Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Austin Grand Prix, Phelps, Lochte, and the French

I’m David Rieder. You may know me by my nickname, “The Swim Geek.” To say I like swimming is an understatement; swimming is pretty much my life. I swim almost every day after school before coming home to think about swimming and discussing the sport in Facebook chats. I make bets with my coach and debate predictions with people who I may have never met in person. I am here at The Athlete Village to make new discussions about the sport of swimming, hopefully creating more reader involvement with my blog than I ever have before. I want to hear your opinions and what you have to say. I will try to make my blog here a weekly post, though I can certainly make no promises. I also can’t promise that it will be new, genuine, or cutting edge, but I will do my best to relate it to what is going on in swimming during any given week. Most importantly, let’s get excited about the lead-up to London, where our sport will be more popular than ever, and let’s get excited about these meets along the way where we will see some of the most exciting competition to date.

My first topics of discussion here at The Athlete Village are the few long course meets we have seen thus far in 2011. First and foremost, we saw many of USA Swimming’s top stars compete at the Austin Grand Prix, namely Michael Phelps. Having not competed at a top-level meet since Pan Pacs in August, a shaggy-looking Phelps arrived in Austin claiming, as he has so many times over the last year, to be out of shape. He left the meet with not too much to brag about, but he claimed that his disappointments in Austin would further motivate him in training as he looks towards Worlds this summer and the Olympics next year.

Really? I could have sworn I heard the same thing during fall 2009, when Phelps showed up to World Cup meets in Berlin and Stockholm and was handed several large defeats. I remember something very similar after the Long Beach Grand Prix last January, where Phelps mustered enough mental strength to out-touch Hidemasa Sano in a head-to-head 400 IM but didn’t exceed expectations otherwise. How about when he missed the Columbus Grand Prix in April for no reason, while his teammates went and swam exceptionally? Or after the Paris Open, where he received a stern wake-up call with a defeat to French teenager Yannick Agnel and Dutch standout Sebastiaan Verschuren in the 200 free and finished dead last in the 100 free? Ryan Lochte took the spotlight at Nationals and Pan Pacs, where Phelps was a clear also-ran. He promised to return to hard training straight away.

And yet, he has not. Do we really give Phelps the benefit of the doubt this time? With each passing meet, it looks more and more like Phelps won’t be able to turn things around in time for London if he wants to achieve great success, such as breaking another world record in the 100 or 200 fly or challenging Ryan Lochte in the 200 free or 200 IM. It’s funny; we would never have questioned his ability to do any of these things just one year ago. However, his swims since have shown otherwise, and what we saw last weekend in Austin changed very little.

In Austin, Phelps’ good swims came in 100-meter races and his not-so-good swims in 200-meter races. To provide context for his times, I will compare them to his times from the Charlotte UltraSwim last year. In the 100 fly, he swam about a tenth slower (52.55), and in the 100 back, two tenths slower (54.14). Considering this is January and not May, that’s actually pretty impressive, as was his 100 free (50.09). These swims led Garrett McCaffrey to remind us yesterday on the McCaffreyCap that, “He’s Michael-Freaking-Phelps!” However, in the longer races the results are not so encouraging. His 200 free (1:49.90) was 2.2 seconds slower than what we saw him swim in Charlotte last year, and he added 3.2 seconds in his 200 IM. These are startling and disturbing statistics, especially in comparison to his rival Lochte.

Traditionally, Phelps has swum solid times in-season, while Lochte, beaten down from his training, has not. For that reason, I predicted Phelps to come out ahead of Lochte in both the 200 free and 200 IM. However, Lochte proved me wrong; in the 200 free, Lochte put up a time of 1:49.25, just off his best in-season time from last year, a 1:49.05 in Charlotte. Phelps, meanwhile, finished six tenths behind, from his position in the B-final. Lochte’s 1:59.26 in the 200 IM surpassed his one in-season 200 IM last year, swum just weeks before he put up dual 1:54 swims at Nationals and Pan Pacs. From these statistics, it is evident that Phelps is no where near where Lochte is right now in training and in preparation for the culmination of their rivalry in London 2012.

In a blog about the Austin Grand Prix, I feel I must mention two further standout performers. Most have heard about Missy Franklin’s extraordinary performances in Austin. 1:59 in the 200 free, 59.7 in the 100 back, 2:14 in the 200 IM, and 2:09 in the 100 back. She is huge. She will be huge. Not that enough can be said about her performance this past week, but I will move on. One of the more underrated performances this weekend was Tyler Clary. On the first day, he swam a 4:21 in the 400 IM, more than respectable after two weeks off and then two weeks of intense training. The next day, Clary exceeded his own expectations with a 1:59 200 fly. But it was the final day when Clary amazed crowds; his 1:57 in the 200 back is nothing less than amazing. That time is less than a second off his third-place time from Nationals this summer! He is on track for big things, just like Lochte and Missy Franklin. At least two and maybe even three medals at the World Championships this summer are very possible.

This weekend, members of Team France have jumped to the top of this year’s world rankings with top performances at the meet in Nancy, France. While the French are most likely at a different point in their training season, since their Trials for the World Championships are in March, these times show just how big a threat France will be in Shanghai. Take, for example, the men’s 100 back. In 2008, you may remember, France had one of the strongest 300 medley teams in the world – but no backstroker under 55. Oh, how things have changed. Last year’s world dominator Camille Lacourt posted a 53.45 today, while Jeremy Stravius, the silver medalist at the European championships behind Lacourt, took second in 53.78. So far, Phelps is the closest, with his 54.14 in Austin. With just three years’ turnaround, France has a realistic chance to finish 1-2 in that event at Worlds. Moreover, Lacourt could break Peirsol’s world record of 51.94 in Shanghai, maybe before. He is certainly on pace to pull off the feat this year. Certainly, Americans Nick Thoman and David Plummer won’t roll over, especially with the American legacy in this event, while Junya Koga won’t easily roll over his World title to the Frenchmen. Even Great Britain’s Liam Tancock will be a tough force in this event. But right now, this event belongs to France.

The name Camille has surely been a magical one in Nancy. Camille Muffat won the 200 and 400 free in the fastest times in the world. Her 1:58.00 in the 200 free beat Femke Heemskerk in a head-to-head matchup, while both surpassed Katie Hoff’s 1:58.69 from Austin. Muffat posted a 4:07.82 in the 400 free on Friday, far surpassing the 4:08.28 and 4:08.35 posted last week by Kate Ziegler and Rebecca Adlington, respectively. Muffat’s time beats Hoff’s 4:09.51 from Austin by nearly two seconds. Riding a wave of confidence from her win in the 200 free at the Short Course Worlds in Dubai, Muffat is developing into a real threat in the mid-distance free races, as well as the 200 IM, in which she finished fifth at the Worlds in Rome, and even the 100 free, where she placed fourth in Dubai. She is another French swimmer with a real chance to make a mark in Shanghai.

The Austin Grand Prix went well for American swimmers, but the World Championship team has a ways to go to dominate like they did in 2007, when 20 out of the 40 gold medals awarded went to American swimmers or relay teams. Obviously, the French will be one of the biggest threats, with a pair of Camilles looking really strong. The Chinese will be another major player at this meet, and we will see how much of a threat their swimmers will be at the home World Champs in Shanghai once they swim at their Nationals. But for right now, we’ve got Lochte; right now, he is the shinning beacon for Team USA.

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