Can't Miss Race of the AT&T Winter National Championships


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

When Michael Phelps swam to his final and most epic 22nd Olympic medal in the 4x100 medley relay, did you notice something was missing? There was backstroker Matt Grevers, and breaststroker Brendan Hansen, and butterflyer Phelps, and freestyler Nathan Adrian. They were the four best “stroke” swimmers America had, and yet, it still felt like something was missing, like there was something off with this picture.

Then you realized Ryan Lochte was nowhere to be seen.

Lochte, the second-best all-around swimmer in the world (or first-best, depending on which event you looked at, the 400 IM or the 200 IM) did not finish first or second in any of the 100 sprint events at the U.S. Olympic Trials. He dropped out of the 100 backstroke to concentrate on the 200 freestyle. He did swim in the semi-finals of the 100 freestyle but scratched finals, seemingly to swim a fast enough time to solidify a later relay selection. He ended up competing in the 100 butterfly, mostly because it was the last race of the meet, but also, to try and slide into that last relay, the men’s 4x100 medley. He finished third.

One of the biggest differences between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte has been that 4x100 medley relay. Phelps, the nation’s most consistent and best 100 butterflyer, is a medley relay staple. Lochte, meanwhile, has struggled to solidify a spot on that relay. Why is the medley relay so important? Well, for Lochte, it would be on the final day, meaning, he could still compete in his large gamut of events throughout the Olympics, win medals, then add to his medal haul on the last day of the meet. The 100 fly is appealing, too, because he would then be able to swim another individual final event after the 200 IM concludes. But Lochte just missed qualifying in the men’s 100 butterfly, losing to Tyler McGill by a few tenths of a second in 2012. He also finished third place in the men’s 100 backstroke back in 2008, being out-touched by Matt Grevers, who would go on to win Olympic silver in the event.

Why bring all this up now? Why look at Olympic relay spots, and medal hauls, and legacies now?

This weekend at the AT&T Winter National Championships, Ryan Lochte will compete in the men’s 100 backstroke, an event he holds the American record in. He will compete against the reigning Olympic champion in this event, Matt Grevers. He will also battle the NCAA Champion, Tom Sheilds, and an insanely good up-and-coming swimmer, Ryan Murphy. To me, it’s endlessly fascinating to watch Lochte – the world’s greatest short course backstroker ever, and the best all-around swimmer still swimming on the planet today – swim these 100 events. Despite his all-around greatness, it seems that Lochte cannot break into the top two in the United States in any 100 distance stroke.

Now, Ryan Lochte’s goal is not to become the next Michael Phelps. (At least, he has not stated as so.) Even his coach said at the Olympic Trials that the goal was more quality instead of quantity. After all Lochte did scratch the 100 backstroke, basically giving up his best shot at a medley relay selection in order to concentrate on the 200 freestyle, you can’t fault him for trying in the 100 butterfly with nothing to lose. But his concentration was, evidently so, on more quality than quantity.

Still though, you wonder: How can a swimmer be called the best all-around swimmer in the world, and yet, be left off a team’s relay? Going forward, is Lochte going to be a “lock” in medley relay selections, the same way he was for the sprint freestyle relay? It’s interesting to me that Lochte’s 48.91 in the 100m freestyle at the U.S. Olympic Trials semi-final would not have even placed him in the top-6 in the final heat, and yet, Lochte was handed a relay spot in that 4x100 freestyle relay. Would that type of decision – to basically “bet on Lochte” – be given again in the medley relay?

Going forward, in this new, Phelps-less era, I’m curious to see if Ryan Lochte’s event schedule changes. You could argue that without Michael Phelps in the picture, Rio 2016 could be “The Ryan Lochte Story” when Lochte perhaps wins as many golds as Phelps did.

But to win eight golds, Lochte needs to be on that medley relay. The medley relay is a virtual guaranteed Olympic gold medal for anyone who competes on it, prelims or finals. I’m sure Lochte would say his goal is probably not to match Phelps’ epic Beijing medal haul. That it’s impossible. That it is never to be matched or rivaled. But on the flip side, he probably wouldn’t turn down the opportunity if he had it.

So I’m picking this weekend’s 100 yard backstroke as my “Can’t Miss Race” of the meet. Why? Because we’re going to see some of the best backstrokers (minus Olympic silver medalist Nick Thoman and Trials third-place finisher David Plummer) compete head-to-head. Sure, it’s short course. But you have to imagine that if Ryan Lochte starts to win these 100 backstrokes, that he’d start to eye 2016, and say, “Maybe I should go for this.”

You never know what can happen in four years. The journey to Rio begins this season, begins this year, and begins this weekend. I’m curious to see what the future holds in this Michael Phelps era – and specifically, what this means for Ryan Lochte’s future Olympic aspirations.

How can one of the best all-around swimmers not swim for a nation’s relay? Very easily. Because other swimmers, stroke specialists like Matt Grevers and Nick Thoman and Tyler McGill and Michael Phelps, make it virtually impossible to qualify in 2012. But we’ll likely see Ryan Lochte attempt to get on that Olympic medley relay once more in four years, make no mistake about it. Could be in the 100 freestyle. Could be in the 100 butterfly. Or, it could be in the 100 backstroke, an event he’s tried at before, an event he’s the world’s best in short course yards, an event he happens to swim this weekend….

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