By Peggy Shinn | July 25, 2018, 2:48 p.m. (ET)
Simone Manuel competes in the women's 50-meter freestyle at the FINA World Championships on July 29, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. 

 

Katie Meili just finished her first year at Georgetown Law. But that does not mean the 27-year-old Olympic medalist has retired from swimming.

She loves the sport and asked the Georgetown coaches if she could swim in the university’s pool when it fit into her law school schedule. They invited her to practice, and she began swimming alongside the Hoyas. She coached the Hoyas as well, giving her “two cents” when she could.

“I found myself showing up to the pool a lot, so I was like, ‘I guess I’m going to keep swimming,’” she said by phone from the Columbus Pro Swim Series in early July. 

Swimming was once again a priority for Meili. At the Austin Pro Swim Series in January, she won the 100-meter breaststroke and finished second in the stroke’s 50-meter race. Six months later in Columbus, she finished second to Olympic gold medalist Lilly King in the 100 breaststroke. And Meili’s 100 breaststroke times are still some of the fastest in the world.

“I’m a little bit lucky that I’m a breaststroker because it is a technique-based stroke,” Meili said. 
“So as long as I can stay strong and stay fit and keep my technique good, I think I’ll still be performing at my best.”

Meili will dive into the pool at the Phillips 66 National Championships this week in Irvine, California, aiming to make the team competing at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, slated for Aug. 9-13 in Tokyo. The national championships are part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.

Then if she finishes with one of the two fastest times between the nationals and Pan Pacs finals, the Olympic bronze medalist breaststroker will make her second world championship team. At the 2017 world championships, she won silver and bronze in the 100 and 50 breaststroke, respectively, and gold in the 4x100 medley.

Meili isn’t the only Olympic veteran hoping to qualify for Pan Pacs and next July’s world championships in Gwangju, South Korea. Here’s a look at who will likely dominate in Irvine, who’s stepped up, returning veterans and new names to watch. 


Who Will Likely Dominate?

Caeleb Dressel leads the list of dominators. At world championships last year, the 21-year-old Floridian showed that he could be Team USA’s next Michael Phelps or Mark Spitz. Dressel won seven gold medals at the 2017 world championships: in the 50 and 100 freestyles, 100 butterfly, and he helped propel Team USA to four relay wins, including two mixed relays (freestyle and medley).

Phelps is the only other swimmer to ever win seven golds at one world championships, a feat he performed in 2007 (without the benefit of a mixed freestyle relay). 

With the addition of the mixed medley relay to the 2020 Olympic program, Dressel could win six Olympic gold medals — or possibly eight if the sprinter broadens his program to include the 200 freestyle, 200 individual medley and/or is named to the 4x200 freestyle team.

He’s already proven his versatility, setting American records in the 200-yard IM and 100-yard breaststroke in collegiate competition. Then at NCAAs in March, Dressel concluded his college career at the University of Florida by winning three individual titles (50 free, 100 free and 100 butterfly) and breaking more American records. In the 50-yard freestyle, he won by over one second. In the 100-yard freestyle, he became the first swimmer ever to break 40 seconds, touching the wall in 39.90.

Dressel likes to tweet inspirational quotes. And after the SEC championships this past winter, he told Swimming World Magazine, “I want to use up all the talent God gave me” and become the  greatest swimmer he can be.

Then he added, “I feel like I’m just getting started in the sport.”

Katie Ledecky, who recently turned pro after two years swimming for Stanford University, will likely continue to dominate the freestyle events. The freestyle phenom did not break any records at the 2017 world championships — and she tied for silver in the 200 freestyle. But she is on track to break records again.

So far in 2018, she is ranked No. 1 in the world in the 200 free — with a time of 1:54.56, which would have won gold at the 2017 world championships. At the Indianapolis Pro Swim Series meet in May, she also lowered her world record in the 1,500 by five seconds. Her times in the 400 and 800 free are also lower than the times she swam last season.

Then there’s Chase Kalisz. In Rio, Kalisz won a silver medal in the 400 IM — keeping the U.S. men on the podium in that event (American men have won Olympic medals in every Olympiad but two since the 400 IM debuted at the 1964 Olympic Games). It was Kalisz’s first Olympic medal. Yet the University of Georgia swimmer did not seem happy. He wanted gold.

At the 2017 world championships, Kalisz won gold in both the 200 and 400 IM, showing that he is ready to take over Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte’s spots as IM dominators. 

This season, Kalisz won every 200 and 400 IM in the six-leg Pro Swim Series, and the 24-year-old holds the top time in the world this year in the 400 IM. He also has won every 200 butterfly in the Pro Swim Series and is in the lead for the overall series title.

Look for Ryan Murphy to return to top form. After “only” winning silver and bronze medals in backstroke at the 2017 world championships, the 100-meter backstroke world record holder was frustrated and vowed to work hard and regain his title as the best backstroker in the world.

This season, 23-year-old Murphy won the 100 and 200 back at every Pro Swim Series event that he entered. But to date, his times are not the best in the world. In the 100 back, he is ranked 12th in the world, 1.39 seconds behind unheralded Niccolo Bonacchi from Italy. In the 200, Murphy’s best time so far this season is 1.75 seconds slower than reigning 200 back world champion Evgeny Rylov from Russia (Olympic bronze in the 200 back).

Other 2016 Olympic gold medalists who will likely dominate at least two events at nationals include Lilly King (100 and 200 breaststroke) and Simone Manuel (50 and 100 free).

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Who’s Stepping Up

At the 2016 Olympic Games, Townley Haas was the youngest member of the U.S. men’s swim team. He finished fourth in the 200 free and came away with a gold medal in the 4x200 freestyle. A year later, Haas won a medal in an individual event — a silver in the 200 free at the 2017 world championships. In March, the 21-year-old distance freestyler claimed his third consecutive NCAA title in the 200 free, becoming the second man to swim the distance in under 1:30. The first to swim the 200 free that fast? 2016 Olympian Blake Pieroni, who swam the 200-yard free in 1:29.63 in the leadoff leg of the 800 free relay at the 2018 NCAAs. Look for Haas and Pieroni to battle for the national title in this event.

Jacob Pebley, who finished fifth in the 200 backstroke in Rio, has also stepped up. The 24-year-old former Cal swimmer won a bronze medal behind former Cal teammate Murphy in the 200 backstroke at the 2017 world championships. In Pro Swim Series swim meets this season, he has won the 200 back twice, finished second twice (to Murphy) and third once.

In breaststroke, Kevin Cordes, 24, overcame Olympic disappointment to win a silver medal in the 100 breaststroke at 2017 world championships (to go with the silver he won in the 200 and bronze in the 50 at 2015 worlds). Can he maintain the momentum? 

Kelsi (Worrell) Dahlia is picking up where Dana Vollmer left off. Vollmer won Olympic gold and bronze in the 100 butterfly at the last two Olympic Games but took off 2017 for the birth of her second child. At the 2017 world championships, Dahlia won a bronze medal in the 100 fly.

Now married (to former University of Louisville teammate Thomas Dahlia in October 2017), Dahlia, 23, has won four 100 butterfly races in the Pro Swim Series and is currently ranked sixth in the world in the event. Meanwhile, Vollmer is skipping nationals to continue rebuilding from maternity leave. The seven-time Olympic medalist still aims to compete in Tokyo in 2020.


Olympic Veterans To Watch

More and more athletes are showing that age is just a number, like Anthony Ervin who became the oldest swimmer to ever win an Olympic gold medal when he claimed the 50 free in Rio. Although a handful of swimmers may be getting long in the tooth, they are still winning races and medals at the international level.

Like Matt Grevers. Now 33, the Olympic champion backstroker put Olympic disappointment behind him at the 2017 world championships by winning four medals — two golds in relays, silver in the 100-meter backstroke and bronze in the 50. The previous year, he missed making his third Olympic team by almost a half-second. This season, he has won the 100 back twice in Pro Swim Series meets, beating 2016 Olympians Ryan Murphy and Jacob Pebley.

Sprint freestyler Nathan Adrian hasn’t hit 30 yet. But the three-time Olympian is aiming for his sixth world championship team. He won 50- and 100-meter freestyle races in four of the five Pro Swim Series meets this spring. So far, Adrian — who won a silver medal in the 100 free at the 2017 worlds (and bronze at the 2016 Olympics) — holds the fastest time this year for the American men in the 100 free.

And in the 50 free, never count out 37-year-old Ervin. 

But both veterans will be challenged by up-and-comers in the freestyle sprints.


New Names To Watch

Regan Smith first hit the radar at 2017 nationals, where at age 15 she qualified for her first senior world championships. At the 2017 worlds, she qualified for the 200 backstroke final. Then at junior world championships late last summer, Smith set a new world record in the 100 backstroke (and also broke the National Age Group record for 15-16-year-olds in the event, a record previously held by Missy Franklin). 

Smith — a rising high school junior from Minnesota’s Twin Cities — won both the 100 and 200 backstrokes at the Santa Clara Pro Swim Series meet in June. She will likely challenge Olympians Kathleen Baker and Olivia Smoliga for the backstroke titles, as well as Franklin, who is slated to compete at nationals. It will be Franklin’s first swim meet in the U.S. since the 2016 Olympic Trials and only her third meet since undergoing shoulder surgery in early 2017. For the past year, she has been training at the University of Georgia.

Look for Ella Eastin to make a name for herself at nationals. Last year at nationals, Eastin was disqualified in the 400 IM (dolphin kicking on her back for too long after her final turn) after finishing second to Leah Smith. The DQ crushed her dream of making her first world championship team. The 21-year-old Stanford swimmer aims to put this disappointment behind her. She won the 200 and 400 IM titles, plus the 200 butterfly, at NCAAs this year and was named Swimmer of the Meet. Then at the Santa Clara Pro Swim Series meet, she won the 400 IM, beating reigning national champ Smith. 

Breaststrokers Nic Fink and Andrew Wilson will likely challenge Olympians Cordes, Cody Miller and Josh Prenot for the Pan Pac and world championship teams.

A graduate of Emory University, Wilson, 24, trains with Longhorn Aquatics (University of Texas) and is seeking to make his first Olympic team in 2020 (he just missed the 2016 Olympic team). He has two 100 breaststroke wins this season in the Pro Swim Series.

Fink, 25, is a Georgia Bulldog and is looking to make his third world championship team (long course). At last year’s worlds, he finished fifth in the 200 breaststroke, just over a second off the podium.

As a freshman at the University of Louisville, Mallory Comerford accomplished a rare and stunning feat. In the 200 free at the 2017 NCAAs, she tied Ledecky. This result immediately put her name on the “who to watch” list, and at the 2017 world championships she came away with five gold medals, all in relays, and finished fourth in the 100 free. At the end of the season, she was named Breakout Swimmer of the Year at USA Swimming’s Golden Goggles Awards. Comerford won the 200 again at the 2018 NCAAs. She’s also strong in the 100 freestyle and butterfly.

And look for 19-year-old Michael Andrew to finally make his first senior international team. Known as the youngest American swimmer to ever turn pro (at age 14), Andrew is coached by his father in their own indoor backyard pool (two lanes, 25 yards — with no inflatable toys in sight) using a unique training program called Ultra-Short Race Pace Training.

A versatile swimmer once hailed as the next Michael Phelps, Andrew missed both the 2016 Olympic and 2017 world championship teams. A top sprinter, he will challenge Dressel and Adrian in the 50 free (Andrew is the current junior world record holder). At the Columbus Pro Swim Series, he swam the sixth fastest 50 free in the world this year (and the fastest for the American men, so far). He’s also strong in the 100 breaststroke, winning the Columbus Pro Swim Series meet in mid-July.

But don’t compare him to Phelps.

As he once told his hometown newspaper, The Kansas City Star, “I want to be the first Michael Andrew.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.