Irish Open Offered Look Into Swimming’s Crystal Ball

1 May 2015; Michael Taylor, NCSA, on his way to winning the men's 100m backstroke event during the 2015 Irish Open Swimming Championships at the National Aquatic Centre, Abbotstown, Dublin. Picture credit: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Photo Courtesy: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

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Commentary by Jeff Commings

A lot of future talent was on display at the Irish Open Championships in Dublin, and not just among the American squad picked from the ultra-competitive National Club Swimming Association’s junior nationals last March. Ireland is on the cusp of sending a lot of athletes to Rio de Janeiro next year for the Olympic Games, maybe close to 10 swimmers. While three are pretty much assured of getting a ticket to Rio, four to five more are within reach of the Olympic qualifying time, but will need to put in all the work necessary to meet that goal in the next 12 months.

I’ll come back to the Irish potential for greatness in a moment. I want to discuss the American 18-and-under crew that raced over four days at the National Aquatic Centre. It’s not likely that any of the 52 who visited Ireland will make next year’s Olympic team, but it’s pretty close to a sure thing that a few from this group will be on the 2020 roster.

Matthew Hirscberger stands tall (literally) among the men on the American team, and though he is almost assured of getting into the final of the 1500 freestyle at next year’s Olympic Trials, he’s about three years away from really breaking through and taking over the mantel as America’s next distance ace. In those three years, Hirschberger will chip away at his best time in the 1500, and by the time USA Swimming is ready to pick the 2017 world team, Hirschberger might find himself on it. I expect Hirschberger to break 15 minutes in the mile in 2017, though he will have to be in the 14:50 range to be in the hunt for a world championship post.

2 May 2015; Matthew Hirschberger, NCSA, on his way to winning the final of the men's 400m freestyle event during the 2015 Irish Open Swimming Championships at the National Aquatic Centre, Abbotstown, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Photo Courtesy: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Another swimmer who literally stood head and shoulders above the rest is backstroker Michael Taylor. He’s only 16 years old and stands close to 6’4”. I wouldn’t be surprised if Taylor is as tall as 6’8” by the time he’s a college sophomore. He has a lot of untapped talent as a 100 and 200 backstroker, and the fact that he’s swimming fast while growing says a lot about where he could be headed once he gains the muscle strength to compete with the senior-level crowd.

michael-taylor-winter-junior-nationals-2014

Photo Courtesy: Melissa Lundie

Alex Lebed is also primed to do some damage in the individual medley for the USA in a few years, and just needs to be patient as the current leaders in those events segue into their retirement. Lebed isn’t too far away from a sub-2:00 200 IM, though that event has a lot of young athletes on the verge of breaking that barrier as well. A few years of training at the University of Florida will undoubtedly get him there.

30 April 2015; Alex Lebed, NCSA, on his way to taking second place in the 'B' final of the men's 200m butterfly event during the 2015 Irish Open Swimming Championships at the National Aquatic Centre, Abbotstown, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Photo Courtesy: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

On the women’s side, Katie Drabot will have a tough time breaking through a crowded 200 freestyle field at next year’s Olympic Trials, but anything is possible, and she has been improving steadily in the past year. Drabot showed a lot of leadership and poise in the pool in Ireland, winning the 50, 100 and 200 freestyles as well as the 200 IM, and it was clear that her performances and presence among the team was inspiring. Ruby Martin is also another one to watch. She quietly went about winning three events in Ireland (200 fly, 400 IM, 400 free) and with another year of training under her, she could finish in the top 16 in one or more events in Omaha next year.

Katie Drabot

Photo Courtesy: Griffin Scott

Looking at many of the Americans’ best times, one might think that my predictions are completely off base, and you might be right. But I point to the 2010 NCSA team that came to Ireland as evidence of potential greatness. Jack Conger was a part of that 2010 team, and he’s now an American record holder in the 200-yard butterfly with serious prospects for a 2016 Olympic team berth.

As for Swim Ireland’s swimming future, the swimming population is drastically lower than in the United States, and that makes each potential Olympian all the more inspiring. This week, I saw an awesome breakthrough by Shauna O’Brien in the 100 butterfly, breaking the national record in the event. A time drop of one second would put her on the Olympic team and put Ireland a step closer to having a decent medley relay for international competition.

Also right on the edge of making the Irish Olympic team are Brendan Hyland, Grainne Murphy, Alex Murphy and Andrew Meegan. Though they might barely qualify for next year’s Olympics, having five or more names on the Olympic roster would be a big boost for Ireland and motivate the younger athletes to increase that number at successive Olympics.

2 May 2015; Grainne Murphy, New Ross, after competing in the final of the women's 400m freestyle event during the 2015 Irish Open Swimming Championships at the National Aquatic Centre, Abbotstown, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Photo Courtesy: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Speaking of the younger Irish swimmers, keep an eye on Conor Ferguson. After breaking his junior record in the 200 back on Saturday with a 2:03.12, this 15-year-old has the chops to be the leader of the 2020 squad. Performance Director Peter Banks is quite likely angling to work with Ferguson and his coach toward that goal.

2 May 2015; Men's 200m backstroke Irish National Champion Conor Ferguson, Larne, during the 2015 Irish Open Swimming Championships at the National Aquatic Centre, Abbotstown, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Photo Courtesy: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

The four athletes who qualified for Ireland’s world championship team are the current leaders for the Emerald Isle, and the six others who will swim with them at the World University Games should get some heavy attention from Banks and his department to get them to work right away on dropping that second or so needed to beat the Olympic qualifying time. Some might say that a second is a lot to ask an elite athlete to drop in a year, and I would agree. But the direction that Ireland is headed can do nothing but good things for those who are so close to earning a trip to Rio that they can practically feel the sand of Copacabana Beach between their toes.

This period in the Olympic cycle is always exciting to spot those future stars that could be the next heroes of the sport. In the summer of 2011, the world was learning of Missy Franklin and James Magnussen. Who will be 2015’s big names?