By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Unless you've been living under a rock (or immersed in endless, grueling summer doubles practices), you probably know the Phillips 66 National Championships begin this week in Indianapolis. Hundreds of tall, large-shouldered, hairless swimmers invade the IUPUI Natatorium this week -- site of a plethora of previous Olympic Trials -- in search of a World Championship roster berth. Many of London's Olympic heros will be in attendance. Many more new names and teenagers will attempt to de-throne them. But there's one race that has all the storylines you've been looking for.
The men's 100 backstroke has it all.
The defending Olympic champion in this event (Matt Grevers). The comeback superstar who just missed the Olympic team one year ago (David Plummer). The celebrity swimmer trying his hand once again, searching for that allusive 400 medley relay spot (Ryan Lochte). And the upstart teenager capable of shocking the world (Ryan Murphy).
It's not just the personalities involved with this event. It's the event itself. The men's 100 backstroke has become the crown jewel for USA Swimming. Think back to those legendary names who came before: From Rouse, to Peirsol, to now Grevers, backstroke dominance spans the eras. For whatever reason, the men of the United States have consistently been the world's best sprint backstrokers. As we begin a new era in 2013, we seek to solidify the next Great American Backstroker (or simply see a continuation of 2012 in Grevers).
Who could win this week?
Matt Grevers is the odds-on favorite. And that's not just because he's really, really, ridiculously tall. While Grevers had had some ups and downs in the past five years since the 2008 Beijing Olympics (where he scored a silver individual medal), he's also peaked at the right time. He absolutely had one of the best summers of anyone in 2012, winning Olympic backstroke gold and leading the U.S. men to victory in the 400 medley relay. This Tucson and Arizona based swimmer is the veteran. He's the one to beat. And, given his resume and experience, he'll always be the one to beat until 2016.
David Plummer is a guy many people are rooting for. How can you not? He's one of the most friendly people out there. Plummer made himself a household name in the swimming community when he upset a star-loaded field at the 2010 Nationals and conquered his first national championship. Since then, he's always been in the mix of backstrokers who always have a shot to take the title. Plummer barely missed the Olympic team in 2012. Since then he's regrouped, refocused, and he's now ready for the next chapter of swimming. The Minnetonka based swimmer has his work cut out for him this weekend, though. Experience pays off in this event. Plummer has experience. Could he make another upset this week?
Of course, you can't forget Ryan Lochte (many female fans never do). Should Lochte decide to go forward and swim this event, people will eye him to challenge the field. He's always been right there near the front of the pack, but for whatever reason, he's rarely come away with the win. Actually, Lochte and Grevers have quite a backstroke rivalry themselves, dating back to 2005 when Grevers upset Lochte at the NCAA Championships. Since then, it seems as though Grevers has gotten the better of Lochte -- usually barely -- and has kept Lochte off of U.S. Olympic rosters in that 400 medley spot. But you can be sure that Lochte is eyeing either the backstroke spot or the butterfly spot. In all honestly, I could see Lochte concentrating more on the 100 butterfly than the 100 backstroke since the depth of the latter event is so formidable. But much of that strategy can change between now and 2016, and of course, much of it is dependent on success between then and now. What WILL Ryan Lochte do? We're about to find out.
Finally, the youngster. The upstart. The potential heir to the US backstroke throne. Ryan Murphy has shown no fear challenging his older, taller and bigger backstroke brethren. The Bolles teenager has upset a few big names this season, including Lochte himself. Little wins like that in the middle of the season might not seem like much, but to a teenager, it's quite a lot of confidence building. Murphy won't surprise people at this Nationals. He's already made a name for himself. But we've yet to see him front and center with some of the spotlight on him. I know personally that Sergio Lopez, Murphy's coach, will have Murphy mentally ready to go. But it should be fun to witness what Murphy can do this summer and how it sets him up for the remainder of the Olympiad.
Naturally, there are many more challengers. Almost anyone could theoretically win this event. I expect Grevers, the newlywed, to be right in the middle of the action battling Murphy and Plummer. This event will come down to the final five meters and who can extend and hit their finish perfectly. In the past, this is exactly where Grevers, with his 6'8" frame, excels and has some advantage. This summer should be no different.
The men's 100 backstroke is one of those consistent events for the United States. It will be a vital component to relay success at this summer's World Championships. The backstroke leg is the leader, the pace-maker, the first person in the water. We've had great backstrokers in the past, and consequently, great medley relays. And it's because of great domestic competition. Any one of these guys could win 2016 Olympic gold. But there's only one spot on the top podium.
Expect a backstroking battle for a new title, a new chapter, and a new Olympiad.