Michael Phelps returns to international competition at the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia as Team USA takes on some of the world’s swimming powers.
The five-day meet, which begins Thursday (Wednesday night in the United States) at the new Gold Coast Aquatic Centre near Brisbane, will set the tone for the next two years leading into the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Phelps, Missy Franklin, Ryan Lochte and Katie Ledecky make up a fantastic four for Team USA, which won a colossal 16 gold medals in the pool at the London 2012 Olympic Games and 13 – with Phelps in the midst of his brief retirement – at the 2013 FINA World Championships in Barcelona.
Australia, Team USA’s archrival in swimming, won only one gold medal in London and three in Barcelona, but is coming off a record 57-medal haul at the Commonwealth Games earlier this summer in Glasgow, Scotland.
In a departure from the Olympic Games and world championships, the format for the Pan Pacs allows countries to enter as many athletes as they want in any event – though only two can make the eight-swimmer A final. If two swimmers qualify for the A final, a third can make the B final. If only one athlete qualifies for the A final, two can make the B final.
These swims are doubly important for Team USA athletes. They are not only vying for medals, but they are also competing with each other for berths on the 2015 World Championships team that will compete in Kazan, Russia. The USA Swimming staff will take into account the A final times from the national championships earlier this month in Irvine, California, as well as A and B final times from Pan Pacs.
No wonder the United States has entered 12 swimmers (among a field of 49) in the women’s 100-meter freestyle and 13 (of 55) in the men’s 100 free, with relay spots at the world championships on the line. Interestingly, the United States has also entered 11 swimmers, composing more than one-third of the field of 29, in the women’s 200 individual medley. (Of course, swimmers may scratch some events during the meet.)
Here are key events where Team USA will be looking for gold:
Men’s 100-meter butterfly: This is Phelps’ best chance for an individual win. If he loses, it likely will be to a teammate since Team USA’s five entrants in the event hold the top-five seeds.
Phelps hasn’t touched the wall first in a final since mid-July when he competed in a small meet in Athens, Georgia. While he didn’t win a single title at the national championships for the first time since the 2000 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, he posted a world-leading time of 51.17 seconds in the morning prelims. In the final, Tom Shields out-touched Phelps. Shields is the No. 2 seed at 51.29 seconds, followed by Lochte, Tim Phillips and Matthew Ellis.
Phelps, 29, who retired after the London 2012 Olympic Games but began competing again this spring, has entered four other individual events: the 100 freestyle, 100 backstroke, 200 freestyle and 200 IM. He will be in the mix for relays depending on his performances.
Bob Bowman, Phelps’ longtime coach, said the star swimmer has been getting better every day during his comeback, so he could show marked improvement since nationals.
Women’s 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyle: Ledecky, 17, is the first swimmer since Janet Evans in 1986 to hold world records in all three of these events. She is also the reigning world champion in all three distances. While Ledecky lowered her own world records in the 800 and 1,500 in June, she electrified the crowd at nationals by clocking 3:58.86 in the 400 to complete her trifecta.
Women’s 200 freestyle: Franklin won a record six gold medals – the most by any female swimmer – last year at the world championships in Barcelona. But she has new competition in the form of Ledecky, who has improved her speed in the past year. Ledecky defeated Franklin at nationals in the 200 free, which opens the Pan Pacs competition. Ledecky has the 800 on the same night as the 200, but she has a cushion of almost eight seconds in the 800. She also wants to swim well in the 200 to make the 800 freestyle relay at worlds.
Franklin still has the top seed of 1:54.81 based on last year’s worlds, but Ledecky is next at 1:55.16. Australia has two top contenders in Emma McKeon (1:55.57), the Commonwealth Games champion, and Bronte Barratt (1:56.05).
Women’s 100 and 200 backstroke: Franklin has the top seed and is reigning national champion in both events. However, the 100 back is scheduled immediately after the 200 free, so she won’t have much of a breather. While Franklin’s seeded time is 58.39, she swam 59.38 at nationals. Emily Seebohm, the second seed and runner-up behind Franklin at worlds, posted a time of 58.92 at Australia’s national championships back in January.
Franklin’s Cal teammate Elizabeth Pelton has the No. 3 seed in the 100 and the No. 2 seed in the 200. Franklin has been learning to adjust her taper under new coach Teri McKeever, the women’s coach at Pan Pacs, so the first day of competition will be a good indication of how she will do in the meet.
Men’s 100 freestyle: Olympic and U.S. champion Nathan Adrian and world silver medalist Jimmy Feigen take on Australia’s daunting duo of James Magnussen, the reigning world champion, and Cameron McEvoy. The Aussies have the top-two seeds based on times from January – 47.59 for Magnussen and 47.65 for McEvoy – but Adrian swam 48.08 in Barcelona in June.
Women’s 100 freestyle: Franklin will have to contend with the Campbell sisters, Cate and Bronte of Australia, who are seeded 1-2. Cate Campbell has a time of 52.33, while Bronte Campbell posted a mark of 52.86. Franklin’s seed time is 53.36, ahead of Australia’s McKeon (53.43) and U.S. teammate Simone Manuel (53.60). If not for the Pan Pacs limiting finalists from each country to two apiece, it would probably be an all USA-Australia final.
Men’s 200 IM and 200 backstroke: Lochte edged Phelps in the 200 IM at the national championships for his only win of the meet. Lochte, the world-record holder and world champion, has the top seed of 1:54.98, followed by Kosuke Hagino of Japan, the world silver medalist, Thiago Pereira of Brazil and Phelps. However, Hagino has the best time in the world this year, clocking 1:55.38 in April, well ahead of Lochte (1:56.50) and Phelps (1:56.55) at national championships.
Lochte is also reigning world champion in the 200 back, where he is the top seed ahead of Japanese teammates Ryosuke Irie and Hagino and Olympic champion Tyler Clary of the U.S.
Women’s and men’s 200 butterfly: Japan has the top seeds in both events, Natsumi Hoshi for the women and Takeshi Matsuida and Daiya Seto for the men. Cammile Adams and Shields are the U.S. champions. Chad le Clos, the Olympic champion in the 200 fly and silver medalist in the 100 fly, is not part of the South African team at Pan Pacs.
Men’s 50 freestyle: At 33, Anthony Ervin has the top time of 21.42 seconds. He is followed by Bruno Fratus of Brazil (21.45) and Adrian (21.47).
Men’s and women’s 100 breaststroke: The United States also should duel Japan, with Jessica Hardy the top seed over Kanako Watanabe in the women’s race and Yasuhiro Koseki ahead of Kevin Cordes in the men’s. Christian Sprenger of Australia, the world champion in the 100 breaststroke, is out of Pan Pacs with a shoulder injury, while Olympic gold medalist Cameron van der Burgh is not on the South African squad. Hardy and Micah Lawrence tied in the event at U.S. nationals.
Kosuke Kitajima, who won Olympic gold medals in the 100 and 200 breaststroke in 2004 and 2008 and a silver medal on the medley relay in 2012, did not qualify for the Japanese team. Akihiro Yamaguchi, the 200 breaststroke world-record holder, also is not on the roster for Japan.
Relays: National pride is always at stake in the relays, where Team USA is seeded first in the men’s and women’s 800 free relays, the women’s medley relay and the men’s 400 free relay. Australia has the top seed in the women’s 400 free relay and Japan is seeded first in the men’s, followed by Australia and then the United States. The United States was disqualified from the men’s medley relay at the world championships after Cordes dove into the pool 0.01 seconds too early.
Other events: Olympic silver medalist Elizabeth Beisel has the top seed in the women’s 400 IM, where she won’t have to face Olympic champion Ye Shiwen, who is not on the Chinese team. Matt Grevers, the reigning Olympic champion, is seeded behind Irie of Japan in the men’s 100 backstroke. Clary and Chase Kalisz will face Hagino of Japan and Pereira of Brazil in the 400 IM. Alicia Coutts of Australia has a seed time 1.5 seconds faster than Team USA's Caitlin Leverenz and Melanie Margalis in the women’s 200 IM.Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.