The biggest story of the 2nd day of the 2014 U.S. National Championships was the construction of the United States’ 800 free relay that will head to Australia and try for gold at Pan Pacs.
The four swimmers qualified to be on that relay, with coaches having the right to make changes if they’re feeling particularly gutsy, are: (1) Matt McLean, Conor Dwyer, Reed Malone, and Michael Weiss. A year ago, Dwyer is the only one of those four who swam to gold at the World Championships last year, with McLean adding a medal of the same as a prelims swimmer. That means this year’s finals relay will only include 1/4 of the swimmers from last year’s finals relay.
How good can those four get? Their aggregate from finals is a 7:09.56, with no Phelps (he’s not on the team yet), and no Lochte (he scratched the final) to play the bookend roles.
This is a relay where the United States has ridden the two best swimmers in the world to victory for a decade. The United States has won the last five long course World Championships in the 800 free relay dating back to 2005 (Lochte and Phelps were on the first four in finals, and Lochte was on the fifth without his cohort). The United States has won the last two Pan Pacs titles, dating back to 2006. The United States has won the last three Olympic gold medals, dating back to 2004, all with Lochte and Phelps in the mix.
Though Australia wasn’t great at the Commonwealth Games, if Japan swims up to their potential (7:04 at Worlds), then the Americans are far from keeping the streak alive at Pan Pacs. We won’t say it can’t happen – because there’s so much that can change between now and then – but these Americans won’t be the favorites.
At the same time, it’s exciting to see some new names in the game. Weiss, who we picked 2nd in the 400 IM, is zoned-in, and that 400 IM pick is looking stronger by the day. Malone is a great story to make this relay in that he didn’t actually qualify for Summer Nationals with a long course time. Malone had to use a yards swim to enter this race here. If this were the Olympic Trials, which don’t take yards entries, he wouldn’t have even swum, and now he’s on the Pan Pacs team.
(2) The women’s backstrokers surely can’t wait for the new backstroke wedges to be in play at big meets. Two swimmers, Elizabeth Beisel in the A final and Bonnie Brandon in the B final, slipped bad at the start, and both were left in 8th place at the first turn thanks to the deficit. That slip probably cost Beisel her first qualification for Pan Pacs, though she kept a good attitude knowing that she’s got a great chance still in the 400 IM.
I’m still not sure how I feel about the backstroke wedges. While the wedges would keep those slips from costing swimmers spots on teams, sometimes, sports are about inopportune slips, and that keeps things interesting.
Beisel’s slip was part of an (3) overall lackluster performance in this women’s 200 backstroke. The champion Franklin was the only swimmer under 2:10, and she was just 2:08.38 – two seconds slower than last year. Last year, there were three swimmers (Franklin, Pelton, Beisel) at 2:07 or better.
(4) Lisa Bratton, however, took advantage of that with a 3rd-place finish in 2:11.57 For the Texas A&M commit, that’s not even as fast as she was at Junior Nationals last year (she was a lifetime best in prelims on Thursday at 2:11.33), but she’s still now in position to possibly make the Pan Pacs team. It remains to be seen where the cut line for the roster will fall, but with Texas A&M’s two U.S. Olympians Breeja Larson and Cammile Adams winding up their eligibility last season, the Aggies are reloading with more new National Team faces.
(5) We haven’t gotten race video yet from Universal Sports, but we’ll be curious to see his stroke count from the men’s 200 breast final. As compared to the 2:07.86, U.S. Open Record that the Arizona Wildcat swam in prelims, his 2:09.48 was a backward step. There was a little sigh of relief when he said afterward that he was trying to take as few strokes as possible, after going 11-13-15-18 in prelims, and rushing the last few strokes in the middle two 50’s. If his stroke counts got really, really low and he still went a 2:09.48, our disappointment will suddenly become a matter of impressiveness.
(6) Ryan Lochte’s scratch of the 200 free final helped him perform much, much better in the 200 back final, swimming a 1:56.47. He led for the first 150 meters of that race, but like we saw in London, Clary closed very well to take the win. Have to wonder how much the extended battle with the knee injury cost Lochte on that last 50, but still a good performance for him.
(7) Ryan Murphy settled in between the two in 1:55.99, which is his first “Operation Gold” team (he’s been to short course Worlds and Pan Ams). He was 4th in the 200 at the Olympic Trials, 3rd at Nationals, and now is 2nd this year in the 200. After dominating his freshman season at Cal in the backstrokes, this is a big step for him. Backstrokers like Murphy, and Peirsol, and even as far back as Dan Wescott seem to hold things together at a higher rate than in many other specialties after being great in younger age groups. (that’s purely an anecdotal hunch – and there are exceptions). With an insane amount of backstroke talent in the 16 & under ranks in the United States right now for men, that leaves a very bright future and maybe another decade of backstroke dominance internationally – the Americans have won every Olympic backstroke gold dating back to 1996, and even with Lochte and Grevers aging, the ranks still look healthy.
Clary wasn’t the only SwimMAC’er who finished strong in their 200. (8) Micah Lawrence put in sickening closing speed on the 200 breaststroke. She split 36.72 on her last 50 – the only swimmer to go faster from 150-200 meters than from 100-150 meters. Believe it or not, last year at Nationals, Lawrence split a nearly-identical 36.74 on her last 50. That means this closing speed wasn’t really a surprise, but it was more visually impressive because she ran down Breeja Larson, who wasn’t as good on the last 50 as she was when she won this race in Indy last summer.
(9) Congratulations go out to Darian Townsend, who has swum to a pair of B final finishes so far in his first meet as an American citizen. He was 10th in the 100 on Wednesday and 16th in the 200 on Thursday. His last, best, chance at making the Pan Pacs team is in the 200 IM on Sunday, with a 100 fly and a 100 backstroke on his schedule before then. While he’s come up short of a lot of the conversation about where he might be valuable to the U.S. team immediately, he’ll now probably settle in with some stability and focus on Rio 2016.
(10) The stroke 50’s really have a weird vibe, as do the women’s butterfly sprints in general at this meet. Pushing these swims are definitely not “immediate gratification,” as the 50’s don’t qualify anyone for Pan Pacs, and are the 3rd priority for Worlds qualification (they should be in, if history holds).
Describing USC’s Kendyl Stewart’s win, though, as fortuitous or opportunistic wouldn’t be giving it enough credit. She swam a 25.99, making her just the 4th American woman ever under 26 seconds in the event. The other three are pretty impressive names – Dara Torres, Dana Vollmer, and Christine Magnuson. Even Jenny Thompson never did it – she stalled out at 26.00 back in 2003.
And, it’s August 7th, 2014, and still, Sarah Sjostrom’s 24.43 is hard to believe.