PHOENIX, Arizona, July 30. THOUSANDS of swimmers have used the USA Swimming junior nationals as a Launchpad for future stardom. This week’s edition in Irvine, Calif., should be no different.
Many of the best swimmers who made their national-level racing debut at junior nationals went on to do great things in the pool. We could go on all day about each one of them, but we’ll just highlight four of them whose names are now in the swimming lexicon.
Katie Ledecky, 2011 junior nationals
At the time of the 2011 junior national championships, Katie Ledecky was slowly making a case that she would be a future distance freestyle star, maybe around 2015 or 2016. The 14-year-old didn’t want to wait that long.
She won the high point award at juniors in Palo Alto, winning all three distance events. Her 4:10.39 in the 800, 8:36.05 in the 800 and 16:24.46 in the 1500 were outstanding for a female swimmer her age, but nothing suggested that a year later, she would drop 22 seconds in her 800 free and stand at the top of the Olympic podium.
Missy Franklin, 2009 junior nationals
Yes, this was at the height of the rubber-techsuit era, but that doesn’t completely dilute the fact that Missy Franklin was going to be one of America’s biggest contributors to the Olympic medal tally. We know that Franklin is one of the most versatile female swimmers on the planet, and she proved that in 2009 with five wins in freestyle and backstroke. She nearly broke 1:00 in the 100 back at the meet in Federal Way with a 1:00.50, and also dipped under 2:10 in the 200 back with a 2:09.16.
The following year at the USA Swimming nationals, Franklin qualified for the Pan Pacific championships, and used that meet to earn a spot on the 2011 world championship team. The rest is history, including a gold medal in the 200 back at worlds and four golds at the 2012 Olympics.
Ian Crocker, 1998 nationals
Ian Crocker represented the state of Maine well at the 1998 Northeast junior nationals, winning the 50 free and 100 fly. Though he would continue to excel in the sprint freestyles, it was his 100 fly that would bring him international acclaim.
At the junior national meet in Buffalo, the 15-year-old Crocker put up a 55.78 in the 100 fly, the second-fastest among the swims done at the three regional meets behind Rainer Kendrick’s 55.36. For good measure, Crocker also posted a 23.28 in the 50 free that did beat out all other swims at juniors that year.
Though Kendrick would go on to success at the collegiate level, winning the 200 fly in 2004 at the NCAA championships, it was Crocker who skyrocketed to fame just two years after his junior nationals success. Crocker was part of the Olympic team in 2000 in the 100 fly and won a gold medal as a member of the 400 medley relay that also broke the world record. He would go on to win silver in the 100 fly in 2004, but his crowning achievement was a stunning 50.40 at the 2005 world championships that still stands as the fastest ever done in a textile suit.
Gary Hall Jr., 1992 junior nationals
Perhaps Gary Hall Jr. was destined to be a great swimmer. His father, Gary Hall Sr., was a three-time Olympic medalist, so the genes would naturally pass on to the son. The younger Hall began to realize his potential at the 1992 junior nationals, blasting through meet records with ease.
He swam a 50.91 in the 100 free prelims and a 23.18 in the 50 free in Pasadena, winning both events easily. From that small but prominent national debut, he would show up at the 1994 nationals as a lanky 21-year-old and win national titles in the sprint freestyles. Yes, that’s two years after winning junior national titles.
He was on his way to the 1994 world championships, where he nearly dethroned Alexander Popov in the 50 and 100 freestyles, taking silver in both. He was runner-up to Popov again at the 1996 Olympics, but broke through at the 2000 Games, tying for gold in the 50 free with Anthony Ervin. He finally won outright at the 2004 Olympics, making him at the time the oldest swimming Olympic medalist at 29 years old.