Saturday, July 31, 2010

U.S. Nationals: Day Negative 2

With the start of the highly anticipated Nationals for 2010 just days away, time to preview some of the events at the meet. Much is on the line, including trips to the Pan Pacific Championships, and from there both short course and long course World Championships. Traditionally the world swimming powerhouse, the U.S. goes into Nationals with only two swimmers ranked first in the world in their respective events, although much will change in the next week. In some events, such as the 200 free for both genders and the men's backstroke races, the U.S. typically has superb depth and often dominates on the world stage. In some other events, it's up to certain swimmers to step up and make a mark to show the strength of the U.S. From my viewpoint, four such individuals have stepped up so far this year in such a way: Rebecca Soni, Eric Shanteau, Dana Vollmer, and Liz Pelton.

Soni won the world title in the 100 breast last year but ended up fading to fourth in the finals of the 200 distance. Since then, she has been nothing but dominant. She won both breaststrokes at short course Nationals, without being fully rested, but she challenged her best times, which had been set in tech suits. At the Duel in the Pool, she crushed the world records in both distances, both set by chief rival Leisel Jones a month prior. Competing against some of her top competitors all year throughout the Grand Prix and Mare Nostrum circuits, Soni lost one race, which was in the 100 breast (short course yard) at the Long Beach Grand Prix, to teammate and world record-holder Jessica Hardy, and she only lost that race by one one-hundredth.

Her top times so far this year include a 1:05.90 in the 100 breast, which ranks second in the world, just behind Jones' 1:05.79, which she swam rested in March. Her 200 best time of 2:21.41 from the Mare Nostrum meet in Barcelona stands the best in the world, more than two seconds faster than Jones. More importantly, Soni's time is just over a second off Annamay Pierse's world record of 2:20.12. One has to believe Soni will have a shot at that mark when fully prepared to race at Nationals. Moreover, she could be close to her personal best time of 1:04.84 in the 100breast and possibly even Hardy's world record of 1:04.45. Hardy and Jones (at Pan Pacs) have the ability to challenge Soni in the 100 distance, although based on their swims this year, it doesn't appear they will. It would be surprising for anyone, including Jones or Pierse, to come close to Soni in the 200 breast. In that event, Soni has easily the best chance of any swimmer to lower a world record this year, at either Nationals or Pan Pacs.

Like Soni, Shanteau suffered a heartbreaking loss in the 200 breast in Rome, losing by one one-hundredth to Hungary's Daniel Gyurta. Since then, he has come back with a vengeance. He has not lost the race in long course since Rome. At the Missouri Grand Prix, Shanteau won the 200 IM, his third-best event, in 1:59.75 and then returned an hour later in the 200 breast. A bodylength behind Kosuke Kitajima at the 150 mark, Shanteau overtook the Japanese double Olympic champion with at the final flags, winning 2:11.17 to 2:11.33. Shanteau improved his time to 2:10.84 and later 2:10.59 over the Grand Prix circuit. At the Mare Nostrum, Shanteau did not approach his in-season form, but he took town Kitajima at both meets he competed in (Monaco and Barcelona). Many believe he will be able to take down Kitajima at Pan Pacs in just a few weeks, as well as others such as Japan's Ryo Tatieshi and Yuta Suenaga and Australia's Brenton Rickard and Christian Sprenger, the world record-holder.

First, however, Shanteau must get by Nationals. His only challenge at the meet, though, will probably be Tateishi's world-leading time of 2:09.21. He will also challenge for Pan Pac spots in the 100 breast and 200 IM. In the 100 breast, he will face off against Mark Gangloff and Mike Alexandrov, and he will likely be a medal contender at Pan Pacs. Shanteau has long been the third-best 200 IMer in America, behind the duo of Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, but he took a spot on the world champs team last summer when Phelps passed on the event, and he ended up with a bronze medal, behind Lochte and Hungary's Laszlo Cseh. With Lochte battling injuries which hinder his breaststroke, Shanteau could be a darkhorse to finish second behind Phelps. Still, Shanteau is now a 200 breaststroker, and he has a chance to make his mark as the best in the world. Along with the tough challenge he will face at Pan Pacs, he must beat the time Gyurta will post at the upcoming European Championships to prove his standing.

Dana Vollmer has been swimming well the last two years. Since missing the Olympic team in 2008, Vollmer has been dominating American competition and making a splash internationally. Along with Soni, she is the only American swimmer ranked first in the world in an event, with a 57.39 in the 100 fly. She also has season-bests of 54.30 in the 100 free and 1:58.62 in the 200 free. With a little bit more rest, she will be ready to go fast, very fast indeed. She has stated her intention to be right on her suited-up best times, including 53.30 in the 100 free, 1:55.29 in the 200 free, and 56.94 in the 100 fly. Training with the technically-focused Teri McKeever, Vollmer should not struggle much to match her times under the new suit regulations. She will move further into the ranks of best in the world in all of her events, as well as a key to American success in all three relays.

Over the past two years, Liz Pelton has moved from a virtual nobody on the national scene to a realistic contender to lead the world rankings in multiple events. Pelton surprisingly made the World Champs team in three events last summer, and she made the semi-final in the 100 back, before going on to finish sixth in the 200 back final. So far this season, Pelton stands seventh in the world in the 200 back, with a 2:08.57 at the Paris Open. Pelton was well behind current world no. 1 Lizzie Simmonds at the halfway, but she even split the race and almost tracked down Simmonds, who ended up three tenths ahead at 2:08.29. In the 100 back, Pelton shocked onlookers, taking down Simmonds with a personal best time of 59.99. Obviously she had more in the tank in the 200 distance, even then in Paris. At Nationals, with significant rest, Pelton will be spectacular. She could push the American records in both distances: 58.94 in the 100 back and 2:06.09 in the 200 back. Moreover, she will face true racers such as Natalie Coughlin, Margaret Hoelzer, and Elizabeth Beisel, and push these ladies to very fast times and fast racing. Additionally, Pelton will be a threat in the 200 IM, where she finished second at last year's Nationals. She could be the next major American star.

Tomorrow, I will preview some of the events where America is traditionally weaker, but there are opportunities to buck the trend this summer. Also, remember to get those predictions in within the next two days. Contact me via email (, Facebook, or Twitter. You can also view the psych sheet.

I highly recommend watching Swimming World TV's previews of Nationals on Split Time with Garrett McCaffrey and John John. You can view them below.
Women's events:

Men's events:

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