Saturday, June 23, 2012

U.S. Olympic Trials: Two Days Out

Olympic Trials are nearly here. The Olympic spirit is in the air as athletes and coaches have made their way to Omaha. Trials in diving and track fill up most of the day's schedule on NBC. At the King County Aquatic Center near Seattle, we hope to be witnessing a resurgence in American diving led by David Boudia and Nick McCrory. Still, the grand jewel of Trials is coming up on Monday - swimming. Swimmers as different as a 16 year old girl from South Carolina and a 38 year old former National teamer will take to the blocks Monday morning, and I anticipate both of their results equally. With the meet just two days away, I have yet to make my customary predictions. You will see those posted here tomorrow. With my picks almost finished, I want to share some of my biggest challenges in choosing Olympians.

First and foremost, what events will Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte swim? The biggest challenge comes in the 400 IM, where Phelps remains vague about whether he will compete. Phelps indicated after his final meet in Austin that he had completed his final 400 IM, but Phelps likes making history; a swim in the 400 IM would guarantee Phelps the first shot to become the first man to ever win three Olympic golds in consecutive Olympics. Lochte remains the clear favorite as the two-time World champion, but Phelps has the capability to compete with two-time World silver medalist Tyler Clary. Clary has indicated that he will aim for a time in the 4:08-range, which I think Phelps can beat if he really wants to do the 400 IM. I don't think Phelps will swim the 400 IM, but he certainly might end up doing so. Regardless, I will go with the duo that has gone 1-2 at the Worlds twice now for the two spots: Lochte and Clary.

The men's 100 free shapes up as another interesting race, with or without Phelps and Lochte. I expect both men to compete in the event at least once to prove they deserve spots on the 400 free relay  which I believe they do  but I don't think either can afford to go all the way to the final. Controversy sparked when Phelps swam on the 400 free relay after not competing in the event at Trials. That could leave eight men in the pool of possibilities to swim on the relay in London. Keep an eye out for what the coaches do in that situation, if it does transpire as I expect.

Amanda Beard disappeared to much of the swimming community after her gold medal performance in the 200 breast in Athens eight years ago. Yeah, we knew she was coming back, but not a lot of people expected her to get on the Olympic team for a fourth time. But in the end, Beard touched the wall second in front of Caitlin Leverenz and ended up in Beijing. This time, though, Beard did not wait nearly a full Olympiad to make a statement. After the Pan Pacs wrapped up in 2010, Beard found herself on the Worlds team in both breaststrokes. Do I doubt her this time? Nope. I pick Amanda Beard to finish second to Rebecca Soni and go to London in the 200 breast.

A top-two finish in Omaha would make Beard another five-time Olympian. Dara Torres could leave Omaha a six-time Olympian, but she has far less margin for error. Torres will race the 50 free, a one-lap dash against the likes of Jessica Hardy, Amanda Weir, Kara Lynn Joyce, and Lara Jackson. Intense? Oh yes. Torres has the experience and mental edge to pull it off, but she is 45 years old. Certainly, Torres could become the oldest member of a U.S. Olympic swim team ever. This time, though, Torres is no lock or a favorite. She might make the team, and she might not. She has one event to swim this time, not two or three like she has in past Olympics. I know one thing: I trust experience. And I trust Dara Torres to get her hand on the wall.

How good is Missy Franklin? We are about to find out for sure. She is the clear favorite in the 200 back, and no one doubts she is one of the best in the country in the 100 back and both the 100 and 200 free. But can she beat Allison Schmitt in the 200 free? Natalie Coughlin in the 100 back? Dana Vollmer in the 100 free? Those are big picks. Can she maintain the level of improvement she showed last year and wow us again? In our chat yesterday, Tom Willdridge suggested that Franklin may not sparkle at Trials but will wow us once again on the biggest stage. Tough calls to make.

I never like to pick upsets. But in some events, like the men's 400 free and women's 200 fly, no one can agree on who will claim one or both Olympic slots. Every Trials, some swimmer emerges from international obscurity to go to the Olympics. Elaine Breeden, Christine Magnuson, and Scott Spann all fit that bill from 2008. Expect it or not, upsets will happen in Omaha. Could it be someone like Cammile Adams or Michael McBroom, those whose success has been more limited to the NCAA scene? How about high schoolers Ryan Murphy or Katie Ledecky? We will see shocks. Expect the unexpected. I will try to predict results, but we won't find out until the Trials get underway. Predicting is fun, but watching the upsets unfold will be the true excitement. We are 48 hours away from the first final in Omaha. Next up, the picks.

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