Five Storylines to Watch at the FINA World Championships
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
A competition where the world’s best congregate to compete happens only a handful of times during an elite athlete’s career. It is a rare long course event -- one that only happens twice between Olympics. So many times the media and swim fans alike use these World Championships as a point-of-reference in the context of the next (or previous) Olympic Games.
When really, Worlds must be celebrated as a great meet in and of itself.
It becomes so tempting to use Worlds as a forecasting device to prognosticate how [fill in name here] will do in 2016 based on next week’s results. But for some swimmers, this is the culmination of a career. This is the high point. This is the World Championships. It is not a stepping-stone to 2016. Or 2015. Or 2014. As far as many of these swimmers are concerned, there is no Rio. There is only now. There is only next week. This is the culmination of a season. A year. A lifetime.
Many in our sport tend to look forward. To 2016. To 2020. To 2024. To these long-distance dates that only come every four years. But the World Championships in its long course format happens nearly as rarely as the Olympics themselves.
It is not every year that a long course World Champion is crowned.
The big names will be there, of course. The Lochtes and the Franklins. But a slew of new names are also presented the opportunity of a lifetime to represent our nation and don the red, white, and blue. Anything can happen. Anything is possible. This should not be the meet known as London’s Sequel or “Three Years Before Rio.” It is its own competition with its own champions, races, winners, losers, and everything-in-between.
As always, here are the 5 Storylines To Watch.
1. Missy The Missile takes aim as her celebrity grows.
You know Missy Franklin’s fame is growing when she walks into a Starbucks and the barista signs her cup “Missy The Missile.” America fell for the Colorado Stars swimmer last summer. It was hard not to. Rare is the swimmer of her talent and age to dominate the world on the sport’s biggest stage. More rare is Franklin’s savvy media poise, her happy-go-lucky persona, and her positive image. America is in an era of the “bratty celebrity,” where reality stars are celebrated for being talentless, materialistic parasites. Missy is the ultimate contradiction and counter to that trend. She is living proof that it is possible to be a popular, young, healthy woman also in the media spotlight. She’s the new kind of reality star – one not preoccupied with things materialistic, but things of the body and soul.
This wasn’t easy, nor was it an accident. Her parents deserve credit, as does STARS head coach Todd Schmitz. Many swimmers are products of their support team. Missy, after London 2012, was a superstar -- a teenage celebrity. However, rather than venture the road so many other teenage celebrities go, Missy is back to her winning, Smiley Club ways. She doesn’t have to be a role model. All she has to be is herself.
Expect Missy’s fame to rise even more this summer. Expect her challenge world records. Watch her swim some blistering backstroke times. Watch her rise once more to the occasion. It’s not every day we see an athlete of her caliber perform so well, but it’s hardly ever we see someone who can be a positive influence on so many adoring age groupers.
2. Anthony Ervin returns to Barcelona as a different swimmer, and a different man.
Journeys are usually about the road not taken. Anthony Ervin knows this better than most. A decade after competing in his last World Championships, the 30-something once again springs for his nation’s glory.
Who could have predicted this 18 months ago?
18 months ago, Ervin was but a memory of a talented Olympic gold medalist who retired young. But in just a year-and-a-half, Ervin has fulfilled an emotional comeback, qualified for the Olympics, dominated the world cup scene, and has begun scoring personal best times.
Folks, he’s only getting better. While we lick our chops and cross our fingers Ervin will be dropping 19-points by Rio, we need to simply appreciate this re-emerged talent while it’s around. He’s one of the more enigmatic and interesting minds in swimming. We are watching him grow as a veteran swimmer before our eyes. It’ll be interesting to see how Ervin performs with the additional responsibility of the 400 free relay. Like wine, Ervin just seems to improve with age.
3. The nerves of Katie Ledecky.
Prior to the World Championship Trials, Katie Ledecky was nervous. Mostly because you never know in swimming, how your end-of-season performances will go. But also because, at just 16, Ledecky is practically still an age group swimmer. Though her resume can tout Olympic gold, sometimes that kind of remarkable performance and success can negatively affect a swimmer. It can burn them out or deplete their passion.
So far, this has not been the case for Katie Ledecky. Last month, she qualified for the Worlds in the 200, 400, 800, and 1500 free. That kind of versatility, at such a young age, is a storyline in itself.
But now, Ledecky has many more spotlights on her than last summer. She has transitioned from an upstart, unheralded teen to a swimmer who can, seemingly, swim anything. This pressure needs to be regulated in a way that allows Ledecky to both succeed and, if it happens (and I’m hoping it doesn’t), fail with grace. She’s still nervous. She’s still young. It’s nice to see that early success has not jaded or depleted the passion. Nerves are not necessarily a bad thing. It can be proof that there is more to come.
4. Eugene Godsoe is now the man.
We’re in the AP. Era – the “After Phelps” era of swimming. In no other event will we feel that absence more than in the 100m butterfly. Not only did Phelps dominate the event individually, but he also pulled some amazing come-from-behind-to-give-our-anchor-a-lead relay performances. (See: London, 2012.)
But now, there is an opportunity in the 100 fly like no other event on the men’s program. Phelps is gone, and word is that Tyler McGill, London’s 100 fly right hand man, will retire soon, too. That means London’s 1-2 swimmers in the 100 fly could now be no longer competing. Eugene Godsoe, who won the national title last month, has an opportunity that rarely comes for post-grads who don’t have Olympic medals. He can suddenly solidify his sport as America’s Sprint Butterflyer.
If that label doesn’t get him fired up, nothing will. Godsoe, an intelligent and articulate Stanford grad, will swim the sprint butterfly events in Barcelona, but I’m more excited to witness what our new 400 medley will look like with a different butterflyer. This is an opportunity of a lifetime for Godsoe. He won’t back away.
5. Ryan Lochte should not be overanalyzed, no matter his Worlds performances.
Being Ryan Lochte ain’t easy. When he shared the spotlight last summer with Phelps, Ryan was allowed to be Ryan. He didn’t have to “be” anything other than his laid-back persona. Now, all eyes are on Lochte. Fans expect him to raise the profile of the sport like Phelps did. The weight of the crown can be heavy, but Lochte has carried it well. Even when Lochte experienced some criticism with his reality show, he endured it with a smile.
But honestly, are his outside-the-pool entertainment pursuits hurting anyone? When Phelps eased the throttle post-Beijing, some fans wanted (and demanded) more. When Phelps didn’t approach his Beijing times, those losses and slower times made headlines. But swimming is a difficult sport to continue the par of excellence. It’s impossible to expect world-record-breaking greatness from these stars meet in, meet out, over and over and over.
This week, Lochte could repeat his 2011 Worlds performance. Or he could not even win a medal. Both are possibilities. People will overanalyze next week as a gauge for Rio, but really, the media just needs to realize that swimming is a sport with ebbs and flows, highs and lows, peaks and valleys. You can’t replicate once-in-a-lifetime performances every week, season, or even year. Lochte will do just fine in Barcelona. Also, his focus is probably more on Rio. Regardless, Lochte does not need to be the face of the sport in order for the sport to continue to grow. Lochte was best when being himself (2011). Now the sport has overgrown any individual face or name. It’s not like 2004 when the sport of swimming needed a swimmer from Baltimore to carry the sport’s weight on his shoulders. This is a good thing for Lochte.
It means he can just be Ryan.
And I believe we’ll see good things from Ryan next week.