Can't Miss Race of the Arena Grand Prix at Austin
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
One race can change a life.
Just ask Matt Grevers.
Back in 2008, as a post-graduate swimmer, Grevers was up-and-coming. Sure, he was an NCAA Champion, but NCAA Champions are not automatically awarded Olympic roster spots. In pursuit of an Olympic dream, Grevers moved across the country from Chicago to Tucson. Leading up to the 2008 Olympic Trials, Grevers was swimming fantastic: in-season bests, winning races leading up to the Trials, and gaining confidence. At the Trials, before the finals of the 100m backstroke, swim fans, coaches, and the public were abuzz with “Grevers talk” – that he could make the team if he had a perfect and flawless race. One year before, not many people thought he could do it. But his consistency in the weeks and months before the Trials made him one of those X-Factors, a potential darkhorse. Then on the biggest stage of his career, Grevers charged towards the wall, reached, and out-touched world-record holder (at the time) Ryan Lochte for second place and a spot on the 2008 Olympic team.
With a flick of a wrist, Matt Grevers’ entire life changed.
Since then, Grevers has become the most dominant U.S. sprint backstroker. He’s won an Olympic gold and silver. He’s led off the gold-medal winning 400 medley relay. He’s become a team leader. Flash-forward to 2014 where Grevers is living the life of a financially-secure professional swimmer, married, training with some of the world’s best, and is a veritable “swim-celebrity.”
Swimming is a sport where the cliché rings true – that it can all come down to one moment, one race, one lane, and one chance. And it oftentimes does. As a personal witness where that one singular race can forever alter someone’s life, I can attest that this cliché is true: One race can alter a life.
It’s the races that lead up to that race that make the difference.
While Grevers did win in Omaha, his real journey began months earlier, winning races at various bigger “stepping-stone meets” and Arena Grand Prixs. I remember because I attended one of them in Long Beach, January 2008. I watched as he dominated and won, and I saw his confidence skyrocket. You could argue that his Olympic roster spot wasn’t won that night in Omaha, but instead, months earlier in Long Beach.
While this weekend’s races at the Arena Grand Prix at Austin won’t change lives, it could alter the trajectory towards the race that can change lives. Which is the beauty in swimming: Success is earned before the final championship race: It’s earned in the morning practices. The dryland routines. The staying-after-practice-to-nail-this-flip-turn moments. The minutes spent visualizing each and every single night before bed. In these moments are where Olympic dreams come true. It’s earned in these stepping-stone meets, which is why swimmers compete in these meets in the first place. Every race is important – not just the one at the end of the season.
Which is why this weekend’s 100m backstroke is the Can’t Miss Race of the meet.
This weekend, Grevers once again defends his sprint backstroke throne. But he’ll have competition. 2012 Olympic silver medalist, Nick Thoman, is scheduled to compete. Last December, Thoman lit up scoreboards and smashed the American record in the short-course format. Thoman could quickly become America’s Backstroker. He’s in the same spot as Grevers – a professional, post-graduate swimmer, with perhaps a chip on his shoulder having not yet ascended swimming’s top podium.
Thoman doesn’t get an infinite amount of chances to race the defending Olympic gold medalist Grevers, even if the latter is a National Team teammate. And if Thoman can defeat Grevers in Austin at this mid-season mid-Olympiad Grand Prix, then who knows? It could create an avalanche of confidence that leads into this summer, which leads into 2015, which leads into 2016….
But Olympic pedigree doesn’t automatically earn you wins and future roster spots. A plethora of other backstrokers will claw and scratch and try to knock off Grevers and Thoman. This weekend, we’ll see a few of the nation’s best backstrokers who weren’t in London – backstrokers who watched the Olympics from their homes. Keep your eyes on these names: Cal’s teenage phenom Ryan Murphy, up-and-coming backstroker (and fellow Cal teammate) Jacob Pebley, and veteran Eugene Godsoe.
Murphy has the talent and could be poised to make a run in 2016. He’s been breaking records for a few years and hails from a high school background (Bolles) that has prepared him to succeed at the NCAA level. Training alongside another backstroke standout, Jacob Pebley, can only help them both prepare for bigger (literally, as Grevers stands 6’8”) competition. Both Cal teammates could use this weekend to gain valuable long course experience against the world’s best.
Also, don’t count out Eugene Godsoe. Godsoe broke through the ranks this summer and qualified for the World Championship team. Godsoe knows backstroke strategy and has the intelligence to stay consistent. Like Grevers in 2008 and Thoman in 2012, all he needs is one lane. He’ll have his chance, no doubt.
This weekend’s Can’t Miss Race is the men’s 100m backstroke. While no lives will be changed in Austin, I am reminded about Grevers’ journey several years ago in 2008. In Omaha, while all eyes watched as Grevers qualified for the Olympics, I remember six months prior to that Trials race, and I remember watching Grevers win at the Long Beach Grand Prix. I thought then, “Grevers could actually do this.”
Every journey must begin somewhere. For these five swimmers, the road to 2016 might as well begin in Austin.
Universal Sports will broadcast live coverage from Austin on Friday Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. ET and tape delayed coverage on Saturday Jan. 18 at 10 p.m. ET. A live webcast of prelims and finals will be available at usaswimming.org.