Arena Grand Prix at Minneapolis: Can't Miss Race


Connor Dwyer and Yannick Agnel at Worlds. (Medium)

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

At last summer’s 2013 FINA World Championship, Yannick Agnel won yet another 200 freestyle. The result wasn’t necessarily a surprise. Agnel is one of the most talented, and promising, freestylers in the world. An Olympic champion and international superstar, France’s Agnel defeated USA’s mighty Ryan Lochte en route to the world title.

But another storyline developed from that race: Conor Dwyer’s 200 freestyle silver. The individual achievement was notable for Dwyer because it was his highest individual placing at a major international swim meet, and he also defeated his former Florida teammate Lochte in the process. More than that, though, was this:

Agnel and Dwyer, the two best 200 freestylers in the world, are teammates. They now train together.

Two months before the World Championships, Agnel switched coaches and training programs. He moved to Baltimore to train under Bob Bowman, the legendary coach responsible for the greatest swimmer of all-time, Michael Phelps. At first, Agnel’s training move surprised some: An American coaching the most talented swimmer of a rival country, France? What would become of this? Would Bowman actually be responsible for handing Team USA a loss in the next international competition at the hands of the NBAC-trained Agnel?

It’s like that motto: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Turns out, Dwyer also changed programs. He moved from Florida to Baltimore around the same time as Agnel. The two freestylers trained together for a few months leading up to the World Championships, with Dwyer saying about training alongside the Olympic champion, “It's been awesome.” Certainly, you could argue that Agnel’s presence has improved Dwyer. And to those who questioned the move?

It may one day lead Dwyer to beat the Frenchman.

Flash-forward to today's prelims at the Arena Grand Prix in Minneapolis: the Olympic and World Champion Agnel qualified first this morning, and right behind him in second was teammate and World Champion runner-up Dwyer. It’s deja-vu all over again. Except this time, as Michael Phelps watches from the stands (a fact worthy of an entire article in itself), Dwyer won’t surprise anyone if he wins. Make no mistake: Dwyer will be a major player at the Rio Olympics. He’s talented enough. And now, training adjacent to Agnel and Matt McLean and – who knows, maybe even Phelps one day – Dwyer has the atmosphere to succeed.

Quietly (or maybe not quietly) Bob Bowman has assembled the best 200 freestyle training group in the country, and possibly, the entire world, which makes sense for a coach responsible for churning out stellar 200 freestylers like Phelps and 2012 Olympic champion Allison Schmitt. Bowman is to 200 freestylers as Phil Jackson is to elite basketball scorers. NBAC is a 200 freestyler factory.

Tonight, as Agnel and Dwyer battle head-to-head at the Grand Prix, fans are also tasting a preview of some major international freestyle races in 2015 and 2016. As Phelps laps in the diving well at Grand Prixs, and as Lochte recovers from a devastating knee injury catching an overly-excited swim fan, Dwyer is suddenly the USA’s go-to mid-distance freestyler. Tonight, Dwyer will get no better chance to prove he can go stroke-for-stroke with the world’s best.

The only way this training duo can morph into a better storyline is if it became a trio, and Phelps picked up a cap and goggles and said, casually, without pomp and circumstance, “I’m back.” If – when? – that day happens, it would mean the three of the best 200 freestylers in the world would train alongside each other.

But that’s fiction. For now.

Tonight’s race is reality: Two teammates. One coach. One race.

You’d never expect France and the United States to cooperate in swimming, and yet here they are, two teammates from different countries who push each other, train together, motivate each other, and who may go 1-2, all over again.

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