Michael Phelps dives in for the men's 100-meter freestyle final during the 2014 Arena Grand Prix of Santa Clara at the George F. Haines International Swim Center on June 20, 2014 in Santa Clara, California.
Top U.S. swimmers including Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, Ryan Lochte and Katie Ledecky are going for gold – and the Gold Coast of Australia – at the 2014 Phillips 66 National Championships this week in Irvine, California.
The five-day meet, which starts Wednesday, is the qualifier for the Pan Pacific Championships later this month in Australia, as well as the first step toward the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia.
Performances at nationals and Pan Pacs will determine the roster for the world team. Swimmers also can make teams headed to the 2014 Junior Pan Pacific Championships, the 2015 World University Games and the 2015 Pan American Games.
Here’s a look at some of the key races to watch this week:
1) Men’s 100-meter freestyle (Aug. 6): No field is more star-studded than this one. After all, the top seven seeds are Olympic medalists. Coming on the first day, it could set the tone for the entire meet by showing who’s on his game.
Phelps, who has won more than 50 national titles, came out of retirement to see what he had left in the tank at age 29. He and Lochte, who just turned 30, are the biggest names, though neither is reigning Olympic champion in this event. That honor belongs to Nathan Adrian, who won the gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games and has won three consecutive national titles in the 100-meter (and five overall). Yet Adrian’s not the top dog as far as seeded times go, either. Jimmy Feigen posted a time of 47.82 seconds last year in his first world championships to win the silver medal and edge Adrian, who came in at 47.84. Adrian does have the fastest time by a U.S. swimmer this season of 48.06, which ranks No. 3 in the world behind two Australians.
The third-seeded swimmer in the race is the oldest in the meet, 33-year-old Anthony Ervin (48.49), a two-time Olympian who swam 48.95 this season. He’s followed by Lochte, who clocked 48.58 last year before a freak knee injury curtailed his 2014 season. Phelps swam his 48.80 in June, making him the second-fastest American of 2014. Matt Grevers (48.91), the 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter backstroke, and Conor Dwyer (48.94) are seeded next, then 17-year-old Caeleb Dressel, touted as the next great U.S. sprinter, rounds out the top eight (48.97).
No matter who reaches the wall first, the United States should have plenty of firepower to challenge Australia in the 400-meter freestyle relay at Pan Pacs.
2) Women’s 800-meter freestyle (Aug. 6): How fast can Katie Ledecky go? The swimming world will get a good indication on the first day, when Ledecky has both the 100 and 800 freestyles. The 17-year-old Olympic gold medalist in the 800 smashed her own world records in June in the 800 and 1,500 freestyles while swimming unshaven. Ledecky clocked 8:11 in the 800, taking nearly 3 seconds off the 8:13.86 she swam to win the world title last year. Jazmin Carlin of Great Britain has the second-fastest time this year at 8:18.11.
Ledecky likely will have to push the pace without any company, since Chloe Sutton, the No. 2 U.S. seed, is way back at 8:23.24. The 1,500 is not an Olympic event for women but will be swum at Pan Pacs and worlds. Ledecky lowered the record to 15:34.23, nearly 24 seconds faster than any other woman in the world and good enough to put her ahead of the No. 22 U.S. men’s seed at nationals.
Ledecky is seeded 16th in the 100 free, so she could opt not to swim the evening race if she doesn’t make the A final. The 100 is immediately preceding the 800. Even Ledecky’s teammates wonder what she can do. “I cannot WAIT to watch the distance freestyles,” Elizabeth Beisel told USA Swimming. “I think Katie Ledecky is going to dominate them and hopefully break some more world records. Who doesn’t like watching world records be broken anyways?”
Ledecky has entered a whopping eight events — every freestyle from 50 to 1,500 meters, plus the 200 and 400 individual medley — though she may scratch a portion of that ambitious schedule.
3) Women’s 200-meter freestyle (Aug. 7): Day 2 of this meet will feature one of the top women’s events of the meet. Allison Schmitt, the American record holder and 2012 Olympic gold medalist, and Franklin, the reigning world champion, now have distance queen Ledecky nipping at their heels. Franklin holds the top seed with a time of 1:54.81 from the 2013 FINA World Championships, followed by Ledecky, who swam a career-best 1:55.79 last month to rank No. 4 in the world this year.
Franklin is coming off a collegiate season in which the double Olympic backstroke champion concentrated on freestyle. She’s the NCAA champion at 200 yards. Schmitt, who has returned to training with Bob Bowman in Baltimore, wants to make up for a lackluster 2013.
Ledecky got her first taste of the 200-meter internationally last year at the world championships, when she swam the leadoff leg on the winning 800 free relay. Team USA should be formidable in the relay at Pan Pacs and worlds.
4) Women’s 200-meter backstroke (Aug. 7): This is Franklin’s signature event, even if she turned her back on it to swim other events her freshman year at Cal. The Olympic and world champion will be challenged by college teammate Elizabeth Pelton, who just missed making the Olympic Team in 2012 when she placed third in the 200 back (as well as third in the 200 IM). Franklin’s seed time is 2:04.76 from the world championships, followed by Pelton at 2:06.29 from the 2013 U.S. nationals. Beisel, who earned the Olympic bronze medal in this event behind Franklin, posted a 2:07.64 last year. Kylie Stewart, 18, is the No. 4 seed. Two other up-and-coming teens, Kathleen Baker, 17, and Clara Smiddy, 18, are seeded in the Top 10 and will compete later this month at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China.
5) Men’s 100-meter butterfly (Aug. 8): While world record-holder and three-time Olympic champion Phelps retired following the London 2012 Olympic Games, Lochte became the preeminent U.S. swimmer in this event. Lochte prevailed in Phelps’ comeback competition, the Mesa Grand Prix in late April, but reinjured his knee during the meet. He didn’t return to racing until July, when Phelps made a case for reclaiming the event with a 51.67, the third-fastest time this year, at a small meet in Athens, Georgia. Lochte finished well behind at 53.08 in the race after swimming the 200 freestyle. However, Lochte still holds the No. 1 seed at nationals thanks to the 51.48 from his semifinal at the 2013 worlds in between winning the 200 backstroke and swimming a leg on the victorious 800 free relay.
Tom Shields (51.65), who holds American short-course records in the 50, 100 and 200 butterfly, will be attempting to qualify for his first major international long course team, while Eugene Godsoe (51.66) earned the silver medal in the 50 butterfly at the 2013 worlds. Both rank just ahead of Phelps in the seedings, but Phelps has the upper hand when it comes to experience, as witnessed by his miraculous finish in the Beijing final against Milorad Cavic.
“Obviously it will be exciting to see two titans battling it out,” Grevers told USA Swimming. ”Plus, there are a lot of up-an-coming swimmers across the county who are trying to prove themselves in what is appearing to be the most difficult event to make the U.S. national team. There will be a lot of fast swimmers, so that is always fun to watch.”
6) Men’s 200-meter individual medley (Aug. 10): Phelps and Lochte go head-to-head for the last time at the 2014 nationals on the final day of competition. Phelps has won three consecutive Olympic golds in this event, while Lochte holds the world, American, U.S. Open and long course nationals records. Lochte, who changed his training base this season to SwimMAC in Charlotte, North Carolina, with coach David Marsh, also has the top seed at 1:54.98. He’s followed in the seedings by three of Phelps’ North Baltimore teammates: Dwyer, Chase Kalisz and Austin Surhoff. Phelps swam 1:59.76 in his only 200 IM of the season, finishing behind Dwyer and Kalisz at the Santa Clara Grand Prix, and has the No. 7 seed. The race in Irvine will be a good test of Phelps’ fitness following his decision last year to make a comeback and will help determine his course for the future.
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.