INDIANAPOLIS — Zane Grothe. Mallory Comerford. Regan Smith. Justin Ress.
These are just some of the names that might make swimming headlines leading up to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
And it all started at the 2017 Phillips 66 National Championships, part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast.
They are just a few who were named to the 2017 world championship team — a “nice blend of veterans who are continuing to make the team and youngsters like Regan Smith and Hannah Stevens,” said Stanford’s Greg Meehan, who will coach the women at worlds. Smith and Stevens were breakout performers in the backstroke at nationals this year.
Men’s coach David Durden, from Cal-Berkeley, is equally excited about the 2017 team headed to the FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, next month.
“You use some of that youthful energy to keep some of those veterans engaged, alive, energized, and the veterans help out the young guys with the experience: how to move, how to walk, how to move through eight days of a world championship-type meet,” Durden said.
Veterans include Katie Ledecky, who will likely swim four individual events in Budapest, plus two relays; Leah Smith, who could out-Ledecky Ledecky with five individual events and a relay; Elizabeth Beisel, who qualified for her sixth worlds team a decade after making her international debut; Matt Grevers, the emotional favorite in the 100 back who missed qualifying for Rio; and Nathan Adrian and Caeleb Dressel, perennial sprint veterans.
Meehan is particularly excited to see how the new swimmers do in Budapest. It brought back memories of Maya DiRado, one of his Stanford swimmers, qualifying for her first worlds team in 2013. DiRado won four medals in Rio, including gold in the 200 backstroke and 4x200 freestyle.
“I remember that being such a huge deal for her and for us as a program at the time,” he said. “Reliving how she went from 2013 to ’14 to ’15 to ’16 and the success that she had in Rio, it’s fun to see where this team is and who’s that next one who’s stepping into that mold.”
So here’s a look at a few of the brightest young stars to make Team USA’s 2017 world championship team. For a complete world championship roster, click here.
Comerford isn’t afraid of anyone. Not 2016 Olympic medalist Simone Manuel, or even the legendary Katie Ledecky. After all, she has one accolade that few others — if anyone — in the world can claim: she has come close to beating Katie Ledecky in a 200 freestyle race.
At the 2017 NCAA Championships, 19-year-old Comerford tied Ledecky for the 200-yard freestyle title.
That race, however, was yards, not meters, and was contested in a short-course pool, not the longer 50-meter Olympic-size pool. And the transition to the longer pool has taken time for Comerford. The larger pool requires better endurance and stroke technique. Swimmers have to generate speed along the longer distance with their strokes, not their wall pushes.
She appears to have mastered it. Comerford, a rising junior at the University of Louisville, beat Simone Manuel in the 100 freestyle on Tuesday night for her first national title. Then, in the 200 free, she swam between two Olympic gold medalists and finished fourth, qualifying to compete in the 4x200 free at the 2017 world championships.
“I was just training hard and racing my own race and whatever happened, happened,” Comerford said. “We’ve been working really hard, and I’ve been really trying to figure out long course, and it’s finally nice for it to be clicking.”
Comerford credited the work she has done at Louisville for the past three summers along with her teammates, like 2016 Olympian Kelsi Worrell. Comerford grew up in Michigan, where she won four high school swimming titles.
“It’s just been really cool to watch her progress in swimming especially since she has really developed in long course,” said 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Leah Smith. “There’s new names now on the worlds roster, but those names we’ve all been seeing in NCAA swimming and conference level swimming too.”
When 15-year-old Smith finished second in the 200-meter backstroke (behind 2016 Olympic silver medalist Kathleen Baker), she became the youngest swimmer to qualify for a world championship team since Elizabeth Beisel made the 2007 worlds team at age 14.
“Honestly, I came into this [meet] hoping that I’d get a best time, make the A final, have some good swims,” Smith said. “I didn’t really think I’d be able to do this. So I’m really excited.”
A rising high school sophomore, Smith lives in Minnesota and trains with coach Mike Parratto, 12-time Olympic medalist Jenny Thompson’s former coach.
With world championships now on her summer schedule — her first trip to Europe — Smith has to postpone driver’s ed.
Still wide-eyed at making her first world championship team, Smith said, “I would love to get my permit at some point, that would be fun too.”
After Grothe finished third in the men’s 200 freestyle, qualifying for the 4x200 free at worlds, he was all bluster.
“It’s the 200 free for now, but I’ve got better events coming,” he promised.
He lived up that statement in the 400 free on Friday night. While all eyes were on 2016 Olympians Townley Haas and Clark Smith in lanes four and five, Grothe, 25, swam by himself in lane 1 — with his eyes closed for most of the race.
“They peek open every now and then to keep me going straight,” he said. “But occasionally I have to tell myself, ‘Look around, make sure you’re in this race. Make sure you’re not doing something crazy,’” he said.
A graduate of Auburn University in aerospace engineering, Grothe predicted that his best years are yet to come.
“That’s from my genetics,” he replied, when asked where his speed comes from. “I just getting bigger and stronger every year. I don’t think my strength will peak for another two, three, four years. I just figured it was a matter of time.”
He trained at Auburn for one more year after graduating in 2014, then moved to Indianapolis where he’s a member of the Badger Swim Club and trains with 2016 Olympians Blake Pieroni and Cody Miller.
After 2016 Olympian Connor Jaeger — the 1,500 free American record holder — retired, the spot for top American distance swimmer opened up. At nationals, Stanford’s Sweetser quietly swam into the role.
On the first night of competition, the 19-year-old rising sophomore won the 1,500 in 14:59.73, the first time he has gone under 15 minutes in the event.
“I knew going into the final that a lot of guys get excited and like to go out fast, and I just wanted to make sure that I went out as controlled as I could and have a really strong back half,” he said. “I had a lot of confidence from the training that I’ve put in, I’m so happy with how it panned out — I can’t believe it!”
He also competed at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, finishing sixth in the 400 freestyle. After that meet, he told Swimming World Magazine that he studied Grant Hackett, the Australian distance swimmer who won Olympic gold medals in the 1,500 free at both the 2000 and 2004 Games.
“The reason he knew he could beat anyone in the mile was because every time he went behind the blocks, he knew that he had done more work than anyone else in that heat,” Sweetser told Swimming World. “I think that whenever I go into a big mile or any mile at all, being confident in the work I put in, no matter how I feel, I can swim fast.”
Stanford teammate Katie Ledecky confirmed that Sweetser is following Hackett’s lead.
“He trains longer than I’ve ever seen anyone train,” said Ledecky. “He pounds out the yardage.”
True is the youngest of six, and four of his older siblings swam at Ivy League schools.
At the Olympic Games Rio 2016, Ryan Murphy became Team USA’s new king of backstroke, winning the 100-meter backstroke Olympic gold medal (as well as gold in the 200) and keeping alive the U.S. men’s gold medal-winning streak that dates back 20 years.
America’s next king of backstroke could be Ress. The 19-year-old from North Carolina State won the 50-meter backstroke at nationals, beating both Murphy and 2012 Olympic 100-meter backstroke champion Matt Grevers.
“I know that [the 50 back] is a non-Olympic event, but that stood out as a really impressive performance,” noted men’s national team coach Dave Durden.
A versatile swimmer, Ress swam distance in high school and his freshman year at NC State. He really wanted to be a sprinter, so he transitioned to the shorter events recently. He had never swum a 50 back until this summer.
At nationals, he also competed in the 50 and 100 freestyles, just missing the A final in both. He also entered the 50 butterfly, finishing 23rd.
“It’s awesome to see some names that weren’t necessarily a year ago at the spot we were talking about for a world championship team in 2017,” added Durden, referring to Ress and Sweetser, as well as Robert Finke, who qualified in the 1,500 and Zach Apple, who will race in the 4x100 free relay. “They made huge strides, huge steps.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.