Decade In The Mirror: John Lohn – My Top 10 USA Highlights Led By a Fond Farewell From Michael Phelps

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Michael Phelps celebrates the 200 fly in Rio. Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

A Decade Ends (Michael Phelps)

In a nation as stacked as the United States, choosing 10 highlights from the past decade was not an easy task. As readers peruse this piece, several will stop and wonder, “why was this moment left out?” Managing a consensus is rarely an achievable feat when compiling lists of this type, but the 10 items selected for inclusion here are no doubt noteworthy and among the biggest highlights of the past 10 years.

Of course, some of the biggest names are included, Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky leading the way. With Phelps in retirement, next decade will be the first since 1990-99 in which he was not a major factor. For Ledecky, she’ll jumpstart her next decade with an Olympic season and in search of a rebound from a 2019 season that was hampered by illness at the World Championships.

Beyond Phelps and Ledecky, the past 10 years witnessed the revival of a sprint star, a spectacular two-year run by one of the most affable women swimming has seen and a barrier-breaking performance that promoted – hopefully – greater inclusion of minority athletes.

1. Michael Phelps Waves Farewell With a Flourish

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Photo Courtesy: International Business Times

The initial goodbye from Michael Phelps, which came at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, was done with smoke and mirrors. Between Phelps’ masterpiece of eight gold medals at the Beijing Games and the 2012 Olympics, Phelps did not put his entire focus on the sport. His training was routinely interrupted and the passion that drove Phelps to the greatest achievement in Olympic history waned. Still, the man was gifted enough to still capture six medals, including four of the gold variety.

But as the 2016 Olympics crept closer, Phelps developed the urge to give the sport another go – and he did so on terms that were more in line with what Phelps and Bob Bowman sculpted early in his career. With a renewed commitment, Phelps was the headliner of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where he won six medals, including five gold. He recaptured his title in the 200-meter butterfly, the event that jumpstarted the entire Phelps Phenomenon, and delivered a dynamic leg on the United States’ victorious 400 freestyle relay.

With a final ledger of 28 Olympic medals, 23 of them landing Phelps on the top step of the podium, the greatest swimmer in history left the competitive pool in the most appropriate fashion: On top, and in dominant form.

2. A 15-Year-Old Katie Ledecky Makes A Loud Announcement

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Photo Courtesy: Joao Marc Bosch

Most fans will remember Katie Ledecky’s decade most for what she accomplished at the 2016 Olympics, where the American freestyle star won five medals and joined Debbie Meyer (1968) as the only athlete to prevail in the 200 freestyle, 400 free and 800 free in the same Olympiad. Four years earlier, though, marked Ledecky’s true emergence.

After opening eyes at the United States Olympic Trials with her victory in the 800 freestyle, Ledecky used the stage of the 2012 Games to announce her presence to the world. Racing alongside reigning Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington, the British star competing in front of her home crowd, Ledecky blasted her way to an American record of 8:14.63, beating Spain’s Mireia Belmonte by more than four seconds, and defeating Adlington by nearly six seconds.

The title for Ledecky launched a new era, one which will continue to take shape in the next decade. Ledecky is already widely considered the greatest female swimmer in history, and her world-record performances over 400, 800 and 1500 meters of freestyle sit in a land that others can only dream of visiting.

3. Breaking Down Barriers: Simone Manuel’s Statement

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Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

These days, Simone Manuel is simply known as one of the world’s premier sprinters. As an Olympic and world champion, she has stamped herself as – perhaps – the most-clutch performer in the sport. Time and again, Manuel has gone into races as a perceived underdog, only to emerge from the race with the scoreboard displaying Manuel in the top spot. Put Manuel in a pressure situation and she’s guaranteed to elevate her performance a level or two.

Manuel’s 2016 Olympic crown in the 100 freestyle, which she shared with Canadian teenager Penny Oleksiak, was much more than her first international title. The triumph by Manuel made her the first African-American swimmer to win an individual gold medal in Olympic competition, and Manuel welcomed this status as an opportunity to inspire and motivate African-Americans to get involved in swimming, a predominantly white sport.

“I think it’s really cool that me swimming up the pool just a couple of times on TV can inspire people to get in the pool and learn how to swim or dream about things that they never thought they possibly could achieve,” she said.

4. The Old Man and the Sprint Sea: Anthony Ervin’s Triumphant Title

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Anthony Ervin; Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

When Anthony Ervin emerged as a sprint star at the turn of the millennium, sharing the gold medal in the 50 freestyle with Gary Hall Jr. at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, he was pegged as a legend in development. In 2001, Ervin added gold medals at the World Championships in both sprint freestyles, and the expectations only grew.

However, after the 2003 World Champs, Ervin ventured away from the sport for seven-plus years, opting to explore a life beyond a rectangle filled with water. In his absence, there was a sense of unfulfilled potential, but no man should be held to completing the expectations of others, and Ervin did what he felt was right.

In 2011, Ervin returned to the water and at the 2012 Olympics, he finished fifth in the 50 free, a hell of a comeback by any measure. Still, it paled in comparison to what Ervin pulled off at the 2016 Games, where Ervin upended reigning champion Florent Manaudou by a hundredth of a second and captured his second gold medal in the 50 freestyle – this time as a 35-year-old. The effort made Ervin the oldest Olympic swimming champion in history, and marked a 16-year gap between titles.

5. Two Years of Magic From Missy Franklin

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

For two years in the early portion of the decade, Missy Franklin was the Golden Girl of the sport, her mix of talent and personality defining her as a can’t-miss athlete. At the 2012 Olympics, Franklin swept the backstroke events and fueled the United States to three medals, including a pair of gold. Her come-from-behind win over Australian Emily Seebohm in the 100 backstroke was complemented by a world record in the 200 backstroke that endured for seven years.

At the next year’s World Championships, Franklin collected six gold medals. As she replicated her backstroke double, Franklin added a global title in the 200 freestyle and propelled Team USA to a sweep of the relay events. With Michael Phelps into the first of his retirements, Franklin emerged as the go-to persona for USA Swimming.

Unfortunately, injuries started to hinder Franklin’s career beginning in the 2014 campaign and Franklin was never the same. Yet, the way she carried herself amid her struggles was characterized by pure class and can be used in the future to illustrate how to handle adversity and maintain a positive attitude.

6. Lilly King and the Wave of a Finger

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Diplomacy and an unwillingness to be critical of controversial subjects tends to be the road most often traveled by world-class athletes. American Lilly King possesses quite the opposite personality, as she is willing to call out her rivals for violations such as doping. The proof was provided at the 2016 Olympics, where King dueled with Russian Yuliya Efimova.

Efimova, banned for 16 months in 2013 for testing positive for traces of an anabolic steroid, had to get a late injunction from the Court of Arbitration for Sport to race in Rio, after Russia was banned from competition. Once allowed to race, Efimova engaged in a back-and-forth finger-wagging ordeal with King, who publicly opposed Efimova’s participation in the Games.

In the final of the 100 breaststroke in Rio, King topped Efimova for the gold medal and used the platform provided to further state her opposition to leniency when it comes to doping violators being allowed to compete on the global stage. It was a refreshing stance by an athlete during a time when others would take the politically correct route and not get critical of those with whom they share the deck.

7. Allison Schmitt: Strengthening Others Through Opening Up

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Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

We could place Allison Schmitt on this top-10 list of the decade’s highlights based on her sensational performance in the 200 freestyle at the 2012 Olympics. Behind an effort of 1:53.61, Schmitt prevailed by nearly two seconds over Frenchwoman Camille Muffat. But it is what transpired after the London Games that earned Schmitt a spot on this list.

After Schmitt found Olympic glory, she struggled – as many athletes do – with the post-Olympic letdown and fought depression. Eventually, Schmitt reached out for support and took advantage of resources that were available. As important, she took her experiences to the public in the hopes of helping others who battled depression, and to erase the unfortunate stigma that is sometimes connected to the disease. As Schmitt noted, as has her friend and former training partner, Michael Phelps, there is nothing wrong with confiding in friends or therapists that you are overwhelmed and having a difficult time.

“Being vulnerable is not weakness,” Schmitt said. “It shows you are strong enough to know that life is sometimes hard for you to handle and you need support.”

8. Ryan Lochte Rules the World

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

History will view Ryan Lochte’s career through several angles. In some instances, he will be remembered as the Robin to Michael Phelps’ Batman. In some minds, he will be recalled for the behavior that smeared his career, namely the gas-station incident at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

But Lochte will also be lauded for his tremendous career, which continues to trudge along, and his performance at the 2011 World Championships should never be forgotten. Lochte was the headliner in Shanghai, where he snared four individual titles. In addition to winning titles in the 200 backstroke and 400 individual medley, Lochte got the best of Phelps, his longtime rival, in the 200 freestyle and 200 individual medley, the latter event producing a world record that remains on the books.

Although Lochte did not repeat these exploits at the next year’s Olympics, he used his momentum from Shanghai to capture the 400 medley in London in the fastest textile-suit time in history. That effort was complemented by four more medals, including silver in the 200 medley and bronze in the 200 backstroke.

9. Caeleb Dressel Competes in Another Stratosphere

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Outside of the United States, times produced in short-course yards racing are largely misunderstood. But this is the format adopted for short-course racing in America, and it is uniquely appreciated on this side of the pond. And when a guy like Caeleb Dressel comes along, certain barriers become known around the world.

In his time at the University of Florida, Dressel altered the landscape of sprinting in a way never seen before. It wasn’t long ago in which Auburn’s Fred Bousquet crashed through the venerable 19-second barrier in the 50-yard freestyle and dipping below 19-point remains an impressive feat. For Dressel, going that time was a warmup, and when he powered his way to a 17.63 clocking in the 50 free at the 2018 NCAA Champs, it was difficult to comprehend. Ditto for when Dressel went 39.90 in the 100-yard free, becoming the first man to break the 40-second barrier.

Dressel is on track to become one of the leading names of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, as he will be favored for gold in the 50 free, 100 free and 100 butterfly, and will be a key relay cog for the United States. Inevitably, comparisons to Michael Phelps will flow. In this past decade, though, Dressel might be best remembered – despite his multiple world titles – for his Beamonesque performances in the little pool.

10. Oh Maya, Oh My: DiRado Disrupts Hosszu’s Pursuit of Fourth Gold

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Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

As Katinka Hosszu hopped into the pool for the final of the 200 backstroke at the 2016 Olympics, there was a high likelihood the Hungarian would capture her fourth gold medal of the week. Maya DiRado had other ideas, and in one of the biggest upsets of the Rio Games, the Stanford graduate left Hosszu staring at a shocking loss by a mere .06.

DiRado didn’t race in Rio with the fanfare of her compatriots Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky. Rather, she played the role of the grinder, someone who chugged along under the spotlight and rose to the occasion when the moment presented itself. This approach worked admirably for DiRado, whose stay in Brazil yielded a silver medal in the 400 individual medley and a bronze in the 200 medley. There was also a gold medal as a member of the United States’ 800 freestyle relay.

The 200 backstroke, held on the penultimate day of racing, proved to be DiRado’s exclamation point on her first Olympiad. As the four-lap race unfolded, DiRado sat second to Hosszu through each of the turns, only to charge down the final 50 meters and overhaul the Hungarian at the finish. As DiRado looked to the scoreboard, the shock of her win led to an exuberant celebration and one of the more heartwarming moments of the eight-day week.

3 comments

  1. avatar
    Anonymous

    How could you leave out Adrian

    • avatar
      Cate

      Ditto. Not only for his career, but what he’s had to deal with as far as health issues.

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

        So Anon and Cate, who would you remove from the choices to make space?