By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
As I looked around the room Monday night at the Golden Goggle Awards (my first time – I highly recommend it), it became very apparent to me that, despite the retirement of Michael Phelps and uncertainty surrounding the return of several other “veteran” swimmers who have been the nucleus for some of the USA’s strongest teams over the past decade, the future of swimming in the United States is in very good hands.
That assessment was supported by the variety of awards given that night – and, more importantly, who won them.
Missy Franklin – Female Athlete of the Year for winning five medals, four of them gold, in London, Franklin is 17 years old.
Katie Ledecky – Breakout Performance and Female Performance of the Year for winning gold in the 800 freestyle in London, Ledecky is 15.
Allison Schmitt, Franklin, Dana Vollmer (world-record-holder in the 100 butterfly) and Rebecca Soni (world-record-holder in the 200 breaststroke) – Best Relay Performance. All are young women in the prime of their swimming careers – and they just keep getting better and faster.
Joining this group is a collection of young talent that should keep USA Swimming moving strongly forward for many years: Shannon Vreeland, Elizabeth Beisel, Haley and Alyssa Anderson, Breeja Larson, Cammile Adams, Claire Donahue, Lauren Perdue, Caitlin Leverenz, Rachel Bootsma, Lia Neal, Micah Lawrence, Kathleen Hersey and Chloe Sutton.
On the men’s side, Ryan Lochte, despite being a year older than Phelps, continues to come into his own, and is joined by a host of young men hitting their strides in the water: Nathan Adrian (Male Performance of the Year for his upset win in the 100 freestyle at the Olympics), Tyler Clary (gold in the 200 backstroke) and Matt Grevers (gold in the 100 backstroke).
Add in talented swimmers like Jimmy Feigen, Andrew Gemmell, Matt McLean, Conor Dwyer, Scott Weltz, Clark Burckle, Nick Thoman, Tyler McGill and Connor Jaeger, and there is some strong talent that should just get better over the next four years.
And this doesn’t even include athletes on the cusp who just missed making the team but will be hungry for Rio in 2016.
Whenever someone like Phelps decides to hang up his goggles, there is often a sense of panic in the sport mostly because he or she (Natalie Coughlin’s future is up in the air at this point) has been so successful for so long. They are the cornerstone of teams and always expected to come through in the clutch.
It happened when Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi, Jenny Thompson and many others decided it was time to walk away from the sport, and it will happen in the future when Lochte, Franklin and others do the same. Each time, it raises the ever-important question of “Who’s next?”
A lot will be told in the next couple of years as this group of relative newcomers takes on the rest of the world at World Championships, Pan Pacific Championships and other international meets, but it’s pretty clear the responsibility of leading won’t fall on one or two of them.
As was evident from the results in London – 31 medals including 16 gold – this is a deep group of U.S. swimmers, perhaps one of the deepest in USA Swimming history. The collection of young talent that didn’t make this year’s Olympic Team but will be ready to make their marks in 2016 – including 14-year-old Becca Mann and 16-year-old Ryan Murphy, among many others – makes the group even deeper.
They will need to rely upon one another to make up for the loss of a “Once-in-a-Lifetime” athlete like Phelps, but they are definitely in good company. Whereas someone like Phelps was “counted on” to haul in multiple medals in multiple events throughout his career, this next wave of U.S. swimmers (not counting Lochte and Franklin, who are very Michael-esque in their own respects) looks like a group that will be strong from top to bottom.
It’s definitely an exciting time for USA Swimming. No panicking required or warranted. The next four years will be very interesting and full of pleasant surprises.