Who Can Fill the Void Left by Maya DiRado?

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Photos Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By David Rieder.

On August 12, Maya DiRado stormed from behind in the Olympic final of the women’s 200 back, passing Katinka Hosszu on the final stroke to snatch away the gold medal.

maya dirado

Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

It was DiRado’s third individual medal of the Rio Games, and the swim was her last. Nine months later, American swim fans have every reason to wonder who’s going to fill those shoes. Because so far, the returns have not been so inspiring.

The American women have actually had massive success in the 200 back over the last decade. Before DiRado, Margaret Hoelzer, Elizabeth Beisel and Missy Franklin all won multiple international medals in the event, capped off by Franklin’s gold medal and world record at the 2012 Olympics in London.

Franklin did not qualify for the the 200 back final in Rio, and her attempted return to top form was put on hold by shoulder pain. Having not competed since those Olympics, it’s no guarantee that she even competes at World Championship Trials at the end of June.

In the meantime, only one American has been under 2:10 this year, 15-year-old Regan Smith, who posted a time of 2:09.89 at the Indianapolis Sectionals in March. The next-highest-ranked American is Eva Merrell at 2:10.22, and at the recent Arena Pro Swim Series meet in Atlanta, 200 fly specialist Hali Flickinger finished first in the 200 back

Hard to imagine one of those three is the immediate solution in the 200 back, but this year’s NCAA results do offer a little more promise.

Specifically, there’s Kathleen Baker, who won Olympic silver in the 100 back last year but scratched out of the 200-meter distance at Olympic Trials. Baker won the NCAA title in the 200-yard back this season, and her short course best time of 1:48.33 ranks third all-time.

Behind Baker, there was rapidly-improving Kentucky freshman Asia Seidt, who swam under 1:50 for the first time when she finished third at NCAAs. Meanwhile, Lisa Bratton and Amy Bilquist finished just behind Franklin in the 200 back at Olympic Trials with times in the 2:08-low range, but neither even qualified for the NCAA final in the event.

Bratton has not competed since NCAAs, but after a slight misunderstanding with NBC Sports announcer Rowdy Gaines, she confirmed that she is indeed not retired.

That’s a solid list of names, so it reasons that a couple of them could swim times in the 2:07-range to get to Budapest and maybe even a little quicker, down to medal-contention territory for Budapest. Still, that’s a lot of uncertainty for an event in which the Americans have been really successful for a long time.

But while DiRado’s absence from the 200 back will hurt, she actually had never competed in the event in a major international meet before Rio. In her two World Championships (2013 and 2015), it was the IMs that were her bread-and-butter events.

The prognosis for the Americans in the 200 IM is not so bad, and that’s due in large part to Melanie Margalis, who finished just four tenths behind bronze medalist DiRado in the 200 IM final in Rio. Baker, Ella Eastin and Madisyn Cox all swam lights-out during the college season, so chances are good for the Americans to snedtwo competitive representatives to Budapest.

But the situation is more bleak in the 400 IM, where DiRado is gone, and 2012 Olympic silver medalist Beisel has not raced since Rio. In fact, it’s possible that only two Trials finalists, Cox and Bethany Galat, will even compete for spots on the Worlds team.

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Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

The outside-the-box option for the Americans in the event is Katie Ledecky, who earlier this year broke the American record in the 400-yard IM, but Ledecky has insisted that she will keep her focus on the freestyle events in international competition.

So that leaves Eastin as the best hope for the American women in the 400 IM. Eastin who broke Ledecky’s American record in the yards race on her way to an NCAA title in March. Her time of 3:57.57 was quicker than DiRado, Beisel or 2012 Olympic finalist Caitlin Leverenz ever swam during their respective college careers.

Eastin also won a silver medal in the event in December at the Short Course World Championships in Windsor, but she has not yet translated that success to long course. At Olympic Trials, Eastin finished ninth in the 400 IM, four hundredths away from a spot in the final.

That short course-to-long course transition can be difficult, especially in a grueling event like the 400 IM, and for all Eastin has done short course, she has not swum under 4:40 in long course since 2013. For some comparison, DiRado won Olympic silver last summer in 4:31.15.

So barring some big breakthrough this summer, it’s unlikely that an American woman will win a World Championships medal in the 400 IM. As is the case in the 200 back, that would break a lengthy streak as either Beisel or DiRado has made the podium in the event at every World Championships since 2011.

Still, even if the Americans take some lumps this year in the 200 back and 400 IM, the team will be better off for those experiences. Two people in each event will get to pick up some valuable international experience—and two more in each event will take on the World University Games in Taiwan.

It’s not unusual for the U.S. to send a thinned-out squad to the World Championships in a post-Olympic year thanks to retirements and long hiatuses. This year, few events will be hit harder than the women’s 200 back and 400 IM.

But with the swimmers who specialize in those events have potential, so don’t be surprised if in three years, those events are weak spots no longer.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

10 comments

  1. avatar
    Bill Bell

    Give her a few more years (Tokyo?) and Reagan Smith will make swim fans not only forget about Maddie DiRado but Katie. Ledecky too!

    • avatar
      Michael Maloney

      Hey Bill are you smoking the stuff…you must be…..Katie Ledecky’s theme song.. REMEMBER ME FOR CENTURIES…just saying

  2. avatar
    John

    “As is the case in the 200 back, that would break a lengthy streak as either Beisel or DiRado has made the podium in the event at every World Championships since 2011.” — you mean Beisel or Missy has made the podium. In 2013 Missy won with no other American’s receiving medals.

    • avatar
      John

      Misread, please ignore

  3. avatar
    John

    Eastin has gone 4:38 in the 400m IM, when she was about 16. I think it was at Jr. Nationals.

    • avatar
      David Rieder

      Good catch, John. Corrected above. I remember that now that you mention it!

  4. Abby Adams

    Bethany Galat ❤️?

  5. Pat Laughlin

    One of my kids, hopefully
    Someday