This weekend saw a lot of very high level swimming in the United States. Specifically, between the Texas Hall of Fame Invitational in Austin and the Winter SCY National Championships in Knoxville, Tennessee, among other meets, like invites at Princeton, Miami (OH), and Iowa.
With such a busy weekend, we’ve gone through and picked out our 6 biggest ‘winners’ from around the country. These aren’t just the swimmers or teams who ‘did well,’ rather, these are the swimmers or teams who had some sort of paradigm shift based on the results of the weekend. Some sort of wave whose ripples will likely be felt for years, rather than forgotten when the March tapers roll around.
1. Utah Utes – Living in Texas, and having friends who swam for Joe Dykstra when he was at North Texas, I had a lot of familiarity with his success and the kind of program he ran when Utah hired him. At the time, that familiarity led me to conclude that it was a good hire, after qualifying the Mean Green’s swimmer in the history of that program for the NCAA Championships last season.
But even those of us who were already fans of Dykstra weren’t sure he could pull things back together this quickly with a Utah program that had a lot of anger and a lot of pain surrounding the tenure and departure of their last coach. Dykstra, though, is making himself a strong candidate for Pac-12 Coach of the Year this season. Over the three days at Winter Nationals, there were Utes in what seemed like most of the finals, and all-told the team broke 14 of 36 swimming school records, and this is just a mid-season meet. After upsetting Arizona in a men’s dual earlier this year, Utah has kept the momentum going forward. Dykstra had some great pieces when he took over – Nick Soedel is probably a future national team-level sprinter; Traycie Swartz is versatile enough to fill a lot of roles on the women’s team, and he kept some of the previous administration’s assistants around to smooth the transition – but he’s still gotten this motor revved in a hurry.
Utah is still not yet on the level, overall, of programs like Pac-12 foes USC and Stanford and Cal (depth, etc.). But when Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011, nobody was sure if they were ever going to have enough recruiting draw to compete with those long, storied programs, and this past weekend, they’re certainly showing that they’re starting to belong in the conference.
2. Katie Ledecky - In a financial sense, nobody won more than Katie Ledecky this weekend. That is, if she wants it. So far, we’ve been given no indication that Ledecky is turning pro any time soon, but if she wants to, she’s given herself some huge leverage with potential sponsors after a huge American Record swim in the 1650 free on Saturday night.
In swimming, any given sprinter is more marketable than an equivalent distance swimmer. This is not my dictation to the swimming community, it’s my observation within the swimming community. Think Michael McBroom, who took silver in the 800 free at Worlds, and compare him to his fellow Texas Longhorn Jimmy Feigen, who took silver in the 100 free at Worlds. Similar ages, both from the same program, both get silvers, but Feigen is much, much more of a household name (the reasons could be numerous – relays, attention spans of fans, the way distance swimming is covered on TV, public preferences, etc.). Whatever it is, it can make things hard for a distance swimmer in the world of sponsorship.
The exception is when that once-in-a-generation distance swimmer comes around. The one who’s breaking the records by 5 or 6 seconds, or more, like Ledecky is, like Janet Evans did, like Sun Yang is doing in China. Those huge breakages of distance records are fairly dense - the last four breaks of the women’s 1500 free World Record, for example, has been by 4, 8, 10, and 6 seconds. The men’s 1500 has been not dissimilar (though a bit more subdued). The last five records there have been 5, 2, 7, .4, and 3 seconds. But while most of the records are by big chunks, they’re few-and-far-between: these distance records tend to last for a long, long time.
And when the swims come around, they wow us. Katie Ledecky’s swim wow’ed us. A great distance swimmer like her put up unbelievable splits (4:35?? Going into a 1650?? 9:14???) that are just so unfathomable. When you look at splits of a 200 free, they’re impressive, but they don’t rock anybody’s world too hard. Ledecky was an NCAA automatic qualifying time at her 500 yard split, and then almost did it again on her next 500 yards (she was a 4:38-high). In fact, if you chopped up Ledecky’s best 30 splits (the equivalent of 1500 yards, or three 500s), they’d average 4:37.04 per 500 yards. That’s .03 shy of the NCAA Automatic Qualifying time. That’s just unbelievable.
And so, after four paragraphs of rambling, (Ledecky’s swims kind of do that to you), here’s the point: Ledecky showed potential future sponsors that a distance swimmer like her can electrify a fan base. We tweeted about Ledecky’s American Record, on a Saturday afternoon at 4:15 (a relatively slow time for the internet), and we didn’t even include the time, and in 30 minutes it had 100+ RT and 150+ favorites. That’s a powerful swim.
3. D3 Breaststroking - Up in Oxford, Ohio, at the Miami University Invitational, teams braved blizzard-like conditions for a three-day invite running through Saturday. There were a lot of good swims, but the big one was a 53.61 in the 100 yard breaststroke from Denison junior Damon Rosenburg, which will be a new NCAA Division III Record if ratified.
And with that, breaststroking in the NCAA’s third division took a huge leap forward. There are certain time barriers where records start to just look good, and Rosenburg is rapidly approaching that level. Specifically, his swim is now just three-tenths of a second away from the National High School Record. While that National High School Record is on notice to be broken again this year (by Andrew Seliskar, and others), if Rosenburg beats them to it, he could become the first current Division III National Record holder to be under the National High School Record. As of now, the only swim closer than Rosenburg’s 100 breast is Zack Turk’s 50 free.
That will suddenly make Division III look more attractive to men’s breaststroke recruits. Seeing a 53 in front of that breaststroke record will have an impact on recruiting – both at Denison, and across Division III. Kids who go on to swim in college want to know that they’ll be challenged, and the swim by Rosenburg putting a “53″ in front of that record (and maybe one day a 52), a broader range of kids will see Division III swimming as capable of providing that challenge athletically in addition to the reputation for academic pushes.
Kids also want to improve, and that’s where Rosenburg’s story can be an even bigger draw. Coming out of high school, he was a 58.35. That’s a big improvement in two-and-a-half seasons.
4. Texas A&M Breaststrokers - No, Alia Atkinson hasn’t been training at Texas A&M over the last few years; she’s spent most of her post-grad time working with SoFlo Aquatics, but in college she was an NCAA champion for the Aggies. Now, she’ll stand as the American Winter National Champion in the 100 yard breaststroke as well, and her 57.62 ranked her as the second-fastest 100 yard breaststroker in history. She jumped Tara Kirk on the all-time list, and now sits behind only fellow Aggie Breeja Larson in that event, giving A&M the two fastest swims in history (an Atkinson the title of fastest international over 100 yards breaststroke).
The Aggies never seem to do much in recruiting. They’ll always bring in 1-2 very good swimmers every year, but never the kind of big, deep classes that the juggernauts like Cal or Stanford or Georgia do, but they still somehow produce great swimmers, especially breaststrokers as of late. It’s no wonder that the Aggies added the top breaststroker in the class of 2014 in their fall class, Bethany Galat, in what could be one of Steve Bultman’s best recruiting classes (on paper) in years. The Aggies sit alongside programs like Tennessee, where everyone is thinking ‘if these teams could start getting the recruits, they could be trouble.’ Both teams are starting to get the recruits, and they could be trouble over the next few years.
5. Rick Demont - Rick Demont has been with the Wildcats for over a quarter-of-a-century. When Frank Busch moved on to run the USA Swimming National Team, Demont was the favorite to take over the program. For one reason or another (which we don’t know, and shan’t speculate on), the Wildcats went in a different direction, though Demont was retained as their associate head coach.
Since Arizona head coach Eric Hansen took a leave of absence (we’ve still heard nothing more than rumor on possible cause or return), the show has been more-or-less Demont’s to run. The school has termed it that Demont is ‘providing leadership,’ but for all reasonable purposes, he’s been handling the duties of the head coach during Hansen’s absence. And the Wildcats didn’t miss a beat mid-season, as things went about as well as they could have hoped.
Cordes broke an American Record in the 100 yard breaststroke; Matt Grevers (a post-grad and volunteer assistant for Arizona) was a lifetime best in the 100 yard backstroke; maybe the biggest blunder was a DQ in the 200 medley relay at the Texas Invite from the Wildcats’ men’s A 200 medley relay, but even that ended up being not all-that significant, given that their B medley relay still emerges from the meet tied for the fastest time in the country and automatically qualified for NCAA’s.
The women swam well also. Bonnie Brandon was spectacular, Margo Geer was spectacular with the lone exception of the 200 free final (mid-season, 13 good swims in 14 starts is a great result). and three of the four relays the Wildcats entered (they don’t usually swim the 800 mid-season) put up big swims in finals as well. The exception was the 200 medley, which missed the NCAA Automatic and Provisional Qualifying standards in the regular race, but came back later in a time-trial to swim the 7th-best time in the country and lock up their spot in March.
The Wildcats are in a good position, and I think with this weekend’s swims, Demont showed a lot about his ability to lead a team from the head coach’s spot.
6. SwimMAC and Post-Grad Teams - And finally, SwimMAC Carolina was impressive because as a pro group, they took the time to swim relays at a National Championship meet (usually a foreign concept for elite senior teams), and in the process crushed some meet and American Records.
No, in the grand scheme of where those swimmers from SwimMAC are hoping to go, the relay swims aren’t that relevant, and at this meet which isn’t a qualifier for anything, there was little risk to individual events in swimming them, but the SwimMAC relays were a lot of fun to watch. This is a step in the right direction for getting people excited about professional swimming – a key component to making professional swimming take off in this country is domestic relays.
They also perhaps played a rabbit for some college teams, but more importantly they’ve started to ignite a greater sense of ‘team’ among pros, and it seems to be catching on. We’ve already heard from folks associated with the New York Athletic Club, where among other things, swimmers are getting excited to challenge the SwimMAC relays at future meets. Maybe we’ll start to see the dissolution of the days where pros represent their age group teams at national competitions, and more of the team component that makes college swimming so electric could begin to creep into major USA Swimming competition.
But again, those were just fun relays to see, and I think will really raise the brand of that program (and again, brand recognition is important to professional swimming).