5 Storylines to Watch for the Arena Grand Prix at Austin
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
After a break of competition due to a Polar Vortex, winter training, holidays, and eating pounds and pounds of food post-practice, we’re finally back into the “swim” of things. This weekend marks the first major USA Swimming meet of 2014 – the Arena Grand Prix at Austin – and it should be electric.
While Ryan Lochte had to scratch due to catching a wild and crazy fan that busted his knee (side note, Swim Fans: Please do not leap on the Olympians...), Austin should still feature thrilling races. No one really knows what to expect, since all these athletes are, presumably, coming off high-intensity training. Or perhaps more likely, still training at high-intensity and preparing for this spring and summer’s championship meets.
Either way, here are the 5 Storylines To Watch…
1. Katie Ledecky battles the 2012 Olympic gold medalist, Allison Schmitt.
Last year, all the rage was about Katie Ledecky, and with good reason: The teenage phenom won the Golden Goggle for Athlete of the Year. She won numerous World Championships and broke a few world records. She defied expectations. But the year before that, at least in the 200 freestyle, Allison Schmitt was all the rage. The Georgia swimmer and North Baltimore/Bob Bowman product conquered London and the Olympics and established herself as an elite freestyler. In Austin, these two battle. Now, we don’t know what to expect from either (see: Hard Winter Training, above), but if Schmitt can at least hang with Ledecky, that will be a victory for Schmitt. “Schmitty” missed the World Championships last year and has been relatively quiet since. Fans are rooting to see a good performance this weekend from both.
2. Tyler Clary returns to the pool.
Clary is one of those post-graduate professionals who took a break following London. After winning 200 backstroke Olympic gold, Clary became an elite swimmer. And as an elite swimmer, you begin to structure your training not by seasons, but by Olympiads. Which means, this year in 2014, Clary should be ramping it back up and becoming more and more like the 2012 version of Tyler Clary. Especially with all these rumors of Michael Phelps making a comeback, you can be sure Clary has heard them, and that he’s back in the pool and training. But, when you consider Ryan Lochte has had a pretty serious knee injury, Clary has become the most decorated veteran American IMer, too. The fact is, we’ll need Clary to be in top form this summer at the Mutual of Omaha Pan Pacific Championships, especially in those IM events. There are a plethora of young IM swimmers who are aiming for 2016, but as everyone knows, the road to Rio begins now.
3. Adrian, Ervin, Jones, Feigen in the sprints.
This could very well be our Olympic freestyle relay in the future, folks. Nathan Adrian is the 2012 Olympic gold medalist. Cullen Jones, no matter how he does mid-season or mid-Olympiads for that matter, always seems to bring the heat at the perfect time. Anthony Ervin is having a sequel to his 2000 Olympic gold medal performance, a sequel in which he’s actually getting faster with age. And Jimmy Feigen isn’t exactly the new kid on the block, but he’s the sprinter who had arguably the best performance from 2013. All four of these swimmers go stroke-for-stroke in the splash ‘n’ dashes this weekend. All four have a shot to win. And all four could be on the next Wheaties box (granted, a few years down the road…) in Rio. Stay tuned and don’t miss these sprints.
4. Megan Romano has persevered, and now looks to make her mark.
One of the biggest stories from 2013 was Megan Romano. So much so that her last name became a verb (“That relay just got Romano’d!”). Romano had clutch relay performances at the World Championships, a swimmer who has had an outstanding year and persevered after failing to qualify for the 2012 Olympic team a year before. This year offers a new chance and a new opportunity. Romano looks to make her mark on an American team saturated with all-stars (Ledecky, Missy Franklin, Elizabeth Pelton, to name a few…). Romano has proven herself as a clutch relay swimmer, just like Jason Lezak did back in 2008. No doubt that she’s eyeing 2014 as a year to transition from winning relays to winning individual events.
5. Men’s 100 backstroke. Grevers. Thoman. Murphy…?
Any time you have an Olympic gold medalist and Olympic silver medalist racing each other, it’s news. The two best swimmers in the 100 backstroke are also Americans, and they’ll be battling this weekend. Grevers has quietly become the most dominant backstroker this decade. Thoman, however, just snapped an American record back in December and has a fire lit to continue to chase that top podium spot. Of course, all eyes will be on these two. But you don’t want to count out youngster Ryan Murphy, who many consider the future of American backstroke. Murphy is one of those teens who is not only fearless, but could, presumably, knock off either of these Olympic veterans at any point. That’s how good he is. Will he make a run at 2016? It’s a shame that we can’t send 3 swimmers per event to Rio. It should be exciting to see these three swimmers race each other, a prelude to what could be the race of the Olympic Trials, two short years away.
Universal Sports will air the Arena Grand Prix at Austin live on Friday Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. ET and tape delayed Saturday Jan. 18 at 10 p.m. ET. A live daily webcast will also be available of prelims and finals at usaswimming.org.