By David Rieder
DURHAM, North Carolina, December 5. WHEN checking out the psych sheet for any big meet, the tendency can be to type in the name of a big-name talent into the “find” box in order to see what events they have entered. For some swimmers — i.e., Ryan Lochte — this may be a waste of time due to the propensity to enter almost every single event and then scratch. For this week’s Short Course Nationals, I did just that for Missy Franklin and found her entered in a quartet of her typical events, the 100 and 200 free and 100 and 200 back, all events in which she finalled at the 2012 Olympics and 2013 World Championships. But how about on day one? Her only options for individual events included the 500 free, 200 IM, and 50 free? Franklin entered the 500 free.
A bit surprising on the surface, yes. Franklin has never done much in the 400 free long course, while she has been in a few national finals in the 200 IM. Then, Franklin proceeded to clock 4:38.33 in her prelim heat, beating Chloe Sutton to the wall, and that ended up as the second seed behind World Champion Katie Ledecky, a big threat to take down the American record in the final. However, Ledecky, the high school junior, won’t be among Franklin’s potential competition for the NCAA title in the event. Only four college swimmers have swum faster this season, and the top time in the country stands at 4:35.72, attainable for Franklin in tonight’s final.
Why would Franklin pursue the NCAA title in the 500? Let’s change that around a bit; does she really have a choice? Her Cal Bears are bona fied national title contenders, as always seems to be the case, but most of their stars seem to swim the same events. For instance, Franklin and Cal teammate Elizabeth Pelton finished first and fourth, respectively, in the 100 back final at the World Championships. Neither will likely swim the event at NCAAs. With Rachel Bootsma and Cindy Tran, who have combined to win the event the past three years, already entrenched in the event, Franklin and Pelton can concentrate on the 200 free. In long course, Franklin has won two world titles, one Olympic gold medal, and holds the world record. If she swims the event at NCAAs, she would probably be co-favored to win — with teammate Pelton.
Swimming the 500 free short course has rarely been a problem for those who excel in the 200 long course. Jean Basson and Allison Schmitt come to mind as those who have been much more consistent performers in the 500 than the long course 400 in their careers. Pelton gives Cal a better chance in the 200 IM on day one, and the 500 has been one of the Bears’ biggest holes in years past. Moreover, having Franklin swim an event on day one and not double up later on at NCAAs gives coach Teri McKeever the flexibility to switch her relay teams. Back when Natalie Coughlin swam for Cal, her 100 fly-100 back double on day two mandated that she skip one of the two relays that day. The depth and versatility gives Cal once again a legitimate shot to win it all.
Last March in Indianapolis, Tom Shields finished off an illustrious career at Cal with a pair of NCAA titles in the 100 and 200 fly, setting an American record in the longer distance. After finishing runner-up in the 200 fly repeatedly throughout his career, the title came with some vindication, but he had been dominant throughout his career in the 100, winning three national titles and finishing behind U.S. Open record-holder Austin Staab his sophomore year. As Shields moved on to the ranks of the pros, he left what looked like a big opening to be filled in March of 2014.
This morning, Arizona senior Giles Smith uncorked a blistering 44.75 in the 100 fly in the prelims of the Texas Invite. Previously, Smith’s best time had been a 45.68 from NCAAs last year, where he ended up finishing sixth in the final. This swim, however, would have put him second and just barely behind the now-graduated Shields. For the first time, Smith stamped his name down as a real contender for that title. Still, even after that big performance in prelims Smith can’t cruise if he wants to win the title in Austin. Texas freshman Jack Conger put up a 45.65 for the second seed today, also with a big drop on his previous best time of 46.15. This was in prelims.
Smith and Conger each made statements this morning — in prelims, no less — but not just that the NCAA final won’t slow down in the post-Shields era. This past summer, Ryan Lochte swam the butterfly leg on the American men’s medley relay. He put up a strong performance as the Americans comfortably touched first (although they were disqualified), but the 29 year old Lochte won’t be the future for the Americans in that slot. Last summer, a time of 51.66 won the National final, an abnormally slow heat in the absence of three-time Olympic champion Michael Phelps. The versatile Conger could develop into a real factor for the United States in the future in this event. As for Smith, however, his time, both collegiately and nationally, is now.
On the women’s side, the 100 fly has recently been a strong event for the U.S. internationally with the likes of Dana Vollmer and Claire Donahue but not as strong on a collegiate level, where a 51.64 from Olivia Scott was good enough for the NCAA title in 2013. Scott, Rachel Bootsma, and Ellese Zalewski all finished within five one-hundredths of a second last year, and all return this year in what should be one of the more competitive races at the NCAA Championships. One completely under-the-radar name entered the fray with a breakout performance today in Austin: Andrea Ward.
Few have heard of Ward, a senior at UC-Santa Barbara and a native of San Leanardo, California. Heading into today, she held school records in the 200, 500, and 1000 free and in both butterfly events. The record in the 100 fly had stood at 52.98 from 2012 until she blasted a 51.76 to lead the field in Austin and move up to fourth in the country. Remember, of course, that she will have another chance in the final to make further inroads on the top time in the country of 51.13 shared by Zalewski and Danielle Barbiea. Even if she does not, that should send a message that an under-the-radar talent from the world of the mid-majors might have something to say in March.