2019 US Open Swimming: Four Storylines to Follow in Atlanta

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Lilly King will be in attendance at the 2019 US Open; the meet where she became a serious player for the 2016 Olympics four years ago. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

The US Open this weekend is stacked in terms of who is attending. Olympic champions Simone Manuel and Katie Ledecky and swimming superstars Caeleb Dressel and Regan Smith will be in attendance. This is not a surprise considering it is the Olympic year (in four weeks) and everyone is trying to get their long course fix in. The US Open is taking over for Winter Nationals, which has traditionally been held during the first weekend in December as a short course yards meet, but changed to long course last season, and has now been renamed to be the US Open.

This weekend is a great opportunity for the US National team to take advantage of some long course racing to cap off a great fall season that saw the birth of the International Swimming League. With many of the top American swimmers busy with the new league and racing short course meters, the hype of the approaching Olympic year has almost been forgotten, which may end up being a good thing for many of the pro athletes that could see the ISL as a nice distraction from the intense grind required to train for the Olympic Games.

But the ISL is already over for members of the DC Trident and New York Breakers that did not advance to the Las Vegas final, so it is full-on long course mode from here until August. This weekend’s US Open feels sort of like an “opening day” in other professional sports, with this meet being, for many, the first big test to see where they are before heading to Olympic Trials in June. Yes, the Greensboro Pro Swim Series happened in November but a lot of the best swimmers were not there. At the US Open this weekend, there doesn’t seem to be a big swimmer absent, save for perhaps some of the Cal pros Nathan AdrianRyan Murphy and Tom Shields.

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With so many good swimmers converging in Atlanta this weekend, let’s take a look at some of the storylines worth following this weekend.

#1: Someone Will Break Out This Weekend As a Contender

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Lilly King broke out as an Olympic contender at the 2015 Winter Nationals; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

We don’t know who it will be. And we probably won’t know who will break out this weekend until we see the end results at the Olympic Trials in June. Swimming fans may have a good idea of who will make next summer’s Olympic team based on what happened this summer at the World Championships, Pan American Games, World University Games, etc. But the truth is, we don’t really know anything. And this weekend’s US Open will give us a good opportunity to see who is in the right shape to make a push for the Olympics next summer.

For example, in 2015 at the Winter Nationals in Seattle, a freshman breaststroker from Indiana not a lot of people had heard of named Lilly King swam a lifetime best in the 100 breast at 1:06.43. It was quicker than her time at US Nationals that summer, where she put herself ninth in the world at 1:06.6. In that race in December 2015, King showed no fear in taking on the reigning World champion Yulia Efimova, three months before she failed a drug test for meldonium, taking it out fast and eventually being run down by the Russian. There was a lot of foreshadowing in that race four years ago and at the time, no one knew they had watched the first meeting between two swimmers that would go on to be one of the biggest stories of the Olympic Games eight months later and be one of the best running rivalries in the sport of swimming today in 2019.

The point is that there will be a swimmer this weekend that we aren’t paying a lot of attention to that will swim a best time and quietly put themselves in the driver’s seat to steal a spot on the team in Omaha in June. We don’t know who it is nor do we want to jinx it by making a bold prediction. But four years from now we will be looking back on this US Open meet and think “remember when we didn’t know anything about that swimmer?”

#2: Will the ISL Have Any Factor Into the Meet?

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How will many of the pros swim after a hefty ISL schedule? Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

It seems like a silly question to ask: will the hectic travel and racing schedule of the ISL have a negative impact on those athletes this weekend? Ultimately, the ISL was what swimmers wanted: an opportunity to travel and race more often against their international rivals that they previously would only see roughly once a year. So how could racing too much be a bad thing? Well, it was the first year of the league so there is no precedent in seeing how it will affect the performances at the Olympic Games, but it seems safe to say that the ISL will not hinder the performances this weekend.

Lilly King has said that the ISL may eventually change the training schedule for the sport.

“If it grows into what we believe it can be, it is going to totally change the way swimmers train,” King said in an interview with The Washington Post. “Normally, we’re such a training-driven sport, where it’s normally train, train, train for maybe two big meets a year. Now it’s more like a league like MLB or NFL, where you’re racing every weekend. So it’s definitely going to impact training. We’ll see if that’s a positive or a negative.”

With the ISL expanding, what will that do to meets like the US Open moving forward?

With all that being said, World Championships silver medalist in the 1500 Mykhailo Romanchuk said in his post race interview with Swimming World that he “was mentally so tired” from all the traveling he did in the year due to the FINA Champions Series being in China, Hungary and the United States, leading him to re-evaluate his travel plans for 2020. Of course the hectic travel schedule has not hindered the swims of Katinka Hosszu or Michael Andrew (albeit swimmers of different events than the Ukrainian), but it will be interesting to see this weekend if the ISL has had any impact on the swimmers in Atlanta.

#3: How Will the NCAA Swimmers Do?

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Kieran Smith was notably absent from Florida’s roster at the Georgia Tech Invite, saving himself for this week’s US Open. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Even though the November invitationals have already taken place, a lot of NCAA swimmers will be in attendance in Atlanta at the US Open this weekend to take advantage of the long course venue. A couple of the invites actually had long course prelims and short course finals to give the swimmers a chance to earn Olympic trials cuts as well as just get some more long course racing in. Some coaches like this approach and others do not.

Some coaches pulled their swimmers from invites altogether, including the University of Florida, who rested two of their best swimmers Kieran Smith and Bobby Finke from the Georgia Tech Invite before Thanksgiving in favor of the US Open this weekend. Finke only swam the 1650 at Georgia Tech and World Championships open water swimmer Brennan Gravley was not at the meet at all and neither was Grant Sanders. The Gators have something to prove this weekend as to what they are made of ahead of SECs and NCAAs since they were not at full strength at their invite.

Smith will be particularly interesting to watch since he had the fastest 200 free in a duel meet this season and has seemed to be a dark horse to make the Olympic team in that event (see point #1), shying away from the 400 IM which put him on his first Team USA trip at the 2017 World Juniors.

There will be a handful of other NCAA swimmers in the meet this weekend worth keeping an eye on including but not limited to: Virginia’s Kate Douglass, Louisville’s Nick Albiero, Tennessee’s Erika Brown and Georgia Tech’s Caio Pumputis.

#4: What Kind of Shape is Regan Smith In?

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Regan Smith will be swimming in her first national meet since August. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Regan Smith had an incredible 2019 in which she broke two world records in both Olympic backstroke distances at the World Championships in July, ultimately earning her the World Swimmer of the Year award by us at Swimming World Magazine. A week later she won the National title in the 200 butterfly a mere 48 hours removed from a Trans-Pacific flight from South Korea to California. The now high school senior from Minnesota has not competed at a big meet since Nationals in August, so what does she have up her sleeve this weekend in Atlanta?

There have been comparisons between Smith and Missy Franklin, who burst onto the scene the year before the 2012 Olympics and would go on to win both backstrokes in London while becoming one of the most popular Olympic athletes at the Games. Smith was named to TIME Magazine’s 100 Next list and has all of a sudden become one of the faces of the USA swim team all before she steps foot on campus at Stanford as a freshman next fall.

Many will be watching to see how Smith swims this weekend and how she has handled all of the plaudits that have come her way since her incredible World Championships performance. She had an extraordinary summer in the pool, so what does she have for an encore this weekend at the US Open? However, she will not be swimming her pet event, the 200 back in favor of the 400 free, 200 free, 100 back, 100 free and 200 fly.