ISL Budapest Bubble: What to Expect From Start of Season Two

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Cali Condors cheering - the ISL is back! Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

ISL Budapest Bubble: What to Expect From Start of Season Two

When the TYR Pro Swim Series in Des Moines finished on March 7, 2020, little did we know it was the last swim meet many of us would see for seven months. In a year that was supposed to bring us NCAAs, Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games, the Des Moines stop was the end of this “era” as we knew it, not even knowing that this (holding swim meets with hundreds of people on deck) was an “era” that could come to a close.

A week later, some of Britain’s best convened in Edinburgh for a pre-Trials tuneup, as the rest of the world held on to hope that the Olympics could still happen while a deadly virus affected the entire planet. But by the end of March, the Games were pushed to 2021, allowing many athletes to exhale a sigh of relief. We didn’t know when we could return to the pool for practice, or when it would be safe to hold swim meets again. Many teams have returned to practice with just two swimmers per lane and limited time in their facilities. Many athletes have been able to suit up in little intrasquad meets that feel more like a lactate practice than a professional swim meet.

But here we are in mid-October: we haven’t had a legit swim meet outside of a few meets in Europe, Asia and Australia, in seven months. For many of the world’s best swimmers, this weekend’s ISL Budapest meets will be the first time they have raced legitimately since before the pandemic started.

And boy is everyone excited.

  • Who: Energy StandardCali CondorsNew York BreakersLA Current
  • When: 
    • October 16 – 10 a.m. (New York); 4 p.m. (Budapest); 11 p.m. (Japan)
    • October 17 – 2 p.m. (New York); 8 p.m. (Budapest); 3 a.m. (Japan)
  • Who: London RoarDC TridentAqua CenturionsTeam Iron
    • October 18 – 12 p.m. (New York); 6 p.m. (Budapest); 1 a.m. (Japan)
    • October 19 – 10 a.m. (New York); 4 p.m. (Budapest); 11 p.m. (Japan)
  • How to watch: USA audiences can watch on CBS on Saturday, Oct. 17
  • How to watch: European audiences will be able to watch on beIN sports.

The ISL will get underway this weekend, October 16-17, with defending champs Energy Standard, last year’s American champs LA Current, last year’s Vegas finalists Cali Condors and the New York Breakers, competing in the Duna Arena in Budapest which hosted the 2017 World Championships as well as the 2019 World Juniors. All swimmers are staying on Margaret Island in a “bubble” type format similar to what was done in the women’s and men’s National Basketball Association in the United States.

October 18 & 19 will feature the London Roar, DC Trident, Aqua Centurions and Team Iron, while the Tokyo Frog Kings and Toronto Titans will make their debuts October 24.

The excitement over the start of the second season of the league is not so much over “how fast will the swimmers go,” but more of a “it’s so great to be back to racing” vibe. After all, we missed out on the Olympic Games, the sport of swimming’s pinnacle that occurs every four years, and haven’t had a lot of real racing since March. We are still 284 days away from the start of the Tokyo Games if they are to happen on schedule, but the ISL filling the racing void will help the swimmers feel a sense of normalcy as they train another year for the Olympics.

So what can we expect from this week’s competition? Here are some storylines to follow in the ISL Budapest bubble:

Life Without Aussies

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Mitch Larkin’s departure from the ISL over Australia’s concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic will hurt the Condors team. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The London Roar were notably decimated by Swimming Australia’s decision to withdraw its athletes from competing in Budapest, citing concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, as were the Cali Condors. The Roar will be without the likes of world record holder Minna Atherton as well as key sprinters Emma McKeonCate Campbell and Kyle Chalmers, while the Condors are missing Ariarne Titmus and Mitch Larkin.

Both teams have been able to reload their rosters with some respectable talent, but it looked like the Roar had one of the strongest teams for 2020 after missing out on last year’s title by a few points. The Condors also had a strong team and were able to pick up a couple American swimmers that graduated from NCAA swimming in 2020, but without their Aussie teammates it will be hard to get by last year’s champs Energy Standard.

Energy Standard – Unbeatable?

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Femke Heemskerk & Sarah Sjostrom were a clutch 1-2 punch in the Skins races for Energy Standard. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

With London Roar and the Cali Condors feeling the effects of the Australians’ departure, is Energy Standard going to go back to back in 2020? With new additions coming in with Danas RapsysMatt Grevers and Pernille Blume, one can almost assume Energy Standard will have a clear path to the finals. Of course nothing is solved on paper, but the fact is: Energy Standard has not lost a meet they have competed in, and with their core group back of Sarah SjostromChad Le Clos and Florent Manaudou, Energy will be tough to bring down.

But with that being said, Energy did lose Daiya Seto, who came up huge last season in the Vegas final, breaking the world record in the 400 IM, and also taking wins in the 200 fly and 200 IM. He has since joined GM Kosuke Kitajima on the Frog Kings and is leading a strong team that will definitely challenge for a spot in the finals. The Energy women’s team lost the Canadian duo of Penny Oleksiak and Kayla Sanchez, who were set to represent the new Toronto-based team but have pulled out for health reasons. That leaves the Energy relays noticeably bare, with Olympic champ Blume filling some of that void and breaststroke Olympian Breeja Larson.

There’s still some unknowns with Energy’s roster, but this team looks like preseason favorites to take the 2020 title in the ISL Budapest bubble.

What Shape Are the Americans In?

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Lilly King was undefeated last season in breaststroke events for the Condors. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

We haven’t seen a lot of the Americans race in time trials the last few months. We’ve seen the Instagram highlights of the home workouts and some stingers done off the blocks, but until they dive into the pool in Budapest, we really don’t know what to expect. Seven months is a LONG time for swimmers to be away from real racing, and it may be foreign for everyone this weekend when they line up behind the blocks alongside the world’s best.

It will be safe to assume that is what the common questions asked by journalists this weekend will be: how does it feel racing? What are the challenges? Are you surprised by your results? Do you feel any different compared to last year?

The LA Current and Cali Condors advanced to Vegas last year, and they each have strong teams to make a similar run again. The Condors picked up CSCAA Swimmer of the Year Beata Nelson as well as key relay cog Erika Brown, who will strengthen the women’s team that was already stacked to begin with. The Current picked up national champs Maxime Rooney and Abbey Weitzeil, who are capable of big relay swims wherever they are placed.

But we really haven’t seen these swimmers race much in the last few months, so based strictly on where they were pre-pandemic, they should be key additions to their teams. As the meets get going, it should feel a little more normal as results start to come in and we get used to seeing everyone compete again. And based on some small results that have been posted on social media, it doesn’t look like any of the Americans are out of shape. But it will be interesting to see how the racing plays out.

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