Regan Smith, Torri Huske and Simone Manuel Have U.S. Women Dreaming of Paris Prize

regan smith
Regan Smith -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Regan Smith, Torri Huske and Simone Manuel Have U.S. Women Dreaming of Paris Prize

Last year, the Australian women asserted their status as the premier swim team in the world, winning six individual gold medals and two women’s relays at the World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, as the United States team struggled, at least according to its usual high standards. Katie Ledecky got her usual gold medals in the 800 and 1500 freestyle while Kate Douglass and Alex Walsh went 1-2 in the 200 IM, but the team’s lone relay gold medal did not come until the final event of the meet.

Regan Smith had a superb rebound year but was off her season-best times in Fukuoka as her individual tally included three silver medals and one bronze. Torri Huske, the winner of the 100 butterfly world title in 2022 among six medals, swam a full second slower in her signature event and swam on only one finals relay, down from four a year earlier. Both women’s freestyle relays came in four seconds behind the Aussies.

At this point, only a few months out from the Paris Olympics, the possibility of fully out-performing an on-form Australian women’s team looks remote. That group is simply too tough with the likes of Kaylee McKeown, Ariarne Titmus and Mollie O’Callaghan leading the way. Emma McKeon is not the same swimmer who won seven gold medals and four gold at the Tokyo Olympics, but she is a huge piece of the sprint relays, as is Shayna Jack. Good luck to anyone trying to out-shine that.

Torri Huske

Torri Huske — Photo Courtesy: Peter Bick

But the American women have a much higher ceiling than they showed in Fukuoka, with the ability to assemble a team that rivals Australia and collect an impressive tally of gold medals and podium finishes. Several of the key swimmers showed why this weekend in Westmont, Ill., at the latest stop of the TYR Pro Swim Series.

The Westmont meet did not feature a comprehensive field, not with many top American women in the midst of their college championship seasons and others returning to training following their trip to Doha for the early-season World Championships. Breaststroker Lilly King, a five-time individual world champion and key swimmer on four consecutive 400 medley relay world-title-winning squads, was a bit off at this meet.

As for Smith, Huske and Simone Manuel? If this trio can carry forward their early March momentum and continue to improve throughout the season, the U.S. women will be in prime position come Paris.

Let’s begin with Huske, who tasted victory first in Westmont by winning the 100 butterfly in 56.13, faster than she swam in all of 2023 and just a half-second off her American record of 55.64. Huske went on to top the 50 free field in 24.31, knocking a tenth off her personal best. On the final day of the meet, she dominated the 200 IM in 2:08.83, her best time by almost a second, before returning later in the session to finish second in the 100 free in 53.39, quicker than she went at U.S. Nationals last year.

As for Smith, her runnerup finish in the 100 fly behind Huske (56.36) marked a personal-best time, and over the next two days, she exploded in her best events, each of which was the fastest time ever recorded at a Pro Series meet. Friday night’s double brought times of 2:04.80 in the 200 fly and 57.64 in the 100 backstroke, coming within a tenth of her American record in the latter distance, and in the 200 back on the final day, she clocked 2:03.99, a time that only she and McKeown have ever beaten. That was the first time Smith had ever broken 2:04 at a midseason meet.

Yes, both Huske and Smith had been trending in a positive direction since the fall, when both swimmers were impressive at the U.S. Open. Pulling off these swims consistently, though, will help both build confidence as they point toward busy programs of swimming at both the Olympic Trials in June and then at the Paris Olympics.

simone manuel

Simone Manuel — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Finally, we come to Manuel, as the revitalized 27-year-old is putting forth some of her fastest in-season times ever. It’s been less than three years since a struggling Manuel could not break 54 in the 100 free at the U.S. Olympic Trials as she missed the final, but in Westmont, she won the 100 free in 53.35. Considering in-season performances, she has beaten that time only once, when she went 53.30 in June 2019, a month-and-a-half out from winning her second consecutive world title and clocking a still-standing American record of 52.04. This time last year, Manuel swam a time of 54.55 in the 100 free, so she is now 1.20 seconds quicker.

The 100 free has been something of an enigma for the U.S. over the last decade. Even with all of Manuel’s success between 2016 and 2019 plus swimmers like Huske, Abbey Weitzeil and Kate Douglass, the American women have not beaten a full-strength Australian 400 free relay team in more than a decade. That still seems like a stretch for 2024, but could the Americans get five women under 53 this year? Weitzeil and Douglass went under the barrier in 2023 while Manuel and Huske are again surging as Gretchen Walsh lights it up on the college circuit. Such a scenario is within reason.

Also in Westmont, Manuel won the 200 free in 1:57.80 as she stakes her claim for a return to the U.S. 800 free relay mix, and she took second in the 50 free in 24.49.

Considering all these times from over the weekend and ongoing performances at other major meets, the USA Swimming brain trust has reasons to feel optimistic about its women’s team, perhaps more so than at any point since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic almost exactly four years ago. Frankly, the possibilities presented by Westmont are exciting for American fans to think about.

Could Smith knock off McKeown for individual gold in a backstroke event or hold off Summer McIntosh in the 200 fly? Is Huske on track to top Zhang Yufei in the 100 fly? A Smith-and-Huske-led medley relay should crush Australia, right? Is it possible for these freestyle relays to give Australia a run and — maybe — pull off a stunning gold medal?

We are a long way from that hopeful Paris peak, of course. Tapers can be tricky, as Smith found out in 2023 when she hardly improved on her in-season times at the summer’s focus competitions. But the United States could not ask for any more at this early spring checkpoint.

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1 month ago

Concerning Freestyle Relays.
In the immortal words from a beloved Aussie comedy
” Tell him he’s Dreaming”!

1 month ago

The issue with the above premise, at least in how it relates to the 4x100m freestyle relay, is that while you might get 4 US swimmers under 53, you’ll probably have to deal with at least 2 Australian girls under 52 and the other 2 at 52 mid or lower. Remember they averaged 51.99 when they destroyed the WR in the 2023 Worlds.

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