Expectations Running Amiss at Mesa Grand Prix

By David Rieder

CHARLESTON, South Carolina, April 30. WITH the Mesa Grand Prix in the rearview mirror, no single swims reshaped the landscape of the top times headed into the big meets this summer. Sure, both Katie Ledecky and Nathan Adrian posted a pair of impressive top-five times in the world in their respective events, but both have already established their status as legitimate contenders. Ryan Lochte returned to the national stage with an all-around quiet performance, but he did impress in the 100 fly with his winning time of 51.93, an indication that his entrance into the event over the past two years has been more than just experimentation.

The general media had eyes on Mesa for the long-awaited return of Michael Phelps. Phelps exceeded the expectations of the swimming community in the 100 fly, where he clocked 52.13 for the fifth-best time in the world this year. However, in the eyes of ESPN and other general media outlets, Phelps’ comeback had already been declared a flop with the high standard he has set for himself with 18 Olympic gold medals. When he failed to make any of the four final heats in the 50 free the next day, people gasped. But since when has 24.06 in a 50 fly been a failure for Phelps, who never swims 50-meter races?

Meanwhile, almost no one paid attention to the return of another former star as Katie Hoff entered her first high-level meet since Olympic Trials. Six years ago, some looked at Hoff as the premier female swimmer in the world when she won her third gold medal of the 2007 World Championships, dominating the 400 IM by seven seconds and breaking her first career world record. In the next 16 months, she earned the moniker “female Phelps” as some believed she would win six gold medals at the Beijing Olympics. Almost no one, though, would have imagined she would emerge from those Games with no gold medals, taking home one silver and two bronze.

Even fewer could have imagined that, in the years since, Hoff would have swum just once at a major international meet, as she swam a key leg on Team USA’s gold medal-winning 800 free relay at the 2011 World Championships. After a miserable showing at Olympic Trials in 2012, Hoff left the sport and did not compete for more than a year before re-emerging this past weekend in Mesa. Her 200 free failed to draw much attention behind the fireworks that Ledecky and Allison Schmitt, another comeback kid, threw down. Still, without any expectations, getting under 2:00 proved solid progress for Hoff.

On the meet’s final day, Hoff made a statement, inspiring memories of watching the old Katie Hoff. In the 200 IM in which she won world titles back in 2005 and 2007, Hoff blitzed the first 100 to a split of 1:01.58 and then held off Olympic bronze medalist Caitlin Leverenz for a 2:12.92 victory. The time placed her in the top-20 in the world and establishes her as a legitimate contender to get back on the national team this summer. This time, though, Hoff can enjoy her journey back to relevance, and fans can enjoy the renaissance at the same time as no one will place any unrealistic expectations placed on her this time around.

Meanwhile, one of the most hyped swimmers who travelled to Arizona this weekend had never swum internationally or even competed at a U.S. Nationals. He swam in just one championship final, finishing eighth in the 100 back after being scratched into the final from his tenth-place finish in prelims. In his first meet following his 15th birthday, Michael Andrew put up solid performances throughout the weekend, but he showed that he has not yet reached the elite level of the sport. Andrew, swimming as a professional and even giving swim clinics alongside Olympic legends, has been hyped up but at this point has yet to put down any times that challenge the top swimmers in the country.

Andrew has received more publicity than had Missy Franklin at exactly the same age. I watched Franklin swim in her first meet after her 15th birthday, the 2010 Charlotte Grand Prix. Coming off her first international meet, a cameo at the 2009 Duel in the Pool, the future superstar won the 200 back, tied for third in the 100 back behind Elizabeth Pelton and Natalie Coughlin, and took fourth in the 200 free. She qualified for her first international team that summer, although she missed out on any finals at Pan Pacs. In comparison, when I saw Andrew set three NAG records in the span of 90 minutes at December’s Junior Nationals in Greensboro, he finished second in the 100 fly but set records in the 100 back and 100 breast out of consolation heats.

Comparing Andrew to a four-time Olympic gold medalist and nine-time World Champion seems extremely unfair, and without question I agree. He has firmly established himself as one of the greatest age group swimmers of all-time, and the boatload of NAG records that he has set deserves celebration. However, like Hoff and others such as Dagny Knutson, the massive expectations placed on his shoulders have brought assumptions that he will dominate the sport for years to come. He has not come close to that level yet, and he must make a big jump to be in contention to qualify for the Olympics in 2016, let alone wrack up medals there. He may eventually achieve the level of success that Franklin has, but his career should not be judged on that absurdly high standard.