2014 brings us to the middle of the Olympic cycle and with that comes the only year without a world-wide long course championship meet. Fortunately the schedule is just as interesting with a vast array of regional meets including Europeans, Pan Pacs, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games, in addition to short course worlds. Many questions were answered last year. Katie Ledecky is legit, and even better than we expected. Vlad Morozov is a major force in world sprinting. Conor Dwyer is one of the top middle-distance and all-around men on the planet. But many questions still await.
1. What will Ryan Lochte do?
The last time Lochte went to Pan Pacs he won four individual gold medals, all by convincing margins, on the way to one of the all-time great performances at worlds in Shanghai the next year. After taking time off for a reality TV show, Lochte proved himself to be one of the best all-around male swimmers in the world. However, a serious knee injury and Father Time (Lochte will turn 30 next year) seem to be looming for Lochte. Can he repeat as medley and backstroke champion, or will a newcomer, or perhaps an old nemesis (see #14) take the crowns away?
2. European Women’s Breaststroke
Last summer all three breaststroke world records were broken by three different European women, setting up what would seem to be an epic battle royale in Berlin. So far, Yulia Efimova has left with the lion’s share of the medals, striking gold in both sprint and long haul, but losing to Ruta Meilutyte in the 100, which seems to be the Lithuanian’s sweet spot. However, considering Meilutyte’s sprinting prowess in the 50 and 100 and Rikke Moller Pedersen’s 200 WR, it’s totally possible that the breaststroke queen of 2013 could come home with a silver mine.
3. Is Katie Ledecky human?
Ledecky spent the first 50 or so weeks of 2013 making a case for being the greatest distance swimmer ever and proving her doubters wrong. However, Duel in the Pool affirmed two things: Katie Ledecky is physically capable of losing, at least when sick, and Mireia Belmonte-Garcia is really good at distance swimming, and really really good at short course distance swimming. Will Katie Ledecky seize her throne as the best women’s distance swimmer in the world, or will short course worlds prove that Belmonte is Ledecky’s “white whale.”
4. How fast will Sun Yang go?
He’s proven that he can dominate races when his training is on (2012), and that he can win when not in the best shape of his life (2013). However, history has shown us that male distance swimmers tend to reach their peak around age 21. Sun is now 22, and will be 24 at the Rio Olympics. If he wants to break the elusive barriers of 3:40 and 14:30 then this year could be one of his last chances. Of course, that ignores his burgeoning improvement in the 200 freestyle. The London silver medalist made himself the 5th fastest of all time last year and dropped a filthy relay split while not in his best shape. Will this be the year he can challenge Yannick Agnel for the coveted crown of middle-distance champ, or will he once again be relegated to second-best?
5. Raomi v. Cate
Cate Campbell had possibly the most impressive season in the women’s 100 freestyle since Dawn Fraser. However, before we call her the best sprinter ever, she must conquer Ranomi Kromowidjojo, the double Dutch Olympic champ. Kromo ceded her title as 100 free champ and the textile WR to Campell, but retained the 50 freestyle crown by tying her textile WR, set the undisputed record in the s/c 50 free, and had the number 1 performance in the 100 free to boot. While the pair won’t face each other in a major long course meet next year, they will certainly set the stage for Kazan and Rio.
6. The Returns
2013, being the year after an Olympic Games, featured a number of people taking time off. Rebecca Soni took her break while a trio of other women reinvented the breaststroke world records in both short course and long course. Now with her records gone, the 3-time Olympic champion has her work cut out if she wants to retain her status as the greatest female 200 breaststroke swimmer in the world.
Park Tae-Hwan also faces a tough welcome back to competition. The 6-time individual Asian Champion will face Sun Yang in the 200, 400 and 1500, and will have a hard time retaining his titles in the 200 and 400 now that Sun is the Asian record holder. Can he make strides and pull off an upset in the 400 and defend his 100 and 200 crowns, or will Sun maintain command of their rivalry?
7. How close can Chad le Clos come to Michael Phelps?
The soon-to-be 21-year-old le Clos comes off of a great season in short course, both in the 200 fly and in versatility. Can he approach Phelps’ last standing textile WR in the 200 fly, or maybe even the global standard of 1:51.51? Le Clos’ versatility should not be underestimated either, as strong performances on the world cup tour highlight his breadth. Golds in the 100 fly seem to be there for the taking, and if Lochte is not on his game, a 200 IM title would not be out of the question at Pan Pacs and Commonwealths, and let’s not rule out the 400 IM.
8. Will the rising American men continue to make leaps and bounds?
Last summer, five American men won individual medals for the first time. Feigen, Dwyer, McBroom, Jaeger and Kalisz all won their first individual medals and look to be the core of American men’s swimming for years to come. Can they continue and dominate at Pan Pacs, ushering in a new era of American male dominance? Will their silvers and bronzes transform into gold medals and world number ones?
9. Men’s Sprints
Manaudou v. Morozov at Euros. Adrian v. Cielo v. Magnussen v. Ervin at Pan Pacs. Some have described the time as a “golden age” in sprinting, which may very well be true. Cielo may have have finished on top last year, but that’s no guarantee given the field at Pan Pacs. Manaudou and Morozov will also get a chance to have the battle that never materialized a few weeks ago. Will Cielo, Vlad and Magnussen stay on top of their rivals, or will the tides turn and someone else come out victorious?
10. The Most Decorated Man
With a number of regional meets coming up, many men have a shot at taking home four or more individual medals at one meet or another. Will Chad le Clos capitalize on his short course season and continued ascension since defeating Phelps in London? Can Conor Dwyer prove his Duel in the Pool results weren’t a fluke and come home with a fistful of medals? Will middle distance medley swimmer Laszlo Cseh come home the most versatile, or will a sprinter like Morozov or Florent Manaudou take home the most prizes from Europeans? Or will Ryan Lochte prove once again he’s the king by returning to the States with multiple golds? Whatever the case, Kosuke Hagino must definitely have a bad taste in his mouth after last summer’s 400 IM and has more than a few shots at the Asian Games to redeem himself.
11. The Most Gilded Woman
Short course super racers Katinka Hosszu and Mireia Belmonte-Garcia could end up having a field day at short course worlds. Last time around, Katinka took five individual medals, and Belmonte’s last trip garnered four medals, three golds and one swimmer of the meet award. Short course worlds could feature them taking home a combined 10 individual medals. Of course, as they say, in order to be the best you have to beat the best, and Missy Franklin will be alive and kicking fresh off her first year of college. After 6 golds last year, she is the woman to beat at Pan Pacs, where seven medals is by no means out of the question.
12. NCAA Championships
As a high schooler, Missy Franklin proved herself again and again on the world stage, but can she continue her dominance at NCAA’s? Will she set college records and storm through Pan Pacs, or will her starts and turns leave the door open for an upset? On the men’s side, all eyes will be on age group record-holders Jack Conger and Ryan Murphy. After impressive times last summer at US Nationals, can they throw down some monster times as freshmen before qualifying for Pan Pacs? And can Kevin Cordes keep setting American records after last year’s ground-breaking season?
13. Which Allison Schmitt will we see?
In the space of a few days, Schmitt literally went from being on the doors entering the IU Natatorium for Nationals to not making the wall of names on the National team. Will the dominant three-time Olympic gold medalist of 2012 return, or will the less-than-stellar ’13 Schmitt show up again?
14. Will Michael Phelps come back?
Trials for Pan Pacs and 2015 worlds are looming. If Phelps wants to make a comeback then his window of opportunity is quickly approaching. Can Phelps win a third consecutive title in the 200 fly and defend his 100 fly crown? Will he attempt to break his Pan Pacs record in the 100 free? Will he make the team? Will he even compete? There’s no shortage of speculation and intrigue surrounding the greatest swimmer of our generation.
Bonus Question: Does USRPT really work? – So far, Dr. Brent Rushall’s USRPT is ‘fad’ training that is easily marginalized by the fact that it’s greatest success story, Michael Andrew, is a physical juggernaut. But Rushall and the Andrew family are putting on clinics to spread their good word, and it won’t be long before we get more data points. 2014 will be the year where we find out whether the USRPT is a sweeping success or only a viable option for a select few gifted swimmers.