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By David Rieder
CHARLESTON, South Carolina, May 15. THE penultimate stop on the Arena Grand Prix circuit begins this afternoon with the always-popular meet in Charlotte, formally known as the UltraSwim. The meet always attracts a large pool of talent from across the country while age group teams from the entire east coast find their way to the Mecklenburg Aquatic Center for the rare display of top competition in the southeast. Before the meet gets underway, here are four items to watch out for in the first few sessions.
1. Weather and the Turnout. The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Charlotte early this morning. While that has since expired, thunderstorms, possibly severe, are expected throughout the day in the area. This inclimate weather should not affect the meet itself but could have an impact on swimmers travelling throughout the day. Even if some teams end up cancelling their plans due to the conditions, expect a packed house. According to USA Swimming’s pre-scratch timeline, the B-flights of prelims should not end until 3:45 on Friday and Saturday, as compared with the finishing times around noon at last year’s meet. Officially, the meet capped at 600 swimmers, but that total does not necessarily include those on the National or Junior National teams. Finding breathing room on deck will not come easily.
2. Off-Distance Races Open Meet. The women’s 1500 free and men’s 800 free will begin the meet at 4pm this afternoon. Like last year, the Charlotte meet will feature all events contested at the World Championships, including the 50s of stroke. The distance races will each feature a finalist from last year’s World Championships. On the women’s side, Lotte Friis enters as the top seed by a wide margin after she broke the world record in the 1500 in Barcelona last summer while still finishing behind Katie Ledecky. At the last Grand Prix in Mesa, Friis failed to challenge Ledecky in any of the distance events, so she will look to send some swift performances for her beltway rival to look at while facing off with American distance veteran Chloe Sutton.
The men’s 800 will feature Connor Jaeger, the fourth-place finisher in the 800 and 1500 at last summer’s World Championships and the bronze medalist in the 400. Jaeger recently completed his final NCAA Championships, where he began the meet in disappointing fashion with a third-place finish in the 500 and 16th-place in the 200 free while his team fell out of the team title race. However, he rebounded with a huge 1650 to wrap up the meet, clocking 14:29.27. Last summer, Jaeger took the step from the tops of the national distance scene to a legitimate medal contender on the world stage. Now competing as a professional for the first time, Jaeger must a similar jump this year if he intends to compete for Olympic gold in 2016.
3. The Phelps Comeback Continues. After watching the 100 fly final at the 2012 Olympic Trials, I left Omaha feeling honored to have witnessed Phelps’ final swim on American soil. Now, I feel privileged to see him swim again, this time on a much lesser stage. Phelps has entered the 200 free and 100 fly, both events to be contested on Friday, but North Baltimore coach Bob Bowman indicated that he may only swim one of the two. Bowman and Phelps could announce their plans at a press conference today, scheduled for 3pm. With Ryan Lochte scratching the meet, Phelps would face a much easier route to victory in the 100 fly, with few contenders outside of Tim Phillips, Eugene Godsoe, and Albert Subirats.
In the 200 free, Phelps’ training partner and World and Olympic champion Yannick Agnel leads the field, with guys such as Matt McLean, Conor Dwyer, Charlie Houchin, and Michael Klueh in the field. If Phelps wants a true test to where he stands in his comeback, he would compete in the final of the 200 free. When I appeared on the Morning Swim Show prior to the Grand Prix in Mesa, I predicted the times that would indicate “success” for Phelps, so here goes again: 1:47-high in the 200 free and anything faster than the 52.13 he swam in the 100 fly in Mesa. Still, I doubt Phelps swims both races tomorrow, at least not in the finals session.
4. Veterans Highlight Women’s Slate on Friday. The first session preliminary action will feature American Olympians Jessica Hardy and Elizabeth Beisel competing in their signature events. Hardy currently holds the fifth-ranked time in the world in the 100 breast with a 1:07.05, and she should face Texas grad Laura Sogar and local favorite Micah Lawrence in the event’s final. With the official retirement of Rebecca Soni, Hardy and Breeja Larson remain as the clear-cut top two in the women’s sprint breaststroke events. Hardy won bronze in the 100 breast at last summer’s World Championships, and she could put up a time in the 1:06-range in Charlotte.
Meanwhile, the women’s 400 IM features a battle between the two most recent World Champions as Beisel and Katinka Hosszu enter as the top two seeds. Hosszu currently ranks fourth in the world in the event with a 4:34.91, while Beisel broke 4:40 for the first time in 2014 in Mesa, and she ranks 12th. Now two months into her career as a professional swimmer, Beisel comes off a relatively disappointing NCAA season where she finished second in the 400 IM and fifth in the 200 back. In the two years since Hosszu turned pro, she has flourished on the world stage, including a career meet in Barcelona. Beisel, after eight seasons on the National team, has goals of a similar jump between now and Rio.