2023 U.S World Trials Previews: Close Racing Brewing Behind Finke In Men’s 800 Free

2023 U.S. National Championships

Men’s 800 Free – By The Numbers:

  • World Record: Zhang Lin (CHN) — 7:32.12 (2009)
  • American Record: Bobby Finke — 7:39.36 (2022)
  • U.S. Open Record: Bobby Finke (USA) — 7:43.32 (2022)
  • 2022 U.S. International Team Trials Winner: Bobby Finke — 7:43.32
  • World Aquatics ‘A’ Cut: 7:53.11

Just as is the case in the men’s 1500 freestyle, the winner in the 800 free seems pretty clear. Bobby Finke is the reigning Olympic and world champion, as well as the American and U.S. Open record holder. While men’s distance has gotten extremely competitive on the international stage, at the national level it’s a safe bet to pick Finke as the winner in Indianapolis.

There is a wrinkle in the event though: so far, none of the top Americans–including Finke—have hit the World Aquatics ‘A’ cut (7:53.11) inside the qualifying period. There’s little need to worry about Finke getting under, but it does add another layer to the race for second. Of the main contenders, only three—Charlie Clark, Michael Brinegar, and Ross Danthave a lifetime best faster than the ‘A’ cut. So, for the majority of the field if they want to race in Fukuoka not only do they need to finish second, but they also have to swim a lifetime best faster than 7:53.11.

Recent International Representatives

As mentioned above, Finke is the favorite here (and arguably to win Worlds as well). This season, he’s been 7:53.96, which he went at the Westmont Pro, improving his season-best from Knoxville by about three seconds. At the 2022 Trials, Finke swam a new U.S. Open record en route to qualifying for the Worlds team in first by 6.75 seconds. He’d only swum the 800 free once that season before hitting the mark, clocking 7:54.07 at the U.S. Open. A 7:54 in November while still swimming collegiately and a 7:53 in April as a pro are two very different things but in my mind, the question is less whether Finke will win and more if he’ll take a run at his U.S. Open record.

Charlie Clark By Jack Spitser

Clark and Brinegar have joined Finke in the 800 free on the last two major international teams: Clark swam at the 2022 Worlds and Brinegar at the 2021 Olympics. As swimmers with a lifetime best faster than the ‘A’ cut, that makes them the big favorites for the second roster spot.

Last year, Clark used a strong back half to pass swimmers such as Dant and David Johnston to finish second in 7:50.07, a new PB by over four seconds. He went on to finish 12th at Worlds in 7:51.59. Unless he pops up at a meet in the interim, he heads to Indianapolis with a season-best of 7:55.36 from the Fort Lauderdale Pro Series.

At the Knoxville Pro Series, Brinegar swam his first race since the 2022 NCAAs and his first long course race since the Tokyo Olympics. He was slated to compete in open water at Worlds, but withdrew following a COVID-19 diagnosis. Now training at Ohio State, the 23-year-old has been swimming well this year, holding a season-best of 7:54.52. With a PB of 7:49.94, like Finke, Brinegar should have no trouble getting under the ‘A’ cut. There’s a lot of young talent he’ll need to fend off, but Brinegar is well-placed to find himself back in the pool at a major international meet.

In the last year, Johnston’s gotten a taste of the international scene; he swam at the Duel in the Pool and the 2022 Short Course World Championships. While racing at Australia’s SCM Championships, he set an American record in the 800 free (7:30.41) and produced a time in the 1500 free (14:22.77) to make him the second-fastest American ever.

In September, we listed Johnston as one of the five American men most likely to breakout in the 2022-23 international season. Now, it’s time to see if the experience he gained in SCM will pay off in the big pool. His lifetime best stands at 7:54.40 from the 2022 Trials, within striking distance of the ‘A’ cut. He hasn’t raced the 800 free yet this season, but the success that he’s had in both SCY and SCM could signal that he’s ready to make a drop in long course as well, which should land him right in the battle for second.

One thing Johnston will need to improve to make the Worlds team is his back half. Across the 2022 Trials, 2022 U.S. Nationals and 2023 NCAAs, competitors such as Clark and Gallant have overcome Johnston’s early speed and run him down.

The Wolfpack

Johnston, Dant, Will Gallant and James Plage headline a bevy of college distance swimmers looking to get in on the action. Now, let’s take a closer look at the Wolfpack distance crew.

Gallant and Dant were 1-2 in the 1650 freestyle at the 2023 NCAAs. Gallant won, becoming the 20th swimmer to crack the 14:30 barrier (14:28.94). Last year, Gallant was one of the NCAA swimmers who didn’t handle the turnaround from NCAAs to Trials well. He was about 10 seconds off his best in this event and tied for eighth. He rebounded at U.S. Nationals, finishing second with a new PB of 7:53.34. But, with more time to transition between NCAAs and Trials this year, Gallant should be much more of a factor.

Dant fared better in the jump from yards to meters. He took fourth at Trials, though he was well off his PB 7:50.66 from the Olympic Trials. His 2022 Trials swim was the first time he raced the event since Omaha; this season, he hasn’t logged a time yet, suggesting that he’s been more focused on yards and college swimming. That may put him at a disadvantage, but one thing Dant has that most of the field doesn’t is a PB under the World Aquatics ‘A’ cut—he’s proven he can be faster than 7:53.11.

Their teammate Plage was an Olympic Trials finalist in this event. He skipped it at World Trials, only swimming the 400 free. But later in the summer, he swam a lifetime best 7:54.77 at Cary Sectionals. That time immediately puts him right there with Johnston and his Wolfpack teammates. He had a breakout performance in yards at ACCs, which could portend the same in meters.

Best of the Rest

Tyler Watson continues the trend of college swimmers not having swum a long course time this season. He finished fifth at Trials last year, getting under eight minutes for the first time. Watson (who’s currently in the transfer portal after four seasons at Florida) swam 7:56.44, dropping over six seconds. He’s only logged eight registered 800m free times in his career, so it’s possible that he still hasn’t hit his ceiling yet.

Alec Enyeart joined his Longhorn teammate Johnston on our list of potential breakout candidates for the ’22-23 international season. Though he was relatively quiet at his freshman NCAAs, Enyeart swam lifetime bests in all the distance freestyle events this season.

His first long course meet since Junior Pan Pacs was the Mission Viejo Pro Series, where he clocked 7:59.66 in the 800 free, about a second off his PB from his sixth-place showing at the 2022 Trials. We haven’t really seen what Texas training will do for his LCM speed, but it does seem that he’s poised for another drop. It may not be enough to put him in the hunt for a Worlds roster spot, but he projects to be back solidly in the top 8.

Matthew Chai and Joey Tepper are the two from 2022 Trials’ top eight that we haven’t touched on yet. Both set lifetime bests at the meet. Chai, who just wrapped up his freshman year at Cal, was seventh in 8:03.44. Meanwhile, Tennessee’s Tepper logged a PB 8:04.65 as he tied for eighth with Gallant. It would take a huge drop for either of these two to make the Worlds roster, but it’s worth keeping an eye on if they can break eight minutes.

The college swimmers have more of a gap between the short course and long course season this year, so it will be interesting to see if that leads to a faster top eight. At the Olympic Trials, it took 7:57.11 to qualify for the final, and eighth was eventually 8:01.81. That’s in contrast to the 8:04.65 it took to get eighth at the 2022 Trials, the next major selection meet.

SwimSwam’s Top 8 Picks:

Note: Distance events are timed finals, with the fastest heat swimming with finals.

Place Name Season Best Lifetime Best
1 Bobby Finke 7:53.96 7:39.36
2 Michael Brinegar 7:54.52 7:49.94
3 Charlie Clark 7:55.36 7:50.07
4 Will Gallant 8:08.20 7:53.34
5 David Johnston 7:54.50
6 Ross Dant 7:50.66
7 James Plage 7:54.77
8 Alec Enyeart 7:59.66 7:58.68

Dark Horse: Levi Sandidge — As a freshman at Kentucky, Sandidge had a monster performance in the mile at SECs. He dropped more than 18 seconds with a 14:31.47 en route to the 1650 free conference title. Sandidge hasn’t been as strong in meters, where he holds a best of 8:07.13 from July 2022 in the 800 free. At the 2022 Trials, he finished 13th. But, he’s been shedding time practically every time out since he arrived at Kentucky–his SEC performance was just the latest and most dramatic example. He’s a good candidate to make a big drop at the National Championships, which could launch him up the standings. 

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1 year ago

Yeah that second spot is ripe for the taking if one of those guys can swim the race of their lives.

Sometimes these distance races come down to a wild scramble in the final laps, like a track race.

Ross Dant has been close several times. But a lot depends on who has been training the hardest to produce a super swim.

1 year ago

Litherland will prob make the World Cut

Sam M
1 year ago

I think it’s going to be some pre college talent that will secure spot number 2 for the 8 free

Snowpipers of Alaska
1 year ago

Does anyone know why they’ve shortened the 1000 free race to just 800 meters? Seems a bit absurd to me; it’s mathematically shorter and really shortchanges the more distance-oriented swimmers from all around the world, like Bobby Finke, Bobby Hackett, Sun Yang, and Trent Grimsey. That said, someone named “Bobby” easily takes the crown here in the U.S. trials, and spot #2 might need to be determined by lottery.

Reply to  Snowpipers of Alaska
1 year ago

Well there’s an 800 and a 1500 so the more distance-oriented swimmers can swim the 1500?

Reply to  Snowpipers of Alaska
1 year ago

1000 free is in Short course Yards format. The 800 is in meters and can be either short or long course meters.

1 year ago

I think Johnston will edge Gallant and Clark.

Also, something about Brinegar finishing 2nd just doesn’t make sense to me, I don’t see it happening

James Beam
Reply to  Andrew
1 year ago

He hasn’t looked good since going to OSU

Reply to  Andrew
1 year ago

I think Johnston’s best chance in the 800, but he hasn’t been great at having his best swims at the meet where it counts. I think Gallant will get second in the 800 and Clark in the 1500.

1 year ago

Luke Ellis for darkhorse and likely qualify for Jr worlds

1 year ago

If Kieran Smith were to swim this, then where do we think he would finish? Lifetime best 7:59 from a 2021 Pro Swim Series meet.

Reply to  RealSlimThomas
1 year ago

Conservatively would guess he goes 7:53ish for like fourth place but could also see him having a huge swim and being close to Finke if he’s “on”

About Sophie Kaufman

Sophie Kaufman

Sophie grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, which means yes, she does root for the Bruins, but try not to hold that against her. At 9, she joined her local club team because her best friend convinced her it would be fun. Shoulder surgery ended her competitive swimming days long ago, …

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