Morning Splash by David Rieder.
Four hundredths—that’s how much Ryan Held missed the World Championships team by. It was a deep field of sprinters vying for spots on the 400 free relay squad for Budapest, and someone really good was going to be left out.
Turns out, it was the man who had become a national icon 11 months earlier as he cried his eyes out on the Olympic podium while standing next to Michael Phelps.
Michael Chadwick had finished fifth was 48.48. Blake Pieroni, who had become friends with Held during their shared Olympic experience, touched sixth in 48.49. Held, at 48.53, was seventh. He still had the 50 free and the sprint butterfly events to go, but Held knew that his only real chance of making the Budapest team was out the door.
Two days later, Ella Eastin thought she had broken through. She had touched second in the 400 IM final and swum her best time by more than two seconds. But just moments later, as she was congratulated by Elizabeth Beisel—the veteran Eastin thought she had knocked off the Worlds team—Eastin’s time of 4:36.96 was replaced on the scoreboard by two letters: “DQ.”
Eastin had won four individual NCAA titles during her first two years at Stanford, setting two American records in the process, and she had also won two silver medals at the Short Course World Championships. But through that stretch, success in the long course pool had been elusive.
So what could have hurt more than to see that 4:36 gone, erased, thanks to a violation of a since-changed rule on her final turn?
“There isn’t really anything you can say that’s going to make her feel better other than she had the swim of her life,” said Greg Meehan, Eastin’s coach at Stanford. “She went five or six seconds faster than she did at Trials last year. Nobody can take that swim away from her. It was still 4:36 any way you slice it.”
Eastin had another chance at making the Worlds team on the meet’s final day in the 200 IM. She was in second place at the halfway point, but Madisyn Cox—Eastin’s good friend from their time together at Short Course Worlds—caught up on the breaststroke leg and pulled away.
Eastin was third—and devastated. No World Champs for her, either.
The consolation prize: a trip to Taipei for the World University Games, where this week, Held and Eastin are among those with plenty to prove.
For the first time in his life, Held will compete internationally in individual events (50 and 100 free) after handling relay-only duties in his debut last summer in Rio. But since Held accepted the invitation to go to WUGs in early July, American men’s sprinting has done just fine in his absence—in particular with a gold medal in the 400 free relay at the World Championships.
Does Held still belong in the conversation with the deep group of young American sprinters? Probably. He will have a chance to prove that at World University Games—with a real shot at individual medals, especially if he’s around his lifetime best of 48.26 in the 100 free.
Eastin, meanwhile, won’t get the chance to swim the 400 IM in Taipei, owing to her disqualification at Nationals, so she will zero in on the 200 fly and 200 IM—the latter of which might actually be her best event, 400 IM included.
Ironically, Eastin should benefit from a lower-pressure setting at WUGs than she had at Nationals, particularly on the final day in that make-or-break 200 IM. Without a doubt, she has the talent to join Cox and Melanie Margalis as American women to crack the 2:10-barrier this year in the 200 IM.
If she swims as inspired as she did in the 400 IM at Nationals, she will do just that.
But regardless of what times Held or Eastin manage to put up, they will be getting a heck of an experience—one that they might not even have gotten had they fulfilled their original goals of going to Budapest.
WUGs includes the full multi-sport experience, living in an athletes-only village similar to that of an Olympic Games, as opposed to staying in a hotel. Both Held and Eastin were voted team captains, an honor and a token of respect they likely would not have earned had they been on the Worlds squad.
And remember, these are just two of the many U.S. swimmers in Taipei with chips on their shoulders. Take, for instance, the other two American captains, Will Licon and Ali DeLoof, who narrowly missed out on the Worlds spots in the men’s 200 breast and women’s 100 back.
Anyone on the U.S. squad could have said “no” to a spot at the World University Games, and few could have blamed them. The late start dates and proximity to college season were factors in the decisions of some American swimmers who did, in fact, decline invitations.
But 44 people said “yes” to the trip, and each of them will have chances at WUGs to better their efforts from Nationals and perhaps earn a bit of hardware in the process.
And maybe, some of the Worlds team members back home enjoying deserved breaks from high-level training will wake up, see the times and take notice.
All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.