Morning Splash by David Rieder.
Just like the American women’s team, the U.S. men did well for themselves in Rio last summer. Like the women, the men won half of the gold medals handed out at the pool, and they swept gold in all three relays.
And then Michael Phelps retired. Filling the void of the greatest of all time is rather challenging, especially when the second most versatile swimmer in history (Ryan Lochte) will also be missing a U.S. selection meet for the first time in a decade and a half.
But last year’s core of swimmers in sprint free, backstroke and breaststroke all returns intact, so USA Swimming has plenty to build on as the (second) post-Phelps era begins in earnest at this week’s Nationals in Indianapolis.
Sprint Free: Oozing With Potential
For almost a decade, questions have persisted about the quality of the American sprint core. Nathan Adrian has been incredibly consistent throughout that span, but putting together a 400 free relay has long been a daunting task, and the Americans failed to top a major podium between the 2009 World Championships and the 2016 Olympics.
But after last summer’s resounding relay victory in Rio, the Americans look stronger in the sprints than they have in years. Adrian and Caeleb Dressel look like the favorites to claim individual spots in the 100 free—and contend for medals in Budapest—while Ryan Held, Blake Pieroni and Michael Chadwick look to fill out this young, talented squad.
Elsewhere in the world, France didn’t qualify a 400 free relay squad for the World Championships, and Australia will be without 100 free Olympic champion Kyle Chalmers. Let’s wait on all the results from this week in Indy, but hard to see the Americans as anything but gold medal favorites.
More of the same in the 50 free, where Dressel and Cullen Jones will attempt to knock off Adrian, who won the Olympic bronze medal in the 50 free in Rio, and gold medalist Anthony Ervin. Again, two individual medal contenders for Budapest.
Mid-Distance Free: Talented But Unproven
The American sprint talent means that Phelps won’t be missed so much on the 400 free relay. Maybe not the case on the 800 free, not with 13-year relay veteran Lochte suspended and veteran Conor Dwyer only recently returning to racing post-Rio.
200 free Olympic finalist Townley Haas is still around, but with at least two new swimmers on the 800 free relay this year, winning gold could be a challenge for Team USA. Can Pieroni come up from the 100? How about Clark Smith and Zane Grothe coming down from the 400? What do guys like Jack Conger, Gunnar Bentz, Maxime Rooney and Jay Litherland have in the tank?
So yeah, some question marks here. As for the 400 free, Connor Jaeger is retired, and Dwyer looks unlikely to swim that event, but two of the Haas/Smith/Grothe trio should give the Americans a pair of swimmers capable of qualifying for finals in Budapest.
Distance Free: Paging… Someone
Jaeger is done, and Jordan Wilimovsky won’t swim at Nationals after finishing fourth in the 1500 free in Rio. So nobody in entered in that event has ever come close to breaking 15:00.
There are options here—in predicting the meet, we went with True Sweetser and Robert Finke, with one of them breaking 15:00, in our bold predictions—but it’s going to take a lot for the Americans to pick up a finalist in the mile come Budapest.
Smith, the NCAA champion in the 500 free and 1650 free, won’t swim the mile at Nationals, but he and perhaps Grothe will provide two solid options in the 800 free.
Backstroke: Murph Territory
Ryan Murphy is the best backstroker in the world—the gold medalist in both the 100 and 200 and the world record-holder in the 100. Matt Grevers, the 2012 gold medalist in the 100 back, is still around, and Jacob Pebley continues to improve in both the 100 and the 200 after finishing fifth in Rio last year in the 200. Justin Ress and John Shebat are both young and quickly improving
Yeah, USA Swimming has nothing to worry about here.
Josh Prenot was the Olympic silver medalist in the 200 breast, and Cody Miller picked up a bronze in the 100 breast. Kevin Cordes was in both Olympic breaststroke finals.
Will Licon is hungry after finishing just 0.14 off the Olympic team in the 200 breast. Andrew Wilson and Michael Andrew weren’t that far off in the 100 breast, and Nic Fink has returned to form after swimming on World Championship teams in 2013 and 2015. Reece Whitley’s time in that event will come. Again, Team USA will be just fine right here.
Butterfly: Very Unproven
Okay, now it gets interesting. The Americans could end up sending some medal contenders to Worlds in the men’s butterflys—that’s not out of the question—but there’s much to prove at Nationals before that happens.
Tom Shields finished fourth at the 2015 World Championships in the 100 fly and then made the Olympic final in Rio, and he certainly has sub-51 potential. Conger, Tim Phillips, Matt Josa and Seth Stubblefield all narrowly missed the Olympic team here, while Dressel showed off what he can do in butterfly when he took down Olympic gold medalist Joseph Schooling in the 100-yard fly at the NCAA championships.
And even if the 100-meter fly is a bit too long for Dressel, watching him swim the 50 fly should be a treat.
As for the 200 fly, Conger has been in the 1:54-range in the past, and he blasted an incredible 1:37.35 to win his first NCAA title in the 200 fly this year. Chase Kalisz has been as fast as 1:55.82 in the 200 fly already this year, and Shields joined Phelps on the Olympic team in the four-lap event as well.
So no, not out of the question for some medal contenders to emerge from this bunch.
IM: Kalisz Rising
Kalisz might have already made the Worlds team in the 200 fly by the time the IMs roll around, but these are the events where he should shine.
Before Saturday, he had been the only man in the world to break 4:10 this year in the 400 IM (before David Verraszto and Daiya Seto both swam 4:07s at the Sette Colli meet), and Kalisz should be a legitimate gold medal threat in that event come Budapest. Litherland will also be in position to chase after a medal at Worlds, provided he can handle whatever challenges Prenot, Bentz and Abrahm DeVine can throw his way at Nationals.
The 200 IM final will look different this year compared to last year’s Trials final, mostly because the presence of Phelps and Lochte compelled Kalisz, Prenot and Licon to all scratch. But 1:56—perhaps even a 1:55—doesn’t seem that unreasonable from that bunch this time around.
This is the scene on the men’s side going into Nationals, but how will that meet shake out when all is said and done? Check out five days’ worth of bold predictions for the meet.
- Day One: Ledecky to Pull Double Duty
- Day Two: Haas to Dominate 200 Free?
- Day Three: Beisel vs. Young Talents in 400 IM
- Day Four: Will Grevers Make it Back to Worlds?
- Day Five: Anthony Ervin in Trouble in 50 Free?
All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.