Can't Miss Race at the Indianapolis Grand Prix
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
The 2008 Beijing Men's 400 Freestyle Relay was the greatest Olympic moment I have ever seen. Most of you would agree. I was in a basement in Michigan watching with some friends from a local swimming club. I only remember jumping up and down so hard that I was thankful we were watching in the basement, because I might have cracked a few floorboards. (I was also significantly out-of-shape.)
A few years later, I had the pleasure to speak to Jason Lezak about his final-meters anchor moment, when he brought Team USA from the depths of a disappointing-but-expected silver medal to the victor's podium. Lezak told me that it wasn't like France’s Alain Bernard was "dying" or anything -- Lezak was just gaining ground. And he felt this "surge that came from nowhere" and that it was "like nothing he'd ever felt before." He seemed almost at a loss for words, like he couldn't even describe it.
By now, swim fans know the relay’s legendary story. Swim fans know the French were confident-bordering-on-cocky. Swim fans know that Alain Bernard, the same French swimmer who lost the race in the final five meters to Lezak, said before the relay, “The Americans? We’re going to smash them. That’s what we came here for.”
Flash forward 3.75 years. Another group of heavyweights have established themselves as the "relay-to-beat." Australia's 400 freestyle relay won the 2011 World Championships, and last week, swam lights-out at their Australian Olympic Trials. So well, in fact, that the leader of the group, James Magnussen, told his competitors to "brace themselves" and that "if the Olympics were going to be tomorrow you would have to say that (our) relay team is pretty bullet-proof, but you know, the rest of the world can try to catch us."
Sports Illustrated's Nick Zaccardi tweeted that "If Olympic 4x100 free relay was based on flat starts at AUS/FRA trials, US' top 2011 times -- 1.AUS (3:11.58) 2.US (3:13.56) 3.FRA (3:13.73)". He goes on to tweet, "The US' flat starts will be faster at this summer's trials, but can it make up 2 seconds on Australia?" It’s an interesting question, and I’m glad he asked. John Lohn, writer at Swimming World, penned an article, "Is The Sky Falling For U.S. Swimming?" and goes on to say that it is not.
But still – it’s impossible to look at Australia’s times and think despondent thoughts. Yes, it’s deja-vu all over again, but remember: It took a veritable “Olympic miracle” to win the 2008 gold medal. What will it take in 2012?
As we enter this weekend's Indianapolis Grand Prix, once again, there are a few questions about United States sprinting prowess compared to the rest of the world. There is another foreign contingent swimming fast times, gaining that much-needed pre-Olympic momentum, and setting themselves as the favorites. (Arguably, one significant advantage of having Olympic Trials earlier in the year is that everyone will talk about how fast you are.) Certainly, in Omaha this June, America's sprinters will step up. They'll swim lights-out times, and they'll challenge Australia and France and anyone else for an Olympic gold medal. Frank Busch, coach of the Olympic Team, wouldn't have it any other way, and I think by now most any male on that 400 freestyle relay in London will have learned their lesson – never to count themselves out.
But who's going to step up to the metaphorical swimming “plate”? Who's going to become the Jason Lezak of 2012 (Is it too much to ask the 36-year-old Jason Lezak to be able to re-do another "Jason Lezak"?) While we won't know the answers until Omaha, or even until we arrive at London, this weekend's 100m freestyle battle royal at the IUPUI Natatorium provides a stage for SOMEONE to answer the call. Someone to step up. Someone to make a statement to Australia’s Magnussen and say, "Brace YOUR self, buddy."
Here are some of the American swimmers competing in this weekend's 100 freestyle, and why they each have a shot at winning in Indianapolis (listed in order as they appear on the psych sheet):
Nathan Adrian: Phenomenal. Not much more can be said about this laid-back, walk-with-a-grin Cal Bear. He's got the body frame, the dimensions, the attitude, and the environment to succeed. His eyes are squarely on Omaha, but Adrian loves a good race. He's established himself as a go-to member of Team USA over the past Olympiad, and this is “his time.” We'll be rooting for ya, Nathan.
Michael Phelps: If I have to list off reasons why this guy could win, you shouldn't be a swim fan. You probably made it to this article Googling something weird like "Speedo Power" and you are just in the wrong place. Go away.
Garrett Weber-Gale: A.K.A. "The Athletic Foodie." Weber-Gale is one of those original Fab Four members -- one of the swimmers who performed in that now-legendary 400 freestyle Beijing relay. Weber-Gale is a veteran, knows how to compete, and how to take care of his body. Weber-Gale operates his own health-focused food & nutrition business. You have to feel good with Weber-Gale: He's been on the big stage, and it’s easy to envision him getting there once again.
Scot Robison: Here’s a guy who could surprise people. The North Carolina native has been consistently dropping time as part of the University of Virginia, and with a little more time drop, could be one of those guys-to-surprise in Omaha. Last summer, he was part of the men's 400 freestyle relay in Shanghai at the World Championships, and that gave him invaluable international experience. Now that he's a post-graduate swimmer, this weekend is yet a major test, facing some of the older sprint veterans head-to-head.
Davis Tarwater: More known as a butterflier, you can't discount him in the sprint freestyle, either. Tarwater works with David Marsh at SwimMAC Carolina, and anytime you work with David Marsh at SwimMAC Carolina, you're going to get faster. It's a simple mathematical equation: Marsh + Sprinting = Faster. (Or something like that.)
Nick Brunelli: (See above post, minus the butterfly part.) However, to add: I’m rooting for Brunelli. He was 2nd going into the finals of the 100m freestyle at the 2008 Olympic Trials. He finished 7th. (In 2004, he missed finals by one-tenth.) That’s tough. He’s a nice guy, and it’d be great to see his determination finally pay off.
Bobby Savulich: A Michigan Man. The now post-graduate broke through last summer at the ConocoPhillips USA Swimming National Championships and earned his way to the World University Games and Pan American Games. He's coached by Mike Bottom, one of the best in the business, at Club Wolverine.
Cullen Jones: A bit surprised to see him so low on the psych sheet, but Jones is ALWAYS a threat. Another one of the Fab Four from Beijing, Jones has the talent to get there again in London. Now it's just a matter of getting that momentum, winning a few races, and that could start this weekend. Another product of SwimMAC.
Ryan Lochte: My hands hurt from typing. Again, if you don't know, then you just don't know.
Anthony Ervin: He's my X-Factor. Practically no one outside of his inner-circles saw his resurgence coming before 2012. Ervin has a very solid approach to the sport: He's just enjoying the water again. Which is wonderful to see. And it'd be even more wonderful to see this 2000 Olympic gold medalist enjoy his way to the winner's podium. He's got a great attitude, and from his Tweets, it seems like he's loving the sport. I'm so happy to see veterans return to swimming for the right reasons.
Josh Schneider: Eric Knight, one of Schneider's teammates at SwimMAC, said that Schneider was one of the best pure athletes he's ever seen. Though more solid in his 50m freestyle, Schneider is one of those guys who hasn't had much swimming experience. He played football in high school and was never really serious about swimming until the end of his high school career. In college, the legend goes, Schneider came to his first practice at the University of Cincinnati wearing “board shorts.” He had never really trained seriously. He is now.
....and many, many more. (Please don't complain to me on Twitter and say things like, "WHY DIDN'T YOU INCLUDE _______?!" There are too many.)
Any one of those ten guys could win this weekend. Some have a better shot than others. And some sprinters aren't at this meet who could definitely have a London relay impact, guys like Matt Grevers, Ricky Berens, Jimmy Feigen, Dax Hill, and Tom Shields.
But this weekend's Indy Grand Prix 100m freestyle will be a major race for those involved and competing. Scanning the psych sheets, the top-16 mimics what it took to make semi-finals at the 2008 Olympic Trials. This is an astronomically huge way to gain racing experience in a long course historic venue, against swimmers who will make that 400 freestyle London relay. And hopefully, stacked against this kind of competition, someone will rise and answer the call shouted from the Land Down Under.
Australia’s James Magnussen asks the world to "try" to catch him?
OK, James. You asked for it.
It starts this weekend.