2021 Trials Vision: Baker, Margalis Lead Best 200 IM In Recent Memory

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Melanie Margalis; Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

200 IM to likely come down between Melanie Margalis & Kathleen Baker.

Each day during the pre-scheduled days of the 2020 U.S. 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.

There are three events the United States has not won a gold medal in at the Olympics since 1984 – the men’s 400 & 1500 free, and the women’s 200 IM. Since Tracy Caulkins last won in Los Angeles, the Americans have two silvers and four bronzes in this event. So when going over which events the U.S. is strongest in ahead of the Olympic Trials, it is slightly head scratching that the women’s 200 IM is one of those events.

But since September, four Americans rank in the top five in the world. Kathleen Baker is first, followed by Melanie Margalis. Alex Walsh and Madisyn Cox sit fourth and fifth, with Japan’s Yui Ohashi splitting them. That type of depth, especially at the top, has not happened in a long, long time.

The Favorite(s)

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Melanie Margalis; Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Melanie Margalis has been an unlucky fourth place finisher in this event at the last two World Championships and at the 2016 Olympics. That type of disappointment over and over again has helped her to be one of the best IM’ers in the nation, and the world. In the last nine months, she is ranked first in the world in the 400 IM and second in the 200 – proving she was in a right place ahead of the Olympic Trials where she will be chasing her second Olympics.

Margalis has been the top IM’er in the U.S. since Maya DiRado retired in 2016 but hasn’t had a medal to show for it. The 200 might be her best event and if she can get out of Trials in either first or second then she can definitely have a shot at a medal. It might actually be harder to get out of Trials than it is to get on the Tokyo podium, and Melanie Margalis has had that experience of stepping up in the big moment.

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Kathleen Baker. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Although we have generally picked one favorite in each event ahead of Trials, Baker is the top swimmer in the world and cannot be ignored. Although she has been best known as a backstroker, Baker has been a 2:08 this year, and ranked ahead of four-time World Champ and world record holder Katinka Hosszu. The tricky part for Baker is that the 200 IM semifinal falls on the same night as the 100 backstroke final, where she is a big favorite to make the team. Will Baker choose one over the other or will she go for both?

Margalis has a similar decision to make as the 200 free final is on the same night as the 200 IM. She made the team in both four years ago, securing a relay spot and getting second in this event on the same night. Do Margalis and Baker have what it takes to master those doubles or will another contender slip in?

The Contenders

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Alex Walsh. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Alex Walsh has been steadily improving throughout her high school years, helping her team Harpeth Hall to back-to-back national championships in her sophomore and junior years awarded by this publication. Walsh won the Pan American Games gold medal in this event last summer and blasted a 2:09 in December at the U.S. Open. She will be headed to the University of Virginia this fall to a team that was seeded to win the national title before the meet got canceled. Walsh is theoretically in a good place – joining a stacked team that wants to win. She will be in the same freshman class with reigning 400 IM national champion Emma Weyant, who should be a good training partner for her.

Will Walsh be able to stay on a perfect trajectory to a spot on next year’s Olympic team?

The other swimmer in the top five internationally is Madisyn Cox, who has had a rocky road since winning bronze at the 2017 Worlds. In 2018, she served a doping suspension that kept her out of contention for the next year’s Worlds and Pan American Games. She was able to eventually prove she was at a no fault so the suspension was overturned. 2020 was supposed to be her last year as a swimmer before heading to medical school in the fall, but with the Games pushed an extra year she will be putting medical school on hold to ideally finish her swimming career in Tokyo. Cox was a 2:09.0 in March, and has been a consistent contender each of the last few years. She has a good chance at making the team in the 400 IM but the 200 is her best event, and should be her best chance at being in Tokyo. In 2016, she was fourth in Omaha and just off the team.

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Ella Eastin. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Another major contender will be Ella Eastin, who is the short course yards American record holder and won two NCAA titles in her career in this event. Eastin was a 2:13 in December but has been known to be a big taper swimmer. She has been better known to be a 400 IM’er but her 200 is still solid, and if any of the above four falter, she could be right there. In 2016, she was fifth in the final.

The Longshots

Virginia freshman Kate Douglass had a tremendous freshman year for the Cavaliers, but was unable to finish it at NCAAs, as it was expected to be her coming out party on the national level. It is no secret now how good Douglass is, as she was a 2:12 in December in the middle of heavy training. If she can go from 1:56 to 1:51 in yards with just one year under new coach Todd DeSorbo, what could she do after two years?

Another swimmer that has flown under the radar is 15-year-old Leah Hayes from Illinois. In November, she pushed Madisyn Cox for all she was worth at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Greensboro, and was ranked 33rd in the world dating back to September 2019. She still has some room to grow in the sport, and she will be one to watch. A year and a half ago, she was the Sports Kid of the Year by Sports Illustrated, and she holds a number of national age group records.

Then there is Meghan Small, who swam in the Olympic Trials final four years ago and placed seventh before she went off to the University of Tennessee. Small won a couple SEC titles and had some really good yards swims, but could never quite put it together at NCAAs, reaching two A-Finals in this event and placed as high as fifth in 2018. She looked ready to win her first title in 2020 before the meet got cancelled but was unable to end her college career in style. Now she shifts her focus to long course as she pushes to make a spot in Tokyo. At last year’s Pan American Games, she won the silver medal behind Walsh in this event, and was a 2:11 in January.

2021 Trials Vision

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