We spent all of last month chronicling the year 2017 in our Swammy Awards, but now it’s time to look forward to the coming year. Here are the 10 biggest storylines to keep an eye on heading into 2018:
Russia’s Ongoing Doping Scandal
With the Russian team officially banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics, the next big swimming development to watch will be whether Russia faces any similar sanctions for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The doping scandal surrounding Russia has continued to grow, spurred on by the McLaren Reports and culminating in a blanket ban on Winter Olympians, though cleared Russian athletes can still compete under the Olympic banner. Russia has a lot of swimmers who are swimming really fast right now, which won’t do anything to quiet the questions.
Chalmers vs Dressel in sprint freestyle
With breakout Olympic champ Kyle Chalmers sitting out last summer with surgery, the pathway was cleared for American Caeleb Dressel to ascend to the top of the world Sprint throne. Now in 2018, the two young sprint stars from proud swimming nations are primed to go head-to-head at the Pan Pacific Championships. Both swimmers are likely only getting better, and the race for Pan Pacs gold could be a preview for 2019 Worlds and the 2020 Olympics.
New Pro Swim Series Format
A year after FINA’s tweaks to the World Cup, USA Swimming is expanding its format for the domestic Pro Swim Series. The new series will feature stroke 50 shootouts, a mystery 200 IM and a points battle between 4 teams drafted by former US National Teamers. If successful, the new format could offer a blueprint for making swimming into a more inviting sport for spectators.
Paralympic Classification Reform?
Paralympic sports have become embroiled in controversy. In the swimming realm, that controversy has mostly surrounded the classification of athletes, with some competitors accused of underplaying their abilities in classification tests to compete in classes where wins and world records are more attainable. The onus is now on the IPC to respond, either by cracking down on questionable classifications or by restructuring the system entirely to close the offending loopholes.
New Lineup For Tokyo 2020
With the IOC adding three swimming events for the 2020 Olympics, the coming year will be the first true chance to see how swimmers and federations adjust. Will we start to see an increased focus from national teams on mixed relays, or will those events remain fairly low-priority? With the addition of the women’s 1500, will we see Katie Ledecky skew more toward higher-distance races after she clearly focused her training down towards the 200 in the leadup to Rio? And how will the Olympic event order change with the addition of the men’s 800 free, women’s 1500 free and mixed 4×100 medley relay? Many fans hope for an additional day of racing, though that seems unlikely – the World Championships match the Olympics 8-day schedule while packing in even more events, with the stroke 50s and mixed freestyle relay.
The NCAA landscape continues to evolve year-by-year, particularly within the Power 5 conferences, which are now allowed some level of self-governance. Schools and conferences continue to discuss the idea of paying student-athletes or relaxing amateurism rules to allow student-athletes self-marketing opportunities to make money for themselves. While those ideas most directly impact revenue sports like football and basketball, the trickle-down effects to swimming could be both negative and positive. Relaxing amateurism rules could mean a swimmer like Missy Franklin could in the future be allowed to compete at the NCAA for four years, instead of turning pro after two. On the other hand, many argue that allowing schools to pay athletes would cause athletic departments to funnel even more money into revenue sports, leading to more cut swimming & diving program. The state of college sports is highly unsettled and uncertain at present, but 2018 should offer more insight as to how swimming will look at the college level moving forward – if it continues to exist at all.
A Year of Cross-Meet Rivalries
The second year of each Olympic cycle is typically the oddest in swimming. With no long course World Championships or Olympics, the top swimmers worldwide are usually split between a handful of regional meets, creating some exciting head-to-head showdowns, but also a lot of comparisons of times from halfway across the world in anticipation of a 2019 meeting at Worlds. Here’s a look at a few of the major meets and the top nations involved:
- Commonwealth Games (April 4-15; Gold Coast, Australia): Australia, England, Canada, South Africa
- European Championships (August 3-12; Glasgow, Scotland): Hungary, Great Britain, Italy, Netherlands, France, Sweden, Denmark, Russia
- Pan Pacific Championships (August 9-13; Tokyo): U.S., Australia, Japan, China, Canada, South Africa, Brazil, Korea
- Asian Games (August 18-September 2; Jakarta, Indonesia): Japan, China, Korea
Bounce-Back For Ledecky?
Though there’s absolutely no basis to call a 5-gold, 1-silver haul at Worlds a disappointment, Katie Ledecky 2017 wasn’t as explosive as her previous outings. In fact, 2017 was the first calendar year since her international debut (2012) in which Ledecky didn’t set a long course world record of any kind. She still had historic swims in short course yards and even improved her event range to include a world-class 100 free and an elite 400-yard IM. But in her signature events, Ledecky’s times stalled out. In 2018, we’ll see how Ledecky responds to a year where two of the top ten races earned that status by virtue of beating or tying her, while none of her swims made the cut.
Ledecky has clearly put a premium on expanding her wheelhouse over the past two years, growing from the best pure distance freestyler of all-time to an Olympic champ in the 200 free, an American relay contributor in the 100 free and a dark-horse threat in the 400 IM. In 2018, she could either continue to improve the far ends of her range, or turn her focus back to smashing historical barriers in her primary events. Or she could do both. It’s Katie Ledecky, you can never count out anything. In any case, 2018 will be a fascinating case study in how Ledecky chooses to continue her storied career.