Saturday, March 5, 2011

All Great Racers

I’m back! It’s been about six weeks since I have posted one of my usual blogs about pro swimming due to a number of other distractions in my life. Aside from two and a half hours a day of swim practice, I have been writing recaps about high school swimming at Swimming World and this weekend also the American Short Course championships. I have attempted to keep up with the many conference meets going on around the country, having up to three live webcasts playing at once to watch them all and make sense of them, with the NCAA Championships looming. I am currently participating in an Olympics round table with Tom Willdridge and Braden Keith, where we examine Olympic potentials, now that the schedule has been released. Not to mention that I am currently taking the hardest school course load of my life. But too much has changed in the world of swimming since I last posted, so I’m back once again.

Tonight, the latest stop on the Grand Prix circuit came to a close in Indianapolis, while the men’s Pac-10 Championships concluded in Long Beach. There is a saying that “All Great Racers Come to Indy;” while that quote was not entirely true this weekend, America has seen some truly great racers perform this weekend and also in past weekends at conference championships.

When I last blogged, I criticized Michael Phelps for his mediocre performance at the Austin Grand Prix. Now, however, things have changed. Just seven weeks later, Phelps suddenly bounced back, and nothing could be better for the sport. He started things off with a 1:46.27 victory in the 200 free. Phelps immediately proved that no one can count him out of the big showdown in that race this summer. To put that time into perspective, he swam 1:46.47 at the 2007 Missouri Grand Prix; a month and a half later, he went into the history books, posting a 1:43.86 in this event, breaking Ian Thorpe’s vaunted world record of 1:44.06. By this math, he could be on track to swim a 1:43-mid or better in the 200 by the Worlds in Shanghai. He took the 100 fly in 51.75, which he called disappointing because of a terrible finish. In his first mid-season sub-52 100 fly in two years, Phelps showed once again why he has become the dominant 100 flyer in the world. He won the 200 fly in 1:55.34, a respectable time, but it shows that he still has work to do. He did not have his usual cushion of several seconds in that race, where Brazil’s Kaio Almeida finished just a half second behind. But finally, Michael Phelps is on the right track, the track towards more Olympic greatness in London.

In possibly the final session of competing at the IUPUI Natatorium for his entire career, Phelps put on quite a show. His 1:56.88 victory in the 200 IM lopped about five seconds off his year-best from the Austin Grand Prix. He out-split world champ Ryan Lochte on every stroke and swam the fastest in-season time of his entire career. Lochte posted a demoralizing win over Phelps at this summer’s Nationals, but Phelps posted his first head-to-head win over Lochte in the event since the Olympic games. Up next, the 100 free. After winning his eight gold medals in Beijing, Phelps hinted that the 100 free could become his new focus event. After an unsuccessful experiment with a new sprint stroke in 2009, hype regarding Phelps and the 100 free decreased. However, things changed when Phelps led off the 400 free relay at Pan Pacs in 48.13, the then-fastest time in the world. Once again, Phelps has the fastest time in the world, as he clocked 48.89, beating Matt Grevers and Jason Lezak by more than a second. The question comes up again: can Phelps win the 100 free in London? Obviously, scheduling will be an issue, since the event’s semi-final comes just before the 200 fly final and also on the same night as the 4x200 free relay final. Major decisions still to be made obviously.

In recent weeks, we have seen some truly impressive collegiate performances at conference meets. These range from Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace’s U.S. Open records in the 100 free at SECs to Dax Hill’s continued breakout at Big-12s to Kyle Whittaker’s nation-beating IMs at Big-10s as just a freshman. However, the biggest story has been Conor Dwyer’s coming-out party at SECs. The Florida senior set SEC championship records in winning the 500 free (4:11.36) and 400 IM (3:37.75), and these times also stand as the top times in the nation. He opened the meet with a 1:31.73 lead-off leg on the 800 free relay, just one one-hundredth of a second away from Dave Walters’ American record. Due to numerous event conflicts, Dwyer, like Phelps on the Olympic level, has numerous scheduling decisions to make for NCAAs. He also has the potential to throw down a monster 200 IM or 200 breast, although his 1,650 experiment at SECs did not pan out as expected, losing in a blowout to Georgia’s Martin Grodski, while teammate Connor Signorin also got ahead of Dwyer at the finish. Dwyer’s performances at this meet show him to be a bona fide Olympic contender and not just as a relay alternate (as he is on the World Champs team). One of the scariest parts of his SECs performance was He has serious individual potential in the 400 free, and possibly even the 200 free, 200 IM, or 400 IM, and we’ve yet to see how good a 200 breaststroker he could be. World, watch out for Conor Dwyer!

Going into men’s Pac-10s, everyone talked about the showdown between Tom Shields and Austin Staab in the 100 fly. Staab won this event at NCAAs in 2009, posting an American record of 44.18, while Shields won in 2010 in Staab’s absence. The addition to the field of Olympic gold medalist and star sprinter Nathan Adrian showed that it would be truly memorable. It failed to disappoint. Stroke for stroke the entire way, Staab got his hands on the wall first, 44.66 to 44.78. Shields swam his best time, ahead of the 44.91 in which he won NCAAs last year, while Staab broke his 2009 Pac-10 record of 44.72 he set on the way to his 44.18 at NCAAs. With the NCAA Championships looming in three weeks time, the question remains: who will win? And can they get down to Staab’s 44.18 from the days of polyurethane suits? This should be one of the primer races of the meet, and if either man breaks the record, it will be an astounding swim.

Shields, meanwhile, proved over the course of Pac-10s to be much more than just a 100 flyer. On the opening day, he led off Cal’s 800 free relay in 1:32.88. With the swim, he became the first Cal swimmer under 1:33 and broke Matt Biondi’s school record. No one would come close to that time in winning the individual 200 free, as Dimitri Colupaev touched first in 1:34.05. An hour after taking a close second to Staab in the 100 fly, Shields won the 100 back in 45.65. He is by no means a backstroker and has hardly ever swum the event, but he now has the third fastest time in the country. However, he saved his best performance for last. Shields won the 200 fly in 1:40.31, breaking the NCAA record and swimming the third fastest time ever, behind two of Phelps’ performances. To top it all off, Shields spilt a 41.83 on Cal’s winning 400 free relay. Shields won Swimmer of the Meet, but he will have much bigger honors coming his way in the next few years at this rate. Don’t be surprised to hear about Tom Shields on the 2012 Olympic team.

Back at the Indy Grand Prix, the U.S. women proved that they are back to the forefront of world swimming. Missy Franklin continued her rapid ascendance, with a 59.56 100 back and 2:07.96 200 back, leaving her first and second in the world in those two events, respectively. Chloe Sutton, Katie Hoff, and Kate Ziegler clocked what at the time stood as the top three times in the world in the 400 free, all sub-4:07. (Rebecca Adlington and Jazmin Carlin beat those times at British Nationals today.) Ziegler and Sutton went head-to-head in the 800 free, and both posted sub-8:30 swims. Hoff and Franklin crossed paths in the 200 free, where Hoff posted a blazing sub-1:58 swim and Franklin kept rolling, breaking 1:59 for the first time. Dana Vollmer, Jessica Hardy, and Missy Franklin all swam in the low 25s in the 50 free and under 55 in the 100 free, while Vollmer and Elaine Breeden are now ranked first and second in the world in the 100 and 200 fly, respectively.

As for the men, things are finally starting to piece together for what should be a dominant team 17 months down the line. Phelps is finally headed in the right direction, while Ryan Lochte showed that while he is in the midst of the hardest training of his life, he can still knock off something ridiculous, like his 54.08 100 back and 1:57.63 200 back. Tyler Clary and Peter Vanderkaay both showed that they can race tough, as things are coming together for both this season as well. Matt Grevers continues his rebound after missing the Pan Pacs last summer, while new U.S. backstroke champion David Plummer continues to prove his win in Irvine last summer was no fluke. To show off U.S. backstroke depth, Nick Thoman posted a 53.93 100 back as a medley relay lead-off, meaning that the U.S. is now ranked 3rd-7th in the world for 100 back. In the breaststroke events, Mark Gangloff and Eric Shanteau provided comfort for U.S. fans in the 100 and 200 distances, respectively, while Sean Mahoney returned from a doping suspension to show up the big guns. The puzzle is starting to come together to form something magnificent.

With the NCAA Championships coming up just weeks down the line, be sure to play Podium Pursuit (fantasy swimming) to test your swimming knowledge against the biggest swim geeks out there. Finally, I leave a list of my February swimmers of the month. These swimmers all performed excellent in February and are on track for big things down the line.

American - Rebecca Soni (USA) and Conor Dwyer (USA)
Europe - Katinka Hosszu (HUN) and Yannick Agnel (FRA)
Africa - Wendy Trott (RSA) and Ous Mellouli (TUN)
Pac Rim - Belinda Hocking (AUS) and Kosuke Kitajima (JPN)

1 comment:

  1. The last 50 of Phelps' 100 free was insane. He said the first 50 didn't feel good and the last 50 felt amazing. Can't wait to see his swim this summer after he pulls it all together! Wow