Even with the human swimming highlight reel that is Katie Ledecky, the United States’ overall performance on day three of the 2015 FINA World Championships had a glaring black hole. For the first time since 2001, the Americans failed to advance a female swimmer of the 100m breaststroke final.
At these championships, the two U.S. representatives were immediately cut to just one sole swimmer after the prelims, as 2012 Olympian Micah Lawrence finished 19th with her time of 1:07.73. Still feeling the effects of a nagging injury, Lawrence’s performance was her worst outing since the 1:07.85 she registered at the 2010 Pan Pacific championships.
With Lawrence out after the first round, Jessica Hardy was the American breaststroker left to advance to the semifinals, after having clocked a respectable 1:06.68, her fastest of the year, to snag the third overall seed after prelims. While the rest of the field sped up in semi’s, however, Hardy added about a half a second to her time to notch a 1:07.22, positioning her in 10th and out of the top 8. And just like that, America would go without female representation in the 100m breaststroke final for the first time in the last seven World Championships
In another year, at another time, the fact that two swimmers selected to represent a country were simply outperformed by their competitors would be the end of the story. However, with the controversial selection of the United States’ Worlds team occurring an entire year in advance, this opens the door to many “what if” questions. In light of how other would-be Worlds roster members fared over the course of the previous year, it begs the comparison between post-selection times and current Worlds performance.
This is an especially poignant point with rising breaststroke star Katie Meili. Having been on fire since the 2014 Summer Nationals, the SwimMAC Elite swimmer has been dropping time with virtually every swim. At 2014’s Summer Nationals, Meili clocked a time of 1:07.44 and has continued to put up descending times of 1:07.16 at the Pro Swim Series in Mesa, as well as marks of 1:06.79 and 1:06.50 at the Pro Swim Series in Austin.
Where Meili truly broke out and established herself as the absolute real deal was in Toronto at the Pan American Games just this past July. In prelims, Meili lit the pool on fire, scoring a lifetime best and new Pan American Games record of 1:05.64, dropping almost an entire second from her previous fastest time. Her Pan American effort also rocketed Meili to number two in the overall world rankings, only behind Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte. Meili would go on to win gold in a time of 1:06.26.
With her 1:05.64 clocking, Meili secured her spot as the fastest American this season by 1.29 seconds, with the closest American being Lily King at the World University Games. In fact, Meili’s performance cemented her as the second fastest American performer in the last two seasons, with only Hardy’s 1:05.18 from the 2013 World Championships being faster.
Additionally, in a case in point for the opponents of the United States’ Worlds team selection process, Meili’s 1:05.64 (albeit in prelims) would have won the gold medal at these world championships. Russia’s Yuliya Efimova swam away with the top prize today in Kazan in a time of 1:05.66, so indeed Meili would instead be standing on top of the podium, in theory, had she potentially been given the chance to contest her best event in Kazan – though it’s worth acknowledging that Pan Ams didn’t come with the fatigue of a three-round, semi-final format.
This is a similar, though not identical, phenomenon we saw in the women’s 100 fly earlier in the meet. Kelsi Worrell’s Pan Ams best would’ve netted her a medal at Worlds, yet no American made the final in that event either.
Throughout the remainder of these World Championships, Meili may prove to not be the only case of the “early selection” blues. However, the shimmer of hope to those lamenting the lack of an American in today’s finals is that there is a big talent getting primed and ready to rock come Rio.