World Championships Day Five Prelim Notebook: Universality Policy a Boon for Swimming

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BARCELONA, Spain, August 1. MOST swimming fans care very little about the first few heats of the competition here at the FINA world swimming championships, but I enjoy watching some of the early heats, to watch athletes get the opportunity to swim in the year’s biggest meet.

Some of the countries represented in the first heats of today’s women’s 100 freestyle, for example, will likely never put a swimmer in the championship final of a major competition. But like a swimmer who just barely qualified for a spot in the Olympic Trials or NCAAs, the experience is the most important thing.

FINA, like the International Olympic Committee, invites swimmers from less-developed countries to participate in the year’s biggest swim meet. Under FINA’s Universality policy, these swimmers don’t have to conform to the A or B qualifying times. Most of them will never get to be that fast, but to them, winning a heat or racing in front of thousands of spectators is a memory they will cherish forever.

Take a look at the countries represented in the first and second heats of the women’s 100 free prelims: Palestine, Tajikistan, Comoros, Mauritius, Laos, Palau, Antigua/Barbada, Brunei, Guyana, Bahrain, Turkmenistan, Tonga, Nepal, Burundi. Many of these countries don’t have official swimming federations, but since they have official status in the eyes of the IOC, they get to be a part of FINA as well.

What will these people take home with them — in addition to some souvenirs? A nice racing suit, for starters. I noticed many of them wearing the same technical racing suits the top swimmers wear, and also have caps supplied by FINA. They’ll also share the experience of doing their warmups in the same lane as Yannick Agnel or Missy Franklin, the thrill of racing in an expansive arena and the joy of traveling to another country. I wonder how many of these swimmers have traveled outside of their borders before coming to Spain.

They could also inspire a country to develop more swimmers, maybe not for international competition, but for creating a new national sport.

Micah Lawrence has waited five days for this moment to shine, and she lit up the prelims of the women’s 200 breaststroke in a big way. She leads qualifiers with a 2:21.74, a lifetime best by 1.3 seconds. That’s going to be a big confidence boost for Lawrence going into the semifinals, and hopefully, the finals, as 2:21 puts her into medal contention. I hadn’t predicted a 2:21 from her at this meet, so she’s surprised me and possibly her rivals.

I was impressed by Britta Steffen this morning. She was sick at the German world trials, so we didn’t know how well she’d do here. But a 53.93 to qualify fourth for finals was a big deal. It definitely put a smile on the world record holder’s face. She’ll have a hard fight to reclaim the world title after winning in 2009, but getting into the final will be a main goal. There will be a new world champion, with the co-winners from 2011 out of the race. Aliaksandra Herasimenia said she’s pulling back a bit in 2013, and Jeanette Ottesen Gray decided to not race this event at the meet, though she’ll be in other events.

Tyler Clary looked much better in today’s 200 back prelims. Though he’s had more success in the 200 back in the past three years than he’s enjoyed in the 200 fly, I was concerned about his mental state after last night’s 200 butterfly, but it appears he’s ready for this race.

“It’s anyone’s race, so all I wanted to do this morning is come in and have a technically sound race,” he told the media after his heat. “I was happy I was able to do that. There was definitely more there in the last 50 so we’ll see what happens.”

Who gets that one spot on tonight’s relay? With Missy Franklin, Shannon Vreeland and Katie Ledecky already set for tonight’s 800 free relay final for the USA, it looks like a tossup among Chelsea Chenault, Karlee Bispo and Jordan Mattern. Chenault was 1:58.95 on the leadoff, with Bispo going 1:57.74 on the second leg and Mattern posting a 1:57.86 on the anchor. Factor in the advantage of a relay start and the three are about even. This is not the part of being a coach on the USA squad that I envy. Whoever they choose could pay off big time, or it could … well, we saw what happened Sunday in the men’s 800 free relay. I think the USA will win the event, since the Australians are swimming up to the potential they showed at their Trials.

Who would I choose? Mattern, because she’ll get to swim on the relay with her former Colorado Stars teammate Missy Franklin, and that might get her pumped up even more.

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