With the first individual events of U.S. Winter Nationals now in the books, it’s time to look back at 10 big things we noticed on the day. As with our Short Course Worlds coverage, this list is a collaborative effort: 5 things from us at SwimSwam and 5 things from you, the SwimSwam readers who left your own analyses in the comments section.
1. Men’s 500 free – the next big thing and the next next big thing: The men’s 500 free featured a number of fast-rising swimmers that are worth paying attention to. First, of course, is Townley Haas, who’s already on many swim fan radars. Haas is the top-ranked high school senior who has yet to commit to a college for 2015 and beyond, and he amped up the speculation even more by going a lifetime-best 4:14.19 to take second tonight behind Olympian Conner Jaeger. But while Haas might have a claim to be the ‘next big thing’ in American distance freestyling, the fourth-place finisher in that race might be the next big thing after him. Gator Swim Club’s True Sweetser is 17 like Haas, but is a bit younger, with a 1997 birthday compared to Haas’s 1996. Sweetser was actually the top qualifier out of the heats after smashing his lifetime-best from a 4:21.29 to a 4:16.63. That’s what you call a breakout swim! Meanwhile in the bonus final, one of the top swimmers out of the next age bracket down was impressive. That was Matthew Hirschberger of NCAP, who went 4:20.14 and ranks him inside the top 15 in history for the 15-16 age group.
2. Big Ten rookies coming up big in the distances: On the women’s side of the 500 free, the final heat was dotted by a group of freshmen who should have a profound impact on the Big Ten conference this season. That starts with Michigan first-year Gillian Ryan, who broke the Wolverine school record twice today. Ryan wound up going 4:37.78, and wipes off the books a record held by former Michigan standout and current pro Emily Brunemann. Also impressive in her first collegiate season was Indiana’s Kennedy Goss, a Canadian who has come up big for the Hoosiers several times already this year. Goss wasn’t far behind Ryan in third, and another Michigan freshman made the top 8 – that being Hannah Moore. Outside of Michigan and IU, there are very talented freshmen also blowing up in Minnesota and Ohio State, among others, which should make for a fresh and exciting Big Ten Championship this spring.
3. Some resolution to the rest conundrum and NC State: If death and taxes are the certainties of life, then speculation about in-season resting is the certainty of college swimming. The prime target of fan speculation early in the year was the NC State Wolfpack, which upset Georgia in a heated dual meet and had put up some outstanding early season number. Any performance like that brings along with it accusations of the dreaded “dual meet rest,” of course, but zeroing in on one of NC State’s top swimmers, sprinter Simonas Bilis, suggests that maybe some swimmers who swim well in-season aren’t rested, but simply fast.
Bilis popped a 19.96 early in the year along with some quick 100 and 200 free times, but he was clearly saving his best stuff for Nationals. Bilis went 19.28 tonight, a time that might have been lost in Nathan Adrian‘s shadow, but is a big-time NCAA statement. Bilis is just .03 off the NCAA “A” cut and should be pretty safely qualified for the NCAA tournament already. We’ll get to see over the next two days if Bilis can make similar improvements to his dual meet bests of 43.74 in the 100 and 1:37.02 in the 200.
4. Louisville 400 medley ties for #1 in the NCAA – the B relay, that is: The 4×100 medley relay probably couldn’t have gone much better for the Louisville Cardinal men. Not only did they win a Winter National title, they also took 2nd place overall. And not only did they 1-2 Winter Nationals, but they claimed the top times in the NCAA – with both of their relays.
The Cardinal “A” team vaulted to #1 in the nation so far this year with a time of 3:08.52. But the Louisville “B” team kept right up, actually tying the previous nation-leading time put up by Florida two weeks ago. That B squad was 3:09.55. As with any deep team, getting the fastest guys all on the same relay is a challenge for Louisville. On Thursday night, their A relay featured their fastest splits in backstroke (Grigory Tarasevich) and breaststroke (Thomas Dahlia), but their B team wound up outsplitting the A in fly (Aaron Young) and free (Matthias Lindenbauer).
5. Breaststroke help wanted in Bloomington: The Indiana Hoosiers had a solid night as a team, but the 400 medley relay had to provide a point of concern for them. Stuck without a reliable breaststroker this season, IU was forced to turn to Haley Lips, a great distance swimmer, but one who was coming off a 5th-place finish in the 500 free. Lips was just 1:03.67 swimming a bit out of her element, and the Hoosiers could barely hang in the top 8 finishing relays.
This isn’t the first time Indiana has asked Lips to swim out of her comfort zone. She was a 200 flyer as a freshman, and also swam the 500 free and 400 IM in the collegiate postseason. Last year as a sophomore, Lips was moved into a traditional distance free role, swimming the 200, 500 and 1650 frees. It’s hard to say if this weekend’s split will be a new trend for Lips or a one-off before the team tries out a different relay breaststroker. Making things more difficult for Indiana this weekend is that they have to watch a number of elite breaststrokers with ties to the program (alum Bronwyn Pasloski and current signees Lilly King and Miranda Tucker), while not being able to use any of them to fill out their medley relays.
6. Haas makes the short list: Regular commenter TheTroubleWithX points out that freestyler Townley Haas is starting to join some elite company on the all-time USA Swimming times list:
Fourth all-time, behind Phelps, Malone, and Conger… In the 17-18 age group, that is. Still, a time that would’ve placed 5th last year at NCAA.
Our take: for those keeping score at home, that’s Texas All-American Jack Conger, USC All-American Reed Malone and a dude named Michael Phelps. Not bad company to be in with over a year left to move up in the age group.
7. Ledecky on pace for bigger and better things: What’s a collection of SwimSwam comments without an appearance by the great Bobo Gigi? Bobo notes that though Katie Ledecky didn’t break her own American record, she was actually much faster than she was at this point last year:
Good first race for the Queen Ledecky.
4.29.54 in the 500 free final.
50.89 at the 100.
No American record? No panic! She won the US title last year in 4.32.37.
These meets in yards are just training meets for her.
But it shows she’s much stronger than last year.
Our take: Just more evidence that Ledecky is still riding a rapid improvement curve. Don’t take these years for granted – we’re getting to see one of history’s elite talents during that rare period of development where time drops are consistent and significant. Don’t blink, because you only get to see something like that once in a generation.
8. Hirschberger passes a legend: Commenter CompletelyConquered notes that 16-year-old Matthew Hirschberger moved past a well-known name on USA Swimming’s Top Times list for the 15-16 age group:
Hirschberger overtakes the legend Fran Crippen on the 15-16 top 100 in the 500 free list.
Our take: Crippen was a well-known open water swimmer, but was primarily a pool athlete for most of his young career. That was a three-second drop for Hirschberger, who now moves past Crippen, an elite talent who is still remembered with great respect by swim fans four years after his untimely passing.
9. Rhi Jeffrey on the comeback trail: In another comment, Bobo Gigi remembers the name of Rhi Jeffrey, a former U.S. Olympic gold medalist making a comeback at age 28:
Rhi Jeffrey won the 50 free B-Final.
I knew that name reminded me of something.
Yes. She was world and olympic champion with the US relays in 2003 and 2004.
Our take: Jeffrey’s comeback is one that’s flown under the radar in a season of comebacks from Michael Phelps to Katie Hoff to Lara Jackson. Jeffrey was 22.56 to win that B final.
10. Versatility and resilience from Katie Ledecky: Yet one more impressive note about Katie Ledecky, courtesy of SamuelHuntington:
Katie, 30 minutes after winning the 500, goes a time in the 200 IM that would have been 6th at NCAAs last year. That swim only increases her value as a collegiate swimmer.
Our take: if there’s anybody in the world who still doubts Ledecky as the top NCAA prospect in her class, read this, then change your mind.
Full day 2 recap here. Want to get your analysis included in a future “10 Things” column? Hit up our comments section during our live event recaps, and you just might get your wish!