2021 Trials Vision: The Year of Bobby Finke in the 1500 Free

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Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

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 1500 Freestyle: Bobby Finke, Jordan Wilimovsky & Zane Grothe battle for 1500 supremacy.

The American men have struggled mightily in the 1500 freestyle, with only three Olympic medalists since Mike O’Brien last won in 1984. There are three events that the Americans have not won since Los Angeles – the men’s 400 & 1500 free and the women’s 200 IM. History is not on the Americans’ side in this event, which falls on the last day of the Olympic Trials along with the men’s and women’s 50 freestyle.

But in the early days of 2020, Florida sophomore Bobby Finke swam a 14:12 in the 1650 yards freestyle at the SEC Championships, one of the most impressive yards swims in recent memory.

The Favorite

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Bobby Finke. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Finke has been around the scene the last few years, making the 2017 Worlds team when he was a junior in high school, and also was in the top 10 in the world in the summer of 2018.

Finke had broken out in yards this season but was unable to follow that up at NCAAs in March. How would that have translated to long course? Before he went off to the University of Florida in 2018, he was a 14:48 LCM at the Pan Pacs for eighth in the world. And last year, he had the fastest time in the U.S. with a 14:51 when he won the national title.

Bobby Finke has proved to be a contender the last couple years, but when he broke the yards American record by six seconds at SECs, it opened up a lot of people’s eyes to his potential.

The challenge for him will be coming back from a three-month quarantine as a lot of distance swimmers will need some time before getting back into racing shape. But Finke has proven to be a guy that can step up in the big moment, so if he steps up to the blocks in the final of the Olympic Trials, then he will be tough to beat.

The Contenders

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Zane Grothe. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The yards record that Finke broke in February belonged to Zane Grothe, who had the mantle of best distance swimmer in the U.S. since 2017. In 2018, he was a 14:48 at the Pan Pacs for the silver medal and looked to have a big 2019 after a breakthrough 2017-18 season. But in 2019, he had a disappointing 15:21 at Worlds to place 26th. A few days later he flew to California and swam a 14:56 to put him 17th in the world.

Grothe will not want to let go of best distance swimmer in the U.S. title, and will not go down without a fight at Trials. Four years ago in the 1500, he lost contact with the pack early and fell to eighth.

When Grothe is on, he shows up and swims big, so he should definitely be a factor in the 1500 final at Trials.

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Jordan Wilimovsky. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

There is already one male swimmer on the Olympic team as Jordan Wilimovsky finished fifth in the 10K at the 2019 World Championships. Wilimovsky did the same thing in 2016, winning the 2015 world title and thus was able to “cruise” to second in the 1500 at Trials behind the now-retired Connor Jaeger.

Wilimovsky is a grinder, and will be a tough contender. After a long week of racing at last year’s Worlds, Wilimovsky finished 11th and out of the final in this event with a 14:59. In the last six months, Wilimovsky had the fastest time in the nation with a 15:03, just ahead of Finke at 15:05. Wilimovsky, Finke and Grothe should also factor into the 800, so the third place finisher in that event may be extra hungry to make the top two here. It’s just a matter of staying focused after a long week of racing – the 400 is on day one and the 800 is on day five, with the 1500 on day eight.

The Longshots

After these initial top three distance swimmers, there is a bit of a dropoff. But it may seem that way since there has not been a lot of meets between the summer of 2019 and the COVID March shutdowns. Sitting third and fourth in the national rankings this year were young guns Michael Brinegar (15:08.84) and Arik Katz (15:10.94), who could be spoiler picks ahead of next year.

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Michael Brinegar. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Brinegar had taken an Olympic redshirt at Indiana as he is a legacy of an Olympian – his mother Jennifer Hooker swam for the U.S. in 1976. Brinegar has been one of the top age group swimmers since he was 14, and has steadily risen up the ranks the last few years. He had been training under legendary coach Mark Schubert in Mission Viejo and was coming off a 2019 where he made his Team USA debut at the World Championships, finishing 12th in the 5K. Brinegar has trained alongside Grothe at Indiana and could find himself fighting for a top two spot if he is in a race.

Katz will be a freshman at Harvard this fall and was fifth at World Juniors in this event. His older brother Austin will be a favorite in the 200 back and both of them could benefit from the extra year of preparation for the Trials. A pair of siblings have not made the same Olympic team since the Kirk sisters and Keller siblings in 2004. Katz is more of an outside shot here in the 1500, but his 15:10 in March showed that he should not be counted out.

Cal grad Nick Norman was coming off two straight top three finishes in the 1650 at NCAAs and was a 15:12 in December. He has proven to be a clutch swimmer in this event, so he should not be counted out on the last day of Trials. Tennessee’s Taylor Abbott was ranked seventh in the U.S. in the last six months with a 15:18 in December.

Looking Ahead to 2021

The United States has not won an Olympic gold medal in the 1500 since Mike O’Brien won in 1984, and since then only three have even stood on the podium. Chris Thompson won bronze in 2000, Larsen Jensen won silver in 2004, and Connor Jaeger won silver in 2016, as Australia and Europe have dominated this event. Last summer at World Championships, all eight finalists in the 1500 hailed from Europe, with Germany’s Florian Wellbrock taking the gold ahead of the Ukraine’s Mykhailo Romanchuk.

2021 Trials Vision:

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2 comments

  1. avatar
    Coach Bob

    Correction: Ous Mellouli – US based swimmer – won the 1500 in Beijing 2008.

    • avatar
      Craig Lord - Swimming World Editor-in-Chief

      Yes, he did, Coach Bob, but that’s not a correction. Ous Mellouli raced for his country, Tunisia, so what Andy has written is absolutely correct. No American since xxzxz etc.

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