Why Missy Franklin is Swimming the 500 Free at U.S. Nationals

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By David Rieder

DURHAM, North Carolina, December 5. WHEN checking out the psych sheet for any big meet, the tendency can be to type in the name of a big-name talent into the “find” box in order to see what events they have entered. For some swimmers — i.e., Ryan Lochte — this may be a waste of time due to the propensity to enter almost every single event and then scratch. For this week’s Short Course Nationals, I did just that for Missy Franklin and found her entered in a quartet of her typical events, the 100 and 200 free and 100 and 200 back, all events in which she finalled at the 2012 Olympics and 2013 World Championships. But how about on day one? Her only options for individual events included the 500 free, 200 IM, and 50 free? Franklin entered the 500 free.

A bit surprising on the surface, yes. Franklin has never done much in the 400 free long course, while she has been in a few national finals in the 200 IM. Then, Franklin proceeded to clock 4:38.33 in her prelim heat, beating Chloe Sutton to the wall, and that ended up as the second seed behind World Champion Katie Ledecky, a big threat to take down the American record in the final. However, Ledecky, the high school junior, won’t be among Franklin’s potential competition for the NCAA title in the event. Only four college swimmers have swum faster this season, and the top time in the country stands at 4:35.72, attainable for Franklin in tonight’s final.

Why would Franklin pursue the NCAA title in the 500? Let’s change that around a bit; does she really have a choice? Her Cal Bears are bona fied national title contenders, as always seems to be the case, but most of their stars seem to swim the same events. For instance, Franklin and Cal teammate Elizabeth Pelton finished first and fourth, respectively, in the 100 back final at the World Championships. Neither will likely swim the event at NCAAs. With Rachel Bootsma and Cindy Tran, who have combined to win the event the past three years, already entrenched in the event, Franklin and Pelton can concentrate on the 200 free. In long course, Franklin has won two world titles, one Olympic gold medal, and holds the world record. If she swims the event at NCAAs, she would probably be co-favored to win — with teammate Pelton.

Swimming the 500 free short course has rarely been a problem for those who excel in the 200 long course. Jean Basson and Allison Schmitt come to mind as those who have been much more consistent performers in the 500 than the long course 400 in their careers. Pelton gives Cal a better chance in the 200 IM on day one, and the 500 has been one of the Bears’ biggest holes in years past. Moreover, having Franklin swim an event on day one and not double up later on at NCAAs gives coach Teri McKeever the flexibility to switch her relay teams. Back when Natalie Coughlin swam for Cal, her 100 fly-100 back double on day two mandated that she skip one of the two relays that day. The depth and versatility gives Cal once again a legitimate shot to win it all.

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