If Hell Condemns, Water Redeems: USA Trials Preview; Part 1

By guest writer Julia Wilkinson-Minks (2008 & 2012 Canadian Olympian)

I have the utmost respect for a swimmer who, after a disappointing season, returns to the pool in the fall with their head down and their goals still firmly in place. There is nothing I love more than seeing a swimmer achieve redemption after failing to qualify for a team the year before, a la Dana Vollmer after the 2008 Olympic Trials. After all, the only thing I did after missing the Olympic final by less than a tenth last summer was retire.

With less than 72 hours to go before the swimmers start wrenching on their racing suits at the Phillips 66 U.S. Nationals and World Championship Trials in Indianapolis, everyone is anxiously waiting to see who will qualify for Barcelona, and be given the prestigious opportunity to wear the American flag cap. My question, however, is who is going to stand up and redeem themselves this year, the year after the Olympic Games?

Let’s start by looking at the women: after all, “ladies first”, right? The women’s freestyle is definitely the most stacked of all the strokes, especially the shorter distances.

In the 50-meter freestyle, Jessica Hardy, who could be considered the queen of redemption after being pulled from the Beijing team in 2008 and returning to represent the USA in 2012, leads the pack with the fastest entry time.

Right behind her are Christine Magnuson and Natalie Coughlin. Magnuson was the Olympic silver medalist in the 100-meter butterfly at the Beijing Olympics, but narrowly missed qualifying for London in more than one event last summer.

Magnuson had the motivation to return to the pool after being left off the Olympic roster, and being named to this team would no doubt be sweet redemption: but she has her hands full. Coughlin is trying to find her untapped potential in the 50-meter freestyle, something that is very real considering the fact that she: a) is arguably the best female swimmer of all time and b) has never really focused on the 50. I said it after Santa Clara and I will say it again: I would not be surprised if Coughlin broke the American record in this event.

When it comes to the deepest event of the meet, it has to be a tie between the women’s 100 and 200-meter freestyles. In the 100-meter, only one of the women in the top eight is not an Olympian: Megan Romano. After a record-breaking NCAA season her junior year at Georgia, she was seventh in the 200-meter freestyle at last year’s Olympic Trials, but again, redemption will not come easy. Look at this top eight: Missy Franklin, Jessica Hardy, Romano, Allison Schmitt, Amanda Weir, Lia Neal, Dana Vollmer, and Coughlin. 2013 NCAA Champion in the 100-yard freestyle, Margo Geer, isn’t even seeded in the top 10.

In the 200 freestyle, it is almost the same story, minus a few sprinters and add one Katie Ledecky. Ledecky is entered in all the freestyle races 200 meters and up, and has the third fastest seed behind Allison Schmitt and Missy Franklin. Megan Romano will have another shot at her chance on the USA 800-meter freestyle relay, and Elizabeth Pelton will have one of her many opportunites to impress.

The longer freestyles are still fast, with Schmitt leading the pack in the 400, followed by Chloe Sutton and Katie Ledecky. Ledecky is seeded first in the 800-meter and 1500-meter freestyle events, Sutton in second, and Haley Anderson in third in the 800-meter. Anderson may be looking to add some hardware from the pool to her open water medal collection.

Of course when you think women’s backstroke, you have to think Missy Franklin: Olympic gold in both distances and world record holder in the 200 meter. Rachel Bootsma will also be one to beat in the 100-meter, but then there is Elizabeth Pelton: Pelton narrowly missed the US Olympic team last summer, and that might as well have lit a fire under her.

She earned a standing ovation after she demolished the field, American and NCAA record 200-yard backstroke at the 2013 NCAA Championships in Indianapolis. Although she swam the 100-meter and posted a lifetime best at Santa Clara, her 200-meter backstroke has been lying in wait for this week, and I can’t wait to see what she is going to go. If there is anyone in the world right now who can challenge Missy Franklin in the 200-meter backstroke, I think it is Elizabeth Pelton.

In the women’s breaststroke, it is not so much about who is there, but more who is not there: Rebecca Soni. Soni has been almost unbeatable since Beijing, and everyone gasped when little-known threat Breeja Larson stole the Olympic Trials crown from her last summer. This year, the 100-meter will be a battle between Larson and Hardy, and both these women will likely be the two representing the USA this summer, barring a Larson-esque time drop from another swimmer in the race.

In the 200-meter breaststroke, 2012 Olympian Micah Lawrence is seeded in first, followed by two women who have equal but different motivation to earn their ticket to Worlds. Andrea Kropp, 20, was third last year in this event, and is seeded second behind Lawrence. In third is Laura Sogar, who recently surprised the NCAA by defeating short course American record holder Breeja Larson and winning the title for the Texas Longhorns, a team on the rebound. She rode this wave of success and won the 200-meter breaststroke at Santa Clara, and no doubt would love to add racing at the 2013 World Championships to what has already been an excellent season for her.

Do not count out Breeja Larson in this event, however. Even though she is best known for the 100-meter, she does hold the American and NCAA record in the 200 short course. Last year she proved that her talents are well above outsiders’ expectations.

In the 100-meter butterfly, the obvious woman to watch is Dana Vollmer. She is on a level entirely her own in this event, and second seed Claire Donohue is more than a second ahead of third place. But don’t ignore Christine Magnuson: she was the Olympic silver medalist in this event in Beijing, and clearly kept swimming after 2012 for a reason.

In the 200-meter butterfly, the absence of Kathleen Hersey should give 2012 Olympic finalist Cammile Adams fairly clear water to the win. Only four hundredths separate the second and third seeds, Kelsey Floyd and Kim Vandenberg. Floyd has already been named to the 2013 World University Games team, so this may be 29-year-old Vandenberg’s opportunity to return to the international stage after placing third in this event last year. A dark horse in this event could be Caroline McElhany, who trains at Texas A&M with Adams and saw a significant drop in her yards times this collegiate season.

Finally, the women’s IMs: the two 400-meter IM slots seem fairly locked up by Olympic silver medalist Elizabeth Beisel and Caitlin Leverenz. These women are world-class IMers and will be hard to beat, but 15-year-old Rebecca Mann has been having a good summer, and could maybe, just maybe, be a dark horse in this event. After all, if anyone can drop a significant amount of time in one meet, it is a 15-year old.

Without world record holder Ariana Kukors, Caitlin Leverenz may be racing the clock in this 200-meter IM… or will she? Elizabeth Pelton will again see her chance for redemption, and is a very strong freestyler, especially compared to Leverenz. Finally, there is the question of Missy Franklin: she is entered in the 200-meter race, and let’s face it, she is world class at whatever she decides to do. So if she does end up swimming this event next week, maybe she could give Leverenz a good race.

Tomorrow, I will look at the men’s races, and who else is looking for their redemption at the 2013 Phillips 66 US Nationals and World Championship Trials.

Julia Wilkinson-Minks is a two-time Olympian for Canada and was a finalist in the 200-meter IM at the 2008 Beijing Games. In 2010, she became Texas A&M’s first ever NCAA champion in swimming when she won the 100-yard freestyle. She graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in Speech Communication. Julia retired from competitive swimming following the London Olympic Games and now lives in Texas with her husband Shane.

Follow her on twitter @juliah2o

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