Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Ian Thorpe Comeback Begins

Next weekend, Ian Thorpe will make his long-awaited comeback at the Singapore stop of the World Cup. The swimming community has awaited this moment since whispers of a Thorpe comeback started popping up in the spring of 2010. Thorpe quickly denied such rumors, but the publicity never went away, and Thorpe stepped up to announce his intentions on February 2, 2011. However, due to FINA rules, Thorpe had to wait nine months before he could race once more, and that waiting period expires this week, just before Thorpe steps up once again. Supposedly focusing on the 100 and 200 free in his comeback, abandoning his former “baby” the 400 free, Thorpe surprised many when he announced his entries for the Singapore meet – the 100 IM and 100 fly!

In his previous incarnation as a mid-distance legend, Thorpe simply dominated freestyle races. This blog won’t list all of medals he’s won; check out his accomplishments on his Wikipedia page. In short, Thorpe burst out onto the international scene at age 15 with his win in the 400 free at the 1998 World Championships, eating away Grant Hackett’s huge lead to record a narrow triumph at the finish. From that point, Thorpe dominated world swimming and remained the undisputed best swimmer in the world for five years. No one dreamed of matching his accomplishments.

When Thorpe swam at the 2003 World Championships in Barcelona, however, he found himself overshadowed. An 18 year old from Baltimore had stolen the limelight, setting world records in each of the individual events he swam. For that meet, Thorpe elected to add the 200 IM to his regular program of events. Weeks before Barcelona, Phelps had lowered an eight year old world record of 1:58.16 to 1:57.94 at the Santa Clara Grand Prix. In the second of two semi-final heats, Phelps swam from lane four and lowered the record again, this time to 1:57.52, while Thorpe swam out in lane eight and snuck into the final as the fifth qualifier. The next day, Phelps stepped up, having just set a new world record in the 100 fly semi-finals, to race Thorpe for the first time head-to-head in a major final.

Saying that Phelps owned this race is an understatement. Thorpe won silver, 3.5 seconds behind, setting an Australian record that would last until the 2009 World Championships, where Leith Brodie destroyed that mark in a polyurethane suit. Thorpe would never swim this race again in a major competition, focusing on the freestyle events at the 2004 Olympics and retiring a couple years later, having never again swum in a major competition. Now, he returns to the World Cup to swim events he has never even swum on the major stage!

When I read about Thorpe’s Singapore surprise, I assumed that he was merely using the two off-events to tune up and get back into racing without much pressure. He would then build off those performances when he swam the same two events at the Beijing stop before adding the 100 free for the final stop in Tokyo, taking baby steps towards his goal of qualifying in the freestyle events, at least in relays, for the London Olympics. However, an article written by Geoff Huegill, he explored for the first time the possibility that Thorpe might be preparing to take the 100 fly seriously. In this article posted by the Herald Sun, Huegill noted that Gennadi Touretski, the man responsible for Alexander Popov and now training Thorpe, has a tendency to train swimmers for fly and shows a bit of anxiety at the prospect of taking on Thorpe in that event at Australia’s Olympic Trials.

Huegill’s words reminded me of Thorpe’s one excursion into the butterfly and IM, his race with Phelps in Barcelona. In that race, he stayed surprisingly close to Phelps on the fly, especially considering that Phelps set world records in both butterfly events at that meet. His backstroke was solid (Thorpe did win silver in the Commonwealth Games in the 100 back in 2002), and breaststroke lost him a lot of ground to the other silver medal contenders, such as Massi Rosolino. A 1:59 is no longer a competitive time on the world stage, but a 100 IM in short course will do a better job hiding his weakness on breaststroke. In the 100 fly, he could challenge Huegill’s times from the World Cup stops last week in Europe, which would legitimately open the door for him in the 100 fly down the line.

My expectations for Thorpe in the 100 fly and 100 IM have risen, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he handles the world stage. His 100 fly could get to the point where he steps up with a legitimate shot at London, and the Australian Olympic Trials would feature three legends in Thorpe, Huegill, and Michael Klim (though by no means do I think Thorpe or Klim will have an easy time getting past Australia’s new generation of flyers). However, if Thorpe falls flat in his 100 fly and 100 IM, fans have nothing to worry; Thorpe came back to race freestyle, and I believe that in freestyle, he will qualify to swim in the London Olympics.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fran Crippen: One Year Later

On January 3, I posted a blog discussing the long-lasting mark Fran Crippen left on our sport. The world remembers Crippen as an amazing swimmer and caring man, as his sister Claire discussed on Friday’s edition of the Morning Swim Show. He was a fierce competitor and a favorite to make the U.S. Olympic team in Open Water for 2012. When the top Open Water swimmers arrived in Fort Lauderdale for the National Championships this June, Crippen’s absence created a major hole in the competition. The top two finishers at that meet would earn berths for the World Championships in Shanghai and a chance to make the London Olympics, as the top ten from that meet automatically qualified.

In Fort Lauderdale, Eva Fabian and Christine Jennings earned the women’s spots bound for Shanghai. Both swam in that same race in Dubai in which Crippen lost his life, and neither finished the race, as both ended up in the hospital suffering from dehydration. On the men’s side, Alex Meyer and Sean Ryan qualified for the World Championships. Meyer, especially, had a connection to Crippen. Months after Crippen turned around to help Meyer to shore when the latter became ill during the 10k at Pan Pacs, Meyer led the search for Crippen’s body when his friend failed to finish in Dubai.

In Shanghai, Fabian and Jennings both failed to make the cut for the Olympic team, but the next day, Meyer finished in fourth place in the men’s race, earning himself a ticket to London. Afterwards, Meyer stated that while he would have liked Ryan to qualify to make it two Americans headed to London, he believed the second spot needed to remain open for Crippen, demonstrating the impact Crippen made on American Open Water swimming. That impact spread to the pool; at both the 2010 Short Course and 2011 Long Course World Championships, the American team wore the letters “FC” on their warm-up jackets.

When I last wrote about Fran Crippen, I discussed the impact Fran had on the formation of my new swim team, the LTP Racing Club. My coach swam with Fran at the University of Virginia and stayed in contact in the years following. He used a quote from Fran on the back of our first team t-shirts. Fran’s connection with the team goes deeper; he died the very same day as the team swam its very first meet. Since then, he has been our inspiration, our inspiration to keep dreaming and keep pushing towards new heights in and out of the pool, and our inspiration to honor him on the one-year anniversary of his death.

In Claire Crippen’s interview on Friday, she spoke of the week after Fran died. At that point, she swam for Virginia, while Teresa continues to swim at Florida. Back at home almost immediately, both realized just two days later that Fran would have wanted them back in the pool, and Tuesday morning, a mere 72 hours following Fran’s death, the two went to practice at Germantown Academy with their old coach Richard Shoulberg. After Fran’s death, the two had expressed doubts about continuing their swimming careers, but Fran’s passion and excitement for swimming encouraged them to get back in the water and keep striving towards their goals, Claire towards her final ACC Championships and NCAA Champions and Teresa towards the World Championships, where she made the semi-finals of the 200 fly.

Thus, the memory of Fran Crippen exemplifies the true nature of swimming: passion. This includes the passion to get up at 4:45 in the morning every day all summer to swim; the passion to push passed preconceived limits with sights set on becoming the best swimmer one can be; and the passion to support your friends and teammates after tough races or rough patches in life with the promise of improvement down the road. Whenever passion for swimming may dwindle, look no further for inspiration than Fran Crippen. Fran left behind hopes of a safer sport, one where no athlete will ever again lose his life in competition, and he provides the fuel for Alex Meyer, Teresa Crippen, the LTP Racing Club, and swimmers around the world to live their dreams.