For years, this event has been one of the most deep and competitive on the National scene. Medal contenders, even gold medal contenders, have been forced to sit out the race. Since 1996, Americans have won all four Olympic golds in the event, as well as claiming gold at four of the last eight world championships. At world championships in 2005 and 2007, the U.S. went 1-2, as well as at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. In Beijing, 200 back gold medalist Ryan Lochte wasn't even a part of the sweep, as he ended up third at U.S. trials. Needless to say, the event will be very competitive in Irvine this summer once again.
Irvine could be the meet for Nick Thoman to break-out and make it to the top of the National scene for the first time. After swimming for two years at the University of Arizona, Thoman moved to Austin, Texas, where he trained with esteemed coach Randy Reese. At the 2008 Olympic trials, Thoman made finals in both the 100 and 200 back but finished well out of contention. However, at the U.S. Open a month later, Thoman swam the second and third-fastest times in history (at the time) in the 100 back, missing countryman Aaron Peirsol's world record by merely two one-hundredths, clocking 52.91. The time would have taken silver in Beijing, to Peirsol's new world record of 52.54, but ahead of U.S. silver medalist Matt Grevers.
In early 2009, Thoman split from Reese and moved to Baltimore to train in the elite squad under Bob Bowman. Soon enough, however, Thoman left Baltimore and did not have a permanent training home when he arrived at Nationals in Indianapolis in July, 2009. In the 100 back final, Peirsol won with another world record, 51.94, while Thoman came in at 53.12, just one one-hundredth of a second behind Grevers. Once again, at the U.S. Open, Thoman improved his time, clocking 52.51, which made him the sixth-fastest performer in history, and the second-fastest American behind Peirsol.
After the meet, Thoman moved to Charlotte and SwimMAC Carolina to train with David Marsh. Immediately, he started seeing improved consistency and performance. He took gold in the 100 back at short course Nationals, and he backed it up two weeks later with a world record in the short course meters 100 back at Duel in the Pool. As the 2010 long course season progressed, Thoman improved each of the four times he swam the 100 back: 54.40 in February at the Missouri Grand Prix, 54.34 in March at the Austin Grand Prix, 53.95 in April at the Ohio State Grand Prix, and 53.70 in May at the Charlotte UltraSwim. At the UltraSwim, he beat out Phelps, Grevers, and Peirsol for the top spot. Interestingly, Thoman told me two weeks prior at a clinic that he wanted to swim 53.7 in the 100 back. He put together an awesome swim and got it done (to the delight of the hometown crowd).
Thoman is riding a wave of confidence from his win in Charlotte. This year's race at Nationals could shape-up very differently than in previous years due to one usually-stalwart swimmer: Peirsol. Undefeated in this event from 2002 up until the World Championships last year, where he missed the final due to a miscalculation in the semis, Peirsol has not been on top of his game this year. Going into Nationals, he could be vulnerable in the event. The event is wide open at Nationals, with challengers coming from all directions, such as Grevers, David Plummer, Randall Bal, and others, but I think Nick Thoman WILL win the 100 back at Nationals.