USA’s Duel in the Pool Winning Streak Depends On Who Accepts Invites

Commentary by Jeff Commings

PHOENIX, Arizona, September 17. THE Europeans are starting to stack their lineups for December’s Duel in the Pool, with Olympic silver medalist Michael Jamieson a good pick to help in the men’s breaststroke. Pal Joensen is a blossoming talent in distance freestyle, and with the Americans still rebuilding the elite ranks in distance swimming on the men’s side, the Europeans could use that to their advantage.

The rosters for the Europeans will continue to fill up in the coming days and weeks, and I’m willing to bet just about all of my life savings that Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu will race in Glasgow. She participated in the 2011 Duel in the Pool, only winning the 400 IM. The way Hosszu has been swimming this year, it would be foolish for the Euro All-Stars organizers to not beg and plead for her to be a part of the team. She could be a clutch performer in all three individual medley events, as well as … well, just about anything. Unfortunately, she might have a limit to the number of events she can swim, but since there’s cash on the line for winners, I’m sure we’ll see the Hungarian Energizer Bunny in Scotland this December.

As for the rest of the roster of the Euro All-Stars, it depends on who wants to race one more time after the European championships. Just about all of the All-Stars who raced in 2011 came to Atlanta after the European championships, and some did not perform very well, citing jet lag. With this meet being held in Europe, the chances are high that some of Europe’s best — including world record holders Rikke Moller Pedersen, Ruta Meilutyte and Daniel Gyurta — could give the Americans their first loss in the Duel in the Pool.

The major selection criteria for choosing the USA team — a maximum of 22 men and 22 women — is picking the fastest American in all the Olympic events and second-fastest in the 100 and 200 free. On paper, that gives the USA a slam-dunk win in the Duel, but not all of those top swimmers will accept the invitation to race in Glasgow.

What handicaps the American team is the collegiate season. Many of the top college swimmers choose to sit out the Duel in the Pool, as the meet comes right after an exhausting week of finals, and during the crucial time they have to visit family and friends at home before holiday training. In 2011, only three Americans on the team were current NCAA athletes, while Missy Franklin and Elizabeth Pelton were the only ones in high school. (Chloe Sutton and Dagny Knutson were of college age, but not part of the NCAA system.)

Franklin will have come off USA Swimming short course nationals, where the California Golden Bears will likely put in a good rest in order to post NCAA qualifying times. With college athletes unable to collect the prize money being offered, will California’s head coach Teri McKeever find it pointless to have her best swimmer travel to Scotland for a two-day meet? The top five in the 100 backstroke alone are all college students, which means USA Swimming might have to go all the way down to sixth-ranked Kathleen Baker, who is a high school junior.

In this case, Natalie Coughlin would be an excellent choice for the team. She can swim just about anything, and would thrive in the dual meet format. Though she’s putting full focus on freestyle in this new chapter of her swimming career, she should consider stepping into the 100 back in Glasgow, as well as the 100 fly. Next to Franklin, she’s probably the most versatile American female on the national team.

Though Pedersen, Meilutyte and Yulia Efimova have not confirmed their intentions to swim in the Duel in the Pool, the Americans will need more than Jessica Hardy to collect points in the breaststroke events. Micah Lawrence is done with her collegiate eligibility, so she could show up and help Hardy negate the European breaststroke dominance. Breeja Larson could be a big help as well, but the Texas A&M senior might be too focused on a big finish to her NCAA career to think much of the Duel in the Pool.

Katie Ledecky is a likely candidate for the Duel in the Pool team. The high school junior would be able to swim the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles and do very well in all three.

The Duel in the Pool could also be an opportunity for Allison Schmitt to show the world that 2013 was just a stumble on the Road to Rio. A good 200 freestyle race against old foe Camille Muffat would go a long way to restoring Schmitt’s confidence and get her back on track for 2014.

A few of Schmitt’s teammates at North Baltimore Aquatic Club could be racing in the meet as well. Conor Dwyer sent a Twitter message to a follower that he’s planning to attend the Duel in the Pool, and he will be a vital addition, able to swim just about any freestyle event and the individual medleys. Matt McLean could also help out in all the freestyle events, especially the distance events in which the Americans are not as strong. And Yannick Agnel will likely be a part of the European team, though it depends on the swimmers the French federation invites to the meet.

It’s not a safe bet that Ryan Lochte will be on the American roster, but USA Swimming should do everything in its power to convince him to attend. He’ll be adjusting to a new training group, whether in the States or abroad, and might want to take the fall and winter to acclimate to the new surroundings. If he decides to show up for nationals in December, he could extend his taper for the Duel in the Pool. His appearance would be a big draw for the meet, as he’s a popular face in every part of the globe, and he could score points in virtually in event on the program.

Breaststroke will suffer if Kevin Cordes is not part of the group, a strong possibility since Arizona puts in a good rest for nationals in order to qualify the majority of the team for NCAAs. Mike Alexandrov is always a clutch performer for the USA, and it’s likely he’ll step up to score points. BJ Johnson could also be a big point scorer in the breaststroke, but graduate school studies at Stanford might be keeping him in the libraries more than the pool this season. Cody Miller, a senior at Indiana, could be another multiple-event swimmer for the USA, and if school doesn’t bog him down, the Americans could use his help in the breaststroke and IM races.

Three swimmers who could step up in just about any event (except breaststroke) at the Duel in the Pool are wild cards, just like Lochte. Are Ricky Berens, Matt Grevers and Tyler Clary weighing the possibilities of a pre-holiday trip to Scotland for the chance to build up some crucial gift-buying funds? These three could also do some damage to the American records in short course meters, and the chance to add your name to the record book should be an enticing carrot to hang in front of them.

And then there’s Anthony Ervin. He’ll be coming off a big tour of the Middle East and Asia in the FINA World Cup. Will he have had enough of travel, even if it means missing another meet with cash on the line? If he skips it, Grevers and Berens would be just fine in the 50 freestyle.

With 22 spots available each for the American women and men, I’m expecting to see some names that weren’t on my radar. I could be wrong in dismissing just about all of the college swimmers eligible to swim in the meet. This could be the year that the American winning streak in the Duel in the Pool ends, but it depends on who says yes when USA Swimming gives them the call.

One more thing. The USA vs. Europe concept is nice, but I would love to see this meet go back to the Americans facing just one country. If Australia isn’t game to renew the rivalry, Japan would be a very good alternative.

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