By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Thursday, December 7, 2017
December isn’t only about holidays and holiday training. December is also an opportunity for mid-season championship meets: A pause during the long, short course season, a slight taper for some, a break from distance sets to focus on speed and starts.
This weekend, two of the nation’s deepest and more competitive events, the 2017 Speedo Winter Junior Championships, takes place. The meet is divided into two regions this weekend: The “East” Championships take place in Knoxville, Tennessee, while the “West” Championships will take place in Iowa City, Iowa.
Hundreds of swimmers will converge on these two locations; expect fast swimming to commence. And as always, we have not one but *two* “Can’t Miss Races” (since we have two stellar meets).
In the East, swim fans will want to pay attention to Alexandra Walsh, who hails from nearby Nashville Aquatic Club. One of “17 Female Swimmers to Watch in 2017” as ranked by Swimming World, Walsh is primed to have a stellar Speedo Winter Junior Championships. Already the Junior Championship record holder in the 200 IM and the 100 breaststroke, the 16-year-old standout is seeded no lower than 4th in any event this week. The race I’m most excited to watch? The 100 backstroke. Walsh will try to ward off second-seeded Julia Menkhaus (SwimMAC) and third-seeded Caitlin Brooks (Gator Swim Club). All three are seeded within an arm-length of each other. So, while Walsh will likely dominate several events (including that 200 IM, which should be awesome to watch), in terms of “best race,” I see that 100 backstroke coming down to whoever has the best reach under the flags.
In the West, expect 18-year-old Dakota Luther to make waves. Already a 15th place finisher at the World Championships in the 200 butterfly, Luther has the talent to become a major player on the international swim scene. The daughter of Olympic swimmer Whitney Hedgepeth, Luther has, in the words of coach Brendan Hansen quoted in the New York Times, “blazed her own trail.” This weekend, I’m more curious to see Luther swim in the sprint butterfly race. Luther is poised to win, seeded first, but will face a challenge in Elise Garcia (SOCAL Aquatics), Amalie Frackenthal (Davis Aquadarts), and Emma Carlton (Bellingham Bay). Only one second separates the first-seeded Luther with the tenth seed in this splash-and-dash butterfly event, so expect swimmers to take it out fast and hold on. Though Luther should also impress in her specialty, the 200 butterfly, expect the 100-yard distance to be electric. It’s our Can’t Miss Race of the West.
Wherever your allegiances rest -- East or West -- both meets offer deep fields, up-and-coming names, and rising stars. Both meets feature National and Junior National team members, and both meets will showcase fast, mid-season short course racing.
If end-of-year Championship meets are a season’s culmination, consider December’s mid-season races to be a fork in the road, a stopping point where seasons are changed, altered, rerouted. It won’t make or break a season, but this weekend can reshape a season.
Don’t miss it.