Men’s 100 Meter Backstroke – US Nationals Preview
- Day 4, Saturday, August 9th
- Defending national champ: David Plummer, 53.10
- Defending U.S. Open champ: Arkady Vyatchanin, top American: Ryan Murphy, 53.62
- Time to make the 2013 US National Team (#6 Nationally at selection meets): 53.86 – Eugene Godsoe
It seems like there hasn’t been a time in recent history where the United States hasn’t been loaded with backstrokers. The last five – count ’em, five – Olympic gold medals have gone to an American, including gold/silver sweeps at the past two Games. Before there was Matt Grevers, there was Aaron Peirsol. Before Peirsol there was Lenny Krayzelburg. Before Krayzelburg there was Jeff Rouse. Before him there was David Berkoff, and Richard Carey and David Wilson and – you get the picture.
Needless to say, the U.S. backstroking tradition is still alive and well, and currently shows itself in an abundance of top-tier depth. As some of our favorite SwimSwam commenters have theorized, the number of American swimmers capable of breaking 54 this summer could be in the double digits. That kind of depth means that in this event more than any other, anything can happen, and even the international qualifying spots are fairly unpredictable. And if that sounds like a sportswriter trying to hedge his bets on his forthcoming top 8 picks, that’s probably because it is.
It’s hard to look past Matt Grevers. Literally. The 6-foot-8 colossus has been a daunting international presence for quite some time now, and has gold medals from the past two major international meets (the 2012 Olympics and 2013 World Championships) in his trophy case. Grevers also holds the fastest American time of the year, though the only concerning bit might be how early in 2014 it came. Grevers went 53.72 at the Austin Grand Prix all the way back in January, but hasn’t been back under 54 since. His 54.00 at the LA Invite inspires a bit more confidence, but the question is still whether the 28-year-old Grevers is preparing for a monster taper or starting to show signs of his age.
Last year’s national champ was David Plummer, who took silver behind Grevers at the World Championships. Training out of Minneapolis with the University of Minnesota pro group, Plummer is an international veteran who probably has the best pure speed of anyone in this group. Plummer swept the 50 and 100 back titles last summer, and seemed a great shot to medal in the 50 at Worlds before slipping off the start in the semifinal. He’s been 53.86 as recently as May, and is one of just five Americans to break 53 seconds since 2000. Only 3 have done so in the textile era.
With both Grevers and Plummer approaching 30, a heavy spotlight has started to fall on Ryan Murphy, hailed by many as the future of American backstroking. A rising sophomore at Cal, Murphy had an outstanding NCAA season, smashing records and leading the Golden Bears to a national title. Murphy’s been performing well on the national stage for awhile now (he was a championship finalist at Olympic Trials, 2013 Nationals and 2013 U.S. Open), and the only question left seems to be if he can leapfrog the established tier of backstrokers as early as this summer.
One of the bigger question marks is SwimMAC’s Nick Thoman. Thoman is the defending Olympic silver medalist, and along with Grevers and Plummer, makes up America’s “textile-52” club. But Thoman’s been in and out of the pool since those games. He didn’t compete at last summer’s nationals, then wound up 3rd at U.S. Open. In December, he torched Grevers’ American record in the short course 100, beating Grevers head-to-head in the process. But that momentum was halted by a dislocated shoulder that kept Thoman out of competition for the brunt of the Grand Prix circuit. Thoman only returned to competition recently, swimming the Athens Bulldog Grand Slam meet in early July and only going after the first 50 of his 100. Though that split (25.3) was impressive, he’s still a pretty major question mark in the 100 heading into nationals.
Speaking of injuries, Ryan Lochte is in much the same boat. Coming off of that knee injury, Lochte has been start-and-stop for much of the past year, dealing with reinjury and trying to time his return right. Lochte’s probably an even bigger enigma than Thoman right now, because his event lineup is still largely unknown. I think Lochte does wind up entering here, but it’s hard to pick him for a big swim without seeing him compete at full speed much this year. Is the legendary Lochte taper still a thing as he moves from the punishing Florida training program to the relatively lighter, more sprint-based SwimMAC set-up? That question, plus the status of the knee, are probably the biggest detriments to betting on Lochte at this point.
The big-name swimmer who I don’t think will enter this race is Michael Phelps. As great as it would be to see Phelps in a race he never swam much in his heyday, the American icon has to realize the strength of the competition here as well as the physical capabilities of his 29-year-old body. I think Phelps enters a lighter lineup this summer, focusing mostly on the free relay events and the 100 butterfly, and I see the 100 back and 200 IM over the final two days as an either/or proposition, with a solid chance he doesn’t enter either. Even if he enters, I have trouble seeing him beat Grevers, Plummer or a healthy Thoman. If Phelps makes the leap into backstroke, slot him somewhere just behind Murphy in my picks.
(Yes, I know I just publicly doubted Phelps, and I’m fully aware that ‘Don’t bet against Phelps’ is probably the number-one rule of swimming).
Fourth at last summer’s nationals was Shane Ryan, a returning national teamer who is coming off of an outstanding college season in which he came within a tenth of stealing Murphy’s 100 back crown. Ryan is a rising junior, just 20 years old, and checks in next to Murphy as a pretty solid member of the next generation of U.S. backstrokers. His improvement curve has been substantial: prior to last summer, Ryan had never been under 56 seconds in the long course 100 back, but at nationals he went 53.84 to take 4th overall. Another national teamer is Stanford’s Eugene Godsoe, who finaled at Olympic Trials and took 5th last year.
That’s far from an exhaustive rundown of potential finalists, though, and here’s where that depth really starts showing through. Murphy’s college training partner Jacob Pebley is probably better in the 200 back, but has been sub-54 in finaling at nationals last summer. Jack Conger is a star in the making, though if he wants to transfer his 500 free speed to long course, he’ll have to take on the 400 free/100 back double which could affect him in this race. Wisconsin’s Drew Teduits finaled last summer and has dangerous closing speed as a former NCAA champion in the 200 back.
And it doesn’t stop there: Stanford’s Dave Nolan is an immense short-course talent who hasn’t quite put things together in the big pool yet. Indiana grad James Wells is continuing his pro career with Badger Swim Club, while former Big Ten foes Steven Zimmerman (Ohio State)and Nate Savoy (Penn State) are returning B-finalists alongside him. Other returning B-finalists from last summer: USC’s Chase Bloch and Luca Spinazzola and former Wisconsin grad and Schroeder pro Adam Mania.
Then there’s West Virginia stud Bryce Bohman, training with Tuscon Ford for the summer, plus Texas senior Kip Darmody, 3rd at NCAAs and just outside of finaling at the 2012 Olympic Trials.
At the risk of packing too many names into a few short paragraphs, one extra-dark horse to keep an eye out for. Upper Dublin’s Michael Thomas made waves this winter by breaking Murphy’s short course National Age Group record for 15-16s. Thomas is still very raw in long course, but he’s already been near a lifetime-best this summer, and could be in line for a breakout summer if he can transfer 46.6-speed to the long course pool.
1. David Plummer, Minnesota/NYAC (52.98 – 2012 Olympic Trials)
2. Matt Grevers, Tuscon Ford (52.08 – 2012 Olympic Trials)
3. Ryan Murphy, Cal Aquatics (53.38 – 2013 U.S. Nationals)
4. Nick Thoman, SwimMAC (52.51 – 2009 U.S. Open)
5. Shane Ryan, Penn State (53.84 – 2013 U.S. Nationals)
6. Ryan Lochte, SwimMAC (53.37 – 2008 Olympic Trials)
7. Eugene Godsoe, Stanford (53.61 – 2012 Olympic Trials)
8. Jacob Pebley, Cal Aquatics (52.98 – 2013 US Nationals)
Note: Athletes are listed under the college/club that, to the best of our knowledge, they’re currently training with.