It’s A Little Early For Olympic Predictions, But…

Guest editorial by John Craig

PHOENIX, Arizona, August 26. NOW that Pan Pacs and the European Championships are over, it's tempting to speculate about what the next two years might bring. A few random observations:

Ryan Lochte was the most lionized swimmer of the summer, and rightly so. As many have noted, he is the best swimmer in the world today. One interesting question: what could he have gone for the 200 fly? He took his 400 IM out in 54.8. Tyler Clary was never as fast as Lochte on the first leg of the IMs, yet went a 1:55.7 in the fly. One would think Lochte was capable of at least a 1:53ish. This is of course pure speculation, but had he swum the 200 fly, he would at the very least have given Michael Phelps a scare. Phelps and Bob Bowman also have to be thinking hard about the way Lochte pulled way from Phelps at will in the breaststroke leg of the 200 IM at nationals. Lochte may have finally discovered the formula for beating Phelps in the IMs: a breaststroke surge, and underwaters which cede no ground.

His comments about Pan Pacs only being a steppingstone didn't have the sound of a man about to rest on his laurels. He also has that other ingredient so necessary for success: confidence. He believes he can beat Phelps. The Phelps he beat in Irvine was a subpar Phelps, but the time which Lochte recorded two weeks later, 1:54.4, was better than Phelps's best of 1:54.23, once suits are taken into account.

Note to Ryan: You're not going to win any gold medals at skateboarding or break dancing. Take those up again after 2012.

Lochte may be the swimmer of the year, but there's no doubt about the greatest of all time. Watching Phelps these past two weeks was reassuring, because the general atmosphere of the meet, and more specifically, the challenge laid down by Lochte, did seem to light a fire under him. You could see Phelps's renewed enthusiasm for swimming in his big grin after he swam that world-best 100 freestyle leadoff leg. You could see it from his willingness to tackle a 400 IM. You could also hear it from the things he said, especially when he castigated himself for not having trained hard enough. He looked ready to buckle down. Getting beaten in the 200 IM was probably the best thing that could have happened for his swimming. If he returns to form, partial thanks will be due to Lochte.

Bowman must have had mixed feelings watching Phelps' fast 100 free. A lack of training is more evident in the longer events. Phelps had relatively fast 100s in the past two weeks, and relatively slow 200s. When he does start training harder, his 100s won't improve as much as his longer events. He's always wanted to go after the 100 free; that goal seemed to get shelved after his abortive experiment with the straight arm freestyle last year. The 48.13 may have reawakened it. But while the idea of gold in the 100 free may be appealing, Phelps has too many other possibilities that are better bets, as Bowman is well aware. Let's hope Phelps goes after those, and just a berth in the 400 free relay.

Note to Michael: the people you saw in Irvine are your people, your real fans. The slick types you meet in Vegas are not. Stick with your own for the next two years.

All of this puts Clary in an interesting position. He is the third-best all-around swimmer on the U.S. team, but could conceivably have a hard time making the 2012 Olympic team. His best events, the IMs and the 200 fly and 200 back, are all swum by Phelps or Lochte or both. And he doesn't swim the relay events. He could easily get locked out of the IMs by Lochte and a resurgent Phelps (should Phelps pursue the 400), and out of the backstroke by Lochte and a fit Piersol. That would leave the 200 fly as his best hope for 2012, and he doesn't rank nearly as high internationally in that as he does in the IMs. Clary's recent decision to turn pro shows how serious he is, and anything can happen, but strategically speaking, he is not in the best position.

Nathan Adrian is amazingly consistent, always a good sign for a sprinter. He had a pair of 48.8s early season, then a 48.4 at nationals, then a 48.14 and a pair of 47.5 relay legs at Pan Pacs. His come-from-behind victory in the 50 was very impressive. (His come-from-behind victory in the 100 was more a matter of Cesar Cielo just tying up.) Two years out, Cielo still has to be considered the favorite for London given his performance in Rome and Beijing and his two world records. Fred Bousquet, the explosive but inconsistent sprinter, who now has the fastest 50 textile swim in history thanks to his 21.36 in the semis at the European championships, will also be a factor. But Adrian – who is younger, taller, and on a steeper improvement curve than the other two — has definitely moved up from dark horse to solid contender.

After all the talk of how loaded the U.S. field is in the 100 back, it was a little surprising that none of our backstrokers could come within a second of Camille Lacourt's time. Granted, Lochte and Phelps did not swim the 100 back, Matt Grevers had an off meet, and Aaron Peirsol did not bring his A game (which we should see next year). But it has to be said: once you account for the tech suit differential, Lacourt is the fastest sprint backstroker ever, and at this moment looks like the early favorite for both sprints in Shanghai and the 100 in London.

We already knew that Kosuke Kitajima is the greatest breaststroker ever, and he proved it again in Irvine. After taking a year off and seemingly content to get beaten regularly during the early season, he showed he still had it when it counted, with the two fastest textile times ever. Partial credit to Dave Salo, who looks like the greatest breaststroke coach of all time. The U.S. breaststrokers have their work cut out.

Speaking of Salo and the breaststroke, Rebecca Soni looks untouchable at this point. And every race she swims seems to give her more confidence. Expect her stroke to spawn numerous imitators in the near future.

Amanda Beard was amazing. No one, including her, expected her to make the world championship team less than a year after giving birth. (The proof of Amanda's low expectations came in that poolside interview after her 200 breast at nationals – she obviously had zero comments prepared ahead of time.) If Beard does make her fifth Olympic team, it would tie her with Dara Torres for most ever. Natalie Coughlin, not unexpectedly, also rose to the occasion after a year off. These two are certainly giving a sense of continuity to the fans, as well as a public face to swimming for non-swimming people. Here's hoping they continue to swim well and attract more fans to our sport in the next two years.

Dana Vollmer has turned into one of the most consistent and versatile performers among the women in the past two years. Unfortunately, the tech-suited world records are currently out of her reach. But World Championship and Olympic glory are not. Given our depth, the relative youth of many of our swimmers, and the recent Dutch injuries and illnesses, our women have to be ranked at least co-favorites in both free relays for next year.

Katie Hoff and Kate Ziegler were both great comeback stories. The one-a-day workouts with FAST seem to be agreeing with them, and both are now looking like much more solid possibilities for 2012 than they were last year. (Elizabeth Beisel also works out just once a day – is this something more coaches should consider?) It's interesting how FAST has evolved into more of a women's team, while Dave Marsh's Post-Graduate Center in North Carolina (SwimMAC) has evolved into more of a men's team. Is this good? I don't know, but it does allow the top men and top women to compete against each other in practice, get a sense of each other, and perhaps be a touch less nervous at the big meets. Getting up on the blocks against a lane mate has got to be less intimidating than getting up against someone who is basically just a name and a fast time to you.

Elizabeth Pelton, after a very promising early season, seemed to have an off meet at nationals. Whatever was ailing her, she didn't quite make a full recovery by Pan Pacs, but her Pan Pac record 200 backstroke of 2:07.48 (from the heats) is probably just a hint of what she is capable of. Missy Franklin had a solid meet, improving most of her times, though not her marquee time from last year, her 100 free of 54.03. Dagny Knutson was also a bit off at nationals, solid but not quite fast enough to make the Pan Pac team. But all three should still play central roles in 2012 and beyond.

Australia has its own young talent with Emily Seebohm and Yolane Kukla. (Cate Campbell has been quiet recently, but will undoubtedly be heard from her again.) And Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden, though unable this year to come within a second of her WR 100 fly, is starting to branch out and show more versatility. All could be major forces in 2012.

There are exciting eras in which to follow swimming and eras which are less so. (The 90s come to mind as an example of the latter.) The current era is definitely an exciting one.

John Craig's (nonswimming) blog is justnotsaid.blogspot.com.

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