Just Outside New York City, USA Swimming’s Up-and-Comers on the Verge

Photos Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Morning Splash by David Rieder.

The Nassau County Aquatic Center could be anywhere. The facility holds a 10-lane, 50-meter competition pool and a diving tower, and it smells strongly of chlorine. A recently-built outdoor long course pool turned out to be a big attraction for swimmers during a mostly-sunny week at USA Swimming’s Junior Nationals.

The nearby towns are downright suburban, full of strip malls and car dealerships—hardly unusual across the United States.

There’s only one giveaway how close the meet is to the country’s most-populous metropolis, New York City: the traffic. Try arriving at LaGuardia Airport in Queens and then spending more than an hour sitting in rush hour traffic to drive a mere 22 miles to the pool.

Plenty of coaches and swimmers have taken advantage of the meet’s proximity to the city with a trip to Manhattan on an off-day to take in the city’s many sights. Still, East Meadow is decidedly not the Big Apple. Close, but not quite there.

And the same can be said for plenty of those big names from this week at Junior Nationals—close, but not quite there.

Some are really close. Dakota Luther already made her debut on the World stage, making the semi-finals in the women’s 200 fly at the World Championships, but she actually finished third in that event at Junior Nationals, behind Olivia Carter (2:09.02) and Lindsay Looney (2:09.22).

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Olivia Carter — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Well, those times by Carter and Looney are on the doorstep of world-class, too. That duo now ranks fourth and seventh in the U.S. this year, respectively. The 200 fly is certainly the weakest event for the U.S. women right now—no Americans made the final in the event at World Championships—so having three teenagers in the 2:09-low range or better is undoubtedly promising.

There was even one swimmer at Junior Nationals actually ranked in the top ten in the world—yes, the entire world, not just the 18-and-under world. That would be Erica Sullivan, who just turned 17 on day two of Junior Nationals.

Sullivan shocked herself with a pair of victories at the U.S. Open, held in the same East Meadow pool the week before Juniors. While there, she won the 400 free in 4:09.43 and the 1500 free in 16:05.83, both times beating out one of her role models, veteran distance swimmer Ashley Twichell.

“I’ve looked up to Ashley Twichell since I was 14. I just remember going to open water and seeing her there and being like, ‘Oh my god—it’s Ashley Twichell!’” Sullivan said. “Finally racing her—and she’s so nice, so amazing—it was such a surreal experience.”

Sullivan stuck around another week in East Meadow to swim at Junior Nationals, where she won the 800 and 1500 free and finished second in the 400 free. It’s the mile that has been most impressive, with her time from the U.S. Open ranking her sixth in the world this year.

Already on the National team in open water, the addition of the 1500 as an Olympic event could be a big opportunity moving forward for Sullivan, who has already committed to swim for the USC Trojans beginning in the fall of 2018.

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Lucie Nordmann — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

As for the other headliners on the women’s side, how about 17-year-olds Lucie Nordmann and Grace Ariola? Neither were in peak form this week in East Meadow, but both have versatility stretching freestyle and backstroke, and both will play key roles for Team USA at the World Junior Championships later this month.

There’s also 16-year-old Zoie Hartman, suddenly ranked in the top-15 in the country in the 200 breast after dropping four seconds off her best time and winning the Junior National title in 2:28.09.

And don’t forget about what Isabelle Stadden accomplished in the women’s 100 back Friday night. Just 15 years old, Stadden provided the meet’s top under-the-radar breakout effort when she won the event in 1:01.23. She was competing in her very first national-level meet.

The men’s meet saw another 15-year-old, Carson Foster, win four different individual events. Check these times: 55.61 in the 100 back, 1:59.13 in the 200 back, 1:58.47 in the 200 fly and 2:01.97 in the 200 IM. He ranks sixth all-time among U.S. swimmers aged 15-16 in all three of those 200-meter races—with one year still to go in the age group.

The male swimmer in East Meadow with the highest world ranking was Alexei Sancov, the 17-year-old Moldova-native competing at Juniors for the Terrapins. Sancov focused on off-events and relays at Juniors, but he had already broken the World Junior Record in the 200 free this year at the European Junior Championships, where he swam a time of 1:47.00.

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Alexei Sancov — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Yes, that effort would have been good enough to make the semi-finals at World Championships this year.

Speaking of the 200 free, the man who won that event in Sancov’s absence and also the 400 free was Dallas-native Alex Zettle. Zettle swam times of 1:49.13 in the 200 and 3:51.44 in the 400, breaking Olympic gold medalist Townley Haas’ meet record in the longer distance. One year from now, Zettle will become Haas’ teammate with the Texas Longhorns.

Finally, there’s Daniel Roy, whose effort in the 200 breast from Friday night, a 2:11.25, is the second-fastest time any American 18-and-under swimmer has ever recorded behind only Kevin Cordes. Good company, no?

Not convinced that some of the faces from this Junior Nationals could have some serious staying power? Just think back on some of the winners from the same meet four years earlier in Irvine, Calif.: Haas, Caeleb Dressel, Gunnar Bentz and Andrew Seliskar on the men’s side, Ella Eastin and Katie McLaughlin for the women.

Three of those six were 2016 U.S. Olympians, and all have maintained steady presence at major U.S. domestic championships. Sure, that standard is a lot for any of these Junior National stars to live up to, but it’s not implausible that some could be threatening for Olympic spots in three years’ time.

Roy, Sullivan, Foster and the other Juniors standouts haven’t reached that level of domestic prominence quite yet, but they’re just as close as the Nassau County Aquatic Center is to New York City.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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Author: David Rieder

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David Rieder is the host of Swimming World TV and a staff writer. A contributor to Swimming World since 2009, he has covered NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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