By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
The first time a young swimmer says, “I’ll be swimming at the Junior National Championships,” it’s a big deal. For many, it’s the culmination of a lifetime of training. These qualification times have been circled, memorized, and penciled and penned inside school notebooks and lockers. Many of these kids spend hours daydreaming about qualifying for the Junior Nationals. I know I did.
The 2012 Speedo Winter Junior Nationals are like a little-sibling version of its big-brother meet, “Senior Nationals.” It allows high school kids the ability to qualify for a “national championships” but against other kids their age. You won’t see massive, manly Jason Lezak types at the Junior Nats. (Or, if you do, sign that kid for a scholarship ASAP.) You’ll see the future faces of USA Swimming – swimmers like Ryan Murphy – dominate this meet.
Swimmers like the up-and-coming Joseph Schooling. The Bolles swimmer made waves last month while swimming a 46.50 100 yard butterfly at the Florida high school state championships. He’s expected to dominate this weekend’s butterfly events, and we’ll see how long the Singapore swimmer can hold a taper. Schooling, if you remember, was part of that Bolles team -- that included Murphy -- which destroyed high school national records in all three relays. Many eyes will be watching Schooling, having been introduced to him last month. Also, another Bolles swimmer, 16-year-old Caeleb Dressel, could break 20 seconds in the 50 yard freestyle. He’s seeded with a 20.12. Expect Dressel, who has already been part of Bolles Junior National record-breaking relays, to have a break-through individual meet.
Speaking of watching out for fast new swimmers, look out for Michael Andrew. The 13-year-old superstar has been tearing up National Age Group records, and he has even drawn comparisons to Michael Phelps. Before we go declaring he’s the next great one (to which Andrew, in a recent article, said he doesn’t want to be the next Michael Phelps, but the “first Michael Andrew”), we must remember: He’s only 13-years-old. Still, he’s a 13-year-old over six-feet two-inches tall, with size 15 feet, and he’ll be competing this weekend with seed times like 20.9 in the 50 yard freestyle. (Were you that fast when you were … any age?).
On the female side, Kristen Vredeveld from Baylor Swim Club will tear it up in the sprint events. Before the Cal commit and future teammate of Missy Franklin swims in Berkeley, she’ll try to break the 50 and 100 freestyle Junior National meet records this weekend. In the 100 freestyle, she’ll battle another rising star, 16-year-old Meaghan Raab from Hershey Aquatic. Raab is one of those swimmers who can seemingly do it all, top seed in the 200 IM and 200 free, second in the 100 free, and fourth in the 100 fly. And you have to keep your eyes on 15-year-old Lindsey Horejsi of Atlantis Swimming in Minnesota, top seed in the 100 breaststroke with a swift 1:00.16. Breaking the one-minute barrier at this point in the season would be a major accomplishment for the high school freshman. Pretty incredible to realize she has three more high school seasons to break one minute in the 100 breast. Finally, Kathleen Baker is making a name for herself. At just 15-years-old, the SwimMAC swimmer is seeded first in the 100 backstroke with a blistering 52.87. Training on a team that features superstars like Cullen Jones and Davis Tarwater -- and in esteemed coach David Marsh’s program -- could mean we’ll be hearing about Baker much more in the coming years.
The Junior Nationals are not only exciting for swimmers competing in their first “big national meet,” but it’s also exciting for swim fans hoping to crack the mysterious code deciphering who will become The Next Great One. It’s a foolish game to make predictions based on times swum at such a young and undeveloped age, but nevertheless, it’s sometimes fun to speculate. (As long as those speculations are kept to a reasonable level.) At its core, swimming is supposed to be an enjoyable sport – not some never-ending contest to prophesize who will become the next Michael Phelps or Missy Franklin.
That said, this weekend we’ll have some fast young swimmers competing in Knoxville. All of them watched this summer’s Olympics. (Some of them – like Schooling – even competed in London.) They’ve all worked hard, trained constantly, and circled those goal times that read, “Junior Nationals.” And some swims this weekend may even catch the eye of some college recruiters.
This weekend’s Speedo Winter Junior National Champiionships is what the sport is all about. Kids traveling to a national championship type of meet, some of whom for the first time ever. It’s the type of meet that’s competitive, but in a friendly way – a way that gives kids a reason to say, “I competed at a national championships this weekend.”
Good luck this weekend, swimmers. Be sure to watch the live webcast at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET on usaswimming.org.