Morning Splash by David Rieder.
Looking back on the five days of racing at U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, there was no bigger shock performance-wise than Leah Smith posting the world’s third-fastest time on her way to victory in the 400 IM.
Smith was a freestyler who seemingly entered the IM just because she had a break from her typical events—anything freestyle 200 meters or longer—on the meet’s middle day. She promptly dominated, and her time of 4:33.87 would have placed fifth in last year’s Olympic final.
After Maya DiRado’s retirement, the Americans came into the week with no established medal contenders in the 400 IM, but Smith might have found a long-term answer in that event—even if the race at Worlds will come on the final day after an ambitious slate of freestyle racing.
“Whoever knew that Leah Smith was the future of IM swimming?” 2012 Olympic silver medalist Elizabeth Beisel said. “But dude, 4:33 is no joke.”
Where else did the U.S. make big strides this week? Here are four improved areas, plus one where there’s reason to be concerned.
1. Women’s Free Relays
For the first time in years, Australia looks vulnerable in the women’s 400 free relay, as world record-holder Cate Campbell will skip this year’s World Championships. And for the first time ever, the Americans have two swimmers capable of going under 53 in Olympic gold medalist Simone Manuel and national champion Mallory Comerford.
On top of that, both Lia Neal and Kelsi Worrell swam under 54 at Nationals, and Katie Ledecky should be capable of returning to the 52.7-range splits that she posted last summer at the Olympics.
As for the 800 free relay, any American squad has a huge advantage as long as Ledecky is around, but the composition of this year’s team looked up in the air with Allison Schmitt, Missy Franklin and DiRado all absent. But with Smith, Comerford and Melanie Margalis all under 1:57 at Nationals and Manuel at 1:57.1, anything besides a gold medal in this relay would be a stunner.
2. Men’s Butterfly
The (second) post-Phelps era got off to a blazing start this week in Indianapolis as the winning times in both the 100 and 200 fly were faster than Phelps swam to win both events at Olympic Trials last summer.
Jack Conger and Pace Clark should certainly be able to make the World Championship final in the 200 fly should they repeat their 1:54-mid form, although it will likely take quicker to chance after a medal. But given how the American presence in the event outside of Phelps has basically been nil for years, that’s a solid step.
And then in the 100 fly, Caeleb Dressel dropped the fastest time in the world at 50.87, and that’s a time that certainly could be medal-worthy come Budapest. Plus, a split like that would be significant for a U.S. men’s 400 medley relay that figured to suffer from Phelps’ absence.
3. Women’s 200 Back and Breast
Remember how the U.S. was lacking in the women’s 200s of stroke, particularly with DiRado and Cammile Adams both absent? Well, the picture in the 200 fly still doesn’t look great, with the No. 1-ranked American (Hali Flickinger) ranked only tenth in the world coming out of Nationals.
But in the 200 back and 200 breast, Nationals produced results that suggest medal-contending swims to come at Worlds. Kathleen Baker proved her mettle in the longer backstroke event with the fastest time in the world at 2:06.38, while 15-year-old Regan Smith will get some top-level experience this summer after qualifying in the second spot.
And then in breaststroke, no American broke 2:24 last year. At Nationals, Lilly King won the event in 2:21.83, and Bethany Galat was second in 2:22.24. King, a natural sprinter, finally mastered a race plan to successfully navigate the four-lap race, while Galat qualified for her first international team after twice finishing third at Olympic Trials.
The women’s 200 breast was the only swimming event in Rio where the U.S. did not have at least one finalist. This year, winning a medal seems much more likely than missing the final altogether.
4. Men’s Mid-Distance/Distance
Okay, so it’s still not a given that there’s an American finalist in the 1500 free this summer at Worlds, but there’s hope. True Sweetser got under 15:00 for the first time in winning that event at Nationals, and Robert Finke was not far behind. Both rank in the world top-ten going to Worlds, and both are young, so improvement is no stretch.
Conor Dwyer finished fourth in the 400 free in Rio and Connor Jaeger was fifth, but neither swam the event at Nationals. (Jaeger is retired.) But Zane Grothe and Clark Smith both look like strong contenders to at least make the final after they moved up to fifth and eighth in the world, respectively, with their efforts at Nationals. The duo also ranks in the world top-ten in the 800 free.
Even in the 200 free, the Americans look set up for a good showing as Townley Haas almost broke 1:44, while Blake Pieroni and Grothe both posted solid 1:46s and Dwyer will provide some veteran stability. Even without Phelps and Ryan Lochte, the American men’s 800 free relay won’t roll over easily.
Concerns in Men’s 100 Back?
Okay, maybe it’s a stretch to say the Americans have issues in an event where they will be represented by the two most recent Olympic gold medalists, Matt Grevers (2012) and Ryan Murphy (2016). Murphy also holds the world record in the event at 51.85.
The duo actually heads into Worlds ranked second and third in the world, respectively. It would be a shocker if at least one of them does not win a medal come Budapest. But gold? That won’t be easy, not after China’s Xu Jiayu almost broke Murphy’s world record earlier this year, posting a time of 51.86.
It would be foolish, of course, to count the two Americans out, given their credentials, but they will have to swim much, much faster than they did at Nationals to be in the hunt. Grevers’ 2017 best is 52.71, and Murphy’s is 53.02. In comparison, Murphy entered the Rio Olympics with a 52.26 season best, and he had already been 52.76 before Olympic Trials.
Regardless of Murphy’s times from Nationals, Cal men’s coach and U.S. World Championships head coach Dave Durden is not concerned about his star backstroker.
“He’s still the world record-holder, he’s still the defending Olympic gold medalist, and he’ll have that title until someone takes it away from him,” Durden said. He’ll do what he needs to do going into Budapest to be good for Team USA.”
Will it be enough to win gold in the 100 back? Still to be determined.
All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.