Commentary by Jeff Commings
PHOENIX, Arizona, December 17. MUCH has changed since the rosters for the Duel in the Pool were released on October 17. Ryan Lochte is out. Tom Shields is in. Almost all of France’s stars have been replaced by others on the European roster. The dynamic of the meet has changed tremendously, though Team USA will still be hard-pressed to continue their streak of team wins that goes back to the first Duel in 2003.
When the rosters first came out in October, I predicted a very close meet. With both sides losing some major talents in the past few weeks, the early call still goes to the Americans — but just barely, and it might come down to the final few events. The first team to win 16 of the 30 events, or the first to collect 132 points, wins the title. Depending on the depth of some of the featured players on each squad, the meet could be decided early on the second day or come down to the final relays.
Looking down the roster, I give Team USA the win in 16 events. That 16th event is the final race of the meet, the 400 free relay, so it might be a nailbiter, which TV executives will love. However, the team that can put the most swimmers in the second- and third-place spots would have a good cushion in the point spread if races don’t turn out as expected.
Below, a rundown of some of the top races to watch:
Men’s 200 and 400 freestyles. These two races are essentially toss-ups right now, with North Baltimore training partners Conor Dwyer (USA) and Yannick Agnel (Europe) likely to renew their close battles from the Grand Prix meet in Minneapolis. Dwyer won the 500-yard free in Minnesota by a couple of tenths, while Agnel got to the finish first by an arm’s length in the 200 free. If Lochte were in the meet, the 200 free would be the most exciting race of the weekend. I have Agnel winning the 400 free, with his ownership of the world record a large advantage. Dwyer is rapidly improving in the 200 free, and a win this weekend could be a big confidence boost heading into 2014.
Men’s 200 breaststroke. Europe could get a major boost from this event with the presence of Olympic silver medalist Michael Jamieson and Olympic finalist Andrew Willis. Kevin Cordes could spoil the party, if he can produce a swim close to what he did two weeks ago at the Texas Invite. Nic Fink and Cody Miller could also do well in the event, but it depends on their level of rest for this meet.
Men’s 200 back. This is another event that, on the surface, seems to suffer from Lochte’s absence. But Tyler Clary will step up in a big way for Team USA as the reigning Olympic champion, though he’ll have his hands full with reigning short course world champion Radoslaw Kawecki. The Pole posted a 1:49 at the European championships last week, but might need to be closer to his 2013 best of 1:47 to beat Clary, who could be his main competition.
Women’s 100 fly. This will be a great race between American Claire Donahue and Dane Jeanette Ottesen. Both have great opening 50s, so the key will be the final 25 meters. Ottesen seems to have the edge in the endurance department, so I’m giving Europe the five points for the victory. Donahue has been focusing on the 200 fly recently, so it does appear that she knows the importance of having the ability to finish a race.
Women’s 200 back and 200 free. These two events are essentially wide open, with no clear favorites on the roster. Ledecky will have swum the 800 freestyle about 10 minutes before this, so it’s not likely that she’ll do this double. That leaves Megan Romano as the top pick for the event for the American squad to race Femke Heemskerk and Melanie Costa. Costa recently picked up bronze in the 200 free at the 2012 short course worlds, and Heemskerk has been quick in the event as well. Though Romano is untested in the 200 free internationally, she could pull off a surprise win if she can outsplit the Europeans on the crucial third 50. As for the 200 back, it could feature a reunion of the top three finishers from the junior world championships. Gold medalist Kendyl Stewart and silver medalist Kathleen Baker are carrying the backstroke banner in this event with Missy Franklin and Elizabeth Pelton not competing, and if Russian Daryna Zevina is not having a good meet, a USA 1-2 is very likely and could shift momentum very early in the meet.
Women’s 800 free. After what we saw at world championships last summer and U.S. nationals a couple of weeks ago, we shouldn’t underestimate what Katie Ledecky can do. Will she make a serious run at the world record in the longer freestyle event, currently held by Mireia Belmonte with a 7:59.34? Belmonte will likely be in the race, as will Lotte Friis. Both Europeans could help push the pace for Ledecky, who could also take a stab at Garcia’s new world record of 3:54.52 in the 400 free.
Women’s 100 back. This is a toss-up between American Olivia Smoliga and Zevina. Smoliga is the reigning short course world champion. Zevina has more international experience, but hasn’t been swimming consistently this year. If Zevina isn’t on her game, it opens the door for Smoliga.
Men’s 50 and 100 freestyles No contest here for Team USA, with the 1-2-3 punch of Anthony Ervin, Cullen Jones and Jimmy Feigen. If France hadn’t withdrawn its top swimmers — and if Florent Manaudou didn’t get injured — the sprint freestyles might be a little less anticlimactic. But that doesn’t mean it will be any less exciting.