USA Swimming has released the psych sheets for the Santa Clara Grand Prix that begins this Thursday. Besides being a battle for a whole lot of cash ($20,000), this meet will serve as one of the season’s final major tuneups for the upcoming World Championships in Shanghai.
These meets always have the typical Phelps-Lochte, Vollmer-Magnuson, Hardy-Soni storylines, but with an injection of some international swimmers, specifically a group of Aussie Nationals and a large number of internationals who have been competing abroad for their home countries, this meet brings a lot of new dynamics to the Grand Prix series.
1. Brendan Hansen – This is, first and foremost, what will be on the lips, minds, and eyes of most around the Haines International Swim Center this weekend. Hansen is one of the most accomplished American breaststrokers ever (would you believe that in the history of American breaststroking, only Hansen and John Hencken have won multiple Olympic medals in individual breaststroke races?), so the fervered excitement is understandable. But expectations must be tempered. Similarly to what we’ve seen with the recent comebacks of Janet Evans and Ed Moses, these guys won’t just suit up and return to the superhero form that they once took.
Hansen enters the meet with the 9th-seed overall, and he’ll definitely get a true test of his training. Among the other competitors are Mike Alexandrov (American Record holder in SCY); Eric Shanteau (American Record Holder in LCM); Scott Dickens (Canadian Record Holder); and Damir Dugonjic (NCAA Record Holder). Hansen’s name still sits as the Meet Record for the International, with a 1:00.01. I’m looking for a great swim from Shanteau to win this race, as he’s shown much-improved front-end speed since he started working with Dave Salo at Trojan Aquatics.
2. Back-to-Back – In the most exciting swim-block of the Grand Prix season so far, the women’s 100 back will immediately follow the men’s 100 breaststroke. This list is a who’s-who in world backstroking, with no fewer than 5 National Record Holders competing in the event:
Emily Seebohm – Australia – Seed: 58.88
Gemma Spofforth – UK/World – Seed: 59.46
Natalie Coughlin – USA – Seed: 59.70
Emily Thomas – New Zealand – Seed: 1:00.22
Julia Wilkinson – Canada – Seed: 1:00.39
Fernanda Gonzalez – Mexico – Seed: 1:01.59
When you throw into the mix America’s young backstrokers Missy Franklin (4th in the world – 59.56), Rachel Boostma (new High School Record holder), and Liz Pelton (15th in the world – 1:00.40), you get an absolutely blisteringly-fast field. Seebohm wasn’t great at the Southwest Classic last week, but she’ll be focused as this 100 back is her only individual race in Shanghai (and she’s probably getting ready for a bit of a rest cycle for the Aussie Relay Trials). Spofforth is on a long-descend from peak training (ranked only 17th in the world this year), so she can probably afford a light-day or two to prepare for this race. Franklin lost some serious ground to Coughlin on the walls in Charlotte, and it will be interesting to see if that’s a trend or a fluke. We could theoretically get 4 or 5 swimmers under a minute in this race, which would be hugely impressive.
3. Redemption Stories – Australia’s Nick D’Arcy and American Michael Phelps have faced remarkably similar challenges throughout their careers. Phelps was photographed smoking marijuana, and had a problem with drunk-driving; D’Arcy got drunk and shattered the face of one of his teammates, which earned him a suspension for both the 2008 Olympics and 2009 World Championships. This year, D’Arcy has missed a lot of time in the water, first with a scary liver ailment and later with a knee injury suffered while wakeboarding in April. Phelps, on the other-hand, has missed plenty of time this year with some well-documented motivation issues.
These are the two best 200 butterfliers, yet they have only raced twice in their careers (that come to mind easily, at any rate): they were in the same heat and semi-final at the 2007 World Championships; and at last year’s Pan Pac Championships, where Phelps bettered D’Arcy in the final by six-tenths. This will likely be the last time we see them square-off in 2011 as well, as D’Arcy missed the Australian World Championship Trials. Phelps has spent a good-hard three weeks training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. The last time he was there resulted in a phenomenal performance at the Indy Grand Prix, and reports are that this trip has snapped his focus back as well. After a two-meet losing streak (following a 9-year winning streak) in this race, Phelps will be hungry. Swimming against a battered and bruised D’Arcy, this should be a great race, but I like Phelps to get back on top.
4. Gators Ready to Taper? – It’s been no secret this year that Gregg Troy at the Gator Swim Club has been killing his swimmers (Ryan Lochte, Peter Vanderkaay, etc.) before the Grand Prix meets, and that’s been reflected in their times. The Gator professional group has been effectively on “holiday-training” since January, which means they’ve been pretty broken-down for much of the season. I don’t think they’ll start their final descent quite-yet, but I think that the times will start to show up more, even if just a little bit, at this meet.
5. Park/Cochrane – Speaking of the Gator Swim Club, Peter Vanderkaay will face steep competition at this meet from Canada’s Ryan Cochrane and South Korea’s Tae-Hwan Park in the middle-distance freestyles. Park, who recently renewed his committment to continue training in Australia, hasn’t competed yet in 2011, and Cochrane was clearly on “coast-mode” at Canadian Nationals.
Cochrane will be an excellent “upset pick” in any race from 400-1500 meters at this summer’s World Championships, as I think he only scratched the surface even during his two-gold performance from Pan-Pacs last year. China’s Sun Yang has been getting most of the buzz in these races this year, but it’s time for Cochrane and Park to get in on the game.
Missy Franklin has held the overall series lead for the duration, but as she wishes to retain her amateur status is ineligible to receive the prize money. USA Swimming has confirmed to us in an email that the prize money then goes to the next-highest finishing competitor, which right now woould be Ous Mellouli. But with $20,000 on the line, Mellouli has chosen to skip his second-straight grand prix meet (even this one, much closer to home than the last), which means he’s surely to be taken over by either Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte. Phelps would need only a single bronze to tie Mellouli and Lochte only two silvers, and while those haven’t been givens during this year’s Grand Prix series, I have a lot of confidence that one or the other will get it done. My money is on Phelps to take the cash home for his second Grand Prix Series win.
Whichever one takes the prize money, I would expect the check to be routed directly to their favorite charity.
One more thing that stands out when looking at the psych sheets is the massive number of participants. This meet has clearly more entries than the Charlotte UltraSwim, the next-closest meet in terms of participation, and more than double many of the other Grand Prixs.