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PHOENIX, Arizona, January 17. IF there is one thing no one will complain about at this weekend's Arena Grand Prix – Austin (Jan 18-20), it is swimmers clogging the warm down pool. With the 2013 Arena Grand Prix Series' new, faster time standard and stringent caps on the number of athletes in attendance, the six-meet series is set to be a much more intimate affair.
In this second meet of the Series, three heats of swimmers per event is an exception, and two the new norm. But don't tune out yet, because…
…Although there is a shortage of bodies between the lane lines, there is no shortage of talent. Olympians make up a considerable percentage of the participants at the Austin Grand Prix, held at the Lee & Joe Jamail Texas Swimming Center. Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin are the centerpieces of the event, but the list of Olympians includes Tyler Clary, Amanda Weir, Conor Dwyer, Chloe Sutton, Jimmy Feigen, Ricky Berens, Mark Gangloff, Kate Ziegler and Canadian Olympian Ryan Cochrane as well as Ous Mellouli. Obviously, what is missing in quantity is made up in quality.
Perhaps the Series is so attractive to Olympic-level athletes because the stakes are higher in the 2013 edition. Competitors are now racing for their piece of the $150k prize-money pie. First place earns $500,second $300 and third $100. As always, athletes wishing to maintain their NCAA eligibility will have to forfeit the prize money. But to all of the professional swimmers competing, money is money, and U.S. athletes are probably thrilled to hear that they can earn a chunk of change on their home soil.
So, what can swimming fans expect from the Lone Star State competition this weekend?
First off, the women's 200 breaststroke is a can't-miss, if only to see 14-year-old Allie Szekely from Central Bucks swim. Nearly every time she dives in for a race, she clocks a new best time. Szekely is entered first in the event at a 2:26.35, exactly a half-second off Amanda Beard's historic 13-14 200 breaststroke NAG (2:25.75), which Beard set at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta (with a silver medal attached).
If Szekely captures the record, she will have cemented herself as the future of women's breaststroke swimming the U.S. And, she's certainly heading down that path at a breakneck pace, after smashing Katie Hoff's 200 SC breaststroke 13-14 NAG in December at the Tom Dolan Invitational. Now she just needs the long course record for a complete resume. Austin is the perfect opportunity.
Then there's the question, how many events will Tyler Clary dominate? The next four years are clearly ringing Clary. 400 IM, 200 backstroke, 200 butterfly… the guy is one of the most well-rounded swimmers since, well, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. The only thing different about2013 is that Phelps is now out of the picture, happily driving down golf ranges. The Austin Grand Prix will set the initial precedent for Clary's road to Rio, and get the ball rolling for a… hole in one?
And how about those sprint events? It's a bit of a mindbend seeing Anthony Ervin's name at the top of the psyche sheet in the 50 freestyle. At this point last year in Austin, Ervin was at the foot of the mountain, just starting his climb to the top. He eventually capped his journey at the Olympics, and planted his comeback flag at the pinnacle of 2012, in London. But, actually, saying Ervin capped his ride is downright presumptuous, because he's back for more in 2013. It's exciting to see what else the 31-year-old is capable of.
In conclusion, there is going to be some fast swimming in Austin… but not as fast as it is likely to get. More than anything, the meet will set the initial mark for USA Swimming in 2013. It'll be a surprise to see many records broken this weekend (perhaps with the exception of meet and/or NAG records), rather, as one the first big meets of the New Year, it's all about racing.
Coming off the holidays, swimmers are still getting into gear, so, more than wishing for fast times, spectators should look into the storylines of the athletes competing. If it's anything like expected, the stories are bound to be must-reads.