INDIANAPOLIS – Perhaps it was only fitting that the fastest American male freestyler in swimming was among the slowest to exit the pool Saturday night at USA Swimming’s Phillips 66 National Championships and World Championship Trials.
Four days earlier, Nathan Adrian — the 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the 100 free — secured his first individual berth on the U.S. world team when he captured his fifth national title in that event.
Having concluded the five-day competition with another first-place effort, this time powering his way to victory in the 50 free in a world-leading time of 21.47 seconds, Adrian seemed to savor every moment, slowly lifting his body onto the pool deck before pitching his swimming cap into a throng of cheering spectators.
Until the 50-member U.S. men’s and women’s world teams were introduced later that night, it was the celebratory gesture that capped a bookend of twin goals: It officially put last summer’s London Games in the rearview mirror and firmly placed the focus on where it needs to be for the next three years, leading into the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
For USA Swimming, the first opportunity to measure its readiness in a major international event since London’s resounding success can’t come soon enough. It will send a blended group of veterans and ultra-talented newcomers to the World Championships on July 28-Aug. 4 in Barcelona.
It will be the first world meet since 1999 without 18-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, who retired after competing in his fourth summer Games in London. (There are rumors, though denied by Phelps, that he might contemplate a return for Rio).
Even without Phelps, “We’re going to be very competitive in Barcelona,” said Frank Busch, national team director. “I can’t predict how many medals we’re going to win, or how many races we’re going to win, lose, or be close on. But this is a team — every time you get some new people in you spread experience around that much more. For those athletes where this is their first go-around with it, it’s going to be awesome."
Fortunately for the United States, the post-Olympic letdown experienced by at least two 2012 London medalists who didn’t make the world team — Allison Schmitt and Cullen Jones — wasn’t widespread. Although not close to their London form, vets such as Adrian, Ryan Lochte and Tyler Clary were more than close enough: They came through in big ways when they needed to in Indianapolis to easily secure world berths.
But make no mistake: the next generation of swimmers has arrived.
“The year after the Olympics is definitely a transitional year for people,” said Natalie Coughlin, 30, a 12-time Olympic medalist who automatically qualified for her sixth worlds by winning the 50 free. “I’m looking forward to meeting some of these new faces."
The swimmers have two weeks at home with their personal coaches before training camp begins July 17 in Bibao, Spain.
Not including the open water competitors, the U.S. roster features 26 swimmers who’ll be making their world team debuts in Barcelona. But labeling several as “rookies,” though, seems disingenuous because it doesn’t address their status in the sport.
The stars among them? Look no further than 16-year-old Katie Ledecky, a high-school junior from Bethesda, Md., who made her international debut last summer in London and came home with an Olympic gold medal in the 800 free. In Indianapolis this past week, Ledecky’s performances revealed her bright future in not only her signature event, but over a range of freestyle distances from the 200 on up.
For Barcelona, Ledecky will swim the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 frees after claiming national titles in all but the 200. Her effort Saturday in winning the 1,500 in a meet record 15:47.15 broke the previous nationals record of 15:52.10 by Janet Evans in 1988. Ledecky’s time — honored as the performance of the meet — was a world best this year and made her the second-fastest American in the event all-time.
Ledecky was also runner-up to five-time 2012 Olympic medalist Missy Franklin in the 200 free; with that accomplishment came the bonus of swimming on the 4x200 free relay in Barcelona.
“She’s got a great stroke,” said U.S. women’s world team coach Dave Salo, who suggested Ledecky might add the 100 free to her repertoire down the road. “She’ll get stronger over the years. Katie handled everything this week extremely well. What the Olympians right now are going through, there’s a big difference between last year’s preparation and this year. They saw where they’re at, and if they made this team with a lot less preparation than they did last year, they’re going to breathe a sigh of relief. But now they’re going, ‘OK, I gotta get back on track.'
“Meanwhile, the young ones who had a door open to their performances this week get to be on a world championship team, and the experience will pay dividends for them in 2016."
Franklin, 18, set meet records in three of the four events she won. She qualified in four individual events in Indy — the 100 and 200 free, and the 100 and 200 backstroke — posting times that ranked her among this year’s top five in the world in each event.
“She’s in a very great spot right now because her confidence level is high,” Busch said of Franklin, who won five world medals in 2011.
Among the other Olympic vets coming away from Indy with a new perspective — and rededication to the sport — is Lochte, the five-time London Olympic medalist who actually had an outstanding meet at the Natatorium at IUPUI despite his attitude about his performance.
Lochte won the 200 free, 200 back and 200 IM, and placed second in the 100 butterfly, which he intends to swim for the first time in a major international meet in Barcelona. He also took fourth in the 100 free to qualify for all three relays at worlds.
“The lack of training, it shows,” said Lochte, whose post-London life included staring in a reality TV show about himself. “I’m not coming back as hard as I usually do, and I’m going to change that. The next three years, I’m going to go back to work. I need to. I’ll promise you this: I’ll be more committed in the next three years."
Eleven swimmers on the men’s team are 22 or under, including five teens, and a dozen more have never competed in an Olympic Games. Two swimmers in particular who’ll be competing in their first long-course worlds had breakout meets in Indianapolis: Connor Jaeger and Kevin Cordes.
After winning two NCAA individual titles and helping the University of Michigan to its first team title since 1995, Jaeger swept the distance freestyle events (the 400, 800 and 1,500) in Indy. His time in the 800 free (7:46.78, a U.S. Open record) ranks as the third-fastest in the world this year. It also puts him in position for a medal in Barcelona.
“Connor has the ability to switch up his strokes,” said Michigan coach Mike Bottom, who will serve as one of the assistants to coach Bob Bowman on the U.S. men’s coaching staff in Barcelona. “You can see it on his last lap, in the 400 or even the mile — he can increase his speed because he changes his stroke. It’s the three styles of freestyle, and he knows when to use them. He even plays with interchanging them within the 200."
Jaeger placed sixth in the 200 free final, a spot ahead of Club Wolverine teammate Michael Klueh. Although Jaeger earned one of the two alternate spots to swim in the prelims (the top four were automatically added to the world championship team for relay purposes), Jaeger gave up his spot as an alternate so that Klueh could take his first trip to the long-course world championships.
Cordes, a junior at the University of Arizona, could become the first American breaststroker since Brendan Hansen in 2007 to win a world title after sweeping the 100 and 200. He also placed second in the 50 breast.
While Jaeger placed sixth in the 1,500 free at the London Games, worlds will be Cordes’ first long-course major international event.
“I’m very excited about Kevin,” Bowman said. “He’s really amazing. I can’t wait to see what he does."
In men’s swimming, Bowman said that although the Australian and French teams have been putting up some good times lately, he considers the United States “probably the team to beat."
As Phelps’ longtime personal coach, Bowman was asked how it feels to be coaching a world team that for the first time in more than a dozen years doesn’t include Phelps.
“I fee like I’m still at a meet — I still have kids to coach,” Bowman said. “They’re not Michael, but they’re still great."
Bottom said: “There’s a void without Michael, but again, USA Swimming has always filled the void when it’s been left open. We’re seeing a lot of young fast swimmers at this meet that are up and coming.”