; there’s a lot of pressure on the big stage, but one could argue that looking around and seeing a lot of high school students, as compared to pros and veterans,
The other is the addition of the swimmers who were shooting for an open water spot and lost out on that: either at Nationals in April (Emily Brunemann) or in Setubal just over a week ago (Ashley Twichell).
Those are the big situational variables; now we’ll look at the numbers.
Ziegler’s taper times from both 2010 and 2011 stand as the two fastest times in the qualifying period. Yes, she made a late-change of scenery, but it was a return to the FISH program and Ray Benecki with whom she trained as a teenager when she looked like she would be the world’s next big superstar, so it’s not an unfamiliar scenery.
Chloe Sutton admitted last summer that she wasn’t ready for a pool taper – coming from the open water world, she hadn’t really ever had a true pool taper before. In the one swim she had this season where she suited-up, she exploded at the SMOC with an 8:26, while doing huge yardage.
And then there’s Katie Ledecky, the once-in-a-generation distance talent (something that seems to pop up at least twice a generation). She’s gone three-straight best times in this 800 free in 2012; taking her best time from 8:36, to an 8:33, to an 8:30, to an 8:25. Those are in-season swims from a program that coach Yuri Suguiyama described as not a crazy amount of yardage, but as a program that puts in a solid amount of yardage.
Ashley Steenvoorden is a bit older than Ledecky, but she’s at sort-of the same place in her national career, having been a revelation only last season. She’s coming off of the college season, but is already close to her career-bests in this 800 in-season this year. She will have a better shot at the 400, but can’t be counted out in this 800 either.
Haley Anderson would be a serious contender in this race, if she weren’t coming so quickly off of the open water meet in Setubal. There’s still a good chance she could finish in the top 5, but the open water swim will take a lot out of her (we’ve seen this year how difficult it is to qualify in both around the world). It’s hard to believe she’ll risk any sort of a taper on Omaha.
Gillian Ryan is now training with the elite group at NBAC, and so she’s another swimmer who’s using the super-altitude-taper strategy. From what we saw in Austin, she didn’t quite come down like her teammates Allison Schmitt and Chase Kalisz did at the Longhorn Elite Invitational; instead she was more like Phelps, with some decent swims but overall nothing spectacular.
Emily Brunemann was so heavily-focused on open water, that she didn’t swim a single pool race between December of 2011 and the Santa Clara Grand Prix, after missing out on a top-two spot at Open Water Nationals. Ashley Twichell, on the other hand, has been much more active in pool swimming, despite getting a step closer to the Olympics in the marathon than Brunemann did. A lot of those swims by Twichell have been targeted – intentionally saving her speed for the last 200 meters of an 800, for example, so we don’t know for certain what she’s capable of in the pool.
And then there’s a pair who may or may-not swim this race at Trials. Katie Hoff, as mentioned, is a top-10 seed in this race; but even when she was focusing on freestyle races the last few years she wasn’t close to the top. Odds are she’d focus on the other races, but then again the prelims of this race won’t come until after she’s done with all of her other swims. Of course, it’s a bit more strenuous than the 50 free, so the “why not?” theory might not play as well with this event. The other is Allison Schmitt. With her newfound skill in the 100 free, it would be an awfully-wide range to stretch from that sprint all the way up to the 800 free, though she’s been racing it a lot the last year. The 100 free final is the evening after the 800 free prelims morning swim, so my guess is she won’t swim the latter.
Other swimmers in consideration are Amber McDermott – she had a great freshman season at Georgia, and is already way better than she was in long course in the summer of 2011 pre-taper.
Our picks for top 8, including seed times, college, and club affiliations:
1. Kate Ziegler (FISH) – 8:21.59
2. Chloe Sutton (Mission Viejo) – 8:24.05
3. Katie Ledecky (Curl Burke) – 8:25.85
4. Gillian Ryan (NBAC) – 8:27.64
5. Ashley Steenvoorden (Minnesota) – 8:32.36
6. Amber McDermott (Georgia) – 8:37.68)
7. Emily Brunemann (Michigan/FAST) – 8:31.55
8. Leah Smith (Jewish Community Center Sailfish) – 8:34.11
Next Four Out (in no particular order): Rachel Zilinskas (Germantown Academy) – 8:34.07; Ashley Twichell (Mission Viejo) – 8:35.10; Lauren Driscoll (Cal/Ft. Lauderdale Aquatics) – 8:34.48; Emily Brunemann (Michigan/Fast) – 8:31.55; Becca Mann (Clearwater Aquatic Team) – 8:33.39