The 2011 Austin Grand Prix was a star-studded affair that for much of America’s National Team was the first stop along the path towards, in the near-term, the 2011 World Championships, and, in the long term, the 2012 Olympics. Because there has really only been one other major meet world-wide this long course season (in Antwerp), most of the top swimmers from this meet stand amongst the top 10 in the world; we’ll save you having to read that all (unless a time would’ve placed well in 2010 as-well) because the 2011 World Rankings are largely meaningless at this point.
Swimmers of the Meet
Male-Ryan Lochte (Gator Swim Club)-Lochte didn’t dominate this meet like he did the last few times we’ve seen him (Dubai, Minnesota, Irvine) but with 2 golds, 2 silvers, and 2 bronzes, he competed well in a wide range of races despite being at a high level of training. What’s more, he stepped outside of his comfort zone to compete in races that don’t normally fall into his comfort zone, including the 400 free and 100 fly (where he finished second to only Michael Phelps).
Female-Missy Franklin (Colorado Stars)-Franklin won a grand total of 5 events, plus one silver, in just a 3-day meet against some of the country’s best swimmers. This includes day 3, where she took three events (200 IM, 200 back, 100 free) within 30 minutes of each other. Franklin is coming into her own as one of (if not the) biggest name in the USA National Team program, and extended her commanding lead in the Grand Prix Series.
What to Take out of This Meet
During this time of year, many swimmers were just hoping to show up and race well. Be they collegiate swimmers, National-teamers coming off of Dubai, or local Texas high school swimmers just beginning to think about their taper for February’s State Championship, most of the swimmers are in the midst of their toughest training of the year. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a lot of possibly useful, probably exciting, and definitely interesting information to glean from Austin. Here’s some of the best.
1. Franklin is Lights-Out-So with Franklin there’s the obvious medal haul (5 golds and 1 silver), the commanding lead in the Grand Prix Series (her point total jumps to 68, with Lochte in a distant second with 38), and the versatility (she finaled in 4 of the 5 disciplines, and won races in 3 different distances). But when looking specifically at the numbers, things get even more exciting for the 15 (yes, she’s still only 15 until May) year old swimmer from Colorado. In the 100 backstroke, she marked a 59.75, which is significant for a number of reasons: the personal best time breaks Rachel Bootsma’s year-old National Age Group record (59.77); it would’ve placed her in the top 8 in the world all of last year, despite the timing of the meet; and it was just barely off of Natalie Coughlin’s Pan-Pac winning time (59.70).
Though Franklin did not qualify to swim the 100 back at World’s (Coughlin and Liz Pelton earned that honor), her continued meteoric rise gives the USA some flexibility in their medley relay. Theoretically, in Shanghai, the best American relay could have Franklin at backstroke; allowing Coughlin to slide to the freestyle leg where there has been some level of uncertainty over the past year. Her 50 free mark (25.50) is also just off of her textile-best (25.46), and puts her in a position for more relay swims.
Even more exciting is that she put to rest (for now) any doubts over whether or not she will turn pro. She said, in no uncertain terms, that her plan for the future is to turn down any money (including the likely $20,000 she will earn for winning the GP series), and retain her college eligibility. This is huge news for NCAA coaches who licked their collective chops when Franklin made this announcement.
2. Phelps is back-Michael Phelps finally made an appearance for his fans in Austin, and he had a real mixed-bag. He did win two events, the 100 back and 100 fly, and took a bronze in another, the 200 IM. At the same time, he failed to A-final in his other two events, the 100 and 200 freestyles that he has so publicly shown an interest in pursuing. Despite missing those finals, however, he managed to win the B-final in times (50.09/1:49.90) that would have been competitive in the championship heats. More importantly, all Phelps interviews indicated that he was ready to buckle-down and really train for 2012. No, but really, he’s serious this time. This meet, with all of the stars around, seemed to really get his competitive fire sparked again.
3. Ryan Lochte-Not much was expected from Lochte at this meet, though he did swim well. He was reportedly not tapered for Dubai (but he still broke two World Records), and was back in full-training the same day he was back on American soil. Lochte did, however, take the opportunity to try out some new events that he could be working with for the next 18 months. With mounting pressure by America’s newest golden-boy to match Phelps’ 8-medal try in London, Lochte will have to find a few events outside of his core to add to the schedule. In this meet, he gave the 100 fly (2nd-53.65) and 400 free (10th-4:00.24) to mixed success. The events we know he’ll swim in Shanghai (and likely London) are both IM’s, the 200 free, and 200 back, along with both freestyle relays. To go for 8, Lochte will likely need to earn a third relay spot (backstroke or freestyle on the medley), and add another individual. The obvious choice is the 100 back, but with new training partner Peter Vanderkaay, the 400 free could become more and more of a possibility.
4. The Ageless One- It’s hard to ever know where Jason Lezak stands with his training. He doesn’t compete all that often, and trains by himself. At 35 years old, Lezak’s inevitable decline on the international level is on the horizon. For now, however, he’s still a very, very strong competitor. On day 2 of the Austin Grand Prix, he won the 50 free in a time of 22.57. Lezak showed in this meet that, so long as he continues to only have to focus on a very small number of races, he will continue to be a strong challenger for American relay spots through London.
5. Leg Up on the Competition- In just under 4 months, training partners Josh Schneider and Cullen Jones will show down in their home pool at the Charlotte Grand Prix for an individual 50 free spot in Shanghai. Jones has the pedigree, with an Olympic gold medal, an American record under his belt. But while Jones has been undertaking more universally important endeavors (like his award-winning work with Make-a-Splash), Schneider has become a rising young stud via his exploits in the water. He took a bronze in Dubai in the 50 free, after needing a swim-0ff to final, and took the silver at this weekend’s Grand Prix with a 22.57. He’s really developing that keen racing sense that all great sprinters need, and if I had to pick right now, I’d take Schneider in the swim-off. Of course, who knows what Jones has hiding under his belt.
6. Gator Experiment- Early returns are in for Peter Vanderkaay and his training with Ryan Lochte, Gregg Troy, and the Gator Swim Club. He finished 5th in both the 200 and 400 freestyles, and 6th in the mile. It can take some serious adjusting to get used to battling day-in and day-out with a swimmer like Lochte, and so these modest finishes are still encouraging.
7. Clar-ity– Tyler Clary swam only 3 events at this meet (400 IM, 200 back, and 200 fly) and won all three. With an event schedule that so closely mirrors some of the greatest American swimmers ever (Lochte, Phelps, and Peirsol), Clary is going to really have to narrow his focus to a few events if he wants to take a spot in London. This possibility seems like an odd thought for a swimmer who, Lochte aside, was one of the world’s dominant swimmers last year; especially after he turned pro early and gave up his senior season at Michigan. But in each of his primary events, he faces incredibly stiff competition just to place in the top two amongst Americans. These three are likely his strongest events, and are where he will really need to focus his efforts over the next 18 months.
8. Chip Peterson- Chip Peterson is another swimmer (a la Chloe Sutton) who is making a strong transition from the ocean to the pool. Peterson took victories in both the 400 and 1500 meter freestyles in Austin, and is another name to watch in bolstering the future of American distance swimming. At 23-years old, Peterson is ready to come into his own both in traditional and open-water competition at the international level.
9. Brent Hayden– Hayden is sort of the wild card in the sprint freestyles in Shanghai. He had one of the best 100 free times in the world last season, but doesn’t come from a traditional sprinting powerhouse like Brazil, France, or the USA. He has been amongst the fastest in the world for years (including a 2007 100 free World Championship), but has only recently been entered into this conversation. At this meet, he cracked the 50-second barrier in winning the 100 free (49.91), which is very impressive for this time of year. This should push the whispers about Hayden as a Shanghai medal-favorite into roars.
10. Garrett Weber-Gale- Weber-Gale had a fantastic Dubai meet, and had several clutch relay performances. He definitely seems to be a contender for at least a 400 free relay spot in London, but he has expressed an interest in making the 800 free relay as well. At this meet, he took his first serious stab at the longer 200 free, and didn’t fare so well. His 33rd-place “E-final” victory in a time of 1:56.09 was probably not what he was hoping for. Luckily, he has a good chunk of time to work out the kinks and prepare for 2012. Weber-Gale scratched the 100 free, but placed 6th in the 50 at 23.61.
11. So-long, Farewell- This was Eric Shanteau’s last “home” meet as a member of Longhorn Aquatics prior to his move to work with Kosuke Kitajima, Rebecca Soni, and the rest of the defending “Best Breaststroke Program in the World” at Trojan Aquatics. The USA desperately needs Shanteau to figure his stroke out before the upcoming big international meets, and he is hopeful that the new training environment with Dave Salo will make that happen. He paid a brilliant farewell to his hometown fans with a sweep of the breaststroke events (100-1:02.35/200-2:12.12), and a surprise runner-up finish in the 200 IM (2:01.13).
On the Horizon
One of the best parts of the Grand Prix Series is that it allows young swimmers to get their first exposure to the type of meet-preparations and training that the country’s elite athletes undertake to prepare for their races. Along with California and Florida, Texas provides some of the deepest and best junior-level talent in the country. Some of these swimmers deserve special recognition for their performances. Missy Franklin might get all of the attention, but she’s not the only high school underclassman to watch.
Fourteen year-old Simone Manuel, from First Colony, led a pack including Missy Franklin, Liz Pelton, and Katie Hoff at the turn of the 100 free before falling back to third in a still-impressive 56.34. She also fared very well in the 50 free, with a third-place time of 26.27. A fellow 14 year-old, Quinn Carrozza from the host’s L.A., placed 5th in the 100 free in 56.91, among several great swims. Sixteen year-old Kaitlyn Jones, from the Delaware Swim Team, placed second in the 200 IM and 7th in the 400 IM amongst a nine-event schedule. Performances like hers and Franklin’s show a growing trend of versatility from the next generation of female swimmers.
On the men’s side, Jacob Pebley from the Corvalis Aquatic Team in Oregon could be the next rising American backstroker. He placed fourth in the 100 back (55.40) ahead of the likes of defending NCAA Champ Eugene Godsoe, as well as second in the 200 back (1:59.19). High School finalists are much rarer at this level on the men’s side than the women’s side, and his finishes are very exciting.
Official standings have been posted. Here is what the top of the leaderboard looks like.
1. Missy Franklin-63
2. Ryan Lochte-35
3. Ricky Berens-18