By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
In a few days, a new era begins. An era without Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer of our time. An era when new names could emerge -- and dominate -- the swimming circuits. An era when America could become captivated by fresh faces, new talents, and never-heard-of-before swimmers. Are you ready, fans? Have you recovered from your post-Olympic euphoria? Because the Road to Rio begins … now.
This weekend, the 2012-2013 Grand Prix series kicks off at its first stop in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A cast of Olympians and National Teamers are expected to compete. It should be a thrilling weekend of debut races for the new swimming season. What makes this particular Grand Prix so exciting is that it’s the first one not only of the season, but of the new Olympiad. Anything can happen between now and Rio 2016. Anyone can break through. Anyone can ascend to the top of the swimming throne. Anyone can become the Next Great One.
As always, here are your 5 Storylines to Watch…
5. New season. New Olympics. New era.
For the first time in recent memory, the Grand Prix series will not feature Michael Phelps. For swim fans used to seeing Aquaman on the pool decks, this is a big change. The most popular name in the history of the sport is now retired. However, not all is doom and gloom. For many elite swimmers, the retirement of Michael Phelps is an opportunity to potentially break through, especially in those IM and butterfly events. Think about it: Michael Phelps has dominated the IM and butterfly events since seemingly forever ago. That 200 butterfly is now up for grabs. A slew of other events have “opened” up. There are now a few more spots on international rosters. These journeys, particularly of the elite swimmers, begin this weekend. You can be sure that anyone with warm blood pumping through his or her veins was inspired by what the Baltimore Bullet achieved throughout his career. The next generation is in the pool, churning, working hard…
4. Dagny Knutson returns to competition.
After a long and lengthy battle with an eating disorder, Dagny Knutson returns to competition. Knutson, a 2011 world championship gold medalist, missed the Olympic Trials to get healthy. After training in California and Florida, Knutson has moved back to her home state of North Dakota. This week, she will compete in her first swim meet in nearly a year. She has been so open about her battles, as well as inspiring for other people battling similar struggles. Here’s wishing Dagny a fun and healthy return to competition…
3. David Plummer and Garrett Weber-Gale are back in the pool.
Two of the bigger names to just miss the 2012 Olympic team were David Plummer and Garrett Weber-Gale. Both have huge fan followings, and thankfully, both are slated to be back in action this weekend. For Plummer, it’s a return to competition in his backyard. Plummer lives and trains in Minnetonka under head coach and close ally Ben Bartell. Plummer, who scored third place in the men’s 100m backstroke at last summer’s Olympic Trials, shared some of his journey earlier. He said, I’m really excited to race again. Since Trials, I feel like I have something to prove or something to get out.”
For Weber-Gale, the Minneapolis Grand Prix allows him to get back into the swing of things, too. Weber-Gale, an Olympic gold medalist from 2008, was one of the biggest names in freestyle to miss Olympic qualification in 2012. Weber-Gale is famous for founding his food-based business, Athletic Foodie. It’ll be interesting to see how these two perform after this summer.
2. Missy and Ryan continue on.
The two biggest names in swimming are back. Missy Franklin will swim this weekend, and honestly, she could have one of the most successful “senior year swim seasons” in history. The Colorado native and Olympic gold medalist just committed to Cal-Berkeley. With that huge collegiate decision behind her, Missy can “just” focus on swimming fast and enjoying her senior year of high school. Meanwhile, Ryan Lochte hits the pool after his post-Olympic success. Lochte has been “Must See TV” this autumn, appearing on everything from “90210” to “30 Rock” to you-name-it. Most female swim fans are probably wondering what color Speedo the Lochtenator will unveil for this Grand Prix circuit (he’s famous for his more interesting “attire” choices… remember those alien-green shoes of his? Or his “Listen to Ryan Lochte” T-shirt?) What’s probably more interesting than guessing his color of Speedo will be witnessing how Ryan competes without his “rival” Michael Phelps. The two pushed each other. Michael gave Ryan something to shoot for, a person to chase. Now, Ryan Lochte must define his career in terms of Ryan Lochte. Could we be entering the Ryan Lochte Era?
1. The long, winding road to Rio begins now…
The biggest story from this upcoming Minneapolis Grand Prix is symbolic. To put it simply? The road to Rio starts now. The 2016 Olympics begin in 1368 days. That’s 1368 days of pain, anguish, doubles, morning holiday practices, training trips, long weekend meets… But it’s also 1368 days of triumphs, best times, great practices, pushing yourself to the limits, achieving your dreams, doing what you never thought possible…
For swimmers, that 1368 day journey begins this week. There is no waiting until 2015 or 2014 to take that first stroke. Who will become the next great Olympic swimmer? Will Missy Franklin be the next dominant force in swimming? Will Ryan Lochte ascend the swimming throne even higher? Or will a new name emerge from the NCAA or club swimming ranks to challenge? Perhaps a 12, 13, or 14-year-old swimmer from a local swim club, like Edina Swim Club, was watching these London Olympics, turned to her parents, and said, “That’s going to be me someday!” This summer, we saw history. But keep your eyes open at these Grand Prix meets.
You may see more history in the making.