Relay takeoffs
Courtesy of: Joan Marc Bosch
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Commentary by Jeff Commings

SANTA CLARA, California, June 20. THE 400 free relay is always a good gauge for the strength of American swimming at the international level. It shows how deep the roster is in the "blue ribbon" event in swimming, and the United States has almost always shown that no one can field a strong foursome of sprinters on the world stage.


Based on what I saw today at the Arena Grand Prix in the championship final of the women's and men's 100 freestyles in Santa Clara, the United States is on its way to the top of the podium in both events at the Pan Pacific championships. Of course, Australia will put up a major fight, and that will only make the Americans swim faster.

On the men's side, the 400 free relay will be strengthened by Michael Phelps' return. Any doubt about his ability to race with his domestic rivals was erased when he posted a 48.80 to finish just seven tenths behind Nathan Adrian. Phelps has always been a vital part of every 400 free relay that he has participated in since 2004, and it looks like he definitely wants a spot on the Pan Pacific championship team in that event. The United States needs a leader like Phelps on this relay. We know Adrian is a capable swimmer, and Phelps is as well. No other country this year can say with a straight face that their top two sprinters will definitely be ready to go come relay time. James Magnussen and Cameron McEvoy have swum well this year, but Magnussen's fastest times of the year in 2012 and 2013 came at the trials and not the big meet.

If you count Jimmy Feigen, who is not in Santa Clara this weekend, the United States is in good shape for the relay. But who will the fourth relay swimmer be in Australia? Anthony Ervin? Ryan Lochte? Conor Dwyer? Matt Grevers? All of them are possible choices, and we'll know more at the finish of the 100 free final at nationals in about seven weeks.

The American women are looking just as stable. We can count on Missy Franklin, and based on her short course yards American record earlier this year, Simone Manuel is going to be a force to be reckoned with in August. Behind these two teenage phenoms could be the veteran stalwart Natalie Coughlin and newly-established sprinter Shannon Vreeland. Megan Romano was the reliable anchor leg swimmer twice last year for the United States, but will need to put together a strong individual 100 free at nationals to make sure she gets on the plane to Australia. The field of alternates for the women goes just as deep as the women. Allison Schmitt, Margo Geer, Lia Neal and Abbey Weitzeil should find themselves in the final at nationals, and will need a top six finish to get the awesome responsibility of carrying the tradition forward for the United States.

Men's 400 free looking strong. Connor Jaeger has taken charge of the pack in the 400 free, and has only looked back to make sure Michael McBroom stays at his heels.

McBroom likes the longer distances, but today's swim in the 400 free showed that he could be a major force not only domestically but on the international stage. Conor Dwyer should not be excluded from this conversation, since he was a finalist at the Olympics in 2012 in the 400 free. Dwyer suffered an unfortunate disqualification at nationals last year to leave this event off his program at the world championships, but he's likely going to be back with a vengeance in August. I predict these three to battle in the 400 free final at nationals, and though the USA can take as many as four people per event to the Pan Pac meet, only two qualify for next year's world championships. That will make that 400 free final in Irvine something special to watch.

Tom Shields has been on a mission to bring his long course butterfly swimming up to par with his amazing short course skills, and today's dead heat with Phelps in the 100 fly shows that he's on his way. Even though we should probably not say that Phelps will win the 100 fly at nationals, it's looking more like a possibility after today's swim. Shields, however, has the willpower to get onto his first major senior international team, if he can hold off Ryan Lochte, Eugene Godsoe, Tim Phillips, Giles Smith and others. Shields has been a full-fledged postgrad swimmer for a year now, which is probably the length of time needed for him to shake off his dependency on short course yards that he built up during his college career. Only long course matters now.