Final Observations of Shanghai

Guest editorial by John Craig

PHOENIX, Arizona, August 1. WHAT a great meet: once you adjust for the suits, the FINA World Long Course Championships in Shanghai was probably a faster meet than Rome. A few thoughts, in no particular order:

You've got to admire Ryan Lochte's spirit. Maybe someday he'll look back on those green sneakers and teeth grills and feel a little embarrassed — but he wears them with such carefree exuberance that one suspects he won't. And he affects that hip hop style without sacrificing anything in terms of toughness and dedication.

He must give his coach nightmares with his motor scooter driving, his skateboarding, and his break dancing, but somehow all of that fits with the personality of a guy who knows no fear, either outside the pool or in it. He's not intimidated by anything or anybody – not even Mr. Phelps – and if he were a worrywart outside the pool, he'd probably be one inside it as well, which would hurt his competitiveness. [Note to Coach Troy: sorry, but that's just the price you pay for a fearless swimmer.]

Lochte is also living proof that you don't have to give up your youth to be a world-class swimmer. All in all, a good advertisement for swimming.

Phelps' 1:54.16 in the IM, given his limited training, may have in its own way been even more impressive than Lochte's WR of 1:54.00. My money is still on Phelps for next year; he is just too freakishly talented.

Lochte is as strong as a bull, with four perfect strokes and great underwaters. But Phelps has that uniquely long torso for his height, size 14 feet with abnormally flexible ankles, the 6' 7" wingspan, and those unusually low lactate levels. Take another look at that 200 IM: you'll see that with about 20 meters to go, Phelps put on a sprint and almost caught Lochte. Had he started that sprint 10 meters earlier, he would probably have. With a year to go, Phelps seems to finally realize that vacation time is over. We should see a different Phelps next year.

Next year at the Olympics the time zone advantage will be with the Western Europeans. (Note to national federations: if you can afford to do so, put your team in a training camp in that time zone for at least three weeks; one week isn't enough.)

One can't help but wonder what effect the recent events in Norway had on Alexander Dale Oen's psyche. Rather than thinking about himself and worrying about his race, he was undoubtedly primarily just concerned and saddened by the tragic massacre there, and thus probably didn't think as much about his race. When he swam, it may have been more as if he was swimming for his entire country and less for himself. And he summoned up the best swim of his life to set that textile best in the 100 breast.

Did Rebecca Soni cost herself WRs in both the 100 and 200 breaststrokes with needlessly fast prelim and semifinal swims in both races? It seems that by all rights she should hold both WRs, tech suits notwithstanding. Yet at this point she still holds neither. (Note to Rebecca: go to nationals and set those records. Do them in the heats and then scratch if you want to, but those records really ought to have your name on them.)

Femke Heemskerk's 1:55.54 in the semifinals of the 200 free (a time that would have beaten Federica Pellegrini in the finals by .04) made it apparent that if someone was going to beat Pellegrini in the 200 free it's most likely going to be a tall, strong sprinter who can take it out fast and hang on.

Heemskerk was unable to hang on in the final, though two days later Missy Franklin certainly proved that theory right with her leadoff leg of 1:55.06. But whether Heemskerk ever puts together the 200 swim she is capable of, she is probably the most talented 100 freestyler in the world at the moment, judging from her 52.46 anchor leg on the Dutch relay. She had a .37 reaction time there, as opposed to the .82 she had in her individual event, so add half a second to get her equivalent flat start time, which would be a textile best. (But she'd better do it fairly soon, before Missy Franklin does.)

After what Franklin did this week, and after what she will probably do next week at nationals, the publicity about her being the "female Phelps" will probably become deafening, especially in this pre-Olympic year. Let's hope it doesn't distract her from her mission.

Ditto for James Magnussen; he is not as versatile as Franklin, but you can bet he will be treated like a rock star anyway in swim-crazy Australia. (Note to Magnussen: go ahead and behave like a rock star – after next August.)

The French men's 800 free relay swam beyond expectations, thanks in particular to a breakthrough swim by Jeremy Stravius. But after not making the final of the medley relay in which they had originally been favored, after losing the 400 FR by a tenth, after having lost the 400 FR in Rome by .6 and the 400 FR in Beijing by less than a tenth, they now seem to have a monkey on their backs.

In Beijing, Rebecca Adlington won the distance freestyles with a 4:02.24 (4:03.22 in the finals) and an 8:14.10 — in a LZR. In Shanghai, she went a 4:04.01 and an 8:17.51 — in textile, which probably compare favorably to her 2008 times. It's a little mystifying why she hasn't put together a better 200 though, given that she could summon up a 28.91 for the last 50 of her 800. If she ever puts her heart in it, she could probably have a very fast 200.

Speaking of the Australians, there has been some sentiment expressed that Ian Thorpe will have a hard time making that Australian 4 x 100 free relay team. The point of reference usually used is his best individual time of 48.56 with which he got the bronze medal in Athens. But he has also swum relay legs of 47.2 and 47.3, both significantly better swims than his 48.56. And he's got the same thing going for him that Phelps does: freakish talent. He's 6' 5", more powerfully built than most swimmers, and has those famous size 17 feet.

I remember reading about a set he did about a decade ago: 5 x 100 lcm on a kickboard @ 4:00, averaging 1:01. I've never heard of a faster kicker (on a board), and Thorpe never really took advantage of the underwater dolphin which was just coming into vogue for freestylers at the time he faded out in '06. If he can master the fifth stroke and utilize that power underwater, he may have some lifetime best swims ahead of him.

The home crowd certainly got their money's worth with individual victories by three different Chinese women, and two by Sun Yang. It was considered incredible when Paul Biedermann brought home the last 50 of his 400 in Rome with a 25.77, a statistic widely quoted as proof of how ridiculous times had gotten with the tech suits. Sun swam the last 50 of his WR 1500 in 25.94.

The 32-year-old Geoff Huegill has been getting a lot of publicity as the comeback kid, but he was in fact only the third oldest guy to make it to semifinals of the 100 fly. Peter Mankoc, who went a 52.4 at age 33, and Lars Frolander, who went a 52.3 at 37, are not quite as fast as Huegill, but both are his elders.

Then there is Therese Alshammar, 33, once voted the sexiest woman in Sweden, winning the 50 free in 24.14 and missing the textile best in the event by a mere .01. That has to be considered a sexy swim at any age.

John Lohn mentioned recently that he wouldn't be surprised if Michael Phelps returns for 2016. He's probably right. Sometime in late 2014 or early 2015, Michael is going to realize that making appearances at his various Michael Phelps Swim Schools and playing golf doesn't quite match the excitement of international swimming competition. He's going to look at the top times in the world in the 100 fly and see that no one is approaching his WR. And the thought will inevitably occur, hey, I could still beat those guys. And how cool would it be to be the first swimmer to win golds at four Olympics in a row?

And then he'll slip into a pool a few times just to see how he feels…..In 2016, Phelps will be 31. Which is younger than Huegill, Mankoc, Frolander, and Alshammar are now.

But first things first: on to London.

John Craig's no-swimming blog is justnotsaid.blogspot.com. Thanks to Guy Davis for his help with this article.