Here’s round 3 of our previews and 8-deep picks for the upcoming US Olympic Trials. These aren’t set-in-stone picks, as they could change between now and Omaha (for example, had I written this 400 free last week, Katie Ledecky’s position in my predictions probably would have been different). For a full rundown of all of the picks we’ve done, check out the category page here.
We’re also going to begin incorporating some guest picks into the previews as well. If you think you’ve got a beat on a specific race, send us your top 8 at [email protected].
Women’s 400 Free
In the 400 free, it’s the women who get top billing, as this race could be one of the more exciting races of the meet. Starting just with the advancement in the field nationwide: in 2008, it took only a 4:12 to make the A-Final. There are 26 swimmers who are seeded faster than that this year.
This race has a little bit of everything in it. It has stars on the mainstream verge like Chloe Sutton. It has a former star who hit a rough patch and is now back to the top of the swimming world in Kate Ziegler. It would be easy to forget about Allison Schmitt in this race because of how good her 200 is, but with how good she’s looked (4:05 in Charlotte), she may even be the favorite. She’ll still have some work to do, however, to match the closing speed of Sutton, who does some unbelievably huge workouts. These two are my favorites (Sutton and Schmitt), just based on how good they’ve been while in-training. It’s all about hitting the taper for these two. Chloe is still a better distance swimmer, but with her new kick, this 400 has looked really good – a 4:07 in a training suit in Charlotte despite training 16,000 meters a day the week before.
Katie Hoff brings some mystery to this race. She’s bounced back-and-forth between a middle-distance freestyler and an IM’er in the last year, but the conversation has surrounded her choosing one or the other. Though the 400 meter events come on back-to-back days in the women’s schedule, that’s still easier than for the men where they’re the same day. There’s no reason for her not to go after all four at trials – the only double she would have would be the 200 IM semi-finals after the 200 free final, and those races are at completely opposite ends of the session.
But the real buzz over the last year has surrounded the young swimmers. The youth in the women’s distance races is unlike the youth in any other discipline, including the backstrokes. The two headliners are NBAC’s 16-year old Gillian Ryan, and Curl Burke’s 15-year old Katie Ledecky. They are the best 15-16 distance freestylers we’ve seen since Janet Evans was crushing records in the 80’s.
Ledecky might have edged ahead of her age-group compadre at the Charlotte Grand Prix, where she swam a 4:05.7. Every finals swim she dives in for, she drops another huge chunk of time in this race. There’s a secondary level of youngsters in this race that could also in the least final. The 400 is Leah Smith’s best race, and she has a 4:09.5.
Chelsea Chenault was on a meteoric rise in 2010 and cracked the 4:10 barrier herself, but that stalled a bit in 2011 as she really improved her diversity. That’s similar to another NBAC swimmer, Camryne Morris, who dropped time in the last 18 months in the 100, 200, 800, and 1500 freestyles, but not the 400 free.
We can’t forget either that Ashley Steenvoorden, who recently wrapped up her eligibility at Minnesota, is the defending National Champion in the race. The only explanation for her NCAA’s performance is that she trained through them pretty hard, so the college lag shouldn’t have a huge affect here. Interestingly, Steenvoorden will be the only swimmer with even a small chance in this race who has completed all four years of college eligibility. Not that it necessarily means a whole lot competitively, but in one of America’s least-favorite races, as many as half of the A-finalists decided to go pro after high school.
Dagny Knutson is the wildcard. She is one of the greatest high school swimmers we’ve ever seen (suit? no suit?), and was on a roll in her first year as a pro as well in 2010. But since then, she’s moved to Gainesville and has gone into a bad funk. The only racing we’ve seen from her this year was in Austin in January, where she put up a pair of tough prelims performances (including 4:22 in the 400 free) and called it a weekend. We won’t speculate on why, but it’s very unusual for an Olympic contender to go 4 months without racing.
Amber McDermott is a strong sleeper pick, after an outstanding freshman year at Georgia. She was a 4:08.9 in this race at Nationals last year, has clearly improved since then, and swam very well at the UltraSwim with a 4:11. There are 5 or so swimmers who have the ability to be faster than her this year, but McDermott is close enough that, given her improvements, she could catch them on a bad day.
The second-fastest freshman behind McDermott in the equivalent 500 was Cal’s Catherine Breed. She’s good at a lot of events, but reaffirmed during her first collegiate season that the middle-distance frees were her best.
Elizabeth Beisel could final in this race, and we might not know for a while, but my gut feeling is that she won’t swim it. These picks will be based on the premise that she’s skipping it to focus on the IM’s and backstrokes. TBD though. Haley Anderson was last year’s NCAA Champion in this race, we’ll have to see how well she adapts to another change of course after NCAA’s, then Open Water Nationals, and now Olympic Trials. My feeling is that she’ll be shooting more toward the 1500 in long course, even though the 400 was better in yards (both, of course, in equivalent races).
Another big sleeper pick is Stephanie Peacock, the UNC sophomore who broke the legendary Janet Evans NCAA Record last year in the 1650. The 400/500 was her best race up until last year; and she made a multiple-second improvement in yards last year. If that translates to long course, she could be under 4:07 as well.
And as for Janet, she’s looked better lately in the 800 than the 400. She could make a semi-final, but there’s too much youth and too much talent in front of her for an Olympic bid in this 400. She might surprise and make a final…but dropping 12 seconds from as good as she’s been in her comeback? The numbers are just hard to fathom – though I guess there’s no real litmus test against which her comeback should be measured.
Top 8 picks, along with seed times and both their most recently known club training group and college affiliation (just for fun).
1. Allison Schmitt (Georgia/NBAC) – 4:05.90*
2. Chloe Sutton (Mission Viejo) – 4:05.19*
3. Kate Ziegler (FISH) – 4:05.52
4. Katie Ledecky (Curl Burke) 4:05.79
5. Katie Hoff (T2) 4:05.50
6. Ashley Steenvoorden (Minnesota) – 4:07.63
7. Gillian Ryan (NBAC) – 4:09.51
8. Amber McDermott (Georgia) -4:08.93
Next four out (no particular order) – Stephanie Peacock (North Carolina/Swim Florida); Leah Smith (JCC Sailfish); Chelsea Chenault (Terrapins Swim Team); Catherine Breed (Cal/California Aquatics)
And, for some variety, guest picks from our friends at Reezy Nation!
4. Katie Ledecky
5. Kate Ziegler
6. Gillian Ryan
7. Chelsea Nauta
8. Ashley Steenvoorden
Men’s 400 Free
This is another race on the men’s side where there seems to be a clear-cut favorite. In the last two-plus years, Peter Vanderkaay is two-and-a-half seconds faster than any other American has been, by way of his 4th-place performance at last year’s World Championships.
Still, despite his success in Shanghai, this is an event that isn’t exciting that many American fans, much as we discussed with the women. Whether it be because it’s too short to be a distance event, too long to hold interests like the 200, or it’s just the lack of glamour names in the race, it just isn’t a race that most Americans highlight on their watching schedule.
But “potential” is the name of the game in this 400; there’s a big group of swimmers that are waiting to break out, and whoever takes 2nd in this race will probably qualify as a “surprise”. It really isn’t one of the better races in the men’s meet on paper, but because of that under-the-radar feeling, and the ages of the contenders, there is the potential for some excitement here.
Among them is, of course, Charlie Houchin, who was the other American representative in this race at last year’s World Championships. But a week after he finished 14th in the race at Worlds, Fullerton’s Matt McLean undercut Houchin’s best with a 4:47.3 at Nationals.
If we’re looking at the 2nd-place position being faster, however, McLean’s potential could be limited by the back problems he’s been battling. It’s really limited his ability to do dryland work, so even though he’s the second-seed, there’s some question about how low he can go. Fortunately, as a distance swimmer, he can get away with less on-deck strength training.
But can he hold off his training partner Michael Klueh? Klueh didn’t have a great outing last time out at the Swim Meet of Champions, but outside of that he’s had a great year. He’s a true 800 freestyler, but out of the two Olympic distances (400 and 1500), the 400 is his best bet at Trials.
The biggest benefit that the above three have is that they each get a lot of individualized attention, individualized training, etc. that is so important for men’s 400 freestylers. It’s an event that’s so different from the one in either direction – the 200 and the 1500. Klueh and MacLean are approaching Omaha in a slimmed-down training group under Jon Urbanchek, while Houchin works with a very small group (Arianna Kukors, a few Brazilians) training with Sergio Lopez in Jacksonville under the IX3 banner.
Chad La Tourette is primarily a 1500 swimmer; he’s the favorite to take that race. But in the NCAA season this year, his 500 free (the yards equivalent to this 400) looked as good as it has in years. He hasn’t been better than 3:54 in long course since 2010, and that’s certainly not going to cut it; then again that 3:54 was the leadoff split in an 800. If his yards explosion in this race is translatable to a similar meters improvement, then he could very well be a contender.
The big mysterious swimmer here is Tyler Clary. He comes in right in the thick of the lead group that would fight for a 2nd-position in the race. The obvious answer is “no way,” as he would have to pull a quick turnaround double with the 400 IM. First, if anybody were crazy enough to try that, it would be Clary, but even he probably wouldn’t. The bigger question is, if Michael Phelps swims the 400 IM, would Clary sidestep that and take the 400 free as a potentially easier path to the Olympics? As both a swim-fan and a swim-coach, I’m going to say “no,” that he has every right to mix it up with Phelps and Clary. But if I didn’t bring it up, someone else would have, and it is something to keep in the back of your head.
Gator Swim Club’s Conor Dwyer is in a similar position of deciding between the 400 free and 400 IM, though he might lean more towards the free. He’s looked great in it this year.
Club Wolverine’s Matt Patton is another swimmer who really is a 400 meter specialist. He struggled a bit after first finishing his college eligibility at Michigan, but in the last year seems to have really figured things out and has been swimming phenomenally; that includes a 3:49 at Nationals to earn a spot at the Pan Am Games.
A big group out of Ann Arbor will join him as contenders – Ryan Feeley, Connor Jaeger, and Sean Ryan all had top-notch college seasons. Jaeger is a stud in the making, and even under the sprint genius of Mike Bottom he’s developed into a great middle-distance swimmer in the more Michigan tradition – at least half of this final could have strong ties to the Maize and Blue. He locked that down with an awesome meet at the Charlotte Grand Prix – including a best of 3:50.87 in this race.
Michael McBroom carries a lot of anticipation in both this 400 and the longer 1500; out of all of the NCAA champions in the last two years, he probably gets less national/international accord than just about all of them. But it feels like we’re still waiting to see his best in long course; his first year in Austin was phenomenal, though his second was less-so.
The young contenders in the race include Nicholas Caldwell. He battled some health issues in his first year at Florida, and has his best time from back in 2010 at 3:50.5. He didn’t even come close to his 2010 long course times last year; this will be his chance to prove if he just peaked really early (he was one of the best high school distance swimmers we’ve seen in a while), or if he’s just on a rebound. Reed Malone out of the New Trier Swim club in Illinois has made a big name for himself in this spring semester thanks to an outstanding performance both at the Illinois High School State Championship meet and at NCSA Junior Nationals, where he was the standout performer on the boy’s side.
There’s a huge group of swimmers jammed into the 3:51-3:53 range. Another Longhorn in Jackson Wilcox; Evan Pinion out of Knoxville who was on the Junior Worlds team last year but has been quiet since; open water champ Andrew Gemmell; and South Carolina’s Michael Flach, who got great experience competing in the Olympic pool during the international portion of the British Olympic Trials.
If you’re looking for a swimmer to come out of nowhere – look no further than Auburn’s Zane Grothe. He didn’t have a good long course Nationals last summer at all, but I don’t care which conversion factors you use – anybody who goes a 4:15 in 500 yards can be better than his 4:01 in 400 meters with some focused long course training. He was a 3:58 at a pre-Nationals meet as well.
What’s striking about most of the guys at the top (though I haven’t spoken to all of them) is that the ones I’ve met are smart guys. They’re very cerebral swimmers, they’re thinkers, they understand what’s going on. That’s the perfect mentality for this race.
I think the picks for the Olympics goes to Vanderkaay and McLean; but whoever cracks 3:47 will have a chance at the touch for a top-two spot.
Picks, including our best guess for most recent training group/college (just for fun) and seed time.
1. Peter Vanderkaay (Michigan/Gator Swim Club) – 3:44.83
2. Matt McLean (Virginia/FAST) – 3:47.33
3. Michael Klueh (Texas/FAST) – 3:48.24
4. Charlie Houchin (Michigan/Bolles/IX3) – 3:47.98
5. Conor Dwyer (Florida/Gator Swim Club) – 3:51.40
6. Chad la Tourette (Stanford/Mission Viejo) – 3:48.76
7. Michael McBroom (Texas/Longhorn Aquatics) – 3:49.94
8. Matt Patton (Michigan/Club Wolverine) – 3:49.24
First four out (in no particular order): Zane Grothe (Auburn); Connor Jaeger (Michigan/Club Wolverine); Nicholas Caldwell (Florida); Ryan Feeley (Michigan)
More guest picks from Reezy
2. Matt McLean
3. Charlie Houchin
4. Michael Klueh
6. Matt Patton
7. Reed Malone
8. Chad la Tourette
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