With engines revved, the 2014 season is nigh. So far, early this year has focused a lot on college and age group swimming, but beginning this weekend, the true superstars get back to the pool, and so we’ll take a look at 10 legends-in-the-making to keep an eye on for 2014. Several of these swimmers will be back in action this weekend at the Austin Grand Prix, the Victoria State Championships, and the Western Australian State Championships, and most of the rest will compete by the end of the month.
MEN (in no particular order)
Since 2009 Gyurta has been on a historic run, winning every major long course competition and all but one major short course event (2010 SC worlds) in the 200 breaststroke. The boy who pipped Hansen in 2004 has become one of the most consistently dominant swimmers in the world, winning the past 4 global long course events, while defeating challengers such as Michael Jamieson, Christian Sprenger, Akihiro Yamaguchi and even the king of Olympic breaststroke, Kosuke Kitajima. He faces stiff European and global competition, but time and time againhe has proved himself worthy on the biggest stage. Should he repeat in the 200 breaststroke in Kazan and Rio, he will rightly be remembered as one of the greatest breaststrokers ever. However with names like Jamieson, Cordes and Yamaguchi in the mix, the road to such immortality is paved with peril.
Putting 2012 and 2010 aside, Cielo has been the king of sprint events since 2008, accumulating six individual world titles. This number (the most ever for sprinter) falls only behind the tallies of Michael Phelps (a whopping 15), Ryan Lochte (9) and Grant Hackett (7). Cielo, who holds both the textile and official world records in the 50 freestyle, will have multiple opportunities come 2015 to match or exceed Hackett on the list of most individually decorated world champions. If he wins gold in the 50 free, he could become one of only a handful of people to win four consecutive world titles in an event (Phelps and Hackett spring to mind). And 2016 brings a chance for unique Olympic redemption: not only would he reclaim the crown in his home country but he would be the second man to win a pair of Olympic titles separated by eight years, but not the central title.
Agnel has “only” one individual Olympic gold medal and one individual world title, making him substantially less decorated than certain people on this list. However he is the number one swimmer in the 200 freestyle, and already has an Olympic crown in that event under his belt. No man has ever repeated as champion in the 200 freestyle, though greats such as Michael Phelps, Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband have come close. While there are many challengers (none closer than Connor Dwyer, at least geographically) Agnel has the reins of this event wrapped up after taking the previous two global titles in times faster than any man still swimming has ever gone.
Lochte, the second most decorated Olympian and world champion of all time, looks to extend his legacy. Already a 9-time individual world champion, he could become the second man to break magic double digits in world titles since Phelps did it first in 2007. Lochte has his share of doubters, coaching controversies and a nasty knee injury. Still, he is another man who could threaten to win a legendary fourth world title in one event (namely the 200 back and 200 IM) and poses a threat in a broad range of events from the 100 free to the 400 IM (he was at Santa Clara last year). In the past his skeptics have been both en pointe (2012) and shown up (2011, 2013). As Lochte ages will he cement his legacy as one of the all-time greats or will the doubters share a private victory?
Already a 5-time individual world champion at the age of 22, Sun Yang has taken the distance torch from Grant Hackett. With his talent, the possibilities are endless. Not the least of which are becoming the second man to 3-peat at the Olympics, the second man to win five world titles in one event and the second (or third) man to win double digit individual world titles. Already with a pair of major world textile world records to his name (erasing Grant Hackett’s name from the LC textile record books in the process) he could add a third in the 400 freestyle and possibly break the hallowed marks of legends, and just to . However distance swimming is steeped in tie the winning streaks of Grant Hackett and Vladimir Salnikov he would have to remain unbeaten through 2019, an impressive feat, even for a man with so much potential.
WOMEN (again in no order)
Missy Franklin has also achieved much in a short career, already owning a pair of individual Olympic titles and four individual world titles. She’s arguably the favorite to finish her career as the women’s leader in both; she will have ample opportunities to get the four more Olympic golds required to hold the record outright. Franklin may be the most dominant swimmer in an event today. Who else could add over half a second to a personal best time and still win a world title by two seconds? She is by far and away the best in the 200 back, which is actually quite reminiscent of the very person Franklin is chasing in Olympic medal haul. Krisztina Egerszegi won five individual Olympic golds and has the legacy to beat in the women’s 200 backstroke: the second ever three-peat, culminated by a four second margin of victory in Atlanta 1996. Missy has the potential to come close in 2016 and 2020, but only time can tell if she will take her 200 back to an even greater height.
Comparisons have been made with Janets Evans already, and like Franklin, Ledecky has a long road to follow. Evans won the 1988 Olympic 400 freestyle by two seconds over a pair of East Germans; her margin of victory over those not part of a Communist doping scheme was over four seconds. This is a tough act to follow, nevertheless Ledecky has the tools and accomplishments to carve out her own career. In addition to being the fastest ever in textile in three events (all by margins greater than a second), Ledecky has been praised for her smooth stroke which is thought to be less draining on her shoulders and help continue what will be a legendary career through 2016 and beyond. Only 16, Ledecky is years younger than her main rivals but already has an Olympic title and 3 individual world titles. Given the number of distance events in the worlds program, if Missy Franklin doesn’t get there first Ledecky has an opportunity at being the first woman to win double-digit world titles.
Ruta is yet another young swimmer on my women’s list, but don’t be fooled. She already has a “triple crown” in the 100 breaststroke as the Olympic champ, world champ and world record holder. In long course she has the top 3 textile times ever, not to mention the world record in the 50 breast. However, that understates her versatility in both the big and little pool. She’s long course world junior champion in the 200 IM and 50 free and European sc champ in the 100 IM. It’s questionable if those performances will amount to something on the highest stage, nonetheless it shows that her all-around versatility should not be discounted. Whether or not she will be a dominating force in the sprint breaststrokes, however, cannot be questioned.
Pellegrini is a four time world champion and the proud owner of an Olympic gold medal. While she is most famous for her tech suit world records, she also has put up highly impressive times in textile and was twice a world champion in 2011. Just last year she won silver in the 200 freestyle behind Missy Franklin’s number two all time textile performance, despite seemingly making it a last second decision to compete in the event instead of backstroke. Whether she actually had a change in heart or was planning a stealthy PR move is debatable, however Italy’s most successful women faces a tough road ahead in both backstroke and freestyle, matching up against the like of Camille Muffat, Alison Schmitt, Katie Ledecky and Franklin.
Campbell has been afflicted by injuries and strings of bad luck. Despite that, her strong performances in the 100 freestyle seem to show that the 21-year-old is finally hitting her stride as one of the best swimmers in the world. Coming into the meet as the top swimmer of the year in the event, she set a new textile world record in the 100 freestyle leading off the 400 freestyle relay and came within inches of beating that record in the individual 100 free, en route to winning the final by a smidgin over half a second. No less impressive is her 50 freestyle, which was second only to Ranomi Kromowidjojo’s winning effort and textile world record tying performance. Both sprinters are young and should have plentiful duels in the coming Olympic cycle and going forward.