Josh Schneider versus Cullen Jones, Thursday Night, Mecklenburg Aquatics Center, Charlotte, North Carolina. You’ve heard the story, you’ve heard the hype. Now it’s time to swim the race.
How We Got Here
The story is all over the web, so I’ll be brief. Schneider and Jones tied at last summer’s USA Swimming National Championships for 2nd in the men’s 50 free (behind Nathan Adrian), but only after Schneider competed under protest. His initial DQ from the 50 was the result of a no-show for his 100 fly swim in prelims of the same session, though USA Swimming eventually decided in his favor (namely, that by skipping suit-check, he was already DQ’ed from the race, and therefore didn’t have to declare a false start.) Later in the meet, in the men’s 100 free, Schneider ended up breaking his hand on the finish, which kept him out of Pan Pac’s, and thus eliminated using that meet as a tiebreaker.
So the two swimmers now meet here, at their home pool, in their home town. Both will compete in the individual 50 later in the meet, but it was agreed that the head-to-head race on Thursday night would be the lone decider of the roster spot. The winner goes to the World Championships, and the loser stays home (though Schneider’s consolation prize is a trip to the World University Games if he falls off of the World Championships roster).
There are a few unique features of this tie-breaker which make it extra special, but the biggest is that Jones and Schneider are teammates at SwimMAC. This gives the race the best odds of being a “fair” race. When I say fair, I don’t mean in the sense of cheating, I mean in the sense that it’s likely that both swimmers will have the same amount of rest coming into the race, so that should mitigate any gamesmanship where the swimmer who emerges from this race won’t be the one who would necessarily perform the best in Shanghai.
My pick right now has got to be with Josh Schneider. The reason I like him has more to do with what Jones has been doing than what Schneider has been doing. As Cullen’s star has risen to new heights in the past year, the demands for his time has been greatly increased. From magazines highlighting him for his great sense of style to his great work with USA Swimming’s Make-a-Splash program, I’m concerned with how much time he’s been able to spend in the water training. This is not to say that all of his committments and jet-setting can’t be combined with a consistent training schedule, especially for an experienced swimmer like Jones, but it’s still not ideal.
That experience is what is working in Jones’ favor. Schneider has swum in big meets at the college level, but this race will be an entirely different pressure-cooker. If you don’t win this race, you don’t just “place 2nd”. In a race of only two swimmers, there are only two outcomes: Win and Lose. Jones on the other hand is a veteran of an Olympics and multiple World Championships, and so this is not his first time under this sort of pressure. He also found himself in this same position prior to the 2009 World Championships, where he beat then-American-Record holder Garrett Weber-Gale (and in the process took the American Record for himself in 21.41).
At the same time, Schneider seems to be just cocky enough to not let that get to him. He’s been the new-guy before, like when he was the kid from the University of Cincinnati swim program, that has no scholarships, who upset the great Nathan Adrian at NCAA’s in 2010. The fact that he’s swimming against a good friend and teammate, in front of a home crowd, could also ease off the stress for him a little.
At any rate, I think that in a game of balances with many different factors involved, the scales have to tip in the favor of Schneider. Buzz from the street tends to lean towards Schneider as well.
I’ve heard a lot of different guessses at what the outcome of this race will be in terms of time. Some have guessed the American Record will be in danger, which I think is unlikely. Others have guessed times that will easily best Cesar Cielo’s world-best of 21.73 from Maria Lenk last week. I don’t think they’ll go that fast either. Both swimmers will surely be rested, but because they’re teammates (as I mentioned above) I don’t forsee either of them being at a full, championship shave and taper. My guess is that both swimmers are 22.0 or 22.1, with a possible dip into 21.9.
Given that neither swimmer has competed a whole lot since Nationals last year, I actually foresee a scenario where they both loosen up and are faster later in the meet in the regular 50 freestyle event, into which they are both entered.
One day, one dive, no turns, and 22 seconds is all that stands between these two swimmers and a chance for glory at the World Championships. I’m on the edge of my seat already, are you?