The 100 backstrokes will be the most youth-oriented races of the 2012 Olympic Trials; as many as half of the finalists in the two races combined could be teenagers.
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Men’s 100 Backstroke
In 2010, one of the big stories in American swimming was the glut of talent in the men’s sprint backstrokes. The US was home to both World Record holders (Aaron Peirsol and Nick Thoman), the defending Olympic silver medalist Matt Grevers, and Ryan Lochte – the world’s best 200 backstroker who we still haven’t seen in this race at full-taper.
Yet, it’s been three-straight World Championships after a 1-2 finish in Beijng since the Americans have stood on a medal stand (2009 and 2011 in long course, 2010 in short course). The Americans really need somebody to get over the hump this year and break into that top three. They got a bit of a boost after last year’s co-World Champion Jeremy Stravius didn’t even make the French team in this event.
Nick Thoman from SwimMAC and Former Minnesota Golden Gopher David Plummer have become the foundation of the elite American backstroking group. They’ve grabbed the spots at the last two World Championships, and have really carried the bulk of the attention (including some great head-to-head battles) in this 100. They finished 4th and 5th, respectively in Shanghai, missing the podium by less than a tenth each.
But Grevers is lurking (as much as a man of his stature can lurk) behind them, looking to regain his spot after missing out on the World Championships team altogether. With Peirsol retired, 2012 will really begin the impact of the new era for American backstroking. Grevers’ advantage is that he’s the last American still around who stood with a medal around his neck on a global stage. He’s got the history of getting the job done.
The wild card is Ryan Lochte. Whether or not he is aiming for an individual spot in this 100 back at the Olympics is uncertain at this point, but it would be a good bet that he’ll swim it at Trials at least to see if he can’t convince the coaches of his value on a medley relay. We all probably think he’s capable of being one of the top 5 100 backstrokers in the world, but we haven’t seen a result indicating he can beat Plummer or Thoman. In textile, he’s never been better than 53.69 (in prelims at Pan Pacs, before scratching the final and giving Peirsol center-stage one last time). That’s not all-that close to Plummer, Thoman, Grevers and their 53.0’s.
After those top four the seed times drop off pretty heavily. A new name has emerged in the last year, but really it’s an old name rejuvinated – Ben Hesen. Hesen is a former NCAA Champion in the 100 back from 2008, and the US Open Record holder in the 50m backstroke. He was 5th at the 2008 Trials, but since then has taken several long stretches out of the sport that resembled retirement. For about 18-months now, however, he’s been consistently in competition; in that time he’s moved from Bloomington to Florida to train with the Gator Swim Club and their outstanding backstroke group, and his times have reacted. He swam a 54.1 in Charlotte (where many of the Gators seemed to be on a bit of a lighter-cycle in their training) and is back in the conversation for another final, at least. He gets a great start, and swimming from the front could be a big advantage for him.
Here’s another interesting name who, after 16 months without a long course race (and 7 without any race), re-emerged at the Santa Clara Grand Prix – Randall Bal. Bal is a “international” style swimmer in that he excells in short course and 50m competition, and he’s made most of his living the last few years racing overseas. He swam a 56.03 two weeks ago, but was going 54’s in 2010. At 31, he’ll be in a race-against-time to see what sort of competitive form he can return to before Trials.
There’s a ton of great young backstrokers who will be competitive in this race – they all sit around the same best times, so there’s a question of which one has enough extra gears to get close to the 53-lows. Ryan Murphy from Bolles, Future Cal Bear Jacob Pebley, Jack Conger, and David Nolan. All four of these swimmers, all teenagers, are seeded at 54.9’s or 55.0’s. That’s a long way from the likes of the leaders, but we also know that those guys all have a lot more drop to give than do the guys at the top. They’re certainly each capable of a 53 – but how low is the question. Out of those four, in the 100, I really like Murphy. He’s been on-fire as of late, and recently beat Ryan Lochte in the 200 in his home pool. But they’re all outstanding – if Conger doesn’t take on too big of a schedule he could challenge too. Pebley’s better bet is probably the 200, and Nolan’s the 200 IM.
SwimMAC post-grad Eugene Godsoe has been good the past 6 months, and has been waiting to crack 54 seconds. His strong performance at Brazil’s Maria Lenk Trophy, followed by a best time at the UltraSwim, leads me to believe that he’s got a 53.9 in him at least.
California Aquatics swimmer David Russell looked like he was ready to make a breakthrough in 2010, after a 54.2 at a Nationals Time Trial (though he didn’t step up quite as big in the standard race). 2011 wasn’t a great year for him, though he did make the Pan Ams team for the US; he seems to be an upward trend again this year, but maybe not meteoric enough to get into the conversation for a top-two position.
There’s a couple of Longhorns who could make at least the semi-finals – Patrick Murphy (who’s on his way back from an injury) and sophomore-to-be Kip Darmody. Darmody swam all of his long course best times in 2010, and in his first year in Austin seems to have focused on expanding his versatility and finding his best events – he raced the 50 free and 100 fly at Big 12’s, for example. What that means for his long course times is yet-to-be-seen.
Adam Mania is a really interesting case in this event. He was just an average professional-level swimmer coming out of college. He had 13 All-American awards in college, and was competing internationally for Poland (he was a 2004 Olympian). But in the past few years, he’s really become a “student” of the sport through his coaching for the Schroeder YMCA, and is now competing for the US. That’s put him back into the 54’s, and though he’s on the older-end of this field at 28, it’s a 28 that seems still emotionally invested in the sport and enthusiastic about the sport.
This is going to be a tight finish for the top four spots. Thoman is incredible off of the walls, Plummer is way better on top of the water. Lochte is Ryan Lochte, and Grevers has the big size advantage – especially in this race where guys like Lochte and Thoman aren’t super-tall for elite swimmers.
Here’s our top 8 picks, with seed times:
1. Matt Grevers (Northwestern/Tucson Ford) – 53.05*
2. Ryan Lochte (Florida/Gator Swim Club) – 53.69
3. David Plummer (Minnesota/Minnetonka) – 53.04*
4. Nick Thoman (SwimMAC Carolina) – 53.01
5. Ryan Murphy (Bolles) – 54.96
6. Ben Hesen (Indiana/Gator Swim Club) – 54.19
7. Eugene Godsoe (Stanford/SwimMAC) – 54.22
8. Jack Conger (Rockville Montgomery Swim Club) – 55.02
Next Four Out (no particular order) – Kyle Owens (Auburn) – 54.20; Jacob Pebley (Cal/Corvallis) – 55.01; David Russell (California Aquatics) – 54.22; David Nolan (Stanford) – 55.10
Women’s 100 Backstroke
This women’s 100 backstroke should be an incredible battle; a contrast of a load of young talent. In fact, this race will have three high school students who have all been under the minute mark in the last two years.
But they will be up against miss sub-minute herself – Natalie Coughlin – who a decade ago became the first woman to break the 60 second barrier in this event (which is almost hard to believe). Despite the rise and spectacularity of those three teenagers, it is still Coughlin who will have the top seed; still Coughlin who scored a bronze – the only American medal – at Worlds; and still Coughlin who has the knack to get her hand on the wall first.
This race is still her best event, and it comes early in the schedule – the semi’s will be a double with the 100 fly final (if she swims that event), and the final will come before the 200 IM semi on Wednesday.
The young trio that we keep alluding to is made up of Missy Franklin, Rachel Boostma, and Liz Pelton; the three have been coming up through the age group ranks together and the last three years have started to build huge anticipation toward these Olympics – where they’re each at the right age to take their swimming to another level.
There’s been a lot of anticipation about this young group, because aside from Coughlin, the rest of the top 5 swimmers from last year’s Olympic Trials have all retired. That’s left a huge vacancy for some new blood.
Franklin is the star-child of the three, and she is the closest to Coughlin in speed. Her big challenge, as we all know, has been her underwaters – which will hurt her badly against Coughlin. But on top of the water, she uses her size to gain leverage like nobody else in this field. She’s also the only one of the three who swam the high school season this year.
The other two, Bootsma and Pelton, will head to Cal together in the fall to begin training with the women’s Olympic head coach Teri McKeever. Pelton, like Franklin, has been a star from a very young age – making the World Championship team in 2009 when she was only 15. Bootsma, on the other hand, is sort of a late-bloomer; she was under a minute at only 15, but unlike the other two has never been on a global championship team (though she has been on a pair of continental championship teams – Pan Pacs and Pan Ams). She’s great underwater, but even she gets crushed by Coughlin. She makes up for that though with an outstanding stroke turnover – maybe the best of this field. Evidence of that is below from Charlotte, where Pelton, Coughlin, and Bootsma lined up side-by-side-by-side.
The benefit of the doubt in this race right now has to go to Coughlin and Franklin, because with ideal swims I don’t think anybody can get close to them. But when you’ve got so many swimmers at either end of the age spectrum (both young and old), the opportunity for big swings in performance is there.
As good as the top-end of this race is, there’s not many true contenders in the event. Tennessee’s Jenny Connolly is hitting her prime. She’s the next-best swimmer outside of the sub-minute club, and took a silver medal at last year’s World University Games. Olivia Smoliga out of Illinois had a great high school season, and with a best of 1:00.53 could get close to breaking a minute at Trials.
Megan Romano has been on fire in her freestyles, but don’t overlook her improvements in backstroke as well. She went a 1:00.19 at the Longhorn Elite Invite two weeks ago. There’s a chance she’d scratch it to focus on the 200 free (where her Olympic chances on a relay look better than an individual 100 back), but it’s after that semi so she’ll probably swim both. The challenge will be putting up her full potential swim in this final so quickly after that 200 free (the same dillema that strikes Missy).
Elizabeth Beisel hasn’t really shown the speed yet to hang with the others mentioned, and then that’s it under 1:01. Former USC swimmer Presley Bard is out of the sport, which means that the Americans have the same number of swimmers under a minute (four) as they do between a 1:00 and 1:01.
There are some swimmers who can get there though. Maggie Meyer is an NCAA Champion in the 200 backstroke, but in long course she’s better in the 100. Her 2011 taper was derailed by a broken hand, but she’s already gone a best time this year in March at the Missouri Grand Prix.
This is Ariana Kukors’ best race aside from the IM’s, but I would guess she won’t want to swim the 100 back final before the 200 IM semi if she can help it. SwimMAC’s Kathleen Baker could be a semi-finalist, but at 15 still is a bit too young to compete for the Games.
Cindy Tran is the second-coming of Coughlin underwater at Cal. She’s already one of the best ever in yards, but still isn’t there in long course. I’ve got a feeling, though, that in a second summer with Teri McKeever, she’ll figure out how to use those underwaters to best advantage her over-the-water swimming, and make a final.
One other bigtime dark horse worth mentioning is Fordham’s Brienne Ryan. Not just a dark horse being from a smaller college program, but in the sense that she just hasn’t raced that much long course. She scored her Olympic Trials Qualifying Time last summer in one of only two long course attempts at the race (before that, she hadn’t even gone a Jr. Nationals cut). She then didn’t race in meters again until the UltraSwim this year, where she knocked better than a second-and-a-half off of her time. It’s hard to ignore that kind of massive progression.
This result will highlight the dominance of Cal in the backstrokes. There will be at least three Cal Bears (Coughlin, Pelton and Bootsma) in the final; two more possible finalists who will probably be considering them heavily in the fall (Franklin, Smoliga); and another current Bear who is a possible finalist (Tran). That’s impressive.
The edge goes to Coughlin, for now, as this will be her first event of the session (but Missy’s second).
Our picks for top 8, including seed times:
1. Natalie Coughlin (Cal/California Aquatics) – 59.12
2. Missy Franklin (Colorado Stars) – 59.18
3. Liz Pelton (Cal/T2 Aquatics) – 59.99
4. Rachel Bootsma (Cal/Aquajets) – 59.65
5. Megan Romano (Georgia) – 1:00.19
6. Jenny Connolly (Tennessee) – 1:00.21
7. Elizabeth Beisel (Florida) – 1:00.77
8. Cindy Tran (Cal) – 1:01.35
Next four out: Maggie Meyer (Wisconsin/Tucson Ford) – 1:01.21; Betsy Webb (Stanford) – 1:01.29; Kristen Shickora (Georgia) – 1:01.34; Olivia Smoliga (Glenview Titan Aquatic Club) – 1:00.53