Beard Can Boost U.S. Breaststroke; Big East Suffers Another Blow

By John Lohn

CRANBURY, New Jersey, June 4. ALTHOUGH the summer won't feature any major international competitions, we've reached a point on the calendar in which several events will feature some of the top names in the sport. The Mare Nostrum Series is nearing a start and the United States Grand Prix Series is under way. Here are some random thoughts from the deck as the summer kicks into high gear.

**Ultimately, she decided to scratch from the championship finals of the 100 and 200 breaststrokes at last week's Speedo Grand Challenge. And, her times from the preliminary heats didn't exactly turn heads, nor were they expected to do so. But, it was great to see Amanda Beard back in competitive action, thus adding a spark to the American breaststroke.

News concerning Beard in recent weeks has pertained to her upcoming appearance in the July issue of Playboy Magazine, not her return to the water. Initially, Beard's Playboy deal was news, but it is now time to focus on Amanda Beard, the swimmer. More directly, it's time to focus on what Beard can do for the United States.

As a three-time Olympian who has corralled seven medals between the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Games, it's clear that Beard has accomplished great things for the United States on the international scene. Whether she can continue to contribute on the global stage remains to be seen, and that question will ultimately be answered at next year's Olympic Trials in Omaha.

For now, Beard deserves the benefit of the doubt that she can return to her former level, skill that made her a world-record holder and the Athens Olympic champion in the 200 breaststroke. While endorsement and speaking engagements have filled her schedule since Greece, Beard's appearance at the Speedo Grand Challenge determined that she's on the comeback trail.

The current state of American breaststroking is certainly strong, thanks to the leading threesome of Tara Kirk, Megan Jendrick and Jessica Hardy. All three women earned medals at the recent World Championships in Melbourne and have highly-decorated international resumes. The return of a top-flight Beard would only strengthen the U.S. in the breaststroke and increased competition can only be viewed as a good thing with Trials only a little more than a year away.

**Is it time for all Big East programs to throw up warning signs? As Rutgers continues to fight to save its men's program, Syracuse University announced last week that it was eliminating its men's and women's programs, but would introduce women's ice hockey. The decision of the New York school was another blow for collegiate athletes who dedicate their time to a passion, only to be let down.

The fact that college programs continue to be sliced is a hard-to-accept development for a sport that features athletes who not only work as hard as any other college athlete, but who generally have greater academic records than their counterparts in other endeavors. As has been the case with Rutgers, among other axed programs, let's hope Syracuse is inundated with letters expressing severe disappointment with the decision. More, let's hope the alumni will take measures as strong as pulling annual donations in protest of the obvious disregard for the contributions to the school by the affected swimmers.

**It appears that at least two high-profile athletes – Aaron Peirsol and Amanda Beard – will opt to compete in a competition in Paris rather than at Nationals in Indianapolis in August. With prize money available at the French Open EDF, which indicated through its Web site that Peirsol and Beard will compete, the American tandem can cash in through quality performances.

Some might argue that Peirsol and Beard should appear at Nationals, but with the meet not serving as a selection event for major international duty, who can blame the Olympians for traveling a different route. As professional athletes, Peirsol and Beard are entitled to race where they want, particularly if they can strengthen their financial standing.

**First, Dave Marsh decided to leave his national-championship program at Auburn to direct Mecklenburg Aquatic Club as a Center of Excellence under the United States Olympic Committee. Now, another big-name coach is leaving the collegiate ranks, as Sergio Lopez was announced last week as the new coach of the Bolles School in Florida, along with its club program. That meant Lopez leaving West Virginia University, which he had molded into an upstart program.

The Bolles School has long been known for possessing one of the top scholastic programs in the nation, and as a training ground for many future Olympians, especially those from foreign nations. Lopez, an Olympic medalist for Spain in 1988, will try to maintain the lofty standards of the school. Still, some questions arise from the announcement. Who's next? And, are we about to see a trend in which college coaches go the club route? Time will tell.