What to Watch For at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Knoxville

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Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

The TYR Pro Swim Series heads to Knoxville for the weekend, starting Thursday. It’s the first big North American meet of the year (and second Pro Swim Series stop of the season) where a multitude of Olympic hopefuls can lay down early markers for the pivotal year that lies ahead.

Four years ago, what was then the Arena Pro Series kicked off in Austin in January, and its implications for Rio seven months later proved prescient. Maya DiRado getting the better of Katinka Hosszu in the 200 backstroke. Katie Ledecky blasting world records. Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte battling. The start of strong years for Sarah Sjostrom, Connor Jaeger and Josh Prenot. All those 2016 storylines kicked off at the Pro Swim Series.

Four years later, many of the names have changed. But the event on Rocky Top offers plenty of big names, including some of the leading American swimmers and some of Canada’s best. Here are five events and five swimmers to keep an eye on.

PSYCH SHEET

Five Events To Watch

Women’s 200 free, Friday

It might be easier to format an impromptu U.S. vs. Canada race. Take Simone Manuel, Allison Schmitt, Katie McLaughlin and Melanie Margalis for the U.S. and Taylor Ruck, Penny Oleksiak, Kayla Sanchez and Emily Overholt for the Canadians. (The “B” teams, at least according to the seeds, aren’t bad either: Regan Smith, Mallory Comerford, Hali Flickinger, Madisyn Cox and Olivia Smoliga for the U.S.; Rebecca Smith, Mackenzie Padington and Emma O’Croinin for Canada.)

That’s eight Olympians plus a world record holder and a ton of swimmers who’ve represented their countries internationally all in the top 22 seeds. Consider the battle for places in the Tokyo relays on.

Women’s 200 breast, Saturday

It was almost unthinkable for the 200 breast final in Rio to have gone off without a single American. Lilly King finished 12th in the semifinals then with Molly Hannis 16th. In the last four years, King, who won’t be in Knoxville, has established herself as breaststroke’s queen and the holder of the 50- and 100-meter world records.

But the favorite for that second spot could reveal herself in Knoxville. Hannis, 27, is the top seed in the 100 breast Friday night, but Annie Lazor was third fastest in the world last year. In the 200, Lazor holds the top seed with the second-fastest time in the world in 2019, quicker even than King by a full half-second at 2:20.77. Bethany Galat was just 0.51 seconds behind King’s 2019 best in the 200, the sixth-best time in the world in 2019. Emily Escobedo was seventh in the world and Micah Sumrall, who finished 11th at Worlds in the 200 last summer is also in the field.

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Kevin Cordes. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Men’s 100 breast, Friday

There’s one teen among the top 15 seed in the 100 breast. There’s none in the top 17 spots of the 200 breast. While there’s plenty of men’s breaststroke talent bubbling up through the American pipeline (Michael Andrew, Reece Whitley), the old guard isn’t relinquishing its hold on the top spots, and it gets a first chance to make an impression on 2020. Andrew Wilson is the top seed in the 100 breast, with mainstays like Kevin Cordes (fifth) and Nicolas Fink (sixth) in the mix. Those three are in the top four behind Will Licon in the 200.

Women’s 400 IM, Friday

You’d be hard-pressed to find an event as open on the American men’s or women’s side as the women’s 400 IM. Rio qualifiers Elizabeth Beisel and Maya DiRado have swum into their retirements, and neither of the 2019 Worlds qualifiers, Ally McHugh (sixth) and Brooke Forde (ninth), are in Knoxville.

Beside the opportunity at Trials, Friday’s event is enticing thanks to four swimmers within eight-tenths of a second at the top of the psych sheet. Ella Eastin leads the way, followed by Madisyn Cox, Canadian Emily Overholt, who has faced a battle in and out of the pool since taking fifth in Rio, Makayla Sargent and Hali Flickinger.

Men’s 100 freestyle, Sunday

How good was the American sprint field last year? Nathan Adrian, who picked up a silver medal at the Pan Am Games in his inspiring return from cancer, was 17th in the world in 2019. That was seventh among Americans. While it bodes well for relay prospects, it means a recognizable name is in danger of staying home.

World-beater Caeleb Dressel won’t be in Knoxville. But a number of his prospective relay mates are. Ryan Held made a statement winning Nationals last summer with a time that would’ve taken bronze at Worlds. He enters as the top seed. Zach Apple (World No. 7), Dean Farris (12) and Adrian (17) are also there.

Swimmers to watch

Regan Smith

No one had a better 2019 than Smith. Her credentials as the world’s foremost backstroker are clear, and she’ll get a taste of more international competition with Taylor Ruck as the second seed in both events this week. But Smith is also seeded 35th in the 100 free, 16th in the 200 free, ninth in the 100 fly and second in the 200 fly. She only swam backstroke – and amazingly so – at Worlds last summer. But she has the range to expand her program in Tokyo. The first hints as to what direction that goes in will be laid down in Knoxville.

Zane Grothe

The American distance throne has been underwhelmingly filled for a long time, and Grothe is coming off a strong 2019 that saw him finish eighth at Worlds in the 400 free. The psych sheets indicate he’ll mostly be racing himself – he’s the top seed in the 800 free by 14 seconds, for instance. But more poignant is the history on offer. Grothe’s seed time in the 1,500 is within three seconds of Peter Vanderkaay’s U.S. Open record from 2008 (though still nine off of Connor Jaeger’s American record). Grothe, who owns the U.S. Open mark in the 800 free, is 0.14 seconds from Michael McBroom’s AR. And the U.S. Open mark set by Larsen Jensen in the 400 in 2008 is two seconds away. Taking down any of those would start 2020 emphatically.

Amanda Weir Photo Courtesy: Azaria Basile

Amanda Weir

Yeah, that Amanda Weir. She turns 34 in March, but the sprinter who made her Olympic debut in Athens in 2004 – when Regan Smith was a toddling 18-month-old – has qualified for a sixth straight Olympic Trials. At this point in 2016, she was probably a long shot for Rio, but she added a third Olympics and a fourth Olympic medal for the runner-up 400 free relay. On one hand, her seeds are far from the feature heats – 25th in the 100 free, 61st in the 200 free, 33rd in the 400 free and 30th in the 50 free. On the other hand, she’s Amanda Weir, so underestimate at your own risk.

Andrew Seliskar/Jack Conger

It’s easy to lump them together, since the psych sheets so often do. Seliskar is the top seed in the 200 free, where Conger is fifth. Conger is the top seed in the 100 fly, a spot ahead of Seliskar, and third in the 200 fly to Seliskar’s fifth. Conger is fifth in the 100 free, with Seliskar eighth. Both are generalists in the sprint/mid-distance mold, and how they direct training (particularly with Luca Urlando sidelined) could play a role in determining the American team for Tokyo.

Gretchen Walsh

It’s not exactly a home-pool advantage, but the 16-year-old from Nashville Aquatic Club has the home-state edge. She burst onto the scene in 2018 and won six golds at the World Junior Championships last summer, including the sprint double. Walsh is entered in seven events in Knoxville in an early indication of her Olympic Trials program. She’s the second seed in the 50 free, behind idol Manuel, seventh in the 100 free, 11th in the 100 back (one spot behind big sister Alex) and 13th in the 100 fly. Not bad for someone with two years of high school left.