Some of the biggest stars in U.S. swimming will be ready to flex their muscles when the swimming portion of the FINA World Championships begins Sunday in Kazan, Russia.
Ryan Lochte, coming off his worst year as a swimmer, hinted these world championships could be the springboard to perhaps his final Olympic Games in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, while 18-year-old Katie Ledecky looks to continue her dominance in the pool as the holder of three freestyle world records (400, 800 and 1,500 meters).
Fellow starlet Missy Franklin, who won a record six gold medals at the 2013 world championships, is competing as well.
“It should be a really fun and challenging meet, and that’s what I look forward to the most,” said Ledecky, a four-time world champion in 2013 who recently graduated high school. “I think it’ll be a good opportunity for Team USA to get up and race against some of the best in the world.”
Ledecky, the 2012 Olympic champion in the 800 freestyle, will swim the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyle events at worlds, along with any relay teams she may be assigned.
Five-time Olympic medalist Franklin, still just 20, will swim the 100 and 200 freestyle and the 100 and 200 backstroke.
Meanwhile, Lochte, the marquee name on the men’s team by virtue of his 11 Olympic medals and 23 world championship medals, is planning to swim the 200 individual medley and the 100 and 200 freestyle, along with any assigned relay events, as he looks to regain his form in the year leading up to the 2016 Games.
“Last year was one of my worst years,” Lochte, who turns 31 on Monday, said on a teleconference from the team’s pre-championships training camp in Croatia. “In your 30s, your body doesn’t recover like it used to.”
Lochte was noncommittal when asked how long he’ll continue to swim and whether the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro would be his last.
“I love the sport of swimming,” said Lochte, the 2013 FINA Male Swimmer of the Year. “It’s fun, and I’ll quit when I stop having fun and I don’t see that happening anytime soon. I love getting on those blocks and racing against the best in the world. I’m one with the water.”
In addition to Lochte, the men’s team has seasoned veterans and a handful of youth that make a mixture of talent likeable for men’s coach Dave Durden.
“You don’t have to look any further than the group we have at Cal, from 34-year-old Anthony Ervin to 20-year-old Ryan Murphy,” said Durden, the men’s swimming and diving coach at the University of California. “When you get to this time of year, you can’t help but get excited to get the team together.”
Getting the world championships team together was much different this year, as the team selection was a 12-month process based on times rather than a single competition — like the Olympic Trials — and the squad was announced in October 2014.
That process could pose some challenges, Durden said.
“You lose momentum of a trial format into a championship meet. This has been 12 months in the making,” said Durden, whose Cal teams won NCAA championships in 2011, 2012 and 2014. “We’re dead in the water when it comes to that, so we’re going to have to generate some momentum to be ready for Kazan and to perform as a group.”
Lochte said he wasn’t concerned about the team coming together in Kazan.
“We’ll definitely have our work cut out for us, and what we do is we all come together as one,” Lochte said. “We’re Team USA. I think we can handle the job.”
As for someone like Ledecky, already a star and still on the rise, her focus is on these championships, which are part of her larger goals through this time next year in Rio.
“I’m working hard to improve every day,” Ledecky said. “My coach and I found little things to work on to get faster. We set goals a year and a half ago through 2016 and try to chip away at those each year. I’m very motivated.
“The key next week will be time management and be ready to race. I’m just going to focus on Kazan and doing my best in those races. I’m definitely not looking past Kazan right now.”
Scott McDonald is a Houston-based freelance writer who has 17 years experience in sports reporting and feature writing. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.