Sunday, April 3, 2011

All Great Racers Part Four

Over the past two weeks, we have seen some remarkable swimming. At French nationals, the two Camilles (Lacourt and Muffat) shined, while Yannick Agnel and Fabien Gilot established themselves as legitimate individual medal hopes in freestyle events for Shanghai. Just like last year, the Cal men dominated the NCAA championships, and this time, they won the team title. Impressive performances from Nathan Adrian, Damir Dugonjic, and Tom Shields kept at bay a deep Texas team with a bright future. Meanwhile, Chinese Nationals have begun, where Yi Shiwen and Sun Yang are building upon impressive performances at last November’s Asian Games, and Brent Hayden did his job at Canadian Trials to earn a shot at reclaiming his 100 free world title. Finally, Australian Nationals have begun down under, and Alicia Coutts is proving that her performance at Commonwealth Games was no fluke. She has won the 100 fly and 200 IM in the top times in the world, both times defeating triple Olympic champ Stephanie Rice.

For me, two of the most impressive performances I’ve seen from all these meets have been those of perseverance. Both swimmers came so close, so many times in the past. Both missed chance after chance to get the job done and jump onto the next stage. Eventually, their opportunity passed; procedures changed, and other swimmers got faster, and I felt like both of these swimmers no longer had a chance to achieve the goal they had been seeking. But in the past week, in two upset performances, these swimmers pulled off the goal they had for so long been unable to achieve. One overcame three years of being on the bubble to put it together at the last possible moment. The other had continually missed his chance by hundredths but jumped into a new arena of competition with a national victory.

In 2008, Georgia freshman Mark Dylla led through the opening laps of the 200 fly, under American record-pace. At the SEC championships a month prior, Dylla had upset senior teammate Gil Stovall, the previous year’s NCAA runner-up. At the big show, however, Stovall ran down Dylla to break Mel Stewart’s 17 year-old NCAA record (1:41.78). Stovall posted a 1:41.33 as UGA ended up going 1-2 in the race. One year later, Dylla returned to the NCAA finals as a favorite. Having come close to Stovall’s NCAA record in winning SECs, many predicted a 200 fly win for Dylla as a sophomore. Dylla established a lead and took a clear advantage by the 175 mark, but Florida’s Shaune Fraser touched out Dylla at the end, 1:40.75 to 1:40.85. Both beat Stovall’s NCAA record from the year before.

After another year of disappointment, things would not get better his junior year. At the SEC Championships, Dylla took the victory in the 200 fly ahead of Fraser, but he had a battle on his hands headed into NCAAs. Fraser had looked better than Dylla early in the meet, and Cal freshman Tom Shields had put on a show in the 100 fly. However, Dylla ignored the odds and stormed away on the final 50 for a win over Fraser and Shields. Dylla’s excitement, however, was short-lived. The final results listed Fraser as the champion, with Shields second. Dylla had been disqualified for a controversial one-hand touch. He later admitted that the disappointment of that DQ had taken him serious time to overcome, but he showed comeback strength at the end of the summer at U.S. Nationals, finishing second to Michael Phelps.

Going into this year’s NCAA finals, most of the swimming community wanted to see a Dylla victory to round out his NCAA career. He won his fourth-straight SEC victory in the 200 fly with his fastest time of those four victories. However, Dylla’s chances for a title dropped drastically with results of the Pac-10 Championships. Shields clocked 1:40.31 to set a new NCAA record and move to second on the all-time list. Early in the meet, Shields won the 100 back and took second in the 100 fly and swam on two winning relays; Dylla, meanwhile, finished well down in the B-finals in the 200 IM and 100 fly. On the meet’s final day, however, a truly special performance came out. Shields led through the opening stages of the 200 fly, holding a four tenths lead at the 150 split. However, Dylla unleashed a 26.45 final 50 to out-split Shields by more than a second. In his own words, “Game. Over.”

While Dylla was charging past Shields, Stanford’s Bobby Bollier made a charge of his own. Bollier split 26.29 on the final 50, faster even than Dylla. But at that point, Dylla would not lose in his final collegiate race. He held off Bollier, 1:40.60 to 1:40.76, setting a new NCAA record. By that point, most “experts” had written off Dylla. I could not pick against someone who had already broken an NCAA record during the season. I was wrong. In that emotionally-charged performance, Dylla finally got it done.

Ben Treffers made his first mark in swimming in 2009. At the Australian Long Course Championships that year, the then-17 year-old Treffers top all qualifiers in the semi-final of the 50 back, including Olympians Ashley Delaney and Hayden Stoeckel, clocking 25.10. In the finale, Delaney won in 24.81, a new Australian record, while Treffers took second in 25.15. However, Treffers did not make the Australian World Champs team since his final time missed the “A” qualifying mark of 25.14. In the 100 back at that meet, Treffers failed to break 57 and took eighth place.

At the same meet a year later, Treffers almost missed out on qualifying yet again. In the 50 back, Stoeckel won in 25.06, Daniel Arnamnart took second in 25.08, and Treffers ended up third in 25.09, with Delaney a close fourth. At that meet, the top two in each event qualified to represent Australia at Commonwealth Games, while most third-place swimmers qualified for Pan Pacs, where they could earn the third berth for Commonwealth Games. Thus, Treffers had once again missed automatic selection by 0.01. In the 100 back, Treffers showed marked improvement to finish third in 55.00. However, things did not go his way at Pan Pacs. In the 50 back, he and Delaney had to battle it out for the final spot in Delhi, and Delaney won the silver medal in 24.98, knocking Treffers out of the 50 back. Delaney, Stoeckel, and Arnamnart all beat Treffers in the 100 back, eliminating him from Commonwealth contention.

Treffers did get some consolation with a place on Australia’s World Short Course Championships team. He won the 50 back at their Short Course Nationals and made the final of that event in Dubai. He also swam on Australia’s medley relay at that meet. However, going into this year’s Trials in Sydney, new head coach Leigh Nugent announced that 50 stroke events would no longer be used for qualifying. Essentially, any swimmer who wanted to swim the 50 back at Worlds would have to first qualify in the 100 back. With the powerhouse duo of Stoeckel and Delaney representing Australia, I felt that Treffers had little to no shot to earn a berth for the Worlds in Shanghai. I felt that he had missed his opportunity.

Treffers made his first statement in the heats of the 100 back yesterday. He clocked 54.87 for the top qualifying time, already dropping time from last year’s best of 55.00. In the semi-final, he dropped almost under 54, clocking 54.18. Going into the final, Treffers still had the top qualifying mark, ahead of Delaney (54.32) and Stoeckel (54.56). A huge showdown was brewing. In the finale, Delaney and Stoeckel both went out slowly, and Treffers took advantage, clocking a swift split of 26.22. As it would turn out, no one could catch him.

Treffers touched the wall in 53.72, holding off Stoeckel (53.87) and Delaney (54.17). The time places Treffers fourth in the world for 2011. Treffers now has secured a spot for Shanghai and is a realistic contender to make a final. At his current rate of improvement, he will be a medal threat not too far down the line. He is still only 19 years old! Even more exciting is his potential for the 50 back later this week. While his biggest drops have been in the longer races, I expect to see something impressive in the 50 as well. Even though he has already qualified for Worlds in that by virtue of his 100 win, posting a good time is still incentive. He could be close to Delaney’s Australian record of 24.81. By Shanghai, he could be in the medal conversation. The perseverance of Ben Treffers has certainly paid off; a speedy 50 backstroker two years ago has become a powerful 100 backstroker with unlimited potential.

Friday, April 1, 2011

From Sevilla to London: Open Water

As I write this blog, I am concluding my visit to Spain. I have spent more than a week here and in that time visited many of the most well-known cities, including Sevilla. Sevilla hosted the World Open Water Championships in June, 2008, which served as the main qualifier for the Olympics. The top ten finishers in that 10k race three years ago qualified for the inaugural Olympic open water swim, as well as five “continental champions.” Russia swept the 10k golds in Sevilla; Larisa Ilchenko won the women’s race on her way to Olympic gold, while Vladimir Dyatchin ran down British pool Olympian David Davies for the men’s title. In that men’s race, open water stalwart Thomas Lurz grabbed third, while the race also featured Australian pool star Grant Hackett. Two-time defending 1500 free Olympian champion Hackett received a disqualification.

Among those qualifying on the Río Guadalquivir included American Mark Warkentin, who became America’s first ever Olympian in open water and the first person to qualify for the U.S. swim team for Beijing. Additionally, Warkentin won silver in the 25k in Sevilla, while Chloe Sutton matched his feat in the women’s 5k race. (Sutton did not participate in the 10k race in Sevilla but would later qualify for Beijing at a test event in June, 2008.)

Warkentin went on to finish eighth in Beijing before taking a hiatus from the sport. In September, Warkentin returned to win the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (MIMS), defeating Bulgarian Petar Stoychev in a dominating performance, and he has begun his charge at a second Olympics. Qualifying for the London Games will take place at this summer’s World Championships in Shanghai. The top two finishers at June’s Open Water Nationals in Fort Myers will earn berths for Shanghai, where they can become Olympians. Warkentin will be one of the favorites, along with two Fullerton-trained athletes: Chip Peterson and Andrew Gemmell.

Like Warkentin, Peterson has been a pioneer for the United States in open water. At the 2005 World Champs in Montreal, Peterson won gold in the 10k. Peterson took second behind Warkentin at U.S. Trials for the Sevilla World Champs, but he finished outside of the top-ten in that race. Afterwards, he took a short hiatus from open water, focusing instead on performing for the University of North Carolina in NCAA competition. In 2010, he left UNC and moved to FAST to train with Jon Urbanchek. This paid off with a second-place finish in the 10k at U.S. Nationals in Long Beach behind the late Fran Crippen. Later that summer, Peterson participated in the World Championships in Roberval, Canada, and the Pan Pacs, also held in Long Beach. In a tight finish, Peterson out-touched Crippen for the win at Pan Pacs. He will seek a second chance for Olympic glory this summer.

Gemmell is yet another pioneer for American open water swimming. After several years locked out of the 10k race internationally, Gemmell broke out at the 2009 World Championships in Rome. He and Crippen challenged favorite Thomas Lurz and ended up finishing 2-3. Gemmell began swimming for the University of Georgia and performed well in NCAA competition. He has finaled in both the 1500 free and 400 IM at Long Course Nationals, and he placed in the top-eight at Pan Pacs in the 1500. At June’s open water National race, Gemmell finished fourth, continuing to show that he will be a major force for the Olympics. He decided to redshirt the 2010-2011 season from Georgia, moving to FAST to train with Urbanchek. Already, Gemmell’s chances look promising; he recently recorded a 15:01 1500 pull with paddles and buoy, much faster than his best time of 15:07 from Pan Pacs. In fact, 15:01.65 is the top swimming time in the world! While many open water swimmers, including Warkentin, have been faster pulling than swimming, that in-practice performance from Gemmell continues his establishment as a world threat in open water.

On the women’s side, Sutton has decided to pass up open water in Shanghai and London to focus on pool events, but her Mission Viejo teammate Christine Jennings won the gold at Pan Pacs and finished in the top-ten in Roberval. 17 year-old Eva Fabian also has extensive international experience, winning the 5k in Roberval. Fabian was in medal contention for the 10k before she received a disqualification for missing a turn buoy near the race’s end. Additionally, Emily Brunemann trains in Fullerton with Urbanchek, and she has international experience, having finished in the top-ten at the 2009 Worlds. With the recent retirement of defending champion Ilchenko, whatever two Americans qualify have a strong shot to make a mark internationally, even against powerful swimmers from Australia, Italy, and Brazil

Like with the women, the men’s 10k race is wide open. 2008 Olympic champ Maarten Van Der Weijen retired after winning gold in Beijing. Stars such as Lurz, Dyatchin, Davies, Valerio Cleri, and Eugeny Drattsev loom, but whatever two Americans qualify for Shanghai have serious potential to make a mark both there and in London. No Americans medaled in the 10k at 2010 Worlds, but Peterson finished in the top-ten, and both Gemmell and Warkentin have shown their abilities in other venues. Additionally, American Alex Meyer out-touched defending champ Cleri for the 25k world title, establishing him as yet another strong American contender. In Sevilla, only one American man made the grade for the Olympics; now, many more are in the mix, and two will be favored to advance to London.

I dedicate this blog to the late Fran Crippen, who died in an Open Water race in the United Arab Emirates on October 23, 2010.