Can't Miss Race of the Arena Grand Prix at Santa Clara
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
The women’s 100m backstroke makes you feel bad, almost. When I glance at a heat sheet and see so much talent jam-packed into one event, I realize how deep the United States is in this particular event. At both this summer’s Phillips 66 National Championships and 2016’s Olympic Trials -- though the US is so deep and so talented in this event -- there are only two 100m backstroke roster spots.
Only two will advance.
This makes this weekend’s 100m backstroke all the more important. A dress rehearsal for this summer’s Phillips 66 National Championships, the 100m backstroke features three elite Cal Bear backstrokers, all phenoms, all uber-talented -- friends, teammates, comrades, pushing each other to improve.
Let’s start with the big name in the field. Cal’s Missy Franklin is the best sprint backstroker in the world. Defending Olympic gold medalist and still only a teenager, the scary thing isn’t that Franklin could continue to dominate this event for years to come. It’s that she still has room to improve. She could actually get better. Hard to imagine, as her 2012 London performances were legend-worthy.
And Franklin will improve. They say that to improve, surround yourself with the best. France’s Yannick Agnel trains with Michael Phelps. Tyler Clary recently moved from Michigan to SwimMAC Carolina and he now trains alongside Ryan Lochte. But perhaps one of the most incredible talent conglomerations in one practice pool is in the Berkeley Backstroke Lane. When Missy Franklin packed her bags and became a Cal Bear, she not only surrounded herself with some of the best coaches in the sport, but some of the fastest teammates, too.
First, there’s Elizabeth Pelton, world champion, NCAA Champion, American record holder (200 back) and an elite 100m backstroker who finished runner-up to Franklin at last year’s 2013 National Championships. Then, there’s Rachel Bootsma, NCAA Champion and American record holder (50m back). This past season, Cindy Tran, not listed in this weekend’s psych sheet, is an NCAA Champion backstroker and contributed to the talent pool (pun intended). A few lanes over, training with Cal’s men’s coach Dave Durden, is Natalie Coughlin, whom we all know can hold her own in a backstroke set or two.
Cal has turned into a sprint backstroke Mecca. I’ve joked that it’d be fun to see a Cal backstroke practice, let alone a swim meet. All coaches have to say: “Let’s sprint a 100m backstroke!” and it’s like watching an Olympic Trials final. So much talent, so much prestige in one pool, you almost feel bad. When 2016 and the Olympic Trials arrives, one of these backstrokes won’t qualify for the 100m backstroke. Any one of these women could make the team swimming for any other nation besides the United States.
But they say sharpen steel with steel. Put competitors side-by-side often enough, and the entire level of competition increases. It’s likely that at this weekend’s Arena Grand Prix at Santa Clara, we’ll witness what Cal coaches witness every day: Franklin, Pelton, and Bootsma, battling for one podium spot.
Over time, we’ll see the effects of putting incredible athletes together. I believe each will improve. Competition makes you better. Competition makes you improve.
This weekend, Franklin, Bootsma, and Pelton race. Three teammates. Three incredible sprint backstrokers. This summer, there will only be two 100m backstroke roster spots.
Let the racing begin.
Watch the Arena Grand Prix at Santa Clara LIVE on usaswimming.org.