We’ll be doing our full preview of the World University Games later this week, including all the links you need to follow. To tide you over until then, here’s a look at four events that seem likely to have the biggest effect on how we look at US swimmers heading into next summer’s Olympic Trials.
1. Men’s 100 Free (4×100 Free Relay)
There’s plenty of digital ink spilled across the web about the less-than-dominant outlook for the US men in this event heading into both this summer and next, and there’s been lots of speculation about which young male swimmer, if any, will step it up and help the US next summer.
When the USA WUG roster was first published, there was a small, but somewhat reasonable, chance the WUG 4×100 free relay might have been faster than World Championship relay. That initial WUG roster had Jack Conger (Texas/NCAP) and Seth Stubblefield (Cal) swimming the 100 free, John Murray (Texas/Alamo) and Shane Ryan (Penn State) as relay swimmers, and Caeleb Dressel (Florida/Bolles) slotted for the 50 free. It was reasonable to assume that Dressel would be close to, or faster than, the 48.97 he swam in 2013, and perhaps with a strong prelims swim, he could have ended up finals, and help propel this team to be faster than Adrian, Feigen, Lochte, and Dwyer/Ervin/Grevers.
However, Dressel dropped out of this competition, and Ryan has since decided to represent Ireland internationally. Michigan’s Paul Powers (Michigan) has taken over Dressel’s 50 free spot, and Clay Youngquist (Texas) picked up Ryan’s spot in the 4×100 free relay, in addition to swimming the 200 free and 4×200 free relay.
Out of the remaining swimmers, Conger looks to be the one who might be best poised for a breakout swim here. He won the B final in the 100 free at Nationals last summer, had a number of great in-season performances, but for our purposes, what stood out the most was his anchor leg on the 400 medley relay on the first day of the NCAA championships. You can watch that video here. Conger made up about a half second deficit on Cal’s Stubblefield by the time he surfaced, then went on to out split Stubblefield by over a second on the first 50, holding his lead in the second 50, resulting in a 40.96 split and a new NCAA and US Open record for the Longhorns.
Finally, Matt Ellis (Texas) is another who could end up on this relay. He’s on the team to swim the 100 fly, but was the only one here to make the semi-finals in the 100 free at the 2012 Olympic Trials, and a few years ago was probably the premier junior sprinter in the country.
2. Men’s 200 Fly
This event is one of the more wide-open among the US men, although if Michael Phelps decides to pursue this, that opening could become substantially more narrow. Nonetheless, incoming Cal freshman Andrew Seliskar has been the biggest rising star domestically in this event for several years now, and currently has the fastest time among US men this year with a 1:55.92 he swam at the Austin Pro Series in January. That time also ranks him ninth in the world this year, and ties his personal best, which was previously set at Junior Pan Pacs last year.
Seliskar has the fourth-fastest time among US men since the last Olympics, but former Michigan swimmer Kyle Whitaker is not too far behind him. He swam a lifetime-best 1:56.57 at Nationals last summer, good for seventh-best in the US in this quad. No US swimmer has gone below 1:55 in this event since the 2012 Olympics, and should either Seliskar or Whitaker be able to do that here, that would make him the early favorite for next summer. That is, at least until Phelps swims this at the US Open in August, should he choose to do so.
3. Women’s 100 Back
It’s no secret that the Cal Bears have had one of the deepest backstroke groups in the world over the past few years, and several of them will be in the mix to represent the US in this event for Rio. Rachel Bootsma, an Olympic veteran, and Elizabeth Pelton, who has competed at the last three World Championships, both missed out on the Kazan team for this year, but it would not be any surprise if either of them were to put down a time here that would earn them a medal at the World Championships in August. While Cal teammate Missy Franklin figures to go into next summer as the favorite for one spot, she’s had some nagging back issues, and a strong showing here by either Bootsma or Pelton might make the favorite a little less clear.
4. Women’s 100 Free (4×100 relay)
Cal commit Abbey Weitzeil (had a memorable short course season, taking the 100 yard free American record from Simone Manuel in December. Manuel took the record back at NCAA’s, but Weitzeil’s sucess in the short course pool naturally led to speculation about her long course time.
The 54.42 she swam this month at the Fran Crippen Memorial Swim Meet of Champions was just .04 off her personal best, a time which she recorded at Summer Nationals last year. Last summer, she dropped a second between SMOC and Nationals. If she can duplicate that drop, she’s looking at a 53.4, which puts her squarely between Franklin and Manuel in the race for individual 100 free slots for Rio.
Former Georgia Bulldog Shannon Vreeland will be the US’s other representative in the individual event. She actually has a faster time here than Weitzeil, as the 53.83 she swam at 2013 Nationals gives her the third-fastest time among US women since the Olympics.
Stanford’s Felicia Lee and Lia Neal have the two dedicated relay spots. If the coaches want to rest any of these four by subbing in someone else on relays, Pelton and/or Madeline Locus (Georgia/FCST), who’s swimming the 50 free, are probably the likely candidates to get some swims as well. Of those four, at this point Neal seems most likely to be a factor come Omaha; she has the sixth-fastest time in the US since last Olympics, due to her 54.34 at last summer’s nationals.
Bonus: Men’s Medley Relay
I’ve made it this far without mentioning that all of these swimmers were selected based on times from last summer. Thus, Conger, whose 51.64 in the 100 fly from January’s Austin Pro Series still ranks fourth in the world this year, will be not be competing in that event individually at this meet. However, the coaches could choose to shuffle the medley relay in such a way as to put Conger on the fly leg. If that happens, it’ll definitely be interesting to see how his time at the end of the week compares to his time from January.