Arena Grand Prix at Mesa: Women's Can't-Miss Race


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

It’s oftentimes described as “the purest event.” The 100m freestyle, a longer sprint utilizing swimming’s oldest official competitive stroke, is the one event with arguably the most prestige. 100m freestylers are the rock stars, the leaders, the natural-born personalities of any swim team. Those who can swim the 100 freestyle can anchor both the free and medley relays. Teammates look to them to win. For the miracle. For the gold. Think Lezak; think Thompson. Which makes sense that many of our great 100m freestylers have also been stellar leaders.

So, if you want one particular women’s race to watch this weekend the Arena Grand Prix at Mesa, look no further than the 100m freestyle. No other event of the meet – at least on the women’s side – has such a diverse range of storylines and backgrounds of the top-seeded women. The top four seeds alone have it all: A teenage phenom unlike any we’ve seen in decades. A swimmer who persevered through a positive drug test in 2008. One of the most decorated and respected veterans of modern history. A swimmer who overcame a rare heart condition.

And those are just the first four swimmers on the psych sheet.

It’s a conglomeration of personalities, but all are equally poised and put-together. Competing in the Arena Grand Prix at Mesa’s very first event are not just four of the best swimmers in the nation, but four of the most competitive and successful swimmers we’ve seen the past few years: Missy Franklin. Jessica Hardy. Natalie Coughlin. Dana Vollmer. They will all race for sprint supremacy in the 100m freestyle. All four are Olympic gold medalists. All four competed in the Olympic Trials finals in this event (with Dana finishing just outside relay qualification). All four have had vastly different training regimes and experiences since London. 

Missy Franklin (small)Missy Franklin’s journey this season has involved numerous record-breaking performances, including a national high school record in the 200 IM earlier this winter. She competed throughout her high school season, selling out tickets for the Colorado High School State Championships, making her one of the big spectator draws of Olympic sports this year. The Arena Grand Prix at Mesa should provide Franklin with another opportunity to build her Grand Prix points lead on the rest of the field. (She has almost twice the points as second-place swimmer and teenager Rebecca Mann). Franklin is known more for her backstroke prowess, but proved last summer (and since) that she can swim basically anything. She finished fifth in this event in London, the highest of any American swimmer. For now, she’s the swimmer to beat.

The story couldn’t be more different, at least as far as mainstream competition schedules go, from Franklin and her veteran counterparts. Whereas Franklin has gone to almost every meet offered, we haven’t seen much from Hardy, Vollmer or Coughlin since the Olympics. This makes sense, since many veterans take post-Olympic breaks to recollect and decompress. What’s exciting?

They’re back. 
Jessica Hardy gets ready to swim the semifinals of the womens 50 free.
For Hardy, this will be the first Arena Grand Prix of the year. Hardy finished eighth in this event in London, but showed remarkable courage just competing and earning a gold medal in the 400 medley relay. Hardy is also known for her breaststroke abilities, but qualified in London in the sprint freestyle events. It’ll be interesting to see where Hardy is at this point in the season with still a few months to go until the bigger championship meets this summer.

Dana Vollmer (small)Vollmer, on the other hand, returned to Arena Grand Prix action in Orlando. She showed then that she’s back where she left off, winning numerous events and looking like she was ready for another dominating year. Vollmer, a butterflyer by nature and resume, could very well take the 100m free this weekend. Though at her Arena Grand Prix, Vollmer was beat by Franklin (and Christine Magnusson, who also competes this weekend.) 

Natalie Coughlin (small)The big name entering the field here is Natalie Coughlin. Coughlin is scheduled to return to Arena Grand Prix competition. This will be the first opportunity to see Natalie swim in an Arena Grand Prix, and swim fans couldn’t be more thrilled. Coughlin, as swim fans remember, secured her 2012 Olympic roster birth in this very event last summer. She’s always a fan-favorite, and we’re looking forward to her being back in the water.

Interestingly, while all four swimmers each have an individual stroke specialty (Franklin back, Coughlin back, Vollmer fly, and Hardy breast), any one of them could take the 100 free this weekend. Even more unique? All four have held a world record in an event other than the 100m freestyle. They do share similarities. They are all linked to the state of California in some capacity. (Coughlin and Vollmer train at Cal; Hardy trains at USC; Franklin will attend Cal next year.)

But this is a rare opportunity to see stroke specialists who have all held a world record in an event other than the 100 freestyle compete for swimming’s most prestigious event. And you won’t see a more diverse range of top-four swimmers with more compelling backgrounds: Franklin is the teenage Olympic legend. Coughlin is the seasoned veteran legend. Vollmer is the comeback kid. And Hardy is the 2012 Olympic Trials champion one who wouldn’t give up.

It’s anyone’s race. It’s the most prestigious race in swimming. Don’t miss it.

Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine.