Commentary by David Rieder
The new year has begun. For the past two weeks, people around the world have been pulling out erasers and white-out to correct the date they just mistakenly wrote as “2013.” And, while last year ended with a flourish in swimming – a narrow American comeback win over the Europeans at the Duel in the Pool – the focus turns back to the big pool with a clean slate on the horizon. For the first time since last January, the world rankings are empty. No one has yet begun to stake their claim as the best in the world.
That process will begin this weekend when several of the top athletes in America dive into the competitive waters for the first time at the Arena Grand Prix in Austin, held at the University of Texas. While your average mid-January meet may deliver its fair share of ho-hum results and lackluster racing, it’s not every January you see a showdown between the world’s top two female distance swimmers coming off a year where the two lit it up at the World Championships.
Katie Ledecky, still two months shy of her 17th birthday, makes her 2014 debut in Austin, and she won’t have to wait to face the woman she edged out for world titles in the 800 and 1500 free events last summer. In the past half year, Lotte Friis has moved to Baltimore to train with Bob Bowman, and with the two rivals now living a mere hour’s drive apart from one another, their opportunities to race will be plenty. While Ledecky’s world record of 8:13.86 won’t be in play, these beltway battles should a highlight of the domestic circuit in 2014 and potentially up until Rio in 2016.
When Ledecky steps to the blocks in the 400 free in Austin, she will be the clear favorite to rack up a victory. No other woman has broken 4:00 in the 400 free without the aid of the now-banned high-tech suits, a feat Ledecky accomplished when she blew away the field in Barcelona last summer. With Ledecky’s recent dominance in the event, it seems like ages ago that Allison Schmitt won the silver medal in the 400 at the Olympics.
That medal came as part of a dominant performance in London for Schmitt, where she also won the 200 free and anchored all three American relays to two golds and one bronze. She seemed like a big part of the bright future of the American women’s team, but an extremely disappointing summer left her off the World Championships team. That team fared just fine without her, as Missy Franklin won the 200 free, Ledecky took the 400 free, and the women won all three relays. Still, at just 23, Schmitt’s career hasn’t ended. Austin could be a good gut check for her as she goes up against the likes of Ledecky, Megan Romano, and Natalie Coughlin.
On the men’s side, Matt Grevers checks in for a rare appearance in the 200 back, where he will face Olympic champion Tyler Clary, along with Cal freshman Ryan Murphy. With the college season in full swing, few athletes with their sights set on NCAA glory will make the detour to long course racing in Austin, but Murphy, along with a handful of his Golden Bear teammates, will make the trip to Texas with the team’s pro group. Still, that race might pale in comparison to the men’s 400 free, where the star-studded field beats almost any seen in 2013.
The North Baltimore group coming to town brings along Matt McLean, Yannick Agnel, and new addition Ous Mellouli, while Michael Klueh returns to his college pool for the weekend. Charlie Houchin, now swimming back in his hometown of Raleigh, NC, will be in the field, as will Clary, who will test the waters in an event that fits his skill set but rarely his schedule. Look further down the psych sheet to find the names Nikita Lobintsev, a 2008 Olympic finalist in the event, and Chip Peterson, a former open water star for Team USA making a return to the competition pool.
It’s no stretch to predict that whoever wins the race will vault themselves into the top spot in the way-too-early world rankings for 2014. Sure, the times will improve as athletes push forwards towards this summer’s top meets, the Pan Pacific Championships, European Championships, and Commonwealth Games. Still, it can never be too early to lay down a swim that gets the rest of the world buzzing and maybe provides that little kick in motivation required to buckle down in training. 2013 brought fast swimming; 2014 should be no different, and that starts on Friday in Austin.