Morning Splash by David Rieder.
At the last edition of the FINA World Championships in 2015, just about nothing went right for the U.S. team from the start. Katie Ledecky won five gold medals… and the Americans won three more total for the meet.
The tone was set from day one, when the U.S. men’s 400 free relay flopped to a 12th-place finish. That evening, Connor Jaeger ended up fourth in the men’s 400 free, missing a medal by just two tenths of a second, and the American women were third in the 400 free relay, well behind Australia and the Netherlands.
Two years later, some things have changed—even if the Americans are still unlikely to medal in the men’s 400 free, which is the first final on the schedule at Worlds. Jaeger, the top distance swimmer in the country the past four years, is now retired, and neither Zane Grothe nor Clark Smith have ever swum an individual event at a major international meet.
But next up on the finals slate will be the women’s 400 free, where the U.S. will send not only Ledecky but also Olympic bronze medalist Leah Smith into action. A one-two finish there is not only possible, it’s by all means probable, with Smith having posted a swim in the 4:00-range in the past.
Finally, the 400 free relays will close out the night, and it has been years since the Americans entered a major meet with such strength in those events.
One year ago, when the U.S. women arrived in Rio massive underdogs in the 400 free relay with no swimmers who had ever cracked the 53-second barrier. Australia had three (Cate and Bronte Campbell and Emma McKeon). Unsurprisingly, Australia won the gold medal.
Now, two Americans have cracked the 53-second barrier: Simone Manuel, who fulfilled years of hype to win Olympic gold in Rio, and Mallory Comerford, who was a virtual unknown less than 18 months ago.
Even with Cate Campbell sitting out this year’s World Championships, it’s Comerford’s emergence that gives the Americans a fighting chance to win this relay. She would have to replicate the speed that helped her defeat Manuel, 52.81 to 53.05, at the U.S. National Championships last month.
Katie Ledecky split 52.7 for the Americans on this relay last year in Rio, and Lia Neal and Kelsi Worrell each have the potential to split around 53-flat. Any of them would be solid, reliable options.
The Aussies will likely counter with Bronte Campbell, McKeon, rookie Shayna Jack and Brittany Elmslie. The X-factor, undoubtedly, is Elmslie, who split 53.12 on the gold medal-winning relay in Rio but has not been quicker than 54.38 so far this year. For Australia to win gold, Elmslie must be back to top form, and whether that is the case is so far unclear.
So it seems only fair to call the Americans and Australians co-favorites here—again, much stronger footing for the Americans than anyone would have argued for one year ago.
As for the men, the U.S. did not improve their roster of sprinters from 2016—losing Michael Phelps and his 47.12 split from Rio will undoubtedly be a blow—but the Nathan Adrian/Caeleb Dressel-led squad looks like a huge favorite to win the World title.
That’s because of who’s not in the field—Kyle Chalmers, the Olympic gold medalist in the 100 free, and the entire country of France, which won silver behind the U.S. in Rio and has been on the podium at every major meet going back to 2007.
Meanwhile, Adrian has been the world’s most consistent sprinter over the last decade, and Dressel will likely put his raw power on display leading off the relay. Two from the group of Zach Apple, Townley Haas, Michael Chadwick and Blake Pieroni, all of whom swam between 48.1 and 48.5 at U.S. Nationals, will fill out the relay, and that’s plenty of firepower to earn a gold medal in this weaker-than-usual field.
If all goes as expected, the Americans would finish day one at the World Championships with four medals, at least two and perhaps three of the golden variety. Three would put the team 37.5 percent of the way to its total from Kazan after only four of 42 finals.
Obviously, the team won’t win three gold medals per day, and with the four finals scheduled for day two (women’s 100 fly and 200 IM, men’s 100 breast and 50 fly), it’s highly unlikely that the Star-Spangled Banner will play in the Danube Arena during that session.
But throughout the week, expect pockets of events where Americans continually ascend to the top step of the podium, just like last summer at the Olympics in Rio. Even with plenty of big names absent (Mr. Phelps, talking to you), the team USA Swimming put together at its National Championships looks equipped to far out-pace the one that travelled to Kazan two years ago.
All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.