Robert Gibbs contributed to this report.
The middle of an Olympic quad is always an intriguing time. Some 2016 Olympians are starting to fade. Some 2020 Olympians are starting to rise. Some Rio rookies are setting up to become multi-time Olympic qualifiers.
And we just plain don’t know which are which.
However, last week’s U.S. Nationals did provide some of the highest drama you’ll ever see in the sport, along with some of the finest swimming of a season that will still include the Pan Pacific Championships, European Championships and Asian Games. We’ve deliberated over our official awards ballot and settled on winners. Without further ado:
Female Swimmer of the Meet – Kathleen Baker
Baker tied Katie Ledecky to lead all women with three individual wins in Irvine. She also set the meet’s only world record, a smashing 58.00 in the 100 back that both won a historically-brilliant race and set up the U.S. women’s medley relay for continued world dominance.
- Katie Ledecky – Ledecky won three events and could have easily won a fourth, had she swum the 1500 free. She also capped off a Pro Swim Series title in her first pro season.
Male Swimmer of the Meet – Michael Andrew
The much-discussed Andrew finally put together the breakthrough meet critics had been looking for. He led all swimmers with 4 event titles in Irvine, even topping superstar Caeleb Dressel head-to-head in two of their three A final meetings. Andrew succeeded across all four strokes in the 50- and 100-meter distances and showed serious Pan Pacs medal potential.
- Ryan Murphy – The Cal postgrad looks to be back in form. He posted the top times in the world in the 50 and 100 backstrokes, and the 2nd-fastest time in the 200 back, winning all three races.
Women’s Performance of the Meet – Kathleen Baker, 100 Backstroke
Picked by some to perhaps lose her American backstroke crown to youngster Regan Smith, Baker proved herself among the greatest backstrokers on the planet, blasting a world record 58.00 to win the women’s 100 back. She won that race by a commanding seven tenths of a second over what might have been the most loaded event field of the meet – more on that below.
- Hali Flickinger, 200 fly – Flickinger kicked off the meet with some fireworks, uncorking a 2:05.87 that sits #2 in the world this year. That was a drop of almost a full second for the 24-year-old Flickinger, who now looks like a world-level medal threat in an event that hasn’t been USA Swimming’s strongest in recent years.
- Kathleen Baker, 200 IM – Another world-leading time for Baker, this one was easily the most unexpected. Baker dropped more than 3 seconds and beat a field of IM specialists in at event that she hadn’t seriously competed in in long course since 2015.
Men’s Performance of the Meet – Zane Grothe, 800 free
Grothe had looked a little off earlier in the week, but managed to save his best swim for last. He kept up a strong tempo the whole way, negative splitting the swim and registering the 3rd-fastest time ever by an American. He also leads the current world ranks in an event where the U.S. hasn’t been a power recently.
- Chase Kalisz, 200 IM – Kalisz didn’t expand his international event lineup in Irvine after a rough 200 fly (though he could still try again in Tokyo), but his IMs were outstanding. His 200, in particular, is a world-leading time that is just two tenths off what he went while winning Worlds gold last summer.
- Ryan Murphy, 50 back – Sure, the stroke 50s don’t mean as much in terms of world rank, but Murphy’s American record swim ultimately gave him a sweep of the backstroke titles and the world’s #1 spot in the event. It also made a clear statement that Murphy – coming off a small regression in the 2017 – means business as he attempts to continue the long-running American dominance in the men’s backstrokes.
Women’s Race of the Meet – Women’s 100 Backstroke
It’s been a Baker-centric awards ballot on the women’s side, but how can you downplay the 100 back final as a race? The event produced 4 times within the top 7 in the world this season (#1, #4, #5, #7), including a world record and a world junior record.
- 200 free – Though there was never much doubt as to the winner (thanks, Katie Ledecky), the battle for the remaining Pan Pacs and World Championships spots was fantastic. Allison Schmitt cemented her return to major USA Swimming player and Gabby Deloof backed up a stellar morning swim to put her name in ‘Breakout Swimmer’ contention.
- 200 back – yet another great backstroke race that was a nailbiter throughout and came down to a tie for the title and the #3 time in the world this season
- 400 IM – Likely the upset of the meet, the 400 IM went to completely unheralded Ally McHugh. That’s not hyperbole. Literally no one in the 800+ entrants to our Pick ‘Em contest had picked McHugh to win. Less than 5% picked her at all, the vast majority predicting her 4th.
Men’s Race of the Meet – Men’s 100 Breaststroke
A tightly-packed final field featuring three Olympians (Cordes, Miller, Prenot), another former World Champs team member (Fink), a short course American record-holder (Licon) and the top three were none of them. The 100 breast marked the zenith of Michael Andrew‘s national-level breakout party, earning his first official Pan Pacs roster spot and very likely his first long course World Championships roster spot. The storylines are too many to count: Andrew Wilson representing the NCAA’s Division III at unprecedented levels, Devon Nowicki‘s return from anonymity to the nation’s top tier, sprint-oriented Michael Andrew coming from 5th place to 1st in the final 50, and (if we can count it) a swim-off for a World University Games spot.
- 200 fly – We’ll talk more about Justin Wright later on, but the 200 fly was a breakout event for a couple of the meet’s most exciting new names (Wright, Levant, Urlando) along with a thrilling final 50 meters.
- Men’s 100 free – a race that was anyone’s game with the top dog off his. The entire field was within 0.57 seconds in the A final, culminating in Blake Pieroni‘s first national title.
- Men’s 50 fly – the first of two times we’d see Michael Andrew beat Caeleb Dressel head-to-head, and Andrew’s ticket to his first long course World Championships, while it continued Dressel’s dramatic weekend of fighting for a travel team spot after two high-profile misses early.
Women’s Breakout Performer – Ally McHugh
McHugh, who swims for Penn State, has been lurking at the top levels of the US distance scene for a while now, but broke out here in a big way with a win in the 400 IM that moves her up to 3rd in the world this year. We talked about how few people predicted her 400 IM title above. It’s not without reason: McHugh bettered her lifetime-best by 5.4 seconds over the course of the meet and also dropped 6 in the 800 free and nearly 14 in the 1500.
- Gabby Deloof – dropping from 1:58.4 to 1:56.5 in the 200 free, Deloof vaulted onto what could be a historically-good 4×200 free relay, and backed up her huge prelims drop with another drop in finals. Deloof also dropped about a half-second in her 100 and should be a potential factor on both the Worlds team (as a relay swimmer) and Pan American Games team (individually) next summer.
Men’s Breakout Performer – Justin Wright
How can you forget the underdog Wright coming back from the middle of the pack over the final 50 meters to upset a star-studded field (Kalisz, Conger, Shields) and book his first Pan Pacs trip? Coming in the second event of the entire meet, Wright’s 200 fly set the tone for what would become a meet defined by breakout swimmers making their marks on USA Swimming at the expense of established stars.
- Andrew Seliskar – broke through in the most unexpected of events, winning the 200 free with a gutsy 3rd 50 that left a field of more specialized freestylers in the wake of the IM/multi-stroke threat. It could be a sign of things to come for Seliskar, once seen as a candidate to be the next great versatile American after Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
Women’s Junior Swimmer of the Meet – Regan Smith
In a slew of great junior performances, it’s hard to pick against Smith, who won a co-national title in the 200 back, broke a world junior record in the 100 back, made senior Pan Pacs in the 200 fly and is in line for a return trip to senior Worlds in 2019. The 16-year-old is already making a major name for herself in a long line of incredible American juniors in the women’s backstrokes.
- Erica Sullivan – 18&under national champ in the 800 and 1500 frees, and made the senior Pan Pacs team. The 17-year-old Sullivan didn’t face an easy road with Ledecky and Leah Smith in her best events, but still managed to swim well enough to escape their shadow.
- Isabelle Stadden – the top swimmer left off the senior Pan Pacs team, Stadden will be the top member of the Junior Pan Pacs team in the 100 and 200 backstrokes and won the 18&under national title in the 50 back. The 16-year-old Stadden was a stellar 3rd in a loaded 200 back field, 5th in the 50 back and won the B final of the 100 back.
Men’s Junior Swimmer of the Meet – Jack Levant
18-year-old Jack Levant made a pair of A finals and put himself in line for a potential 2019 World Championships relay spot, at least for the time being. Levant was 8th in the 200 fly (after taking 3rd in prelims) and 5th in the 200 free. He was within a eight tenths of a second of a national title in the latter race, and should get a prelims relay swim at the 2019 World Championships unless two members of the Pan Pacs team can better his time next week.
- Gianluca Urlando – The 16-year-old Urlando was a standout right out of the gate, tying Olympian Jack Conger for 3rd in the very first men’s event, the 200 fly. Urlando was ultimately the first man left out of senior Pan Pacs, but will represent the U.S. in both butterfly races at Junior Pan Pacs.
- Carson Foster – Another 16-year-old, Foster won two 18&under national titles (200 back, 200 IM) and qualified for Junior Pan Pacs in a team-leading three events, with the 100 back also in the mix.
- Robert Finke – 18-year-old Finke was a double 18&under national champ in the long-distance races, and made Pan Pacs in the 1500.
Team of the Meet – California Aquatics
The Cal men, in particular, were on fire, putting six men (Nathan Adrian, Andrew Seliskar, Josh Prenot, Ryan Murphy, Jacob Pebley and Sean Grieshop) onto the Pan Pacs team. Adrian, Seliskar, Prenot, Murphy and Pebley are all in line for 2019 Worlds spots, while Cal Aquatics also put five more (Trenton Julian, Nick Norman, Grieshop, Bryce Mefford and Michael Jensen) in line for the 2019 World University Games team and three more (Daniel Carr, Tom Shields and Matthew Josa) in line for the 2019 Pan American Games team.
When you add in the Cal Aquatics women (Katie McLaughlin and Abbey Weitzeil to the Pan Pacs team and likely World Championships team) and the Cal Aquatics roster had by far the most high-profile meet of any club in attendance.
- Stanford Swimming – the big guns didn’t do anything really special by their standards (Simone Manuel and Katie Ledecky set the bar pretty high), but combined to win five events. The next tier had solid long course breakthroughs (Brooke Forde, Abrahm Devine, Grant Shoults and Katie Drabot to Pan Pacs/Worlds, Megan Byrnes and True Sweetser to World University Games, Allie Szekely to Pan Ams) and Ella Eastin gets points for gutting out Pan Pacs and World University Games bids while swimming brutal events through mononucleosis. Lia Neal also set up a return trip to Worlds and Pan Pacs.
- Longhorn Aquatics – the specific ‘Longhorn Aquatics’ roster doesn’t look as impressive, as a number of the top swimmers who train with the club compete under other banners (Townley Haas, Jack Conger). But Longhorn still put Andrew Wilson and Austin Katz on the Pan Pacs team, with strong swims from Evie Pfeifer, Will Licon and Tate Jackson.