2021 Trials Vision: A First Crack at the 800 Free for Rebuilding Program

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Zane Grothe Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Each day during the pre-scheduled days of the 2020 US Olympic Trials, Swimming World will take its readers back four years to the 2016 Trials in Omaha to recap each event, and will offer some insight into what the events will look like in 2021.

The counterweight to the IOC’s and FINA’s longtime injustice of preventing women from competing in the 1500 free is a new event on the men’s side. For the first time at the Tokyo Games, the men and women will swim the same six distances, which opens up the 800 free for men.

The difference is subtle. Swimmers are often sorted into discreet buckets: a 50-100 sprinter, a 100-200 guy, the 200-400 middle distance. But the 800 adds a new layer.

The 800 was last contested at the 1904 Games in St. Louis as the 880-yard freestyle. (German champion Emil Rausch is not expected to defend his gold in Tokyo).

The World Championships have included all six distances since 2001. In the 10 Worlds since, three swimmers have done the 400-800 double (Sun Yang in 2015 and 2013; Ian Thorpe in 2001), and two have done the 800-1,500 double (Sun in 2011 and Grant Hackett in 2003). Hackett also swept the 400-800-1,500 in 2005.

It’s worth noting that in those 10 world championships, across 30 total distance free events, American men have won just seven medals and zero golds. So adding an extra event may not automatically add to the American hardware haul in Tokyo.

The new event comes at a time when the American distance program is mired in a lull. Connor Jaeger won silver in the 1500 in Rio but has since retired.

The Favorite

At the 2019 World Championships, the U.S. didn’t just fail to return a medal from three distance events. Of the six American swimmers, only one made the final (Zane Grothe, eighth in the 400).

In the 800, Grothe finished 11th with Jordan Wilimovsky 16th. Grant Shoults was 25th in the 400. Wilimovsky was 11th in the 1500 free with Grothe 26th.

So by default, Grothe is the favorite ahead of 2021 Trials?

The Contenders

The departure of Jaeger from the national stage makes the 2021 Trials an ideal time for generational change. And if the Americans want a medal contender, the most hopeful supplement to Grothe might be Bobby Finke. Per USA Swimming’s database of times, he’s got the fastest mark by an American in the last 18 months in the 800 free (7:47.58, though that’s 25th in the world). Wilimovsky (7:49.76) and Grothe (7:50.14) are well back of that over the same period.

In college, Finke also has an American record in the 1,650 (14:12.08). He was the top seed at the postponed NCAAs by nearly 16 seconds. If the 19-year-old can devote training to long-course for the 2021 Trials, he has the potential to return the U.S. to the international podium.

The Longshots

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Bobby Finke Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Wilimovsky and Shoults remain in the picture (though 400 is probably more Shoults’ distance). Nicholas Norman is coming off silver in the 800 and bronze in the 1500 at the World University Games. Jake Mitchell and Arik Katz finaled at the World Junior Championships.

Then there’s the question of adaption from the old distances: Can Clark Smith or True Sweetser step up from 400 meters? Can PJ Ransford or Andrew Abruzzo step down form the mile?

Looking ahead to 2021

The power center in the 800 free is well outside the United States. That has shifted somewhat by the doping suspension of Sun, but between Gregorio Paltrinieri, Henrik Christiansen, David Aubry, Mykhailo Romanchuk, Florian Wellbrock and Gabriele Detti, the power center is squarely in Europe. Add in Mack Horton (who has said he’s choosing the 800 over the 1,500) and it’s going to take something special for an American to crack the podium in Tokyo.

2021 Trials Vision

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