Today’s Swimming Superstars: Versatile Veterans With Vengeance

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, June 2. ALTHOUGH finals may have been splashed with upsets last night at the Arena Grand Prix in Santa Clara, tonight was a different story. The stars stepped up, and the podium was decorated with favorites and Olympic veterans.

Caitlin Leverenz set the standard early, winning the 400-meter IM by more than two seconds; second went to Andrea Taylor. But Olympic silver medalist Elizabeth Beisel also reached the podium and was equally impressive, racing arguably the most grueling event in swimming, in-season, in her hot pink training suit. This takes guts on so many levels, but there are two huge reasons why it is hard to race in a practice suit: first off, training suits are not nearly as supportive as racing suits, and you feel everything moving in the water, as opposed to the girdle-like effect of the high-tech suits. It doesn't matter if you are built like a Victoria's Secret Model or a pre-pubescent boy: you will feel a difference.

Secondly, it is tough to get yourself mentally ready for a race without wrenching yourself into your racing suit beforehand. Without that 10 minutes of preparation, there is not much difference between a 400 IM in finals at Santa Clara and a 400 IM get-out swim during practice. It takes a very mature and mentally tough racer to step up in a training suit at a meet like the Santa Clara Grand Prix.

Ryan Lochte showed his talent and toughness by hanging on at the end of his 400 IM, holding off rising star Chase Kalisz and breaking Michael Phelps' meet record from 2006. It is no secret that Lochte has only recently returned to serious training, what with the many distractions that come with fame. But his guts didn't end there: he came back later (but not much) in the evening to take down reigning Olympic gold medalist Tyler Clary in the 200-meter backstroke.

Combine this feat with Missy Franklin's back-to-back wins in the 200-meter freestyle and 200-meter backstroke, and I couldn't help but notice how important versatility has become in the sport.

Versatile swimmers often don't want to miss out on dominating an event that they know they could be good at, and that is why you see them doubling up the way Lochte and Franklin did this evening. When you are good at so many different events, how can you be sure what you will be absolutely the best at unless you swim everything?

Because of this desire to win as many races as possible, these swimmers put themselves in seemingly over-demanding lineups. But, if that is what you have done your entire career, you don't won't shy away from it come international competition.

Franklin shocked the world in many ways last summer, but when she won Olympic gold in the 100-meter backstroke less than 30 minutes after her 200-meter freestyle semi-final, she set the new standard for a swimmer's race capacity. The more you double up, the fitter and tougher you will become in these circumstances, and we are starting to see more and more of this trend.

Versatility is also something that can extend a swimmer's career: look at Natalie Coughlin. Coughlin is arguably one of the best female swimmers of all time, and surprised a lot of people last summer when she almost missed the U.S. Olympic team.

But Coughlin clearly isn't done: yesterday she swam the 100-meter freestyle and tonight she won the 50-meter freestyle in a fairly competitive field. During the interview she said that she believed she had “untapped potential” in the event, and I couldn't agree more. Coughlin is versatile on the Olympic-podium level: maybe she has a 50-meter freestyle world record inside of her and just never had the chance to swim it because she was so focused on other events.

Even within the freestyle events, we are starting to see a new trend of versatility. At first, Tae Hwan Park seemed to be an anomaly, the way he could swim almost every distance of freestyle at an Olympic level. Now it seems that more distance swimmers are dropping down to shorter events while still maintaining their roots in the mile or the 800-meter freestyle. Tonight, Connor Jaeger proved that he too is on this path, winning the 200-meter freestyle after already taking the 800 and 400- meter titles this weekend at Santa Clara.

Nathan Adrian capped off the evening by winning a highly anticipated and stacked 50-meter freestyle final. He was well under the 22-second barrier: combine that with his meet-record win in the 100-meter freestyle last night, and it looks like he is on track to swim very fast this summer.

The veterans came back with a vengeance tonight in Santa Clara, and showed how valuable versatility has become in our sport. Superstars seem to be both born of and surviving by their versatility.

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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