Paradigm Shift: USA misses 4 of 8 A finals on day 1 of 2015 World Champs

The world of international swimming is changing, and nowhere was the burgeoning parity more evident than on day 1 of the FINA World Championships, where Team USA missed half the A Finals entirely.

In 4 of the total 8 events on day 1, the U.S. – a traditional powerhouse in international swimming – failed to advance even a single swimmer to the championship final.

On one hand, it’s a sign of growth in the sport that elite talent has started to spread outwards to nations and continents that once struggled just to field full rosters. But for the United States, it appears to be a call that something needs to change.

Years as a dominating swimming superpower have led to some “habits” of sorts, trends that typically worked for Team USA but have gone awry in 2015.

1. Early Roster Selection

The first is the team selection process, a hot topic among fans ever since USA Swimming selected its World Championships team a year out from the meet. The logic behind an early selection is sound: it allows athletes to build a full year of training into a single, focused taper for the World Championships, instead of forcing athletes to taper for a qualifying meet, then extend a taper or try to double-taper for Worlds.

The downside, though, is that selecting a year in advance leaves off some of the nation’s most red-hot athletes, the ones who have had meteoric rises over the past 12 months and could have contributed great to Team USA’s success in Kazan.

Take the women’s 100 fly, for example. The highest U.S. finisher was Kendyl Stewart, who took 10th overall. It’s hard to fault Stewart – she was 58.14, not far off her lifetime-best from last summer’s Pan Pacs. But U.S. swimming fans just watched Kelsi Worrell blast a time nearly a full second faster just a few weeks ago at Pan Ams. Swimmers like Worrell are a casualty of an early selection process, a casualty Team USA suddenly can no longer afford.

2. Swimming Relay Alternates

It’s been a tradition in American swimming for as long as most of us can remember: the top couple of swimmers will be left off of each relay in prelims, resting them up for their individual swims and to keep them fresh for a finals battle.

But that strategy backfired horribly this morning for the men’s 4×100 free relay. There was chatter heading into the meet that Team USA would struggle to medal in the event, but it was still shocking when the team slid all the way to 11th in prelims, forgoing even an outside chance for a medal.

That comes after the American team left three of the top four national teamers from last year off the prelims relay – Michael Phelps isn’t even in Russia after being removed from the team last fall, but Nathan Adrian and Ryan Lochte didn’t suit up for the prelims relay.

All it took was a rough 49.6 split from Anthony Ervin, the fourth-best swimmer based on last year’s national team, to leave the U.S. in big trouble with two legs to go.

What makes that miss sting more is how many swimmers, either watching the relay from the pool deck or watching it from back in the United States, could have put up a time that would have helped the relay. Adrian, Phelps and Lochte are the three obvious ones, but Michael Chadwick, Jack Conger and even Junior National champ Maxime Rooney have all been faster this year from a flat start than the slowest leg on Team USA’s relay in Kazan.

That list goes on to include Josh Schneider, Seth Stubblefield, Blake Pieroni, Caeleb Dressel and Derek Toomey. That makes upwards of 10 different athletes who could have improved Team USA’s prelims finish at least marginally.

3. Disregarding 50s of non-free strokes

In the men’s 50 fly, Team USA only bothered to enter a single swimmer, Tim Phillips, with last summer’s National Champ Matt Grevers not entering in favor of a leg on that 4×100 free relay. The U.S. has a reputation for focusing more on Olympic distances, a reputation that has typically worked out for the nation in the past. But when Phillips took 23rd and the U.S. missed yet another final, that strategy started to show some of its cracks.

With the stellar stable of speedy sprint flyers in the United States, forgoing a lane in the final seems like a missed opportunity. Between Tom Shields, Phelps, Lochte, Phillips, Grevers, Matt Ellis, Giles Smith, Matt Josa and Conger, it feels like the American contingent should be able to find bodies to fill their 50 fly spots at the least, and potentially even challenge for a medal.

But the selection process at last summer’s National Championships devalued non-Olympic events some, with only the national champ making any sort of national team, compared to Olympic events in which the top 6 or more would make a U.S. team for Worlds, Pan Ams or World University Games.

The U.S. should be relatively stronger in the 50 back and breast, where they’ll have swimmers closer to true 50 specialists in David Plummer and Brendan McHugh. But the missed 50 fly opportunity does call into question whether any changes may be on the horizon for how the U.S. approaches non-Olympic sprint distances.

Paradigm Shift?

The general reaction to Team USA’s day 1 has swerved towards gloom and doom, which is probably an overreaction. The Americans did win two medals, including Katie Ledecky‘s dominant 400 free gold. Some of their best swimmers – Missy Franklin, Ryan Lochte, Tyler Clary – have yet to dive in for individual events, and the team seems undaunted, focused on overcoming the early adversity:

The men’s 400 free was solid, with two swimmers in the finals, and the ever-improving Connor Jaeger challenging for a medal was a bright spot. Even the men’s 100 breast was about on par with expectations – there don’t seem to be any candidates likely to go faster than Cody Miller did, besides maybe Kevin Cordes, and with Adam Peaty and Cameron van der Burgh around, contending for a medal in the sprint breaststrokes is a longshot for any nation beside Britain and South Africa.

But opening day was certainly a learning experience for USA Swimming as a whole, and one can’t help but wonder if any of the above trends will be changing in the near future, a response to the new, parity-based paradigm within a suddenly-crowded international swimming jungle.

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Russ Davis

I wonder how many members of this USA team will be on next year’s USA team. I would say fewer than half.


Love this article. It is time for a paradigm shift. It is time for the U.S. to hold a normal selection process. It is time for the U.S. to focus on 50’s and sprint. It is time for us to realize that dominating the rest of the world is over. Bobo, like usual, is correct. Saying, “Oh, well our best team wasn’t in Kazan,” really doesn’t take the sting away from getting smacked in the mouth and not finaling at a world championships. Come on USA. I love the tweet from Klueh, but will the team really respond? Maybe at Rio, but right now? Doubtful. And it’s not their fault, it’s the system’s. I’m so confused by these performances. Ervin… Read more »


Miller was 59.51 at Santa Clara…I put him for 4th in the pick em thinking he had a 58.9 in him. Apparently not.


Yeah. That just wasn’t going to happen. He was clearly very tapered at Santa Clara. Why? Who knows. He said he wanted to get close to Hansen’s bronze medal time from London…for what?

Chia Pet

Our Grand Prix system is hurting our pros. Too many of them rest/ detrain leading into the regular season meets to make money, and it bites them in the butt at the end of the season.


Before I get into “negatives,” I will say and agree that the US is one of the most resilient teams in swimming. We know swimming, we train since age 8 and blast our way through 4 years of college swimming so good that foreigners come to train with us. This is just a rocky day 1 in some events that we knew wouldn’t really be our best here. The real 100s of stroke and IMs are yet to come, that will be our bounce back at this meet. But onto discussion: certainly picking the team a year ahead is dumb, and leaving spots open in 50m events is dumb. We are the US, we have more depth than any other… Read more »

Hulk Swim

Kleuh is hardly in the same grouping as the others you listed…

He swam at Texas with Berens and Walters… who’ve retired (twice?).


Oops wrong Michael, I meant McBroom.

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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