Handicapping Golden Goggle Awards: Who Will Win?

Commentary by Jeff Commings

TUCSON, Arizona, November 18. TOMORROW evening on the island of Manhattan, more than 50 of the best swimmers in the United States will converge on the Marriott Marquis for the eight edition of the Golden Goggle Awards, a ceremony that has become more prestigious every year.

The ceremonies held in the Olympic years have been the most extravagant, and this year promises to be no different. For starters, this will be our first chance to see Michael Phelps among his swimming peers since taking his final wave to the crowd in London. Flashbulbs will flicker like crazy when Phelps is on the red carpet, as they will for Ryan Lochte, who always makes a big fashion statement at the Golden Goggles.

And let's not forget about the women. The general public rarely sees the likes of Missy Franklin, Dana Vollmer, Natalie Coughlin and others in a glamour setting, and we're likely to see some lovely gowns on display.

OK .. I've gotten the fashion talk out of the way. Now on to my picks for the awards to be presented tomorrow night.

The Perseverance Award is the award I'm most anxious to follow. All the nominees are worthy of a win. There's Tyler Clary, who's been lurking in Phelps' and Lochte's shadows for four years and continued to toil away with the goal of overcoming in the future, finally doing so in the 200 back over Lochte in London. Anthony Ervin might be the head scratcher of this category. I wouldn't call his return to the sport perseverance, though his years-long effort to define himself outside the pool since retiring in 2003 does deserve admiration. That work led him back to the pool, which took him back to the Olympics. Jessica Hardy could have left the sport in 2008 after her drug suspension, but she wanted to make the Olympic team, and she finally did that in 2012, winning two medals. And if there's anyone who defines the word “perseverance,” it's Davis Tarwater, who suffered through three Olympic Trials with finishes one spot from the roster. A little goodwill on Phelps' part finally got him on the team in 2012, and he left London with a gold medal.

My pick: Hardy. As I mentioned she wanted to make the Olympic team, and was not going down without a fight.

I'm also looking forward to seeing who wins the Breakout Performer Award, because all five nominees really did extremely successful performances in the pool that had people asking “Who?” while marveling at their swims. Cammile Adams got on the Olympic team in the 200 fly and started 2012 with convincing performances at the Austin Grand Prix, following it up at the NCAAs. As for Haley Anderson, she won an NCAA title in the 500 free, a relative sprint compared to the Olympic 10K, which she qualified for over several established veterans and won a silver medal. Breeja Larson shocked the crowd with a win in the 100 breast at Olympic Trials and followed it up with a place in the Olympic final. We marveled at her short course prowess, but never thought this was going to be her year in the long course pool. Katie Ledecky had been improving steadily with each swim, but totally defied expectations by beating the defending champion in the Olympic 800 and broke Janet Evans' hallowed American record. And then there's Scott Weltz, who trained alone in his bid to make the Olympic team. He defeated two Olympians with a stellar final 100 at Trials in the 200 breast, and also performed well in the Olympic final.

My pick: Ledecky. I wanted to pick Weltz (a little breaststroke bias), but I can't deny Ledecky's explosive breakout swim at Trials, which was followed by her amazing Olympic swim.

The Coach of the Year nominees all put swimmers at the top of the Olympic podium: Bob Bowman, Teri McKeever, David Salo, Todd Schmitz, Gregg Troy. My pick: Bowman, mostly for his work in shaping Allison Schmitt into an Olympic champion three times over. Oh yeah, and for keeping Michael Phelps in the zone during the months leading up to the Olympics, especially when Phelps was already dreaming of sinking big putts on the golf course.

Here are the nominees for the Relay Performance of the Year: Women's 800 free relay, men's 800 free relay, women's 400 medley relay, men's 400 medley relay. My pick: Women's 400 medley relay. I'm not making the pick solely because it was the only relay to break a world record, but because of their post-race victory celebration. It was about the team effort, and I have to give kudos to Gregg Troy for putting Schmitt on the freestyle leg. It might have been the obvious choice, but necessarily the politically correct choice.

The Female Performance of the Year is extremely tough to pick. You have Schmitt's gold medal in the 200 free, Ledecky's 800 free from London, Franklin's 200 back, Rebecca Soni's 200 breast in the Olympics and Dana Vollmer's 100 fly. Each one won gold in London, and each swim was extremely memorable in their own right. My pick: Soni. A best time that also broke a major barrier gets my vote. And there's a little breaststroke bias as well. And seeing Soni's jubilant reaction after the race made us all do fist pumps, too.

As for the Male Performance of the Year, the choice might be a little easier. Nathan Adrian's 100 free, Matt Grever's 100 back, Tyler Clary's 200 back, Michael Phelps' 200 IM and Ryan Lochte's 400 IM marked five of the six individual gold medals among the American men (Phelps' 100 fly being the other.) Hmmm … on second thought, it might be just as difficult as the women's category. My pick: Adrian. It was the one race among these nominees that no one in the general media or swimming community thought was possible, even as we talked about James Magnussen's vulnerability. It vaulted Adrian from also-ran to the top of the mountain, and it's likely he'll stay there through Rio, even if Magnussen finds his footing again.

I won't waste much time with the Female Athlete of the Year. Though Schmitt, Soni and Vollmer are worthy nominees, my pick is undeniably Missy Franklin. So many expectations put on her, and she pretty much delivered on every level. Plus, that 1,000-watt smile created a new legion of girls who instantly wanted to be like Franklin, which likely brought them to the pool for the first time.

As for the Male Athlete of the Year, I suspect the race is only between Phelps and Lochte. No offense to Adrian and Grevers, because their performances in London were crucial to the American wave of success. But the primary talk in the lead-up to the Games was Phelps and Lochte, either separately or together, and during the Games the talk still centered on them. When Lochte faltered after the 400 free relay, Phelps found a new vigor and left the sport with two more individual gold medals. My pick goes to Phelps, solely for what he did in London, and not for 12 years of great contributions to the sport.

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