State of the States: American Women Looking Strong; Men Searching For Identity Three Months Out From Worlds

Torri Huske & Ryan Murphy -- Photos Courtesy: Peter H. Bick & Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

State of the States: American Women Looking Strong; Men Searching For Identity Three Months Out From Worlds

Regan Smith is swimming faster than she ever has in-season, and that includes the spring of 2019 which preceded a two-world-record performance at the World Championships. Abbey Weitzeil is once again swimming like one of the top sprinters in the world after missing the top U.S. squad last year. Lydia Jacoby has returned to her pre-Olympics form, and she and Lilly King form a robust 1-2 combination in sprint breaststroke. Teenagers Katie Grimes, Leah Hayes, Bella Sims, Erin Gemmell and Claire Weinstein have all putting together fast performances. Katie Ledecky is, well, Katie Ledecky.

Add in college swimming standouts yet to race long course this year — three-time NCAA champion Kate Douglass, 200 IM world champion Alex Walsh, 100 butterfly world champion Torri Huske and the multi-talented Claire Curzan, the latter two Stanford swimmers the centerpieces of all U.S. women’s sprint relays in 2022 — and the American women sit in fine shape three months out from the World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan.

The U.S. team will face exceptional competition, particularly from Canadian teenager Summer McIntosh and the entire Australian contingent, but there should be at least one U.S. medal contender in every women’s Olympic event, with the possible exception of the 200 freestyle. There will be plenty of gold-medal chances, including in relays.

But how about the male contingent that will represent the Stars and Stripes in Fukuoka? There are some glaring holes, and the team selected at the upcoming U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis could be one of the weaker rosters in recent memory.

Sure, there will be bright spots. The backstroke events are always strong, with Ryan Murphy looking like the world’s premier 200 backstroker as long as Evgeny Rylov is absent from the global stage, and Murphy and Hunter Armstrong are likely to lead the way in the 100 back. Bobby Finke has built his legend as the fast-finishing lurker in the distance races, always capable of running down a more heralded competitor.

Carson Foster is becoming a dependable individual medley force, although keeping pace with Leon Marchand would be a nearly-insurmountable challenge for anyone, and Nic Fink will look to continue his late-career exploits as a breaststroke medal threat.

After that? A lot of question marks.

Shaine Casas of United States of America stands with the silver medal after compete in the 200m Backstroke Men Final during the FINA Swimming Short Course World Championships at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre in Melbourne, Australia, December 18th, 2022. Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Shaine Casas — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Perhaps Shaine Casas can deliver on his immense potential at a major meet, with three individual medals a real possibility between the 200 back, 200 IM and 100 fly. But he has never raced anything aside from backstroke internationally. Michael Andrew won three individual medals at the last World Championships (plus a fourth-place finish), but his start to 2023 has been unimpressive.

The biggest concerns lie in the freestyle events, where it is very plausible that the American men are shut out individually outside of Finke, and the 400-meter relays — the events in which Caeleb Dressel was a wrecking ball from 2017 through 2021. Dressel’s status remains uncertain for this summer, and while his personal health and happiness far outweigh the concerns of the U.S. swim team, it’s obvious that his presence has masked some cracks.

The U.S. men did not win gold at any global-level meet from 2017 through 2021, with a group of college-aged swimmers combining to end that drought in 2022. Now, the American and British teams look like co-favorites for this summer’s world title, but the other two men’s relays are in worse shape.

Early-season results in the 100 free have been iffy, with Armstrong’s 48.79 from the recent TYR Pro Series meet in Westmont, Ill., standing as the top mark in the country. Ryan Held and Brooks Curry, both standouts last year, have not done much so far in 2023, and all three men who joined Dressel on the gold-medal-winning relay at the Tokyo Olympics, Blake Pieroni, Bowe Becker and Zach Apple, have retired. And strong teams from Italy, Australia and Great Britain, among others, will be awaiting in Fukuoka to face an American team with an international winning streak dating back to 2016.

In the medley relay, the Americans are coming off a head-to-head defeat to Italy at last year’s Worlds, and with the Italians featuring Thomas Ceccon and Nicolo Martinenghi on the front half of their squad, the U.S. men need standouts to finish it off to have any hope of maintaining a tradition of gold-medal excellence in this relay.

These “concerns” might seem akin to first-world problems. Only the world’s dominant swimming nation would be worried about a roster led by Murphy, Finke, Foster, Armstrong, Fink and co., and the American men will probably end up with more medals than any other country in Fukuoka.

But the long periods where Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Dressel have reigned over the sport have pushed the standard for success to immensely high levels. Now, the sport’s biggest stars on the men’s side are all European: Marchand, Hungarian butterfly specialist Kristof Milak and Romanian teenage sensation David Popovici.

As for the U.S. men, when they are compared to their well-rounded and deep women’s counterparts and compared to the country’s usually-dominant relay teams, this year’s group will be facing some challenges in the coming months.

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Payton Williamson
Payton Williamson
1 year ago

The only take I kinda disagree within the medley. I think Murph, Andrew, Casas, and whoever manages to claim the 50 free spot could have a good shot at winning.

1 year ago

Ouch! That stings! Still, it seems like a pretty fair assessment. For example, I’ve been spoiled by Phelps in the 200m fly. Since 2016, I’ve been hoping for a successor, with the potential of getting onto an Olympic podium. Before his three shoulder dislocations, I thought that might be Luca Urlando. (I’m still ready and eager to cheer him on when he returns.) Maybe Carson Foster could work his way to a bronze? But he’s aimed at other events. And what’s coming from the pipeline of male junior swimmers? I have high hopes for a Douglas Diehl helping to maintain our standing in the backstroke events. But 200 fly? Thomas Heilman might make some butterfly noise, but that seems like the 100 fly. Have I overlooked someone?

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