Intermediate Future Bright for U.S. Women, Not as Clear for Men

Guest editorial by John Craig

PHOENIX, Arizona, May 5. IT's always instructive to browse through the national age group records. The majority of the 10-and-under record holders generally do not go on to be the best swimmers at age 20. (A few do, but most don't.) Generally, the same can be said for the 11-12 record holders. By the time you get to the 15-16 records, it's a different story. The boys' records are held by names like Michael Phelps, Larsen Jensen, Brendan Hansen, and Aaron Peirsol. The girls' records are held by names like Sippy Woodhead, Janet Evans, Mary T. Meagher, and Katie Hoff. (Of course, to hold a 15-16 record, especially as a girl, you pretty much have to be world class already.)

A quick perusal of the NAG long course top ten lists in the February issue of Swimming World Magazine makes it clear that the U.S. women have a very bright future, extending up to and possibly past 2016. The NAG records in many of the 13-14, 15-16, and 17-18 events were either beaten or at least scared in 2009, and that tends to be a positive indicator for the future of the national team.

Three multi-talented female swimmers have emerged who are each threats on the world scene in several events.

Dagny Knutson burst onto the national scene as a 16 year old in 2008. At short course nationals that year, she set an American record in the 400 IM with a 4:00.62. She has also set several national high school records, and last summer beat Sippy Woodhead's 30-year-old NAG record for girls 15-16 in the 200 meter free with a 1:57.73. Knutson's improvement curve flattened a bit this past year, but one has to think that the change of scenery when she goes to Auburn will be good for her. Her current coach has done an excellent job with her, but Auburn will undoubtedly strengthen her with their famous dry land program, and at the very least, she won't have to expend as many calories fighting the cold North Dakotan winters. Look for her to be a mainstay in both 2012 and 2016.

Liz Pelton has been a force of nature ever since she broke NAG records in three different strokes as a 10-year-old. (Her 50 free time of 25.1 done in 2004 as a 10-year-old was never officially ratified as a NAG record since it was done in YMCA competition.) As a 14-year-old in 2008, she broke three long course NAG records; this past summer, as a 15-year-old at the bottom of her age group, she didn't break any but was very close to several. However, she did make a big splash by qualifying for Rome in four separate individual events, more than any other swimmer. So far, she has made her biggest impact in the backstrokes, but judging from her body length lead on the field at the 50 in the 200 IM at World Championship Trials, she probably has some fast fly times ahead of her as well. She is willowy but strong, and loves to compete, pretty much the ideal ingredients for a swimmer.

Missy Franklin is yet another force of nature. (To qualify for that designation one must set records in more than one stroke.) Last summer, she set new 13-14 records in both backstrokes and both sprint freestyles, and the 200 IM. Her 100 free was a mind-boggling 54.03, which broke the existing record by two full seconds. She also missed Sippy Woodhead's 31-year-old record of 1:58.53 in the 200 free by one tenth of a second. At this point the six foot tall Franklin looks unstoppable.

(Note: NAG records were set in the upper age groups by Liz Beisel, Rachel Bootsma, Felicia Lee, and Kasey Carlson as well.)

Two caveats here. First, as the mutual funds always state, past performance is no guarantee of future results. We've seen this with numerous swimmers, even with some who looked great at age 16. Second, the rest of the world has a lot of young female talent as well. Last summer, Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom, 15, set a world record in the 100 fly with a 56.0. Australia has Emily Seebohm and Cate Campbell, both high schoolers with phenomenal talent. And a 14-year-old Xie Shiwen just clocked a 2:10.32 in the 200 IM at Chinese nationals. So it won't be a cakewalk for the American women. But all three American women profiled here have talent to spare, and all three have already proven themselves against top competition, so they should hold their own. (The fact that all of them also include the 100 and 200 frees as part of their repertoire makes me particularly optimistic about our women's freestyle relays in 2016.)

The picture for the men is less clear. Our national team has been stocked with the same names for a long time: Phelps, for example, has already been on three Olympic teams and has already announced that London will be his last hurrah. And much of the men's team from Rome was composed of post-grads like Peirsol, Ryan Lochte, Matt Grevers, Eric Shanteau, Peter Vanderkaay, and Mark Gangloff. They should all be around in 2012, but will they be there in 2016?

It's possible that some of these men hang on for a while longer – look at Jason Lezak. But it also seems that there is a possibility that when they retire, there will be a dearth of talent, as happened in the 1500 meter freestyle in 2009 when our two top swimmers, Erik Vendt and Jensen, both opted not to compete. The U.S. Trials were won in 15:11, a fine time to be sure, but not competitive internationally.

And a quick look at the long course NAG rankings for 2009 indicates that there are no similar talents coming up through the ranks. There were two records broken in the 15-16 age group, both by breaststrokers: Christian Higgins with a 1:02.29 in the 100 and Mark Elliott with a 2:14.67 in the 200. In the 17-18 group, there were also two records broken: by Shayne Fleming in the 50 free with a 22.47, and Nick D'Innocenzo in the 200 breast with a 2:13.11.

So there are a few bright spots. But there are no forces of nature commensurate with a Knutson, or Pelton, or Franklin. And in many cases, the top-ranked boy was well off the NAG record. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, given that several of the boys' 17-18 records are held by the greatest swimmer of all time. But continued domination by U.S. men doesn't seem a sure thing going forward to 2016.

A few caveats are necessary here as well. The sprint picture is generally a bit better for U.S. men: Jimmy Feigen and Nathan Adrian are both young and talented. And given the three NAG records in the breaststrokes, that picture is brighter as well. Swimmers emerge from the woodwork all the time, and undoubtedly there will be surprises between now and 2016. (As recently as last September who would have picked Josh Schneider to win at NCAAs? And David Nolan's 200 IM of 1:43.4 was certainly a shock.)

It's also true that not everybody develops at the same pace: the man generally conceded to be the second best all around swimmer of all time, Lochte, held no NAG records, yet he has broken two individual long course records (as well as numerous short course records, which I've mostly ignored for the purposes of this article as they are less relevant to international competition). Plus a lot of the boys who will be on the national team in 2016 are now in their mid-teens, and are probably now string beans who haven't filled out yet. (Matt Biondi, Gary Hall Jr., and Rowdy Gaines never made much of a splash as age groupers.) Girls mature earlier – just look at the improvement curve for most girls from 14 to 17 vs. most boys during the high school years.

Nonetheless, looking at the number of NAG records broken by each gender is an apples to apples comparison, and it is telling.

Author's note: John Craig set the 55-59 masters record in the 200 yard fly with a 2:04.97 last month.

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