By Mike Gustafson | Wednesday, March 2, 2016
In the story of a swimmer’s competitive career, the plot begins early. Blowing bubbles at age 2. Widths of pools at age 5. That first awful, scary 25-yard butterfly at age 8. That first awful, scary 200-meter butterfly at age 13. The plot line contains highs and lows, dips and peaks, plateaus and ascensions.
Then, one day, the plot ends.
For many, 2016 represents the plot’s culmination and climax: When, theoretically, the journey that began so insignificantly with “age 2 bubbles” culminates with “age 20 individual medleys” in front of thousands at a converted arena-turned-into-competitive-swimming-pool in Omaha, Nebraska. It sounds intense, because it is. In a sport measured by tenths and hundredths, the Olympic Trials are measured by decades of training, years of practices, and a lifetime of dreams.
This weekend’s 2016 Arena Pro Swim Series at Orlando represents not simply a mid-season swim meet. This weekend represents the beginning of the final chapter in many swimmers’ stories. A plot line nearing the end of its ascension — the third act of the final chlorinated chapter. Anyone who has seen this story unfold before knows that there are twists to be had, turning-points around the bend, and unexpected, suspenseful scenes awaiting. But for hundreds of swimmers this summer, the plot ends. The pages stop. The book closes.
You can imagine the urgency. This urgency to make this final chapter great makes for intense, unpredictable racing. And this weekend, another page turns, and another chapter—one of the last—unfolds.
As always, here are your 5 Storylines…
5. Ledecky, Schmitt, & Franklin scheduled to battle in 200 freestyle.
What if I told you the defending 200m Olympic gold medalist may not even qualify at the Olympic Trials? Allison Schmitt, who was so spectacular four years ago, could be ousted before she even punches a ticket to Rio. That’s what happens when two of our generation’s greatest swimmers (Katie Ledecky & Missy Franklin) also excel at the 200m freestyle. In many ways, this trio battling for Olympic 200m roster spots reminds me of the individual medley battles from yesteryear (and perhaps this year?) involving Phelps, Lochte, and Tyler Clary. All three had “Olympic gold talent,” but only two could qualify. This year, the women’s 200m freestyle is a game of musical chairs — three Olympic gold medalists, only two chairs.
4. Michael Andrew and the 100m breaststroke.
He’s not the favorite. He’s not in the top four seeded breaststrokers this weekend. But there’s something about this 16-year-old phenom that has many wondering, “Could he pull a Phelps?” Remember: Phelps qualified for his first Olympics at age 15, signaling a dynasty-to-come. Andrew has been on the radar for years, smashing age group records, swimming eye-popping times, and even forgoing his amateur status for the glorious and lucrative life of a professional swimmer. Many feel this is Andrew’s time to walk the walk. It is time to ascend to the podium and become the rightful heir to the Phelpsian throne. Though he may be years away from international supremacy, this summer should prove interesting, especially in the 100m breaststroke, a potentially weak event for the U.S. in Omaha and in Rio.
3. Simone Manuel
I love watching the racing of Simone Manuel. She’s fearless. She swims with the attitude that she can take on anyone, anywhere, any time. Attitudes of sprint freestylers need to be just that, fearless: Blink, second-guess, experience even one iota of hesitation or self-doubt, and you lose. Manuel seems to possess a sprinter’s mentality. This weekend, she’ll compete in the 50m freestyle. This summer’s progression through the array of Arena Pro Swim Series swim circuits could boost her momentum heading into the 99%-mental sprint challenge, the Trials.
2. Phelps vs. Tom Shields & Matt Grevers.
I’ll admit it: After Phelps’ second DUI not long ago, I thought he would re-quit swimming. I figured he was done. However, by the accounts I’ve heard, it seems Phelps is time-traveling back to pre-Beijing form: Back in the pool, training hard, goal-oriented. This weekend, Phelps takes on Tom Shields in the sprint butterfly and Olympic gold medalist Matt Grevers in the sprint backstroke. Why watch these match-ups? Well, Phelps, duh. But also, you know Shields and Grevers are aiming for Phelps (Grevers is not an underdog, but still). Swim fans who want to see the greatest swimmer of all-time in the midst of what could be an epic comeback need only to watch these two races.
1. Chase Kalisz in the 400 IM.
The United States’ contingent of the men’s 400 IM has been nearly as dominant as the men’s 100 backstroke, internationally-speaking. Think of past 400 IM greats, winning Olympic gold or silver, in the last few decades: Phelps. Lochte. Dolan. Namesnik. Vendt. Wharton. If the Olympic movement has to do with nationalistic pride, then my Pride-O-Meter bursts through the charts when an American wins Best All-Around Swimmer. Chase Kalisz could be one of those names to add to America’s 400 IM-ing greats. Of course, much depends on who “also” enters (Phelps, Lochte, Clary — just a few Olympic gold medalists, no biggie). Still, the 400 IM is not an old man’s event. It is grueling, it demands heavy, intense training, and competition this summer should be fierce. I’m anxious to see Kalisz’ progression this winter and spring, and what could be the future of the 400 IM.