Trials of a Supergroup

Commentary by Casey Barrett

Bob Bowman’s NBAC crew might be the most talented group of swimmers ever assembled… But is there such a thing as too much talent in one pool? Recent results raise questions… 

It’s all about the long term, the next Games. Let’s not forget that. Bob Bowman’s thoughts and plans remain focused two years down the road. He’s been thinking Rio since the flame went out in London. This summer is the halfway point, nothing to get worked up about, he’ll be the first to say. No argument there. Yet, when we’re talking about highly delicate egos and bodies as finely tuned and fragile as a Triple Crown contender, it can be easy to get wrapped up in the present tense.

This can’t be an easy time to be running NBAC’s supergroup. Because this summer has not exactly gone according to plan. Just ask Yannick Agnel and Allison Schmitt and Tom Luchsinger

Two years ago, Agnel was the most impressive swimmer in London. He won double gold, while his stature was perhaps most enhanced by the memory of Michael Phelps imploring his teammates to “get me a lead” before he anchored the 4 x 200 freestyle relay against the towering Frenchman. Phelps fears no swimmer, yet in London he knew he was no match for Agnel. Soon after those Games, with Phelps in retirement, Yannick rang up Bowman and crossed the pond for Baltimore. Even after Michael’s comeback, he has reportedly embraced Bowman’s program. Though he might be doubting that right about now.

Agnel is in the midst of an underwhelming campaign at the European Championships in Berlin. In the 400 freestyle he failed to final. The French coaches left him off the gold-medal-winning 4×100 free relay, and today he raced to bronze in the 200 free, a whopping three and a half seconds off of his lifetime best. This from the reigning Olympic champion in that event.

The defending Olympic champ in the 200 free on the women’s side is Allison Schmitt. In London, she scorched to gold in an American record of 1:53.61. She hasn’t approached those lofty times since. Last week in Irvine at the U.S. Nationals, she failed to final in any event, and settled for a B final victory in her signature event, almost five seconds slower than her personal best. Like Agnel, at the Olympics she anchored her country’s 4 x 100 free relay, and like Agnel, two years later she’s sitting on the sidelines.

As for Tom Luchsinger, he’s clearly nowhere near as decorated as those two Olympic champs. However, he’s worth noting here due to his world class form last summer. In 2013, Luchsinger was the U.S. National champion in the 200 fly and at the World Championships in Barcelona, he raced to a respectable 5th place. He appeared to be the next American 200 flyer, ready to inherit the mantle from Michael. And so, he did what so many are doing these days – he moved to Baltimore and joined Bowman’s supergroup. Last week in Irvine, Luchsinger raced to a less than inspiring 7th place at Nationals, almost three seconds off his best.

Is it unfair that I’m singling out these three? The NBAC supergroup is made up of a lot more than this trio. In addition to Phelps, there’s also Tunisian distance legend and USC Trojan, Ous Mellouli. There’s Olympians Conor Dwyer and Matt McLean and, in the summers at least, there’s the best 400 IMer in the world, Chase Kalisz. Joining Schmitt on the women’s side, there’s open water stud Becca Mann and, most recent to emerge among the world class, future Cal Bear, Cierra Runge.

In Irvine, it was Runge who burst on the scene with the best meet among any of her illustrious North Baltimore teammates. It was largely due to a stroke of inspired coaching by Bowman. Not long ago, Runge was a good but not great sprinter. She was fast, but not getting much faster. Bowman noticed something in her stroke or temperament that spoke to a distance pedigree. And so, like the horse trainers he so respects, Bowman opted for a change of distance and tried to stretch his young filly out. Runge embraced the challenge, moved over to the D-group, and at Nationals she charged onto her first National Team in the 400 and 800 freestyles, behind Queen Katie Ledecky.

It’s not all doubt and underwhelming results from past champions at North Baltimore these days. There are highlights, there always will be. So, is it fair to dwell a bit on the lowlights? Well, if you decide to post a live Twitter feed of your Saturday morning workout, you’re inviting the scrutiny. And when you train a group with six Olympic champions, with 27 Olympic gold between them, you’re going to get the attention, like it or not.

18 of those gold, of course, belong to one man. The elephant in the pool, so to speak. And speaking of elephants, the man has the memory of one when it comes to sets and slights. That prodigious memory of challenges and doubters, real and perceived, has always fueled Phelps. His competitive fire would seem to enhance any aquatic arena. What better example could there be for Luchsinger or Dwyer or McLean or Kalisz, or Agnel for that matter? Well, define example. Are you thinking MP circa 2003, devouring every set, never missing day, laying the foundation that would make him the greatest of all time? Are you envisioning MP circa 2010, coasting on that foundation, still able to dominate without showing up much at all, a questionable example to the worshipping young teammates around him. Or are you thinking elder statesman MP, a man with rekindled joy for the sport, a fresh perspective, and a desire to mentor his ambitious teammates? The latter, one hopes. But when comebacks begin and those being mentored become competitors once more, things can get a little sticky.

Do you think Phelps is going to like when Bowman focuses his energies on Agnel, should he decide to reinsert the 200 free into his Rio program? Do you think he’ll be as generous with Dwyer or Luchsinger when he decides these are new foes that need a little head-messing? Do you think that renewed hunger can last another two years? And most of all, do you think Bowman would ever grant more of his attention to anyone else?

The question of hunger is a valid one with this group. The problem with eating it all is that it’s hard to stay hungry, and there are champions in Bowman’s group who have gorged at the Olympic feast. How Phelps stays hungry for more is beyond anyone’s guess. But how does Ous Mellouli stay hungry? After 1500 gold in Beijing and open water gold in London, he’s an Olympic legend no matter what. Allison Schmitt has her one shining moment, and it’s hard to envision anything surpassing that in Rio.

It’s also hard to imagine Yannick Agnel surpassing his London exploits two years from now. Which begs the question – is Yannick doing the swimming version of the Euro soccer icon, a la David Beckham? You know the drill – shoot to fame and fortune at your peak in Europe, then come over stateside to explore your options, after your place in history is secure. Agnel would surely deny this, and Bowman would never have welcomed him if he believed that, but his results in Berlin this week make one wonder.

While Phelps, Mellouli, Schmitt and Agnel have little else to prove, their Olympic resumés already sparkling, there should be no lack of hunger among the North Baltimore crew. Chase Kalisz has hinted, with his NCAA performances, that he could soon be threatening the insane standards of Phelps and Lochte in the long course version of his event. After his breakout season in 2013 and his disappointment this summer, Tom Luchsinger would seem to have something to prove in the years ahead.

Then there’s Connor Dwyer, already an Olympic champion as a member of the men’s 4 x 200 relay in London. Many consider him the next great all-around talent in American swimming. Many, including his former coach Gregg Troy at Florida, think Dwyer has the talent to take down the likes of Agnel in the 200 free and to contend with Lochte and Phelps in the 200 IM. His times at Nationals (1:47.1 in the free and 1:57.4 in the IM) don’t put him in the ballgame just yet, but he may be sitting on big swims at Pan Pacs in Brisbane in the week ahead.

Then again, this summer doesn’t matter. It’s tune-up time. A midway check-in on the way to Brazil. No one will remember if it all works out two years from now. Except Phelps and Bowman, men who remember everything.

Casey Barrett is the founder of both swim-based blog capandgoggles.com and New York-based swim school Imagine Swim. This commentary originally appeared on his blog.

9 Comments

9 comments

  1. emelyn

    I would like to see someone have the guts to ask Coach Bowman why his swimmers are not performing well and why the clearly seem disappointed and surprised at their slower times. Agnel (in an interview) said he was going to have a talk with Coach Bowman after his meet. Is it all about MP?

  2. Duncan

    Why no Matt McLean? Lotte Friis?

  3. Duncan, good call pointing those two out. I did mention McLean, but only in passing when I first mentioned Dwyer. With regards to Friis – a very notable oversight. My apologies. Unfortunately, she can’t be very happy with her European results in Berlin thus far either. Yesterday, she went 8:27.2 in the 800, out of the medals in 4th. Last summer at Worlds, she went 8:16.3, for silver behind Ledecky.

  4. John Jones

    You can add Jessica Long to this list.

  5. Durham

    “Chase Kalisz has hinted, with his NCAA performances, that he could soon be threatening the insane standards of Phelps and Lochte in the long course version of his event. ”

    yea, because short-course results always translate so well into long course….

  6. emelyn

    Well Pan Pacs and European Championships are almost over so it might be time to look at results of Bowman’s group: Agnel, Dwyer, Mclean, Luchsinger, Schmitt ,Fries all slower at their championship meets this summer than they were last summer and Ous has returned to CA.
    Not sure we can include Kalisz because he was in Georgia most of the year.

    I am still waiting for someone to ask Bowman about his groups results (minus MP).
    I have always thought the best coaches have solid college experience behind them; that is where they learn to manage many top level athletes on a daily basis. I don’t think Bowman has that.Yes he was with Michigan for a short stint but he had Urbancheck with him. MP is without question in a league of his own and deserves the attention and focus he gets but when a coach and swimmer are so intertwined ( shared press conferences, shared businesses) I wonder if they can only coach one superstar . Being a great coach for MP does not mean being a great coach for everyone.

    • Grasshopper

      I’m not sure the college coaching experience is a fair statement. SwimMac is also having mixed results, especially those who have been there for a year, and Marsh had plenty of time at the college helm.

      While it is great to have all that talent in the pool, you have to be selective with the personalities. I have a feeling that the post grad coaches have their hands full getting some of our more social athletes to the pool on a consistent basis. When you are spending more energy trying to get some of your athletes to train rather than getting them to train well, it takes a lot of energy away from those who are at the pool consistently.

      • guerbyruuska@gmail.com

        I agree with Grasshopper, there were many teams at nationals who we all thought would make waves and did not. SwimMac and NBAC being the biggest two were probably the biggest disappointments.

        Now, I think Allison Schmitt is just getting back into it is all. She had a long break after London and just like Phelps is not having the cleanest of comebacks but she just needs more time to get back into it. I actually thought she performed very well due to her situation.

  7. Evelyn

    Don’t know if there will be a mass exodus but I do wonder who will decide its time to move on. Has anyone asked the swimmers?

Author: Jason Marsteller

Jason Marsteller is the general manager of digital properties at Swimming World. He joined Swimming World in June 2006 as the managing editor after previous stints as a media relations professional at Indiana University, the University of Tennessee, Southern Utah University and the Utah Summer Games.

Current Swimming World Issue


Trouble Viewing on Smart Phones, Tablets or iPads? Click Here