It’s no secret that the U.S. has, for the past decade and a half, been the most dominant nation at each year’s international championships. From Pan Pacific Championships to the Olympic Games, the U.S. has held the No.1 one spot on the medal table for quite some time. One could argue that a contributing factor to this dominance is the number of seasoned veterans the U.S. consistently has on it’s roster. Names like Ryan Lochte, Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin and Natalie Coughlin have been mainstays in the U.S. team for as long as many can remember.
Recently, however, it became a reality that many of the experienced national team members will not be joining their former teammates in Budapest this summer. The U.S. Trials is always an almost unpredictable meet, and several veterans lose their predicted spots on the team every year. Just last summer at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, we witnessed Lochte fall short of qualifying in the 400 IM, an event he seemed sure to qualify in. At the same meet, Matt Grevers fell short of qualifying for in the event in which he was the reigning Olympic gold medalist, the 100 back.
The U.S. lost Phelps due to retirement, Franklin is out due to injury and Lochte is suspended. Coughlin is done competing for the national team, Jordan Wilimovsky has opted out of pool competition, and Tyler Clary has retired. With all these absences from the U.S. roster, it raises the question of can the U.S. still perform well with a young team? The average age of the 2016 Olympic team was 22.6 for the women and 24 for the men, but with the absence of many of the older men and women on the national team, it might be possible that the average age could be lower than it was in 2016.
Since the U.S. has yet to select its team for the World Championships, it’s tough to say how the Americans will stack up. But one question should can be answered now: Is the rest of the world better prepared for this summer? It’s hard to answer because it depends on how you view the word “prepared” and what you consider to be “preparedness.” The truth is, the rest of the world races more frequently than the U.S. does. They use the FINA World Cup meets as practice runs for the big show at the end of each summer, whereas, in the U.S., for a professional swimmer, there is only one series that which a pro swimmer can attend on U.S. soil, the Arena Pro Swim Series.
The FINA World Cup competitions has nine stops. In the past, the series has had as many as twelve stops, whereas the Arena Pro Swim Series has only seven stops at most. While many national team members use the NCAA system as racing practice, it’s not quite the same since there are still only two championship level meets in the NCAA (conference and the nationals). This evidence might lead us to believe that, in the U.S., training is valued more than racing, in terms of preparing for big meets.
Another timely question we must ask ourselves is: Are the insanely fast results of the current Mare Nostrum series indicative of fast swimming and the end of the summer? The quick answer to that is yes. If swimmers from around the world are swimming top-five world ranked times right now, it is likely that they are not fully tapered or rested and therefore should be able to swim even faster in Budapest. The longer answer might tell us no. A recent example of foreign teams swimming incredibly fast and setting the bar high before the big meet, was Australia and Brazil before last year’s Olympic Games. Australia came into the Olympics with many of the top times in the world that year, and failed to win more than ten total medals in the pool. Brazil seemed to be well-represented and was blessed with a home pool advantage yet failed to earn a single medal in the pool.
The recently-completed Mare Nostrum series saw numerous top-five in the world times Most notably, Yulia Efimova scared the world record in both the women’s 200 breast and 100 breast, while Sarah Sjostrom also came close to world records during the series in the 100 fly (several times) and 100 free. Sjostrom now holds four number one times in the world this year with just over a month to go before Budapest. These are just two of many examples that prove the rest of the world is capable of great swims at the World Championships. In terms of the American women, Katie Ledecky is the only woman who holds a No.one time in the world this year. Can the American women rely solely on the success of Ledecky to get on top of the medal table in Budapest?
The American men only hold five top-five times in the world right now, so with the possibility of having an internationally inexperienced roster headed to Budapest, the U.S. will certainly be challenged for each medal.
On another note, the number of world records set by Japanese swimmers so far mid-season is frightening. From Ippei Watanabe’s 200 breaststroke world record in January of this year, to Nao Horomura’s World Junior Record in the 200 fly back in April, the Japanese appear to be on track to swim lights-out in Budapest.
Fast mid-season swimming seems to be becoming a mainstay for many foreign nations’ while the U.S. continues to rely on it’s traditional season plan, which consists of even the best Americans swimming decent in the mid-season, but very fast at the end of a season. Can the American system work without the aid of the veterans? Will the absence of veterans like Phelps, Lochte, Franklin or Coughlin from this year’s roster play a role in the U.S. performance?
By Jason Tillotson, Swimming World College Intern.