Who Are the Darkhorse Americans to Make the 2012 Olympic Team?

Now that the vast majority of the summer’s meets are over, with deference to the Pan Am Games yet to come in October, it’s time to start using our knowledge of the past to look forward to the future. As rallying cries across the country go out that Olympic training begins now, swimming will receive increased attention in both diehard and more mainstream circles, and with it, more-and-more of what we write will have an Olympic theme. It’s already crept into our college swimming previews (with specific regard to who from the Florida women’s program might not rest as much as usual for NCAA’s).

The first bit we’ll take a look at is who are the darkhorse candidates to make the 2012 Olympic Team, while some of the deeper swims are fresh on our minds. There were great swims at Nationals and Junior Nationals, and many might not be remembered if they are not memorialized with haste, so here goes.

Who’s Not a Darkhorse

First, let’s look at who is not a true darkhorse. We aren’t going to call a swimmer a “darkhorse” just because he or she wasn’t on the 2011 World Championships squad, or because they’ve never made a Worlds/Olympic squad before. Similarly, having been on the squad doesn’t rule someone out for being a darkhorse for 2012. All of our darkhorses will be those who haven’t, or haven’t until very recently, been expected to make this 2012 London Olympic Team. These are swimmers who are counting on some significant development still to earn their ticket across the pond. Beind a darkhorse is all about perception.

For example, we don’t consider Jimmy Feigen a darkhorse. Based on his performances over the last 6 weeks, along with his decision to skip the NCAA Season to focus on the Olympics, I’d actually consider him a favorite to take an Olympic spot in at least the 400 free relay. Phelps and Adrian will be on that relay: this we know for sure. Lochte ought be on that relay, though that decision will be left up to the whims of the current coaching staff. Garrett Weber-Gale, barring any surprises, should feel pretty confident about even on a bad day placing top 6 for a prelims swim. That leaves two more spots up to a whole host of competitors, including Matt Grevers, Jason Lezak, Scot Robison, and Davis Tarwater. This is a relay we’ll delve into further in the coming months, but in brief, I think that Feigen is better than all of them (which 2011 times have borne out). He’s also got a great shot at a spot in the 50.

Similarly, I’d no longer consider Lia Neal a darkhorse either. She’s had monstrous swims the last three weeks, and given her age, I would be more surprised if the sub-second drops that she needs to make in her times didn’t happen than if they did. This is especially true if Dana Vollmer continues to bypass the 200 free (remember, she didn’t even swim the relay in Shanghai).

Finally, Matt Grevers, based on current 2011 rankings, wouldn’t make the Olympic squad in anything. He didn’t make the World Championship in Shanghai. Does that make him a darkhorse? Not in the slightest. It would be a fool’s-errand to pick against the 2008 silver medalist in the 100 back, which is why the Nick-Thoman/David Plummer battle at Worlds was so important: one of them will likely be staying home next year.

Who Is a Darkhorse

My favorite darkhorse pick is breaststroker Andrea Kropp, who is entering her sophomore season at Princeton. Among her accolades are a silver medal from last year’s Jr. Pan Pac Championships and a 4th-place finish at this year’s US Nationals. She made a huge jump before last year, and again at the World University Game’s this year made another big progression with a 2:26.18.

I think she doesn’t get mentioned as an Olympic candidate all that often for two reasons. One, she’s not Rebecca Soni (nobody is), and Soni gets all of the attention in this 200. Two, Amanda Beard, the incumbent to take the other spot, is a fan-favorite. Since she broke into the scene in 1996, she’s been loved by America’s swim fans: first for her child-like innocence, and later for her ability to break into the mainstream with more adult endeavors.

Here’s why Kropp is a good pick – out of all of the candidates for that second spot, she’s the only one who had what could be termed a “good” 2011 season; she’s got the momentum. Beard wasn’t as good as she was in 2010, and failed to final in Shanghai. Lawrence won a diluted National Championship, but peaked there before being off at the Universiade. Katy Freeman too wasn’t in the same neighborhood as she was last year. If Kropp can drop another second between now and Omaha, she could steal a spot.

Arizona senior Adam Small shined brightly in August capped by a silver at the World University Games in the 50 free in 22.31. Nathan Adrian oughta have one spot in the 50, but the other is extremely wide open. Feigen and Weber-Gale, who I mentioned, have looked very good in 22.0’s. Cullen Jones and Josh Schneider, after the build-up of the big swim-off, haven’t been impressive. There are  a ton of candidates for the second 50 free spot, as there always should be, and it’s always a wild finish. Small had a very good short course season last year, and he’s having a very good long course season this year (he improved his 2010 time with four different swims in 2011). He’s another swimmer with some great upward momentum who could grab a spot if someone stumbles at trials.

Davis Tarwater has made a huge impression since returning from his academic pursuits overseas. His time spent with the Oxford swim team, where the focus was very much on racing rather than hours of training each day, almost seems to have reinvigorated him, though he’s undergone a bit of a reinvention as a sprinter (whereas previously his emphasis was the 200’s). That makes sense given that he’s chosen to train with SwimMAC Carolina and their impressive sprint group. So far in 2011, he’s gone best times in the 50 and the 100 frees, and the 100 fly.

He’s got a great chance at the 6th relay spot in the 400 free relay (as a good of a chance as anybody, that is to say), and he might even make a run at the 100 fly (his 51.94 is within a second of McGill’s 51.26). Don’t count him out in his old friend the 200 fly either, where he was twice an NCAA champion. Behind Phelps, there’s some open-ness for the second qualifying spot there, especially if Clary decides not to swim it. At 27, Tarwater is still improving, but the big question for his chances is whether or not he has enough left to give to make those final drops to qualify.

Western Kentucky alum Claire Donahue has hung around the outskirts of USA swimming’s elite throughout her collegiate career, but this summer, after finishing up her career, she broke off a great 58.05 100 fly at US Nationals to tie Natalie Coughlin as the 2nd-best American this year (and Coughlin’s not swimming this race in Omaha). That time puts her in a solid position to make the US Olympic Team.

Ashley Steenvoorden of Minnesota no longer swims in total anonymity in the great white north of Minnesota after winning the National Title in this 400 free a few weeks ago. Still, given the names ahead of her, she’s fighting an uphill battle to make the Olympic team. Sutton, Hoff, and Ziegler are all superstars, but when you look at numbers, Steenvoorden was within a second-and-a-half of all three of them. At 20-years old, she’s not much older than Sutton, and is younger than Hoff and Ziegler. She made a big move in 2011 by dropping more than three seconds off of her career-best time (and almost six off of her textile-best time).

The final darkhorse is Stanford’s Maya DiRado. She’s only entering her second year at Stanford, but hasn’t broken out as much as one might imagine for a swimmer who’s placed 3rd (2009 U.S. Open), 3rd (2011 NCAA’s) and 2nd (2011 US Nationals) at National Championship meets in the 400 IM. When she came to Palo Alto, she was overshadowed by class-mates like Felicia Lee, but now she’s coming into her own. She has a great training group with Julia Smit and Andie Taylor, and that has led to her (like many we’ve talked about) blasting her personal best many times this season. She’s taken her previous best time down a full 5 seconds this summer. I don’t think she (or anybody else) is going to catch Elizabeth Beisel in this 400 IM, but DiRado’s route to the Olympics is clear, and one of the easier solutions: better endurance. Her last 100 meters is relatively pedestrian as compared to the first 300. She doesn’t have the same problem in the shorter 200.

These are a few of the darkhorses who I think have the best shot, based on improvements and circumstances, at making the Olympic team, but there’s plenty more who will pop up in the next year. Later on, we’ll reach even deeper for the real long-shots.

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22 Comments on "Who Are the Darkhorse Americans to Make the 2012 Olympic Team?"

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Gillian Ryan. Big Drop this summer. Still making consistent improvement. I’m interested to see how much more improvement Giles Smith makes going into Trials, though he doesn’t have the size you’d expect from a sprinter and might be 5 years away.

Cayley Guimarães

You were right when you said Amanda Beard is the fans´s favorite!!!! All the way!! I wish she would give the IM a try.

I wish Coughlin would give the fly or the IM a try..she could also consider the 800m free relay.

Hoff swam some pretty good IM…

How about Dara Torres? I hope she makes at least the relays.

Any men on the 100 breast is a “darkhorse”… I am rooting for Marcus Titus to have his break!

Ditoo for the 100 back..I wouldn´t be surprised if MP gave it a go!

Hey, the list is long!! This thread of comments is going to be interesting!

Gillian Ryan was impressive at Nationals (though seemed past peak taper at World Juniors) and at only age 15 seems like she’s got room to drop her 800 free from 8:27 to in contention for an Olympic slot. Seems like she’s just starting to hit people’s radar.

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About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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