Can't Miss Race of the Arena Grand Prix at Charlotte
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
The 800m freestyle relay is an odd event, one I despised as an age group swimmer. It seemed like cruel and unusual punishment: A relay that would extend longer than just a few minutes, that created massive amounts of pain and suffering, that was twice as long as other relays and yet seemed, usually, to be a momentum-shifter in big-time meets.
Of course, the 800 freestyle relay is a vital component of the USA’s international success. Since defeating the Australian men in that epic, down-to-the-wire finish at the 2004 Olympics, the USA has prided itself on recent mid-distance relay success. And boy, have we had some stellar names in this relay. Some of the sport’s biggest names have competed in this relay: Phelps. Lochte. Vanderkaay. And so on. The 800 freestyle relay is a “who’s-who” of swimming. No one who qualifies on this relay can be labeled as “a fluke.”
You just can’t be a member of this elite club without first being an elite swimmer.
The USA has had luck in this event, mostly because USA Swimming has had two very big names specifically excel in the 200m freestyle: Phelps and Lochte. Their epic individual battles made for intriguing races, especially at the 2012 Olympic Trials, but they made for even better relay performances. And the USA prides itself on its relays. So much so that a few days after the individual event, Phelps scratched the 200m freestyle, allowing himself more rest for the brutal 800m relay.
Later, the USA won the 800m free relay. And the Olympic victory streak continued.
This weekend at the Arena Grand Prix at Charlotte presented by UltraSwim®, swimming fans will witness five of last summer’s Olympic Trials top six in the 200m freestyle: Lochte. Ricky Berens. Conor Dwyer. Matt McLean. And Charlie Houchin. Of course, missing from this group is Phelps, a vital component of that 800m free relay. Going forward, the USA will have to look for another swimmer to help fill that void.
Arguably, that swimmer will come from this group that swims this weekend.
Ricky Berens looks poised to have a break out year. Not that he needs to really “break out” of anything; Berens has been a veteran and leader of Team USA. Berens swam great in last summer’s relay, splitting nearly as fast as Dwyer. Look for Berens to have a great swim in Charlotte (his hometown) like he did last year when he took down Phelps and Lochte. Though he did announce his retirement after London, he has since reconsidered, and we hope he sticks around through Rio.
Conor Dwyer could also have a stand out year. Dwyer has been a relative surprise in the build-up to London, having a stellar 2012. The Gator Swim Club swimmer trains alongside Lochte, and you can only imagine their epic practice duals. Dwyer actually split faster than Berens in that 800m free relay. Dwyer has the build and the drive to make a huge impact these next few seasons. Expect him to challenge this weekend, too.
Ryan Lochte, of course, is the big name. The superstar. The guy to beat. He led off the relay last summer, swam faster than both Berens and Dwyer, and looks poised to take over in Phelps’ absence. Though we’re all guessing what’s going on with Lochte’s training (with his reality show reportedly taking time away from his training) I’m fairly certain Lochte will be ready to go once championship season rolls around.
This weekend in Charlotte, we’ll see everyone from last summer’s 800 freestyle relay swim against each other, minus Phelps, in a head-to-head freestyle extravaganza. It could be one of the fastest events of the entire swim season, at least until the World Championship Trials. Don’t count out McLean or Houchin to challenge, but Berens – in front of his hometown crowd – should be fired up to take this event.
So, who will take over Phelps’ shoes?
Probably no one. Ever.
But the rest of the world is swiftly building its 800 freestyle relay arsenal. (Remember that French guy named Yannick Agnel, who out-split Phelps by nearly one second in last summer’s relay? Yeah -- he’ll be ready in Rio.) The USA needs someone to step up, someone who can split a 1:44-low or 1:43-high. Someone who can stare down international challengers at this summer’s World Championships and keep the USA’s 800 freestyle relay supremacy going.
This weekend, five of our best six from last summer’s Trials square off. Though no one can replace Phelps’ presence, perhaps someone can begin making a new impact in a new Olympiad. It’s not lamenting the loss of a legend; it’s an opportunity for someone to take over the reins.
Don’t miss it.