Sunday, January 15, 2012

Top Ten Swimmers of 2011

2011 has come to a close, and 2012 has begun, but I still have to reveal my top-ten swimmers of 2011. Inspired by Speed Endurance’s top-51 rankings, I will do the same, but I am only going to take a look at the top-ten swimmers I saw this year. In general, my list is similar to Tom Willdridge, with nine of the same ten swimmers, but some changes in order reflect my different criteria for picking my swimmers. My list is almost entirely dependent on performances at the World Championships in Shanghai, while other international competitions will hold some weight, and times posted elsewhere will have minimal significance.

Check out the Speed Endurance top-51 lists, and compare that top-ten to mine!
No. 51 – No. 42
No. 41 – No. 32
No. 31 – No. 22
No. 21 – No. 11
No. 10 – No. 1

10. Cesar Cielo, Brazil
Cielo had a nice bounce-back year after losing both the 50 and 100 free at Pan Pacs to Nathan Adrian. Although he did not know if he’d even be able to swim at Worlds until the week before, he came to Shanghai ready to get down the pool fast. While his times in the 50 fly and 50 free were not his best, he still obliterated everyone else. Cielo has put himself into ideal position to chase his second-consecutive Olympic title in the 50 free, having not lost an important race since 2008. He finished fourth in the 100 free before posting a 47.84 at the Pan Ams. Holding on for the full 100 has been a challenge since the tech suits were banned, but Cielo made big progress towards that mark in 2011.

9. Dana Vollmer, USA
Dana Vollmer fits in at number nine on both my list and that of Speed Endurance. Vollmer started things off right for the U.S. team at Worlds. She swam under 57 and almost beat her own American record in prelims before putting up a stellar 56.47 in semi-finals and edging Alicia Coutts for the gold in the final. Less than two hours after that 56.47, Vollmer swam the anchor leg for the silver medal-winning U.S. 400 free relay, and later in the week, she sealed the deal for the medley relay and setting up a new American record. She leads Team USA again into 2012.

8. Federica Pellegrini, Italy
Again, I agree with Tom on the number eight pick. Pellegrini raced tough in Shanghai, obliterating Rebecca Adlington and Camille Muffat for the win in the 400 free and the first textile swim under 4:02. Despite holding the world record and reigning as the World and Olympic champion, she went into the final of the 200 free as a clear underdog behind Femke Heemskerk. Swimming from the back of the pack, Pellegrini overtook a fading Heemskerk for the win. She will face tough challenges at the Olympics, especially in the 200 free, but she proved in 2011 that she is clutch.

7. Alexander Dale Oen, Norway
Dale Oen led qualifiers going into the final of the 100 breast in Shanghai, but many still considered him an underdog to Kosuke Kitajima. The two-time Olympic champion, Kitajima had edged Dale Oen for the top time in the world in 2010. In the final, Dale Oen jumped out to a huge lead and won in 58.71, falling just short of Brenton Rickard’s world record of 58.71. The media lauded Dale Oen for winning at a time when Norway had been devastated with attacks of terrorism. Dale Oen’s swim was so impressive that he swam slower in the 50 breast then his opening split in the 100 breast. Illness derailed chances at another gold in the 50 breast and forced him to withdraw from the 200 breast.

6. James Magnussen, Australia
This young sprinter from down under started off the year with some fireworks, posting a 48.29 in the 100 free at his National championships, shocking the entire swimming community. Still, he was an outside shot for a medal, at best, in Shanghai, until he came down with pneumonia in the weeks before the meet. By that point, no one expected much from him, and I had even heard rumors that he would withdraw from the meet. The last thing anyone expected was a 47.49 lead-off leg in the 400 free relay. After leading Australia to gold there, Magnussen carved up the individual 100 free field to secure another gold and almost ran down Nathan Adrian in the medley relay, earning Aussie silver. Magnussen enters 2012 as the clear favorite for the Olympic gold in the 100 free, but questions still remain as to his Olympic ambitions in the 50 free and on Australia’s 800 free relay. Despite talking up his 200 potential, he has done nothing to prove that he is a legitimate threat to help Australia earn a medal in that relay. So far, his only true successes have been in the 100.

5. Rebecca Soni, USA
Soni has been the model of consistency over the past two years, dominating her stroke unlike anyone else in the world has over that span. She has not lost a 200 breast since the 2009 Worlds, and has only lost one 100 breast long course during that time period. This year, she was almost than a second in front of Jessica Hardy in the world rankings in the 100 breast and had even more of a cushion in the 200 breast. She has consistently thrown down lights-out times in-season and backed it up in the big meets. She also provided a key leg for the dominating U.S. women’s medley relay in Shanghai. Over the past few years, though, Soni has had one goal in mind: win Olympic gold and break world records. This is the year when she can pull it off.

4. Michael Phelps, USA
People criticized the greatest of all time. I said that Phelps wouldn’t be ready for Shanghai. But at that meet, Michael Phelps showed some clutch in winning four golds, two silvers, and a bronze. Many predicted that Phelps wouldn’t medal in the 200 free, but he jumped out fast and held off the likes of Paul Biedermann and Park Tae Hwan for the silver medal. They said he would lose the 200 fly, an event which he hadn’t lost for nearly a decade, but he blasted past Takeshi Matsuda on the final lap for the win. They said he couldn’t challenge Ryan Lochte in the 200 IM, but he went all the way to the finish and beat his best time from the 2008 Olympics. The American relays leaned on the efforts of Michael Phelps. Quite a performance for someone not at peak form. Phelps has swam great since those Worlds, and he is building up to a grand finale this summer.

3. Missy Franklin, USA
Missy was the biggest surprise of 2011. Earning a spot on the U.S. 400 free relay in prelims, she blasted a 52.99 split in the final to give the Americans a chance against the Netherlands. On day five, however, she moved into the world’s limelight. After a stunning bronze medal in the 50 back, Franklin led off the 800 free relay in 1:55.06, by far the top time of the year, on the way to a relay gold. Entering the meet as a medal contender in the 200 back, Franklin entered the event as the clear favorite for gold. She twice lowered the American record and swam the third-fastest time ever to win gold. That same day, she anchored Natalie Coughlin, Soni, and Vollmer to a dominating medley relay win. Just days later, Franklin flew to Palo Alto for U.S. Nationals, where she posted the fifth-fastest time in the world in the 100 back and a time that would have won bronze in the 100 free. Perhaps Franklin would be even higher on this list if she had the opportunity to swim more events at Worlds. Look out London.

2. Sun Yang, China
This young Chinese superstar made history in 2011, lowering Grant Hackett’s longstanding world record in the 1500 free with an epic final two laps to come back from two seconds behind world record-pace. I name this swim the undisputed top swim of 2011. Sun also took the gold in the 800 and silver in the 400. Sun went into the 400 free final as the top qualifier but finished well behind Park Tae Hwan for the silver. Despite this, Sun still holds the top two times of the year in the 400 free. His 3:40.29 came up just shy of Biedermann’s 3:40.07 world record. Still, he put that swim up at the wrong time, at Chinese Nationals two months after Worlds. Speed Endurance claims that this swim puts him over the top for number one on this list. I disagree; the best swimmer in the world doesn’t come up short in a World Championships final. Sun Yang has to settle for number two.

1. Ryan Lochte, USA
Ryan Lochte is the top swimmer in the world again this year. Lochte ran down Michael Phelps for a win over the fastest field ever in the 200 free, before edging Phelps two days later in the 200 IM. More importantly, Lochte broke the first world record in the long course pool in 18 months, his 1:54.00 edging the 1:54.10 he swam in 2009 in Rome. He took almost a full second off his personal best in the 200 back to destroy the likes of Ryosuke Irie and Tyler Clary before anchoring the U.S. in a comeback win in the 800 free relay. He finished his week off with a four-second victory in the 400 IM with promise of going much faster next year on the event on the first day instead of the last. Lochte holds a huge edge on the rest of the world in 2012, and while he faces major challenges, particularly in Phelps, expect him to step up and swim better than ever.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Apogee of Sport

Surprise; I’m not dead! I’ve been absent from the blog for awhile, but I’m still just as involved in swimming as ever. Swimming is building up to the Olympic climax this summer, but I honestly haven’t felt as if I have had any comments to add to the various conversations as of late. Don’t worry, though; I’m coming back soon with my top ten swimmers of 2011. Inspired by Speed Endurance’s Top-51 list, I will compare my top ten with those that Tom Willdridge picked and explain why I disagree with him for almost every place.

In the meantime, I had one particularly neat experience lately that I would like to share. No, I didn’t go to a swim meet and watch up-and-comers or even Olympians compete, like I have before. On New Years Day, I went to an NFL game between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys at MetLife Stadium, just outside of New York City. I have family in the area, and the Giants have always been my favorite NFL team, but to get the chance to see them play in person was amazing. This game carried special significance: the winner would win the NFC East division and make the playoffs. The loser was going home.

The game was originally scheduled to be played during the afternoon of January 1, one of 16 games around the country on the slate for the day. With the importance of the matchup, NBC moved the game to prime time, making it the final game of the NFL regular season in real time. Swim fans will see some déjà vu in this situation, after NBC moved the Olympic swimming finals in Beijing to the morning to show them live in prime time in America. For fans, a late start could be a bit obnoxious, but I think it made the experience that much more special. NBC acknowledged that everything was on the line.

Growing up, I always watched the Olympics and loved watching the Olympics. While swimming has always been my favorite sport to watch, each period of two weeks every two years I cannot keep my eyes off of the TV. At the center of NBC’s Olympic coverage for each Games, summer and winter, is Bob Costas. Bob Costas sits at the apex of sports media worldwide. When I walked into MetLife Stadium, across the field sat a black tent; indeed, Bob Costas sat in that tent, anchoring NBC’s Football Night in America on that rainy night. The swim geek in the same arena as Bob Costas. Wow.

The stadium itself is a metal maze, and for this game, it was lit up in blue. 80,000 rowdy fans, dressed in blue and waiving white Giants towels, packed the stadium to create an atmosphere unlike any I have witnessed before. When the Cowboys marched out, boos filled the arena, but the home team ran onto the field amid fireworks and some of the loudest noise imaginable. The energy-packed arena exploded when quarterback Eli Manning threw a 74-yard touchdown pass to Victor Cruz and when the Giants defense forced a Cowboys stop on third or fourth down and especially when Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo threw an interception. The Giants led 21-0 at halftime, but as the Cowboys crawled back into the game, with the score standing at 21-14 with ten minutes left, every Giants fan, including me, felt a nervous feeling in the pit of the stomach.

Fortunately, the Giants held on to win, 31-14, and make it to the playoffs. As a fan, I loved the result, but the experience was something amazing that I cannot forget. A huge stadium with a roaring crowd. Athletes marching out to fireworks. A long season of hard work coming down to one last chance. Nerves, excitement, exuberance, and crushing defeat. All that sports provides coming down to one last shot.

Where can we find this in swimming? The Olympic Trials. This summer in Omaha, eight athletes will march out in 26 unique finals and put it all on the line. Thousands roaring, with millions more glaring at the TV at home in anxiety. Joy and pride for those who make it, leaving those who don’t in tears. A month later, those select few athletes who make it will test themselves against the world’s best, just as the New York Giants must now do in the NFL playoffs. They seek to win a Super Bowl, but each step brings infinitely more challenges, just like the U.S. Olympic Team will face. This summer will highlight the best swimming and sport in general has to offer. Football gets these moments several times a year, but swimming gets its once every four years. Fellow swim geeks, let’s relish those moments. Bring on 2012.