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.
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:
Everyone faces adversity. What separates people is how they respond to it. #USA
— Michael Klueh (@mklueh) August 2, 2015
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.