From College Teammates to Country Racemates: Talent Abyss at Santa Clara

For full coverage of the Arena Grand Prix, Santa Clara, including video interviews, full recaps, etc., check out our event coverage page.

Column by guest writer Julia Wilkinson-Minks (2008 & 2012 Canadian Olympian)

SANTA CLARA, California, June 2. BEING from Canada, I am often asked by Canadians and Americans alike, why it is that Canada has not been as successful in swimming as our southern counterparts. I don't have enough fingers to name my hypotheses, but I firmly believe that depth of talent has a lot to do with a country's overall international success.

I would never deny the fact that the United States produces talented athletes faster than baby rabbits. They support their athletes' development with excellent coaches and facilities, and overall seem to glorify and idolize them more than any other country on the planet. However, the fact that someone who comes third at U.S. Olympic Trials could easily be a medal contender at the Olympics–had they not been left at home–creates a cycle of success in the United States that is impossible to deny.

The events that have gotten stronger for Canada are those that have gained deeper and fiercer competition during the past few years. This eliminates complacency on the national team and forces swimmers to face the reality of where they really stand outside the comforts of their home soil.

In the first event of the evening, the 200-meter butterfly, Audrey Lacroix took the crown. Lacroix is a 29-year old Canadian national team veteran, who really didn't seem to have much competition other than the clock until Katerine Savard started to nip at her heels. Friday night Savard won the 100-meter butterfly ahead of world-record holder Dana Vollmer. Although Canada is not even in the same swimming pool as the United States when it comes to depth within the country, this is just an example of how important depth is for success on the international level.

Michael Phelps is off the scene (for now, anyway) in the event that he dominated for so many years: the 200-meter butterfly. The depth is rebuilding, however, and we saw that this evening when 16-year old Justin Wright defeated a field that included Olympic gold medalist Tyler Clary.

If a little bit of depth is good, a lot must be better, right? Honestly, I don't know the answer to that. I couldn't help but continually mull this concept over as I watched a stacked women's 100-meter backstroke final make their way down the pool.

Elizabeth Pelton, who earned a standing ovation at the 2013 NCAAs after her record-smashing 200-yard backstroke, took the win in 59.88. Behind her was the Olympic gold medalist, Missy Franklin and Pelton's teammate Rachel Bootsma. Holy Cal.

Picture this: you are the third-best 100 backstroker in the world. You are also the third-best 100 backstroker on your collegiate swim team. Although this currently is not the case for these three women, I don't think this situation is too far-fetched once these three powerhouse backstrokers all start training–scratch that, racing–together every day come this fall.

Up until Missy Franklin's plans to turn pro after her sophomore season, these women are looking at training together for at least the next two years of their lives. What kind of training environment will this be? I can't even imagine, but one word keeps coming to mind: intense.

While Matt Grevers tied with Arkady Vyatchanin in the men's 100-meter backstroke, Pelton, Franklin and Emily Seebohm were simultaneously warming down and preparing for their 200-meter IM.

Caitlin Leverenz took the win in the event, adding to her 400-meter IM crown from yesterday night. Leverenz steamrolled the field on the breaststroke leg, and had two talented, albeit tired, women trying to chase her down on the freestyle. It is tough, especially on the final night of the meet, to swim the 100-meter backstroke and 200-meter IM with less than 15 minutes in between them: Leverenz had more than her talent as an advantage in this final.

Even though Ryan Lochte seems to have no issue with swimming events back-to-back, I couldn't help but wonder if he was chasing Michael Phelps' meet record in the 200-meter IM, hence his decision to scratch the 100-meter backstroke final. Lochte already snatched the 400-meter IM record this weekend, but missed this one by three tenths of a second and was forced to settle for the top of the podium.

Gillian Ryan stormed home on the final 50 of her 800-meter freestyle to overtake Alexa Komarnycky for the win: Ryan split a blazing 29.33 on the final length compared to Komarnycky's 31.86. Ryan won the 400-meter freestyle in similar fashion last night and is showing that she is going to be a serious force to the already steep freestyle field in the United States.

Jessica Hardy also made a statement, by posting the fifth-fastest time in the world this year in the 100-meter breaststroke. On the men's side, Kevin Cordes proved himself to be the breaststoker to beat at this Santa Clara Grand Prix, winning in 1:00.47.

The Santa Clara Grand Prix was deep: star-studded and full of up-and-comers. This is just a microcosm of the depth of talent in the United States, and how hard a swimmer has to fight to earn a spot on the international stage… or maybe even their collegiate relay. It's no wonder that when a swimmer sports a cap with the American flag on it at an international competition, there is a very good chance they will end up on the podium.

Julia Wilkinson-Minks is a two-time Olympian for Canada and was a finalist in the 200-meter IM at the 2008 Beijing Games. In 2010, she became Texas A&M's first ever NCAA champion in swimming when she won the 100-yard freestyle. She graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in Speech Communication. Julia retired from competitive swimming following the London Olympic Games and now lives in Texas with her husband Shane.

Follow her on twitter @juliah2o

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