Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Splash-and-Dash in America

At the Charlotte UltraSwim, I was fortunate enough to meet University of Cincinnati swim coach Monty Hopkins. In the same year that Cincinnati's athletic department cut funding for the swim program, Hopkins' swimmer Josh Schneider pulled off a dramatic underdog win in the 50 freestyle at NCAA's. Schneider followed up his NCAA success with a win over Cullen Jones in the 50 free in Charlotte, and a runner-up finish to Australia's Eamon Sullivan at the Setti Colli trophy meet in Pescara, Italy. Schneider's Charlotte time was 22.38, and in Pescara, he improved to 22.11, which ranked him 12th in the world, and he finished just behind the former world record-holder's 22.09.

Shortly after the 50 free in Charlotte, I told Coach Hopkins that the 50 is a relatively weak event for the U.S., and Josh could have an opening to get to the top level with continued improvement. The U.S. won a medal in the first five Olympics the 50 free was contested in. With the likes of Matt Biondi, Tom Jager, Bill Pilczuk, Anthony Ervin, and Gary Hall, Jr., the Americans dominated the event for years. Despite a 1-2 finish at the 2007 worlds with Ben Wildman-Tobriner and Cullen Jones, 2008 saw the Americans left behind in the 50, with stunning improvements from Australians, French swimmers, and the Brazilian who won the Olympic gold medal, Cesar Cielo. In 2009, both Jones and Nathan Adrian made the World Championships final, but both fell well in the wake of the top sprinters. Americans have not been able to step up to that top level.

Hopkins disagreed, citing America's depth in the 50 and the unpredictability of the event, So far in 2010, Schneider has the leading American time in the 50. However, according to Hopkins, "Anyone who thinks that Josh is the leading USA sprinter because he won NCAA's and won in Charlotte is really missing the plot." Veteran swimmers that have been there and done that will always be on the scene. Hopkins uses 2008 Olympians Ben Wildman-Tobriner and Jason Lezak as examples. Neither appeared to be on the top level at the beginning of 2008, but both delivered superb performances to make the team and perform better than expected in Beijing.

Hopkins further backs up his point from the other side of the equation. So often, swimmers emerge from the woodwork to become national contenders and champions. Schneider is a perfect example, going from a B-finalist at both NCAA's and long course Nationals in 2009 to NCAA champion in 2010. Hopkins used Cal's Josh Daniels as another example, not a big-name sprinter, but one who clocked 19.2 at NCAA's (in a jammer), and one who proved a suitable substitute for Nathan Adrian on Cal's winning 200 medley relay. Daniels is another swimmer who could emerge to challenge for the National title come August, as could the consistently-improving young Texas swimmer Jimmy Feigen and many others.

In a sense, we are both correct. America might not have the star power in the event, but Hopkins is certainly correct that Schneider doesn't have a free pass to success in the event due to the depth. Hopkins commented that "Josh has a lot of room for improvement and time enough to get there as long as he is willing to work harder in Quad year 3 than he has ever worked before... If he wants to stand on the podium in London, or any other big meet, he has to continue improving."

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