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5 Olympic Storylines to Watch

7/25/2012

BY MIKE GUSTAFSON//Correspondent

Immediately after the 2008 Olympics (well, the swimming portion of the Games) many of us knew we would never see what we just witnessed again. We saw something special. The entire nation was captivated by an athletic performance that was – for lack of a better cliché – superhuman. It wasn’t because NBC told us so. We could see the greatness, the once-in-a-lifetime epic moment after epic moment. From Lezak’s miraculous comeback, to Phelps’s improbably final stroke against Cavic, the entire week was magic.

Here we go again.

Since 2008, the sport of swimming has seen remarkable and profound change. FINA banned the “supersuits” and ushered in a new era where world records are as endangered as the Blue Whale. Twitter has become an unstoppable marketing beast with remarkable (and maybe unintended?) marketing consequences for niche sports like competitive swimming. The USA Swimming Grand Prix circuit and the Athlete Partnership Program was fully implemented, bringing big-time swimmers like Phelps and Lochte and Coughlin to swim fans around the country. And once again, the Olympic Trials proved that swimming can be – and is – more exciting than the Super Bowl.

And here we are once more on the cusp of another Olympic Games. Another opportunity for legendary moments, heart-stopping races, and a thrilling week of swimming. Another opportunity for Phelps to show the world he is – without a doubt – The Greatest Ever. Another opportunity for Lochte to beat his “non-rival” rival. Another opportunity for American relays to prove to the world that the United States is the premiere swimming nation in the world.

Though there are infinite storylines to watch at these upcoming London Olympic Games, here are 5 of them: 

Missy Franklin in the prelims of the100 back at 2012 Trials (Small for Web)5. New Faces Leading the Medley Relays.
For the first time in two Olympics, a new face leads off the men’s and women’s medley relays. While that not be entirely shocking, it is when you consider that both Aaron Peirsol and Natalie Coughlin – the two-time defending Olympic champions in the sprint backstrokes – will not be swimming the event in these Games. I’ve written that Team USA needs someone to step up in these events. The leadoff backstroker is the relay leader. Backstrokers set the tone. Backstrokers show the world what they’re made of. Frankly, Team USA lucked out. We could not have hoped for two better swimmers to take the leadoff reins than Matt Grevers and Missy Franklin (or Rachel Bootsma and Nick Thoman, equally capable). They are articulate, smart and fearless in the water. Grevers nearly broke the world record – Peirsol’s WR – at the 2012 Olympic Trials. Franklin is ranked No. 1 in the world. Though Grevers is the defending Olympic silver medalist and a veteran, he hasn’t led off an Olympic finals relay. We won’t know official relay lineup, but if Grevers swims close to his Trials performance, he’ll most likely be the go-to guy. Franklin has shown poise internationally, and she’s like a Natalie Coughlin clone. Team USA, with whomever they select, will be in good hands. 

Ryan Lochte swims the prelims of the 400 IM at 2012 Olympic Trials. (Small)4. World Record Watch/Difference in times compared to 2008.
As previously noted, we haven’t seen a lot of world records. In fact, we’ve seen only two long course record since FINA banned the polyurethane suits in 2010. Swim fans are like parched survivors crossing the Sahara. All we crave is a world record. When critics of the full-body suits claimed world records were becoming too commonplace and no one appreciated them anymore, now it’s the reverse-effect: if/when a world record is set in London, swim fans will go nuts. It’ll be the biggest headline since Lochte was on Vogue. Will it be Rebecca Soni? Ryan Lochte? Michael Phelps? All of the above? After Lochte set the world record in the 200 IM at World last year, Phelps said that time won’t win in London. I have a good feeling both of them will swim under the mark. And when they do, Etta James’ “At Last…” will play on the Olympic pool P.A. system. What’ll be interesting is comparing these times to those of the 2008 Olympics. We’ll finally have an accurate gauge just how much the suits made a difference internationally.

3. Social media changing the Olympics experience for viewers.

Friend: “So, what are you reading these days?”

Me: “Swim tweets.”

Twitter is already changing my Olympics experience, and the Games haven’t even started yet. I’ve seen pictures, tweets, updates and all sorts of behind-the-scenes information you can’t get through blogs and articles and filtered media press conferences. Facebook and Twitter are game changers in terms of fan experience. While there are rules and regulations enforced throughout the Olympics in terms of social media usage by athletes and the media, so far, it’s been a fantastic experience. For those at home, Twitter allows fans to feel connected – even if we’re across the big blue pond. We’ve seen effects of social media in the past few years change interaction in the sport, but post-London, social networking will play a huge role in many athletes’ professional opportunities. For instance, a lot of athletes perform swim tours or clinics. With a large following, they can get that information out. Others will be able to keep engaged with their fans, create their own blog and even their own merchandising. Ryan Lochte has started his virtual own nation called “Lochtenation.” It’s a game changer for a sport that has consistently struggled to connect heroes to their fans. And it will change the entire Olympic experience, before, during, and after.

2. The emergence of teenage women/non-existence of teenage men on rosters.
Every single man on the U.S. roster is a full-blown adult, legally speaking. They are all 21-years-old. Only three men, according to Swimming World’s Jeff Commings, have collegiate eligibility (compared to 13 on the 2000 Olympic roster). This is a big development in swimming – the male athletes are getting older. On the women’s side, a few teenagers are on the roster, like Missy Franklin, Rachel Bootsma, Lia Neal and Katie Ledecky. The fact that no teenage men could sneak onto the roster is a bit discouraging, as you’d always like a few get invaluable Olympic experience (like when Phelps qualified at age 15.) It should be interesting to see how these swimmers – both the young and the old – respond to the pressures and magic of the Olympic Games, and if age plays any role either way. 

Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps shake hands after going 1-2 in the 400 IM. (Small)1. Lochte vs. Phelps.
Many journalists enjoy labels like “Best Ever” or “Greatest Ever” or “Biggest Ever.” So to say that the epic showdowns of Phelps vs. Lochte in the IM events this Olympics is “the biggest race in the history of swimming” might be overdoing it. But this is, without a doubt, the most exciting match-up in a long, long time. When Phelps and Lochte step up on the blocks in the men’s 200 IM, the atmosphere will be electric. The nation will be buzzing. They are American teammates, first and foremost, so this match-up can never reach the aura of “great” rivalries. (That would be different if Lochte was Australian.) But this duo will put on a great show, and the sport of swimming – especially in the United States – will be better for it. It’s almost bittersweet knowing this is probably Phelps’s last Olympics. You know he’ll want to win. And Lochte has been training for this moment for four years – maybe harder than anyone else alive. These two have been traveling down destiny road, and it leads to Saturday night in the 400 IM. Then again in the 200 IM. And finally – at last – we’ll have our answers.

My guess is, the answer will be, “The United States has some darn good swimmers.”

Mike Gustafson (@MikeLGustafson) is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine.