Most of USA Swimming’s most elite competitors wrapped up their 2011 long course seasons last week at the USA Swimming National Championships, and it was a bit of an eerie event. Without Michael Phelps, Natalie Coughlin, and Ryan Lochte (for most of the meet), plenty of swimmers had opportunities to make names for themselves. But this aptly-described “afterthought” meet had some notable stories that reach well beyond the World Championship swimmers who were returning from Shanghai, and with those swimmers’ absences, it’s a great opportunity to highlight some of the just-below-top-tier swimmers.
First, I’ll give due mention to the 5 topics that have been pounded into the ground ad nauseum, that you don’t need to read more about:
Top 5 Beaten Horses
1. Brendan Hansen is still really good.
2. Matt Grevers is still awesome, despite a poor 2010 Pan Pacs.
3. Elizabeth Beisel looked really fast in sweeping the IM’s and the 200 back.
4. Missy Franklin was still dominant in holding her taper for two weeks, and showed that no expectations are too high for her.
5. Having Nationals the week after Worlds is a bit absurd.
Ok, now let’s move on to some more interesting stories.
1. Backfilling the 200 fly – One of the biggest concerns of the US National Team after the retirement of Michael Phelps in 2012 is the 200 fly. Though he puts up the facade that the Americans are strong in the 200 fly (he ALWAYS wins the gold), there’s not much behind him. Since 2007, only once have the Americans had two finalists in this race at a World/Olympic Championship, and that was Tyler Clary’s 5th in 2009.
But there are some great young swimmers that are coming up to support the American medal efforts after Phelps’ retirement. Stanford’s Bobby Bollier is only 21 and took the win in 1:56.64, and UNC’s Tom Luchsinger, only 20, took 4th in 1:57.01. 19-year old Dakota Hodgson also swam a 1:58.81 in prelims. They may not be medalists yet, but there’s a lot of quality youth coming in to the 200 fly that could be ready by 2013, when they will first be needed. This is especially true of Bollier, who will have a full year of long course training under his belt by Barcelona in two years.
2. Rex Tullius – This Gator Swim Club product has been on the fringes of the international squad for many years, though at 24 has still not yet been able to make that last breakthrough to qualify for the travel teams. At Nationals, however, he took 2nd in the 200 backstroke in 1:57.48, which ranks him 14th in the world. Clearing that top-16 hurdle is significant for a swimmer in his position, where he’s good enough to keep swimming, but not quite good enough to make a living off of endorsements. He now receives a lot of additional funding opportunities for meet travel, etc.
Beyond that, I would guess that Tullius will accept his earned-invitation to the Pan Am Games in October, which will be a positive experience for him headed towards the Olympic Trials as it will be one of his first big international meets.
3. Andrew Gemmell’s Tough Decision – Former Georgia Bulldog Andrew Gemmell, who has been training with FAST in California after sitting the season out at Georgia, looked spectacular in winning the men’s 1500 free in 15:01.31. That swim moved him to 10th in the world rankings,(as only a teenager) and was a career-best time by 7 seconds. That performance is even more impressive considering his training has been geared towards open water swimming for a few months now, as that’s what he swam in Shanghai.
Still, he has another 7 seconds (at least) to go if he wants to catch Peter Vanderkaay for an Olympic spot in this 1500, assuming Vanderkaay chooses to swim it. With Gemmell’s chances at an open water swim in the Olympics officially terminated, he will have to qualify either in this 1500, the 400 free, or the 400 IM, and in all cases he has some very good swimmers sitting in front of him. His improvements at FAST are undeniable, but every year he sits out from Georgia now is one less year of eligibility, and my feeling is that he’s probably under a bit of a “now or never” ultimatum from his collegiate program. If he doesn’t make the Olympic team, he’s probably given up a lot of scholarship money for very little return.
3. Eddie Reese Continues to Build Talent – Longhorn Aquatics have lost a lot of their big-names over the past two years or so, either to retirement or westward migration. But that doesn’t mean that Eddie Reese isn’t still churning out plenty of future talent. Former high school record holder Jimmy Feigen made his “next-level move” at this meet with runner-up finishes in both the 50 and the 100, both in marks that were way faster than his previous textile-bests. In the 50, he cut four-tenths off, and in the 100 it was 6. He has one more year of NCAA swimming (and a chance at his first NCAA title) before he has to worry about making the Olympic team, but at this point he looks to be in very good position for a relay spot, and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he took the second individual spot in the 50 free, either. Dax Hill wasn’t lights-out, but he’s still relatively new to elite-level training; this wasn’t his target meet either (he has the World University Games next week). Eric Friedland showed that his NCAA Championship last year in the 200 breast wasn’t just a short course thing by taking 2nd in the 200 here. All-around an impressive performance for LA considering the swimmers that they have lost.
4. Incoming College Class – The biggest freshman in the 2011-2012 NCAA season, David Nolan, didn’t really impress much in this meet. He swam well, including a 4th-place finish in the 200 IM, but in general didn’t improve his best times much, which is what a lot of people were interested to see from him. There was one class of 2011’er, however, who really impressed me, albeit in a single event, and that’s Arizona’s Kevin Cordes. He took 7th in the 100 breaststroke in 1:01.60, which made him the only teenager in the top 16, as well as the highest-finishing collegiate swimmer.
Cordes didn’t show up high on a lot of recruiting charts because he’s a real Damir-Dugonjic-with-long-course-abilities-one-hit-wonder type at the moment, with this 100 breaststroke being his only immediate-impact event at the college level. If he can become even a bit relevant in the 200 breaststroke over the next four years, the Wildcats mined themselves a gem.
5. Stuck on Repeat – USC Gets Another Breaststroker – Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: one of the country’s better breaststrokers is headed to USC and Trojan Aquatics to train with Dave Salo. Really, at this point, is there a purpose for a breaststroker to swim anywhere else? If the majority rules, then no. Former Stanford 9-time All-American John Criste is now training with Trojan Aquatics as well. Criste, who is the school record holder in the 100 breast, stagnated a bit in his senior season in Palo Alto after a great first three years, but seems to be headed back in the right direction, in the 100 at least, in Los Angeles.
In the 100, he placed 6th in 1:01.36, which is right at his career-best (done in rubber). In the 200 he wasn’t quite as strong, but still took 8th in 2:14.41. Former UNC swimmer Tyler Harris, who is an IM’er with an emphasis on breaststroke, is also now at Trojan. He took 2nd in the 200 IM and 3rd in the 400 IM.
6. Gillian Ryan – Is this girl serious right now? She may not have the versatility of a Missy Franklin at 15, but Parkland Aquatics’ Gillian Ryan put on a show at US Nationals in the distance freestyles. Besides cutting off a combined 13 seconds from her career-bests in the 400 and 800, she was the youngest National Champion of the meet in the 800 free when she touched in 8:27.64. She now has a year to chase Janet Evans’ National Age Group Records, where she’s four seconds off in the 400 and another ten in the 800.
7. Ashley Steenvoorden – Ryan wasn’t the only distance freestyler to impress at Nationals. 400 champ Ashley Steenvorden of Minnesota put up a big 4:07.63 to move into the world’s top 20, and only behind the monster-trio of Sutton, Hoff, and Ziegeler in the American rankings. The difference between Steenvoorden and the other three is that she wasn’t as good as young as them, and is thus playing catch-up. Don’t count her out of the mix just because of a lack of credentials: Steenvoorden is improving at a way faster rate than any of those other swimmers did in this race at that age. She would be an outstanding darkhorse pick at the Olympic Trials next year.
8. Allison Schmitt – During the meet, Allison Schmitt officially announced that she would be redshirtting the 2011-2012 NCAA season, though many have known that move was coming for months. This is a good move on her part, as the past two weeks have shown that she really needs to get her head around her swimming before the Olympics. Her times at worlds were subpar, and at Nationals she tried some entirely different strategies (she back-halfed her 200 free to the extreme, rather than pushing the front-half like she did in Shanghai). Despite her disappointments in the 200 and 400 frees, her primary events, she put up a career-best time (by half-a-second) in the 100 of 54.71 to take 4th overall. That puts her as the 6th-fastest American in 2011, ahead of Kara Lynn Joyce, and puts her in a position to attack a second Olympic relay spot. Swimming is quite a funny thing, sometimes.
9. SwimMAC Men Are On Fire – SwimMAC may not have gotten blazing performances from their three biggest names (Nick Thoman, Cullen Jones, Josh Schneider) over the past week, but the program has really started to build a great training group, especially on the men’s side. Davis Tarwater, recently returned to elite swimming after time spent studying at Oxford, swam out of his mind at this meet. At 27, he swam a career-best in the 100 free (49.70 – 8th), the 100 fly (51.94 – 3rd) and put up a top-5 time in the 200 fly (1:56.78 – 3rd) that used to be his go-to race. Don’t count that man out for the Olympics, especially in a 200 fly that, as we mentioned, is still very inexperienced for the American men.
And SwimMAC capped things off with a 3:33.7 400 medley relay that ranks 5th in the world this year. That’s not 5th amongst club relays…that’s behind only the World Championship relays of the USA, Australia, Germany, and Japan.