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With Tokyo In Sight, Top U.S. Swimmers Stay In Their Lanes: Goals, Gains And Blocking Out The Noise

By Nick McCarvel | Nov. 28, 2018, 12:56 p.m. (ET)

Ryan Murphy smiles for a photo at the 2018 Golden Goggle Awards on Nov. 19, 2018 in New York City.


NEW YORK – With the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 just over 18 months away, the juggernaut known as the U.S. swimming team is well aware of the timeline – and expectations and media glare – ahead of it. 

And both stars and newcomers alike are not fazed one bit.

“You have to plan things out carefully,” three-time Olympic gold medalist Ryan Murphy told TeamUSA.org. “As you get closer to the Olympics and sponsors come around and you have more people tugging at you, you have to have a plan. You have to have a schedule and not deviate from that. That’s the most important thing.” 

It’s one of a series of consistent messages that came out of swimming’s annual awards night, the Golden Goggles, last week: Stay on track with your training, set goals, keep focused and learn from the past.

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But that’s all much easier said than done.

“I think honestly I try to keep things exactly the same but just do them better” as I get closer to the Olympics, said Lilly King, who won two golds herself in Rio. “You have to be more professional about it. In 2016, I was so young going into it, so inexperienced, but now I know a lot more. I go about my business as I usually do, but I also try and be just that little bit better. I wasn’t thinking at all in the lead-up to Rio. I was so new to the whole process.” 

It'll be a first go-around at the pre-Olympic hubbub for 19-year-old Michael Andrew, who won gold at the prestigious Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in August in the men’s 50-meter freestyle, having collected four national titles earlier in the summer – the first U.S. swimmer to do so in 10 years.

“Coming into 2018 there were a lot of ups and downs that I had to learn to deal with – basically becoming a professional athlete,” Andrew told TeamUSA.org. “I set my goals for Tokyo a long time ago. Recently, I’ve said that I want to be the fastest in all four strokes in the 50s out of any man that has ever walked the earth... I think that’s a pretty ambitious goal. Training doesn’t change. It becomes a little centrally-focused on those sprints and the 100s. But it’s the same method for me – USRPT [Ultra Short Race Pace Training] all the way, race pace – it’s all about creating those patterns. The more yards we do at race-pace, the faster we’ll get.”

Andrew trains with his father, Peter, and said recently they added a pair of fins to their repertoire. The fins, which they bought in Thailand after Pan Pacs, are meant to help Andrew with his underwater speed, something he said needs improvement on if he wants to hit that lofty goal of the fastest man in the 50s.

While the mantra is to keep as much the same as possible as the pressure ramps up, there have been some big changes for some of the biggest names in the sport in the recent past, including both Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel going professional during the 2018 season.

Both Ledecky and Manuel have remained at Stanford where they still train with the team and attend classes, but Manuel will finish with school in 2019, when her sole focus will turn to the pool. 

“I’m getting adjusted to the professional life [and] I’m looking forward to getting better in my swimming,” Manuel, 22, said. “I’m going to continue to train and work as hard as I can and take feedback from what I’m doing.”

Manuel said the feedback from being in Tokyo (where Pan Pacs was not held in the pool that will be used for the Olympics) was one of motivation – and self-reflection: “Finishing the meet, you sort of get out of the pool and think to yourself, ‘Hey, I could be back here in two years.’ It helps you solidify your goals to be back there in two years.”

“I have my own goals,” said Ledecky, who won her sixth straight Golden Goggle for female swimmer of the year. “I have them for 2020 and I have some things in mind for the next year – some spots I want to improve on and some things that I want to achieve – so I’m really excited to get into racing for the next two years and see where it takes me.”

Swimming has already taken Ledecky to five Olympic golds and the status as the best female swimmer of her generation – and potentially of all time – and the experience from those previous two Olympic-berth processes have taught her and her peers how to approach what can be the most stressful and pressure-packed period an athlete can face.

And that’s before they even dip their toes in Olympic water.

“I need to make sure I’m mentally fresh going into the Olympic year,” said Murphy, who was Ledecky’s counterpart as the male swimmer of the year for 2018. “The last thing that I want is to get into the Olympic year and feel a little bit burned out. For me, it’s about pushing the pedal down, but you want to leave a little to be desired. I’m not holding back, but I’m just making sure in 2018 and 2019 that I have really good balance. As I get to 2020, that’s when I want to do everything right.”

Murphy said that includes 10-hour nights of sleeps, weekends staying in away from socializing and the ability to find a way to put swimming on top of your list. Every time. 

That’s not easily done for Katie Meili, who won two medals at the Rio Games and just this past fall started law school at Georgetown University – while keeping her full schedule as a professional swimmer. 

“It’s not easy,” she said. “It’s easier when you take everything one step at a time, but otherwise it’s insanity. Whenever I have 10 minutes, I do my laundry. [Laughs.] I swim in the mornings, I go to class, I spend a lot (a lot!) of time in the library reading and preparing. I swim again in the afternoons and work in lifts and all that extra stuff. I’m lucky to be asleep by 10:30.” 

Meili continued: “I think what helps me with school is that I have to be really efficient. It’s about working smarter, not harder. And the same goes for being in the pool. I have been a professional for six years now and you know what you need and don’t. You do what you have to and ignore everything else.”

But it’s impossible to ignore the attention that is sure to come for one of the biggest Olympic sports as the Games grow closer, something Kathleen Baker – who set the 100 backstroke world record this summer – and Ashley Twichell – who competes in both the pool and open water events – are well aware of. 

Baker has recently taken up the Rubik’s cube as a stress reliever – particularly when she travels. Her best time – 1 minute, 8 seconds – is 10 seconds shy of her world-record time in the backstroke.

“I took a class – I’m pretty good!” a smiling Baker said. “I need to solve it quicker. On average I’m two minutes, [but] I want to find out more algorithms to use so I can be faster.” 

It’s a similar goal in the pool, where Baker is aiming for a sub-58 time in the 100 backstroke, particularly at the world championships in July, held in South Korea. 

Twichell is a rarity in swimming, competing in both the pool and open water. Worlds in South Korea will serve as the open water Olympic qualifier, which means Twichell could qualify for her first Olympic team a full year before the Games begin. 

“Mentally I have to act like it’s any other year,” she said of 2020. “Of course, it’s going to be in the back of my head. What I’ve been doing has been successful, so I’m going to try to maintain that in and out of the pool. Hopefully good things will come out of it.”

She said she doesn’t swim as much as people think, the open water event (10 kilometers) being 10,000 meters and her two pool events – the 800 and 1,500 freestyle – appearing to be as demanding as possible day in and day out.  

“We don’t do crazy, crazy, crazy yardage,” Twichell said. “I used to do more, but it’s more like being a distance swimmer in the pool.”

One thing, Murphy promises, that won’t change in 2019 or 2020 are his quirky must-do’s on race day. There’s the socks – and breakfast, too.

“At swim meets I get super superstitious,” he said, laughing. “I’ll wear USA socks every time. I’ll have a Greek yogurt, banana, and peanut butter and jelly before every race. I always do a pretty similar warm-up. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to do well in 2018 at Pan Pacs is because I’m a little superstitious about swimming in Tokyo. I wanted to swim well, and hopefully that’s a good omen for 2020 and hopefully I’ll be there then, too.”

Murphy won three golds at Pan Pacs – but said after he wanted more. That’s where the next 18 months come into play. How can he get better? How can they all get better? The preparation – and expectation – to come will answer all of that.