The Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Tokyo won’t just be the largest and most prestigious international swimming event on Team USA’s calendar this year.
The competition also boils down to an intrasquad meet held more than 5,000 miles away from the continental United States.
That’s because Team USA spots at the 2019 world championships in South Korea are determined by Pan Pac performances this week combined with times posted at the 2018 Phillips 66 National Championships late last month.
Although athletes qualified in specific races at nationals in Irvine, California, they can swim as many other events as they want in Tokyo – within reason, of course, in a four-day meet starting Thursday. For example, 11 of the 40 entrants in the men’s 200-meter freestyle are from the United States. While there is no limit on the number of preliminaries an athlete can swim, only two from each country are allowed in the A final, with one additional swimmer allowed in the B final.
Lindsay Mintenko, national team managing director, said times from the A finals at nationals will be compared with those from the A and B finals at Pan Pacs. For someone like Katie Ledecky, who did not compete in the 1,500-meter freestyle at nationals, she’ll have only one race to move to the head of the pack.
“Whoever has the faster times gets selected for worlds,” Mintenko said. “It’s a complicated procedure, but it works. The end goal is 2020 and we’ve been pretty successful at the Olympic Games using this formula.”
That’s right. This trip to Tokyo could be a precursor to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“I think it’s really good preparation,” said Kathleen Baker, who set the lone world record at nationals in the women’s 100-meter backstroke. “Every summer I look forward to the qualifying meet because it just gets harder and harder as you get closer to the Olympics. It becomes more and more important, so you need to be able to handle the pressure and what comes along with trying to make a team.
“I think Pan Pacs is a really different meet because you’re not just competing against other countries, you’re really competing against your teammates as well. It’s a really great support system. Even though we’re competing, everyone’s still rooting for each other so it’s a really interesting dynamic.”
However, teammate Simone Manuel said “it’s never fun” competing against teammates. “I think we all wish for the best for each other,” said Manuel, the reigning Olympic and world champion in the 100-meter freestyle. “We all know how tough it is to race against each other in the U.S. and be fighting for those spots, but that’s just the name of the game.”
It will put Olympic and world champion breaststroker Lilly King back into what she calls “beast mode.” “I just get really mean, to be honest,” she said.
Who feels her wrath? “Anybody who’s in my way.”
Getting The Lay Of The Land
Bethany Galat dives in the water at the Phillips 66 National Championships on July 27, 2018 in Irvine, Calif.
The meet will be held at Tatsumi International Swim Center, which will host water polo at the 2020 Games. It is adjacent to the still-under-construction Olympic Aquatic Center.
“To be in the city where the Games are is going to be a huge advantage for our athletes,” said Mintenko, a two-time Olympian and double gold medalist, “just to see where things are, to see how Japan runs a competition, to know what to expect. We’re going to do an excursion with the team on the last day before we get back on the plane so they can see where the Olympic Village is, how far that is from the pool.
“They’ll get a feel for it so they can be prepared when they go back in two years.”
Athletes also will learn about the customs, culture and food of Japan, as well as get acclimated to the time difference.
“Just the atmosphere of being in Tokyo,” Manuel said, “and knowing in a couple of years you’re going to be back there hopefully at the Olympics is something that’s going to excite and hopefully motivate me and the other Team USA athletes to get back there in 2020.”
Team USA is one of 16 countries competing. The United States, Canada, Japan and Australia founded the Pan Pacs in 1985 as an alternative to the European Championships. While Brazil has some medal contenders this year, there are also swimmers from non-powerhouse countries such as Northern Mariana Islands, Oman, Palau and Peru.
A Mix Of Familiar And New Faces
Justin Wright competes in the men's 200-meter butterfly at the TYR Pro Swim Series on April 13, 2018 in Mesa, Ariz.
Some athletes had their breakthrough meet at nationals, but now have to hang on to make it to Gwangju, South Korea, next July for worlds.
Ally McHugh and Brooke Forde were the unexpected 1-2 finishers in the women’s 400-meter individual medley while Justin Wright and Zach Harting took the top two places in the men’s 200-meter butterfly. Blake Pieroni was the surprise winner in the men’s 100-meter freestyle, while Andrew Seliskar won the 200 free, with both upsetting world medalists.
In other events, the status quo was upheld, with Olympic champions Ledecky, King and Ryan Murphy winning their specialties.
“It’s a great combination of some names that have been around before and some new names,” said Arthur Albiero, the head men’s coach from the Louisville Cardinals. “That’s very important for the success of USA Swimming.
“The whole meet, if you look at the number of upsets and the depth, that speaks volumes for the level of USA Swimming. I think (Pan Pacs) will be a great opportunity for our athletes to really grow and step up to the challenge.”
Key Matchup No. 1: Kathleen Baker vs. Kylie Masse of Canada
Kathleen Baker celebrates a win and a new world record time of 58.00 in the women's 100-meter backstroke at the Phillips 66 National Championships on July 28, 2018 in Irvine, Calif.
Baker, the newly-minted world record holder in the 100 backstroke, will try to become the first woman in history under 58 seconds. She sliced .10 off the previous mark held by Masse, who swam 58.10 en route to the 2017 world title. Baker was second in 58.58, followed by Emily Seebohm of Australia in 58.59. Masse and Seebohm held the top two times this season until Baker leap-frogged ahead of them.
“That’s going to be a good race,” said head women’s coach Ray Looze of the Indiana Hoosiers. “I can’t wait to watch that.”
Baker and Regan Smith, the 16-year-old making waves, tied in the 200 backstroke, with Smith setting a world junior record. They are now ranked behind Masse and fellow Canadian Taylor Ruck.
But don’t count out Olivia Smoliga of Team USA, who could also claim a spot on the podium.
Key Matchup No. 2: Caeleb Dressel vs. Kyle Chalmers of Australia
Caeleb Dressel swims in the men's 100-meter butterfly final at the Phillips 66 National Championships on July 27, 2018 in Irvine, Calif.
Chalmers won the gold medal at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 while Dressel won the world title last year with a time of 47.17 seconds, the third-best time since textile suits replaced the controversial high-tech, full-body swimsuits.
Dressel had what he called a “bad swim” at nationals, placing sixth in the final won by Pieroni, but he’s favored to race back into contention for one of the two world championships slots.
Nathan Adrian, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist and 2016 bronze medalist, and Pieroni should also be in the mix, especially with relay spots up for grabs.
Dressel is also a medal contender in the 100 butterfly and 50 free.
Key Matchup No. 3: Katie Ledecky vs. Katie Ledecky and others
Katie Ledecky prepares for the women’s 800-meter freestyle at the Phillips 66 National Championships on July 25, 2018 in Irvine, Calif.
Ledecky, once the youngest person in her races, is now 21 and will have to fend off some up-and-comers in the 200 freestyle: Ruck, the 18-year-old Canadian, 17-year-old Ariarne Titmus of Australia and 18-year-old Rikako Ikee of Japan. Ledecky, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist in this event, was stunned at worlds last year by Italian Federica Pellegrini, but looks to get back in the win column. Australian Emma McKeon, at 24, is the oldest among the top contenders.
Ledecky is expected to mainly race the clock in the 400, 800 and 1,500, where she’ll try to lower her own world records. In the latter race, she is a sure bet to supplant Ashley Twichell or Ally McHugh on the world team.
The only female swimmer with a more taxing individual schedule is Leah Smith, who is expected to race the 200, 400, 800, 1,500 and the 400 IM.
Key Matchup No. 4: Michael Andrew vs. Expectations
Michael Andrew celebrates winning the men's 50-meter breaststroke at the 2018 Phillips 66 National Championships on July 27, 2018 in Irvine, Calif.
The Pan Pacs could mark the first major senior title for the 19-year-old, who turned pro when he was just 14. Andrew won four events at nationals, more than any other swimmer (with Ledecky sitting out the 1,500). Besides the 50 free and 100 breaststroke, which are Olympic events, he also won the 50 breast and 50 fly – which qualified him straight to the world team.
In the 50 free, he’ll be up against Dressel, the reigning world champion, and Pedro Spajari of Brazil, whose teammate Bruno Fratus, the world silver medalist, is not competing. Anthony Ervin, the reigning Olympic champion, did not qualify for the A or B final in Irvine, although his goal is to reach the final at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming in 2020.
Yosuhiro Koseki of Japan and Joao Gomes of Brazil are Andrew’s chief international foes in the 100 breast, but he also has to defeat teammates Andrew Wilson, Josh Prenot and even Dressel.
Key Matchup No. 5: Simone Manuel vs. Cate Campbell of Australia
Simone Manuel reacts to victory in the women's 50-meter freestyle at the Phillips 66 National Championships on July 29, 2018 in Irvine, Calif.
Although Canadian Penny Oleksiak, who tied Manuel for the gold in Rio, is taking a break from competition, Manuel still has her work cut out for her. Campbell has the second-fastest time in the world this year (52.37 seconds), behind her sister Bronte (52.27), who is sitting out the meet to rehabilitate a shoulder injury.
Team USA’s Mallory Comerford and Ruck of Canada are also medal threats.
Manuel went 52.54 at nationals in the 100 and 24.10 in the 50.
Cate Campbell has the season’s best time in the 50 of 23.78.
“I’m always excited to race the best of the best in the world, so it’ll be fun,” Manuel said.
Key Matchup No. 6: Chase Kalisz vs. Japan's Hagino and Seto
Chase Kalisz swims to victory in the men's 200-meter individual medley at the Phillips 66 National Championships on July 29, 2018 in Irvine, Calif.
Kalisz won the 2017 world championships in both events, defeating Kosuke Hagino in the 200 IM with Daiya Seto fifth. In the 400 IM, Seto won the bronze and Hagino was sixth.
A year earlier at Rio, Hagino won the 400 IM with Kalisz second and Seto third.
“We’ve interchanged positions many times,” Kalisz said, “and they’re always pushing me. You can never be off your ‘A’ game when you’re racing those two. I know they’re going to make me bring the best out of me. I’m excited to get to Tokyo and see them and race them.”