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Commentary by Jeff Commings
KNOXVILLE, Tennessee, December 5. IT’S a completely foreign concept to me to show up to a national championship and not be fully shaved, tapered and ready to race, but that’s what a lot of athletes are doing this week at the USA Swimming winter nationals.
At every nationals I competed in during the 1990s, including the ones that were not selection meets for international competitions, no one showed up with unshaved torsos or legs. This was the top meet of the year, and everyone relished the opportunity to race for a national championship. This week at the University of Tennessee, however, I spotted almost a dozen swimmers walking around with remnants of their Movember mustaches, and even noticed a full beard on a few of them. The entire men’s teams from Tennessee, Michigan, Indiana and California are racing unshaved, and I would expect the same is true for the women’s squads at those schools.
On the flip side, Louisville is putting in a good shave and taper, and I saw some big time drops from the Cal Poly team after one prelims session. A large majority of the athletes here are current collegiate swimmers, and I understand that the plan is to hold off on the shave and taper until the conference and NCAA championships in a few months. For every school here, the goal — and the criteria for determining the amount on the coaching staff’s paychecks — is the NCAA championships. But why come all the way to Knoxville and not be at your peak?
It’s particularly puzzling to see Michigan unshaved at this meet. They hosted an invitational two weeks ago in their home pool, yet very few of the Wolverines competed, opting to wait until nationals to race. Why put forth all this expense, get kids out of school and fly 500 miles to swim events that you could have done in your home pool? I suppose I shouldn’t be arguing. The Wolverines had a pretty good first session, with Connor Jaeger leading a stacked Michigan squad in the 500 free. The top four seeds for tonight’s championship final, and nine of the top 24, have train in Ann Arbor. And then there’s the 200 IM, where Dylan Bosch and Kyle Whitaker posted some impressive unshaved times to grab the third and fourth seed behind Olympian Darian Townsend, who posted his third-best time ever in the event, and Andrew Seliskar, who is on a roll after an impressive summer at the world junior championships.
Seliskar is just one of a handful of youngsters from Nation’s Capital Swim Club who is not swimming through this meet. Along with Seliskar, Janet Hu and Katie Ledecky are already blazing through the meet with fast times. Hu already tied the national age group record in the 50 free and will go for the record outright in tonight’s finals. Ledecky was under American record pace in the opening half of the 500 free this morning then it appeared that she took her foot off the gas pedal a bit in the final stages. After all Ledecky accomplished this past summer, I suppose we should prepare ourselves for the possibility that a female athlete is going to break 4:30 in the 500-yard freestyle tonight.
Though the California men’s team didn’t appear to be on their game this morning (with the exception of Tyler Messerschmidt and Josh Prenot), the women certainly didn’t plan on traveling nearly cross-country to put in average swims. Celina Li is turning out to be the Golden Bear freshman we should be watching this season, as she continues to roll through the fall with amazing swims. She automatically qualified for NCAAs in the 200 IM (not a surprise), and we’ll see if she can bring teammate Elizabeth Pelton under the cut as well. As for Missy Franklin, it’s odd to see her in the 500 free, but she could be in the low 4:30s tonight as she tries to keep Ledecky in her sights and hold off the distance ace Chloe Sutton.
As I mentioned before, the bulk of the swimmers here are in college, but there are a couple of notable postgrads here that are on the cusp of some record-breaking swims. Natalie Coughlin almost got her meet record of 21.46 in the 50 free, and Nathan Adrian looked like he only sprinted 40 yards of that 50 free this morning. Expect Adrian to be under 19 seconds tonight.