U.S. National Championships, Day Four: Backstroke Battles Brewing

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By David Rieder

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana, June 28. EIGHT finals, six prelim events, one American record, and three U.S. Open records later, the U.S. team for the World Championships in Barcelona has begun to take shape. On Thursday night, the top contenders earned their spots in their prime events, especially on the women's side, while breakout stars included some far less likely candidates, such as 25 year old Eugene Godsoe winning what he once would have considered an off-event. Such is the nature of a post-Olympic year nationals. Time then for a look back at night three's highlights and a look ahead to some of the week's best racing.

First Star: Rachel Bootsma, women's 50 back, first place, 27.68 AR
Bootsma earns top honors as a result of her first career American record, which also earned her a spot on her first World Championships team. Bootsma has the best pure speed of any backstroker in America, as evidenced by her NCAA title in the 100 back as a freshman at Cal, and she hopes to add to her program for Barcelona in tonight's 100 back – more on that later.

Second Star: David Plummer, men's 50 back, first place, 24.52
Plummer brought the fireworks in the men's sprint back, upsetting 100 back Olympic gold medalist Matt Grevers and posting the fastest time in the world this year in the process. He jumped ahead of Jeremy Stravius' 24.61 and put himself within striking distance of Randall Bal's American record of 24.33 from 2008. Like Bootsma, Plummer now turns his attention to the 100 distance, where although he enters as a favorite to make the team, he should have another tight race with Grevers, Ryan Murphy, and others.

Third Star: Maya Dirado, women's 400 IM, first place, 4:34.34
Dirado takes the final award over impressive performances from Jessica Hardy (50 breast) and Eugene Godsoe (100 fly). Dirado had been a consistent performer on the NCAA level for her first three years at Stanford but never could find success long course until this week in Indianapolis. She took second to Elizabeth Beisel at NCAAs this year but turned the tables on Beisel and Olympic finalist Caitlin Leverenz this week. She moved to third in the world with the swim, just 0.13 behind world-leader Hannah Miley. Beisel will enter Barcelona as the stronger medal contender in the event, but Dirado has announced her presence the international stage.

Day four's events include the 400 free, 100 breast, and 100 back for both men and women. The women's 400 shapes up to be a rematch of the 800, where Katie Ledecky and Chloe Sutton battled the entire distance. 50 breast national champion Jessica Hardy and 200 breast winner Breeja Larson have another duel in the 100 distance, while Kevin Cordes has more fireworks in the tank in the men's equivalent. The men's 400 free has some intrigue as well; Connor Jaeger and Michael McBroom, who already finished 1-2 in the mile this week, lead the way into finals, but they have veteran names such as Houchin, Klueh, McLean, and Dwyer surrounding them. Of note, of those six, only Klueh has not made the Barcelona team.

Tonight, however, the best will come last. Both 100 back races feature big names with hardware and hungry top seeds who both swam best times in prelims. For the women, Elizabeth Pelton's breakout meet continued with a 59.27 showing, good for the top seed. That beat Pelton's best time of 59.88 from Santa Clara earlier this month, which in turn beat her 59.99 from the Paris Open three years ago. Pelton has a huge advantage over her top competition in this race in her underwaters, which obliterated those of the women next to her in prelims, Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin.

Franklin, whose best time stands at 58.33 from her gold medal performance in London last year, will be in the mix, as will Bootsma, who has a 59.10 performance from last summer's Olympic Trials to her credit. Each one swims the race differently; Bootsma has the lightning early speed, Pelton the underwaters, and Franklin the best finishes in the world. Franklin has the best credentials and remains the favorite, but it could be a huge story and a huge upset if the Olympic champion can't represent her country at Worlds a year later. Of note, Aya Terakawa has the world's top time at 58.84, a time which the three ladies could push in finals.

As is perpetually the case in America, the men's 100 back final is loaded. Qualification required a sub-55 effort, and the field includes five teenagers and three men already on the team: Eugene Godsoe (the 100 fly winner who claims to train more backstroke), David Plummer, and Matt Grevers. The Olympic gold medalist, just as in the women's race, qualified second, and Grevers enters as the favorite. Plummer has looked good this week, however, taking down Grevers in the 50 back. Ryan Murphy, meanwhile, qualified first, and he clipped his lifetime best this morning with a 53.62, and he could break up the party and get on his first senior national team. Only one thing can be certain: as always, this final will be competitive, and it will be fast.

Check out David Rieder's Facebook page to see his updated race predictions prior to each finals session.