Commentary by Jeff Commings
PHOENIX, Arizona, December 3. IT’S hard to tell from just looking at the psych sheet for the USA Swimming nationals and the names on the live results page of the Texas Invitational which of the two will be the more exciting meet. But with both featuring American record holders and NCAA champions, this will be a great three days of racing.
Both meets will use the NCAA championship meet schedule, with the exception of moving the 100 butterfly to the beginning of the first day at the Texas Invite. Oh, and each meet will be held on a “UT” campus, with the Texas Invite held at the University of Texas and nationals being hosted by the University of Tennessee. Though a lifelong Longhorn, I’ll do my best to be objective in deciding which could be the best meet of the week.
USA Swimming’s winter nationals will feature athletes that are more recognizable by the general public. Missy Franklin. Nathan Adrian. Natalie Coughlin. Katie Ledecky. It will also be a chance for the postgrads to shine during the college season, and try to turn the spotlight on them for a while before the attention returns to NCAA swimming. I’m anxious to see what Nathan Adrian can do in Knoxville. If you remember, he had to withdraw from last December’s nationals after jamming his finger during warmdown after the 50 free prelims. He swam an 18.82 in that prelim swim, and this could be the year that he breaks his American mark of 18.66 from 2011. I’m sure Matt Grevers and Roland Schoeman will be right on Adrian’s shoulder, so that could push them to some fast times.
Adrian could also be gunning for his techsuited American record of 41.08 from 2009, which would be an amazing thing to see. So far, the only two swimmers under 41 seconds are foreigners: Vlad Morozov and Cesar Cielo. Again, Grevers and Schoeman could be spoilers.
As far as the collegiate swimmers in Knoxville, the University of California-Berkeley looks to be unstoppable. I’m not sure how rested the men’s and women’s teams will be, but it will be a great opportunity to see the results of Missy Franklin’s first semester of training in Berkeley. Interestingly, she’s swimming the 500 free this week in what is bound to be a trial for what events could work best for her in the collegiate championship season. And watch out for that women’s 100 back. The top four seeds are all Cal-Berkeley women, led by reigning NCAA champ Rachel Bootsma. Franklin will be in that race, as will Elizabeth Pelton and two-time NCAA champion Cindy Tran.
On the men’s side, all eyes will be on Ryan Murphy as he continues what has been a strong debut season for the Golden Bears. With Ryan Lochte out of the meet, Murphy’s best competition in the 200 backstroke could come from Arkady Vyatchanin, who dueled with Murphy at last year’s nationals. As with the Cal women, I’m not sure if Murphy and his Cal teammates will be fully rested, or just rested enough to put up some automatic qualifying times for the NCAA championships.
The Michigan men’s team will be on fire as well. They’re hungry to start a dynasty in Ann Arbor after winning NCAAs last March, and will be led by distance ace Connor Jaeger, who should have little to no difficulty winning the 500 and 1650 freestyles. Seven of the top eight in the men’s 500 and five of the top six in the 1650 have Michigan connections, which shows off their extreme distance depth. As for their other events, John Wojiechowski is doing well in the sprint butterfly and backstroke events, which is a weak spot in individual events but should do well to fill medley relay gaps.
Over in Austin, the Arizona Wildcats will be keeping their eyes on what’s going on in Tennessee. Arizona typically does an all-out taper for this meet, and we’ll have a good indication how the team is holding up in the wake of head coach Eric Hansen’s leave of absence. I don’t expect Kevin Cordes to match his jaw-dropping swims from last March’s NCAAs this weekend, but the junior might want to prove something and could, at the very least, go under 1:50 in the 200 breast. This could also be Giles Smith’s year to claim an NCAA title after years of chasing Tom Shields in the 100 fly. Anything under 45 seconds this week in the 100 fly will be a step in the right direction.
On the women’s side, I’m curious to see how the men and women of Southern California perform. The women have a lot of talent through just about every event, and this meet could show the rest of the nation how serious they are about challenging the other top schools in March. Freshman Chelsea Chenault was a member of the world championship team in the 800 free relay, so you would think she has a clear line to the win in the 200 free, but Texas’ Sam Tucker has been having a great season, and swimming in her home pool could give her a little extra boost. Kasey Carlson and Jasmine Tosky have had rollercoaster careers at USC, so it’s hard to predict how they will do this week. Carlson was on fire at last season’s NCAA championships in the sprint freestyle and breaststroke, and I think she wants to put a scare into Breeja Larson as the two close out their collegiate careers.
The Texas men and women have been consistent in dual meet action, but with the exception of Jack Conger and Clay Youngquist, no one has put up major swims. I expect Conger and Murphy to have a great virtual battle in the 200 back, while Youngquist could challenge the times posted in Knoxville in the 200 and 500 freestyles. Eddie Reese rarely gives his men’s team a full rest for this meet, and never is concerned about Arizona rolling over them over the course of three days.
The Longhorn women’s team is lacking in a tried-and-true leader with the graduation of Laura Sogar, but Tucker has been doing her part this season. Like her brother, Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker, she’s a reliable team player and will swim well in the freestyle events. Gretchen Jacques and Lily Moldenhauer are also going to be at or near the top three in their respective events, but it depends on how much rest head coach Carol Capitani gives her squad this week.
With the men’s NCAA Division I championships set for Austin this March, the Texas Invite could be a great dress rehearsal for all men’s teams involved, even if they are “swimming through” this meet. I expect every swimmer flying into Austin this week has raced in the Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swimming Center before, but most likely not in a collegiate championship setting (the last time Austin held the men’s NCAAs was in 2003).
Whatever times we see on the scoreboards in Austin and Knoxville this week, swimming fans are in for what could be the most exciting three days of racing we’ll see until the college conference championship season in February.