Commentary by Jeff Commings
PHOENIX, Arizona, June 20. THE best thing about the year after the Olympics is trying to figure out who will lead the next generation of swimming stars to the next Olympiad. If the United States is to remain at the top of the medal standings in the years leading up to Rio de Janeiro, the next wave of elite swimmers need to cement their status now as ones to watch, to give them time to get used to the spotlight before 2016.
We've seen the names of a few rising stars pop up in the past few months, names that aren't too unfamiliar and will not generate much surprise if they manage to secure the top two spots in individual events next week in Indianapolis at the world championship trials. Mann. Conger. Murphy. But there are other athletes we've been watching at Swimming World, names that aren't on most radars and could elicit gasps if they end up on the world championship roster.
Sadly, one of the swimmers we were excited to race in Indianapolis will not be among the competitors in the 200 butterfly. Justin Wright, who won the 200 fly at the Arena Grand Prix in Santa Clara, is going to be a heavy hitter in the event. Will it happen this year when he competes at the junior nationals, or will we see the 17-year-old's potential evolve over the next year or two?
Below, a list of the top four swimmers who could surprise us next week:
Allie Szekely. Remember her from the Olympic Trials? She participated in a swimoff in the 200 breast for 17th place, and the cheers from the crowd made the race feel like the championship final. Szekely won the race, and has been on an upswing ever since. She's seeded fifth in the 200 breast, and with Rebecca Soni out of competition this year, there is no favorite to win the national title. The United States has a history of seeing 15-year-old breaststrokers break out in a big way (Anita Nall, Amanda Beard), and Szekely's time has come.
B.J. Johnson. On the opposite side of the coin is this Stanford graduate and 26-year-old, who had some good performances on the Grand Prix circuit and should not be counted out in the men's 200 breast. Johnson never made a major national final until the 2011 nationals, and has become the epitome of being a late bloomer. Better late than never. Expect him to challenge a talented field for what might end up being a race for second behind Kevin Cordes. Johnson is on the roster for the World University Games, but I'm sure he'd like to be upgraded to the Big Show in Barcelona.
Erika Erndl. Like Johnson, Erndl is enjoying a resurgence late in her career. Now 35 years old, Erndl is a threat to make the world championship team in the 400 freestyle relay. I know, the swimmers listed above her on the psych sheet are crazy fast, but if Erndl can put together a great prelim swim and get into that championship final, her years of experience will pay off with a seat on the plane to Barcelona.
Simone Manuel. Another person who shouldn't be counted out to make that women's 100 free final is this 16-year-old, who has been hiding in the shadows behind fellow teens Lia Neal and Missy Franklin in this event for many years. She's been a solid in-season performer since the Olympic Trials, where she placed 17th, one place short of getting a second swim. Like Neal, many expected Manuel to carry the same trajectory as Franklin, but not everyone progresses at the same rate. Manuel should be ready to race in the Big Final next week in the meet's second women's event.