Column by staff writer David Rieder
Swimmers talk often in post-Olympic years of a letdown that occurs following the biggest meet of their careers. Some struggle to find motivation to practice hard with the next Olympiad four years down the line. Accordingly, the 2013 in-season times have tailed off from the swift performances we saw in 2012. Throughout this year's Arena Grand Prix series, the number of entries and continually-changing qualifying procedures provided more news than the results out of the meets themselves. For the first several months of 2013, few changed the status quo with their Arena Grand Prix performances.
Finally, America snapped out of its funk in Santa Clara over the weekend. The recognizable names from both the international and college scenes put down performances strong enough to scare any internationals who may have wondered just how strong the U.S. would be at the World Champs this summer. Ryan Lochte put on a jammer for the first time all year, and reminded the world that despite any inconsistent training which he continues to harp on in interviews, yes, he is still Ryan Lochte. Missy Franklin — who had no slump to speak of — put together her usual wins in the majority of her events. Kevin Cordes entered the long course pool for the first time since his historic performance at NCAAs, and he didn't disappoint.
Just as he has at pretty much every meet he has entered this year, Nathan Adrian won the 50 and 100 free. With the exception of Olympic Trials, that has pretty much been the case at every meet he's swam in America during the past four years. However, these performances are at a whole new level. His 100 free time of 48.08 just missed the 48.00 that he swam last year in the finals of Olympic Trials, on his way to the gold medal in London.
No one doubts that Adrian can wage an epic 100-meter race against Australia's James Magnussen at the World Championships this summer, just as they did in the Olympic final. In the 50, he swam a 21.76, which didn't even beat his season best. Adrian failed to make the U.S. Olympic team in the 50 last year, but he has swam the event this year with something to prove after not getting a shot at Florent Manaudou in the Olympic final.
Having just completed her freshman year at California, many people find it hard to believe that four years have passed since Elizabeth Pelton broke out at the World Championship Trials and qualified to represent the U.S. in three events at the World Championships. Pelton has remained a consistent presence since on the national stage, but she came up short of last year's Olympic team with a third-place showing in the 200 back at the Olympic Trials. After a first year as a collegian, Pelton showed some of her cards this weekend in Santa Clara.
In Sunday's final of the women's 100 back, Pelton beat out the two women who represented the U.S. in the event at the London Olympics, Franklin and Rachel Bootsma. More significantly, though, Pelton put up a time of 59.88, beating her personal best time of 59.99 from all the way back in 2010. Since she had posted that time, Pelton had consistently played second-fiddle to Franklin and more recently, her college teammate Bootsma. Now, however, a sub-1:00 performance will propel Pelton's backstroke chances headed in to this year's meet in Indianapolis.
Moreover, Pelton came in third in the 200 free, where her 1:58.52 finish placed her a close third behind Franklin and Olympic champion Allison Schmitt and took more than a full second off her lifetime best. Pelton and head coach Teri McKeever know what that means; she has an opportunity to push for a bid on the 800 free relay at the World Champs. With Dana Vollmer stepping away from the 200 free and no stability to the team aside from Schmitt and Franklin, Pelton's improvement in the event could prove significant as the Americans try to defend their world title.
For four years following 2008 and headed in to 2012, no one questioned Peter Vanderkaay as the premier 400 free swimmer in America. He won every national title race and finished fourth repeatedly at international meets before making the jump to the bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics. With Vanderkaay's retirement, one might expect Olympic finalist Conor Dwyer to take over the mantle as top in the country; few would have picked Connor Jaeger to fill that role.
Coming off a strong freshman season at Michigan, Jaeger made a name for himself when, in his heat of the 1500 at U.S. Olympic Trials, he swam an extra 75 after clocking a sub-15:00 performance. Back in college, Jaeger swept the 500 and 1650 events at NCAAs and has been on a tear since. Jaeger won the 800 free in Santa Clara, moving into the top 10 in the world, and then he put up a 3:46.93 to best Dwyer and Canada's Ryan Cochrane in the 400 free. That time would have won the final at Olympic Trials by more than a second. In a very different situation from a year ago, Jaeger should be a favorite in the distance races later this month in Indianapolis.