ISL 2020: Who Will Get To Pick the Skins & What Should Each Team Pick?

Perhaps the biggest wrinkle in the 2020 International Swimming League season will be the addition of skin races in any of the four strokes.

With one day to go until the league begins, we’re digging into that change to see which teams should choose which stroke if they have the choice in the skins.

First, a look at the new skin format:

2020 Skin Race Format

Day 1 ends with the women’s and men’s 4×100 medley relays. The winner of the women’s medley relay gets to pick the stroke of the following day’s women’s skin race. The winner of the men’s medley relay gets to pick the stroke of the following day’s men’s skin race.

The skin race starts with 8 swimmers, two from each team. Each round is a 50 of the chosen stroke, followed by a roughly three-minute break. After round 1, the bottom four finishers are cut. After round 2, the bottom two finishers are cut, leaving just two swimmers to battle in the final round.

The skin race also scores slightly differently – it’s scored as three separate rounds to compile points, rather than points based on the overall finish order after the three rounds. The main difference is that placing highly in all three rounds matters more than last year, where the opening rounds didn’t have much incentive for fast swimming, beyond tying to stay ahead of the cut line.

It also appears that jackpot steals can happen within each round of the skin race. What that means for teams trying to maximize their skins points: having swimmers without endurance could be a bigger liability than previous years. A drop-dead sprinter who can scrape by the first round will earn 5, 6, 7, or 9 points. But if they lose the second round by a big enough margin, they can see their points stolen. That includes the final, where the second-place finisher could effectively lose 7 points if they can’t stay within the jackpot margin.

Predicting What Strokes We Will See

Our goal is to pinpoint which strokes each team should select, if they win the medley relay. That’s going to lead to a two-part analysis:

Which Teams Are Most Likely To Pick the Strokes?

Women

The Favorite

  • Cali Condors

The Contenders

  • Energy Standard
  • London Roar

The Longshots

  • Iron
  • Toronto Titans
  • NY Breakers

The Very Longshots

  • Tokyo Frog Kigns
  • LA Current
  • Aqua Centurions
  • DC Trident

The Cali Condors should get their pick of strokes often. Cali went undefeated in the women’s medley relay last year and were never seriously challenged. They won Indy by 1.3 seconds, Naples by 3.2, the U.S. Derby by 2.2 and even the finale by four tenths of a second. Not only do the Condors return three of their four legs from that relay, they also added a potential backstroke upgrade in NCAA standout Beata Nelson. 

Need any more evidence? Last year, Cali had the league’s top two 100 breast swims from Lilly King and the league’s #1 100 fly swim from Kelsi Dahlia. Erika Brown might turn out to be a better anchor than Mallory Comerford was, and some combo of Nelson and Olivia Smoliga should get the job done on back.

Energy Standard and London Roar are probably the only teams that could upset Cali on an off-day. Energy has arguably the league’s best flyer in Sarah SjostromLondon lost backstroke weapon Minna Atherton, but Kira Toussaint is one of the best in the league in her absence.

Iron, the Toronto Titans and the New York Breakers could steal a win in the right field. Ranomi Kromowidjojo could pull some crazy anchor shenanigans to win this relay and then turn around and win the skins – that’d be a team-on-the-back type effort. Toronto is very intriguing if Louise Hansson can translate yards times into meters.

Men

The Favorite

  • Energy Standard

The Contenders

  • London Roar
  • Cali Condors
  • Tokyo Frog Kings
  • LA Current

The Longshots

  • Iron

The Very Longshots

  • Toronto Titans
  • DC Trident
  • Aqua Centurions
  • NY Breakers

Energy Standard won three of its four men’s medley relays last year and returns all of its relay legs. They’ve got the league’s best backstroke crew, with Kliment Kolesnikov probably up to lead off this team, and Chad le Clos is a difference-making flyer.

London won two of four meets last year, but lost to Energy by four tenths at both the Euro Derby and the finale. London might actually improve their fly leg with Marius Kusch in the mix, and they also have star breaststroker Adam PeatyBut losing Kyle Chalmers hurts the freestyle leg a little, even if Duncan Scott is still an elite relay anchor.

We’d also put the Cali Condors, Tokyo Frog Kings, and LA Current in the mix as contenders. Any relay with Caeleb Dressel will have a shot at a game-changing leg, but some of Cali’s fate will rely on ISL rookie Coleman Stewart as the likely backstroker with Mitch Larkin out.

Tokyo has its own difference-maker in Vladimir Morozovbut they’re also a little weaker in butterfly. LA has a well-rounded relay but no game-changer – that is, unless Ryan Murphy can return to world-beater status in the backstroke and stake the Current to a big lead.

What Stroke Should Each Team Pick?

So if each team wins the relay, what skin stroke should they pick?

Energy Standard

  • Women: Free or Fly
  • Men: Back

Sarah Sjostrom is the play for Energy – it’s just whether they roll with her in freestyle or butterfly. Sjostrom really staked her claim as a world-elite swimmer in the sprint flys earlier in her career, but she’s probably been more dominant in freestyle recently. It’ll depend on the field, but for what it’s worth, we see Ranomi Kromowidjojo as probably the only top free threat to Sjostrom, while butterfly has a lot of potential names (Kromo, Ottesen, Gastaldello, Dahlia, Henique).

Energy did just fine in the freestyle skins last year with the combination of Florent Manaudou and Ben Proud. But they’re probably even better in backstroke, with Russian duo Kliment Kolesnikov and Evgeny Rylovnot to mention Manaudou himself (career-best 22.2, though it’s an old swim) or Matt Grevers.

Worst case scenario: Energy is fine in basically any stroke. They’ll probably avoid men’s breaststroke just because it’s not a clear strength. Women’s backstroke is probably the biggest liability, though it’s far from glaring.

Cali Condors

  • Women: Breast
  • Men: Fly or Free

The blueprint for Cali is crystal clear: win the medley and pick the breaststroke. Lilly King and Molly Hannis went 1st-2nd in every single 50 breast last year – that’s all four meets, including the finale. It’s worth noting they never competed against world record-holder Alia Atkinson, but her season-best was still well behind both King’s and Hannis’s.

Just like with Energy’s women and Sjostrom, the Cali men will funnel any skin choices to Caeleb DresselDressel was nearly the league MVP last year by riding the free skin races, but fly might actually avoid his biggest competitor: Vladimir Morozov, who like Atkinson, never swam directly against Cali last year while on team Iron. Maybe the choice for Cali comes down to depth – does Cali prefer some combo of Tate Jackson, Bowe Becker and Justin Ress in either fly or free? Regardless, Cali is in danger of jackpotting themselves, which doesn’t actually lose points… but certainly isn’t ideal.

Worst case scenario: men’s backstroke is probably the one to avoid, especially since it plays into Energy’s strengths whenever CAC and ENS match up. The women’s roster is great all-around, but last year’s freestyle skins definitely played to their weakest stroke, and we’d be shocked to see Cali pick women’s freestyle, even if Brown is a standout rookie.

LA Current

  • Women: Fly
  • Men: Back

Beryl Gastaldello has a shot to win the women’s fly, and we’re not sure LA has a chance to win the skin race in any other stroke unless Abbey Weitzeil is an absolute monster.

With Ryan Murphy and Zane WaddellLA has the two fastest backstrokers in NCAA history, and that kind of yards speed has to mean something even in short course meters.

Worst case scenario: the Current will want to avoid women’s breaststroke, where their top swimmers are more 200-oriented. Men’s freestyle is probably the other liability, as LA’s sprint group has been cleared out with Nathan Adrian and Ryan Held opting out of the league this year.

Tokyo Frog Kings

  • Women: Breast
  • Men: Free

When you’ve got Vladimir Morozovyou play to his strengths. He’s one of the two best freestylers in the skin field, and it’s probably not worth trying him elsewhere unless Tokyo feels really good about his chances against the breaststroke field. (There’s just a lot of good men’s breaststrokers with no clear frontrunner since Adam Peaty isn’t as dominant in short course).

The Frog King’s women’s roster doesn’t have a lot of great options, and they probably won’t be in a position to be picking strokes anyways. Breaststroke is probably their strength, even if Miho Teramura isn’t a likely win candidate.

Worst case scenario: Tokyo will want to avoid women’s freestyle, where we’ve got their two likely entrants as the bottom two in our rough leaguewide depth chart rankings. Men’s backstroke isn’t a lot better, and it’s also probably Morozov’s weakest stroke relative to the ISL field.

London Roar

  • Women: Breast
  • Men: Breast

London should be all breaststroke, all the time. Alia Atkinson is the world record-holder in the 50 breaststroke and was the #3 performer in the ISL last year. Adam Peaty is the most dominating breaststroker in history in long course, and among the best out there in short course. London also has great depth on the men’s side with Kirill Prigoda.

Worst case scenario: in the wake of so many Australians bowing out, women’s freestyle went from a strength to a weakness for London. Similarly, men’s freestyle should also be avoided, as Duncan Scott last year struggled to get by the pure sprinters in his two appearances last year.

Iron

  • Women: Fly or Free
  • Men: Fly

Iron will play to Ranomi Kromowidjojo on the women’s side. She was 3-for-3 in freestyle last year and that should probably be the play this year with a much-thinner free field to battle against. The only pull for butterfly is that Melanie Henique‘s career-best of 24.56 from last December ranks #3 among all ISL athletes in our depth chart below, and Iron would have a chance to stack the final.

Nicholas Santos is the world record-holder in the 50 fly and one of the best pure speedsters on the planet. That said, at age 40, Santos might not be the best candidate for a multi-round shootout. Still, Iron doesn’t have a lot of great options. Freestyle might be the next-best bet, with a pair of 20.6s on the roster in Maxim Lobanovzkij and Marco Orsi.

Worst case scenario: women’s breaststroke is probably the one to avoid – it’s not that Iron is awful there, it just keeps Kromowidjojo on the sideline. Men’s backstroke has some potential with Robert Glinta, but it’s a tough field leaguewide, and Iron’s depth there is not great.

Toronto Titans

  • Women: Back or fly
  • Men: Back

For the women, Toronto really has to hope Kylie Masse or Louise Hansson can breakout and contend in back or fly, respectively. Hansson is a bit of a wild card with better short course yards and long course meters production so far than short course meters.

Similarly, on the men’s side, they’re best-off just riding Shane Ryan as one of their top overall swimmers, even if the backstroke field for men is brutal. Andriy Govorov is a decent fly option, too.

Worst case scenario: Toronto should want no part of breaststroke. The women’s breaststrokes are a clear strength for a lot of other teams, and Toronto doesn’t have anyone sub-30 on the roster. Men’s breaststroke is also a weakness, as Anton McKee is much more of a 200 swimmer compared to the field.

DC Trident

  • Women: Fly
  • Men: Breast

DC will be in tough to put up a lot of skin points. Ian Finnerty might be their best shot, as one of the better 50 breaststroke performers last season. For the women, Rozaliya Nasretdinova has been 25.3 in the 50 fly which stacks up decently, though that’s still a pretty tough field to overcome.

Worst case scenario: We’ll say women’s breaststroke for now, but that’s also somewhat based on the women’s breaststroking corps being a lot more experienced in short course yards than short course meters. Men’s butterfly is one to avoid, with mostly converted freestylers sitting atop the depth chart.

NY Breakers

  • Women: Fly
  • Men: Breast

If New York has a chance to win anywhere, it’ll be with Jeanette Ottesen or Michael AndrewWomen’s butterfly plays into Ottesen’s biggest strength, though she’s maybe a dark horse in freestyle, too. Andrew is pretty good across strokes, but we’ve seen his breaststroke stand out from the other three for awhile now. The only problem is that a deep breaststroke field makes it a boom/bust gamble – there are probably around ten guys who could reasonably win the whole thing, but could also get bumped in the first round, and Andrew fits that group.

Worst case scenario: New York should avoid women’s breaststroke with more distance-oriented types there. Men’s butterfly might be Andrew’s weakest stroke, and it’s also a somewhat weaker point for NYB’s depth.

Aqua Centurions

  • Women: Back
  • Men: Breast

We’ve written plenty about how good the Aqua Centurions are at men’s breaststroke. Fabio Scozzoli was the #1 performer in the league in the 50 breast last year.

For the women, new addition Etiene Medeiros has a shot to be the league’s best 50 backstroker, so the Aqua Centurions should take a shot at a win where they have it, rather than relying on their solid breaststroke group to just get decent points.

Worst case scenario: women’s freestyle should be an issue for the Aqua Centurions, along with men’s backstroke, which saw top swimmer Simone Sabbioni bow out.

 

Rough 2020 Leaguewide ISL Depth Chart

We’re very proud to include the product of weeks of research – a compilation of best times from the top two on every ISL roster.

This depth chart is far from locked in stone. Some times are very old. Some athletes have put more of a focus on short course yards or long course meters, but we’ve made an effort to avoid using time conversions except where it’s very clear an athlete hasn’t focused on short course meters recently.

We’ve also had to make some judgement calls on which two athletes will be entered in each event. When a team has multiple contenders, we’ve included those extra names at the bottom as “depth contenders.”

Women

Men

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SAMUEL HUNTINGTON
7 days ago

Fantastic, thanks!

Joe
7 days ago

Toronto has Michelle Coleman for the skins aswell, a capable freestyle sprinter with some endurance as a prior 200 swimmer. Last year she was top-5 in the world in the 50 free, both in SC and LC. She would probably be one of those that can do better and better as the rounds progress.

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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