No Guarantees And Unforgiving Depth at Arena Grand Prix in Santa Clara

For full coverage of the Arena Grand Prix, Santa Clara, including video interviews, full recaps, etc., check out our event coverage page.

Column by guest writer Julia Wilkinson-Minks 2008 & 2012 Canadian Olympian

SANTA CLARA, California, May 31. DURING my career as a post-graduate professional swimmer, I swam at the Arena Grand Prix in Santa Clara three years in a row–2010, 2011, and 2012–and, now only a single year out, I can't seem to remember much about my times, placements or even the events I swam (because I changed best events more times than P.Diddy changes his name).

That being said, there are some things that I do remember because of their unfailing consistency. There was the constant frustration with the sun: do I slather myself with sunscreen and, in doing so, risk my cap slipping off my slimy skin, or do I settle for a nasty sun burn? There were the extreme temperature changes, and the fact that if you were in a shaded lane during finals, it was almost impossible to see your sun-drenched competition several lanes over.

More importantly was that the Santa Clara Grand Prix was and still is fast and deep: you cannot afford anything less than a good swim in prelims if you want to walk out for that final, no matter who you are.

I couldn't help but notice that after this morning's preliminary session, Dana Vollmer had not qualified for the final of the women's 100 freestyle, which surprised me. Ever since her incredible comeback in 2009, Vollmer has been on fire every time she hits the water, whether it is at the Olympic Games or embarrassing the competition at Mel Zajac in Vancouver.

But this is exactly what I am talking about when I say that you can't be a little bit off at Santa Clara: post-Olympics training aside, Vollmer is good enough to be in that final, and I was a little disappointed to not see her there!

Even without Vollmer, the final was still stacked, with stars both established and rising. Natalie Coughlin was out very fast (26.04), as per her usual race strategy, but was taken down by Megan Romano at the end of the race. Missy Franklin rounded out the sub-55 second top three finishes. The men's 100 freestyle did not disappoint, with Nathan Adrian winning handily in a meet record of 48.08. That time should be a huge confidence boost for Adrian at this point in the season.

Ryan Lochte actually suited up, which surprised me a little bit, because I am so used to seeing anyone wearing a Florida Gator cap battling it out in a polyester training suit.

Laura Sogar and Kevin Cordes won the women's and men's 200 breaststroke respectively, adding another impressive victory to go along with their NCAA crowns from earlier in the year. Sogar was out fast, just like she was at NCAA's in March, and looked strong coming home.

After Romano's win in the 100 freestyle, Sogar's 200 breaststroke seemed to fit into an evolving pattern: in a year where many Olympians take a step back, understandably so, those who just missed the cut find another layer of motivation. So even though Allison Schmitt was the favorite to win the 400 freestyle, it went to her 17-year old teammate Gillian Ryan, who barely touched out Alexa Komarnycky and Schmitt.

It may have looked like this pattern ended with the men's 400 freestyle, since Connor Jaeger is a 2012 Olympian, but I have a theory: maybe the lure of winning an NCAA team title with Michigan was enough to keep the motivation rolling in the face of the dreaded “Post Olympic Letdown”? Jaeger also won the 800 freestyle last night, and as a distance swimmer, it is probably safe to say that he did not give himself any sort of break during the fall semester.

Probably the biggest upset of the evening came in the women's 100 butterfly. Last summer, Vollmer posted a time in the 100 fly that frightened a lot of freestylers: when she is in shape, she is head and shoulders above the competition in this event.

She had to settle for second this evening, however, after Canada's Katerine Savard pulled away from her in the final 10 meters and got her hands on the wall first in 58.83. That being said, I am the last person to criticize a swimmer for dialing down their training after the Olympics: my time off managed to morph from temporary break to a permanent retirement. For both a swimmer's physical and mental health, it is important to take a step back every so often, and Vollmer has done nothing but go forward, fast, since the fall of 2008.

In the final race of the evening, the fans got what they wanted: a win from Ryan Lochte. He finished in 52.29 ahead of a fairly impressive field. All I have to say about that is it's going to be hard for him to go back to racing in his practice suit now that he has the taste of what it's like to swim suited up in-season.

So, although a lot of people were probably surprised to see some favorites like Franklin and Schmitt not standing at their usual position atop the podium, there are so many factors that we have to consider when it comes to a meet like Santa Clara.

First of all, there is a group of swimmers who have yet to even be named to their country's World Championship Team: the Americans. It would be insane for any of them to be shaved or rested at this point in the season, and I think it is safe to assume that none of them are.

You then have some international swimmers who have already tapered for their Trials. Although some will be swimming through the meet, others may rest a little bit to see where they are at before their final push of hard training before World Championships.

Another big factor to consider is the year: 2013. The first year of the cycle. It is as if people have forgotten that this is supposed to be the slowest year of the cycle, because four years ago we had the magical suits. In 2009 it wouldn't have mattered if you had backed off training to film a reality television show, or decided to scrap swimming altogether and start riding horses instead, because the polyurethane suits were so forgiving of being 85% in shape.

It is definitely going to be an interesting weekend to watch: a confidence boost for some, a motivational tool for others. And because this meet is so deep, you can't afford to make any mistakes.

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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