Heading into last week’s US World Championship Trials, it was a little difficult to know what to expect out of the meet. With a lot of collegiate champions and Olympians missing, the meet felt like it might be a little thin and could lack some drama and excitement.
Quite the contrary – it felt like one of the more storyline-heavy World Championship trials in recent memory. We had new swimmers emerge, veterans find their way back onto the team after missing Tokyo, we saw collegiate champions who swam really well, and others who struggled.
I think part of what contributed was the lack of semifinals at the meet. That kept finals sessions rolling forward with every evening event counting for something.
In reflecting on the meet, below I’ve assembled my 10 favorite swims from the meet. I can hear it already: some of you will just be looking for a list of “US Open Records” or “American Records” or “event wins,” and we will publish that later. This list is a little more subjective – my favorite races based on the stories they represent for American swimming.
1. Hunter Armstrong Breaks the World Record in the 50 Backstroke
The Magic Man was an Olympian last year, and we all know that. But that qualification was notable for its surprise. This meet, on the other hand, was Armstrong’s true coming out party. On top of a World Record in the 50 backstroke, he beat the World Record holder Ryan Murphy in the 100 to earn his 2nd, 3rd, and maybe 4th swims at the World Championships. He then turned pro. With the retirement of guys like Andrew Seliskar and Dean Farris, swimming needed a new cult hero, and for now, it looks like Armstrong will fill that void.
2. Katie Ledecky Goes Sub-8:10 in the 800 free
In 2015, Katie Ledecky became the first woman ever under 8:10 in the 800 free. She would do so four more times in the next three years, but she hadn’t done it since the 2018 Pan Pac Championships. Early in this week’s meet, though, she swam 8:09.28, which is her best time in a quad. The world may be catching up to her in the 400 free, but there is still nobody in the same zip code in her specialty event, the 800 free. It seems like her new Florida training is working out for her, at least in the distance events.
3. Carson Foster Gets the Monkey Off His Back
Carson Foster has had trouble peaking his swims in the right rounds of the right meets. This story has been well-told by now. He started his meet with a 3rd-place finish in the 200 freestyle, swimming a little slower than his top seed in prelims, but fast enough to make the team. While not his top swim, it seems as though that crack in the narrative opened the flood gates. He swam 4:15 in prelims of the 400 IM, coasted into the final, and unleashed a 4:09.33 there to win the race, make his first senior international long course event, and start to put a nail in that narrative.
4. Maximus Williamson Closes Like a Freight Train in the 200 IM
There has been a ton of talk about closing 50s in IMs lately, but there hasn’t been enough about Maximus Williamson‘s closing 50 in the 200 IM in the C-Final on Saturday. In fact, I don’t think there has been enough buzz about the 15-year-old from DFW among a crowded young talent space in the U.S. Williamson won the C-Final of the 200 IM in 2:01.45, which totalled almost a five-second improvement over his best time coming into the meet. What’s more, he split 27.73 over the final 50 meters. Nobody in the “A” final closed faster than 28.22 (Destin Lasco). With how much we all like to fawn over closing 50s, Williamson’s was one of the most impressive closing 50s of the meet.
5. Regan Smith‘s US Open Record in the 100 Back
Smith won the 100 backstroke in 57.76, which broke her own US Open Record of 57.92 from last summer’s Olympic Trials. Even as her focus seems to be moving away from the 200 back, the race where she won her first big international gold medal and broke her first World Record, she is rising to the increasing international challenge in the 100 backstroke. This lines up for a great battle with the current World Record holder in the 100 back, Australian Kaylee McKeown, who so far is the biggest Aussie star to have not withdrawn from the World Championships. Canadian Kylie Masse, the Olympic silver medalist who has been 57.72, will be there as well. Smith also gave a killer post-race perspective.
6. Alex Walsh‘s 200 IM
The Olympic silver medalist Walsh improved her best time by seven-tenths of a second, proving that the triple taper was possible for collegiate swimmers (even though the Virginia women were very up-and-down as a group). And that’s all fun. But what I loved about this swim was that it refreshed the story of Ariana Kukors’ run to the 200 IM World Record in 2009. Remember that she finished 3rd at Trials that year behind Julia Smit and Liz Pelton. Pelton, however, withdrew from the event, and Kukors’ 2:11.07 at Nationals became a World Record of 2:06.15 at Worlds. That is one of swimming’s ultimate stories of perseverance and a great reminder of how much of a difference one more shot and one good taper can make.
7. Claire Weinstein Gets an Individual Swim in the 200 Free
I like this story because it highlights two of the biggest stories of the current American club scene. One is obvious: that Ron Aitken and the Sandpipers of Nevada, who put three juniors on the team, are a juggernaut. Weinstein came to the club less than a year ago already an age group star with a best of 1:58, and Aitken and staff turned that into a 1:57.08 and not only a relay, but an individual swim at the World Championships. The other is less obvious, but one that I will continue to tell until more people start to listen. Carleanne Fierro at the Westchester Aquatic Club has built a brilliant model in New York. She consistently trains some of the best age groupers until about 14 years old, when they go off to other clubs to get polished into stars. Besides Weinstein, see also: Kate Douglass. She focuses her energy on those early years’ of swimmers’ competitive experiences, and not only makes them fast, but sets them up to be fast once they move on, which is an underrated skill. There is a place in USA Swimming for a great coach who doesn’t have to focus on high school or college aged swimmer to prove their value, and I think USA Swimming should spend more time investing in that model as a benefit to the overall health of the American swimming machine. We shouldn’t always assume that coaching the high school or college swimmers is a ‘promotion.’
8. Charlie Swanson Ties for 1st in the 200 Breaststroke
I, for one, did not see this Charlie Swanson swim coming. Yes, he was 2:09.85 last summer, and yes, this 200 breast is turning out to be one of the United States’ weakest events, but his last four swims in the race were 2:20.9, 2:14.4, 2:20.2, 2:16.9. It didn’t seem like even ‘Eddie Magic’ would be enough for him. But a sort of fringe pro was rewarded for sticking with the sport by tying Nic Fink in the 200 breast and making the American team for Worlds.
9. The Women’s 200 Backstroke
Having three women swim 2:05 at a Trials meet is special. Phoebe Bacon led the way by breaking Missy Franklin’s US Open Record with a 2:05.08, followed by Rhyan White in 2:05.13 and Regan Smith, the World Record holder, finishing 3rd in 2:05.65. In a race where the U.S. didn’t medal at the Olympics, all three of those times would have been on the Tokyo podium.
10. Nic Fink Makes the Team in 3 Events with “Not Putting as Much Importance on Swimming”
He was 2nd in the 50 breast, won the 100 breast as the #2 American ever in the event, and tied for the win in the 200 breast, all under the context of starting graduate school at Georgia Tech and shifting his focus to that. He’s now the oldest member of the American team at the World Championships and shows that, especially for veterans, sometimes less can be more.
Other Races I Loved (in no particular order)
- Katharine Berkoff breaking the US Open Record and winning the women’s 50 backstroke was a great result coming out of an electric collegiate season. I’m sure she would have liked to have made the team in the 100 too, but getting herself on the team gives her the momentum through the summer into her senior NCAA season.
- Charlotte Crush finished 3rd in the 18 & under final in the 100 fly after swimming 59.91 in prelims to break a minute for the first time in her career. She turned 14 earlier this year, and is part of yet another wave of young American swimmers rising to the crop. The U.S. is on pace to have a crop of bona fide stars peaking right around the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics.
- Leah Hayes was unbothered by a stress fracture in her foot, becoming the youngest woman ever to break 2:10 in the 200 IM. She took advantage of Kate Douglass’ choice to swim the 50 instead and qualified for the U.S. team individually in that race. Hayes is a young phenom who has stayed home with her local club and who has maintained a great perspective and attitude through all of her success, and it’s great to see her make the next step.
- After a pair of near-misses in qualifying for the World Championship team in the 800 free (third) and 800 free relay (eighth in 200 free), Katie Grimes bounced back with a massive five-second drop in the women’s 400 IM, winning the event in a time of 4:36.17 to move up to #3 all-time in the girls’ 15-16 age group. Though the 16-year-old went on to easily qualify for the team in the 1500 free—something she was likely aware of after those first two events—the 400 IM performance was a gutsy effort and displayed the mettle of one of the country’s rising stars.