By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Today, the biggest and most important domestic swim meet of the year kicks off at the Woollett Jr.,Aquatics Center in Irvine, California. Hundreds of swimmers, coaches, officials, and fans converge for the 2014 Phillips 66 National Championships. Olympic gold medalists Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Natalie Coughlin, Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky (among many others) are expected to compete. They will face a new generation of challengers who seek to de-throne them.
Let the Aquatic Game of Thrones begin.
1. Michael Phelps is back.
He said no. No way. Wasn't gonna happen. Even after the rumors. Even after the news reports. Following the 2012 Olympics, Michael Phelps retired and was adamant about that retirement he so coveted, vowing he'd "never" return to the competitive arena, that he would not swim past age 30, that he was happy on the side of the pool rather than in Lane 4. Well, he also once said he'd never swim the 400 IM again... only to swim it again. Phelps is back, and so is poolside excitement. Four years ago, Phelps swam at Irvine and looked tired, fatigued, both mentally and physically. And yet, swimming has a way of repeating itself in four year cycles, and Phelps has returned here as an older – and admittedly "happier" – athlete. All eyes now are on his championship return, and look out for his 100 butterfly and 200 IM, where he competes against fellow Olympic gold medalist and friend Ryan Lochte. Make no doubt about it, though: Phelps is back.
2. Franklin vs. Ledecky.
Both female phenoms are once-in-a-generation athletes. Both are Olympic champions. And both are still just teenagers. Franklin is the superstar in perhaps her final year of amateurism. Ledecky is the World Swimmer of the Year, defying expectations and shocking the swim community seemingly every time she touches water. Both are like the Midas of the Swim World -- every time they touch the water, they get gold. Both swimmers are aimed to collide in the 200m freestyle this week, which could be the most exciting event of these championships. Throw in reigning Olympic gold medalist in this event Allison Schmitt – if she can make a return to form – and the world's best will battle.
3. Training Groups Come Into Light.
The mid-Olympiad National Championships always is followed-up by athletes changing training locations. Swimmers don't perform as well as they want, and, eyeing 2016, make one last major change before settling down for the push forward. Perhaps no training group this week will be more "in the limelight" than what is shaping up to be one of the most important training groups in the United States – the Cal sprint group. Nathan Adrian, Anthony Ervin and Natalie Coughlin swim and train together and will all be major factors determining U.S. relay success. Not only for their sheer swim skills, but also for their respective leadership roles. It's always a necessity to have a leader and veteran on any international racing squad, and no doubt the U.S. teams could benefit having any one (or all three) of these Cal Olympic veterans on an international roster. Of course, there are all sorts of youth thinking the same thing, looking for their shot and opportunity to race and lead. Don't be shocked if one of these newer names comes along and mildly upsets the establishment, gaining confidence and momentum in this Olympiad midpoint. I also wouldn't be shocked to see more flock to these training groups in Cal or SwimMAC to train with the veterans who know what it takes these next few years.
4. Getting better with age?
The previous Olympic Trials weren't just the fastest Trials I'd ever seen, they were also the oldest. In terms of age of competitors and finalists, swimmers are getting older, more mature, and many more of them are post-graduates than ever before. With more and more swimmers these days turning professional and staying with the sport after college (which is also aided by the addition of stroke 50s) this meet is not only important in terms of performance, but also lifestyle. This is the point of no return for many older competitors. Make it this far, and the next decision is not, "Should I go one more year?" The question becomes, "Will I commit to 2016?" This week is a vital week for these athletes, who will gauge performances and plot out futures. I wouldn't be surprised to see a few retirements following this meet. I also wouldn't be surprised to hear of a few comebacks. Younger swimmers are probably already committed to 2016. But this could be a turning-point for post-grads. Remember 2010 when we saw Aaron Peirsol for the last time.
5. What Will Ryan Lochte Do?
I promise this will be the last time I use this headline – it's just too fitting this week. Lochte yesterday said even he didn't know what he was swimming, except that he was entered in pretty much everything. He's the X-Factor this week. He has battled a serious knee injury and has been out of the water this year. He has changed training locations. He has seen his friend and competitor in many of his events make a very public comeback. Lochte's had quite a season of change. After Phelps' retirement, Lochte was poised to become the man for 2016. Now, it's back to business as usual, and the sport is better for it. It's once more the Lochte vs. Phelps show. But both athletes are older, and Lochte has had his share of setbacks this year. Four years ago in Irvine, same pool, same meet, Lochte starred. It will be interesting to compare and contrast where he's at now versus four years ago. I wouldn't be surprised this week to see a more limited focus in terms of events competed. But then again, I wouldn't be surprised to see a full schedule, either. We'll just have to see.
Honorable Mention: The Phelps generation.
The next generation of Phelps fans are now in the pool, not only competing, but breaking records. Can they final? Medal? Win? If this mid-Olympiad Nationals does anything, it's giving new faces the opportunity to perform. Interestingly, Phelps has been world class now for upwards of 15 years, which means we'll see swimmers who grew up worshipping Phelps now racing him. Already his NAGs have been falling, as records do. But some predicted a post-Phelps era where American men, overshadowed and without international opportunity in specific events, would require rebuilding years. Broadly speaking, I'm not seeing that. The new faces coming through the ranks are faster and hungrier, guys like Ryan Murphy and Jack Conger and Michael Andrew, and we could see the effect Phelps has had on this new swim nation at the next Olympic Trials. The future is bright. We'll see just how bright this week.