Olympic Trials is a place where the best swimmers in the US concentrate their efforts. No meet has the elite turnout of Olympic Trials – no Nationals, Grand Prix, or NCAA Championship collects raw talent like this one special meet. It’s where age-group standouts face college champions, all stacked against a growing army of US National Team veterans. The feeling is electric – there is nothing like Trials.
But how do we look forward to this meet? Who is truly a “favorite” here? Let’s look at history, the NCAA Championships, and the field at large to get an idea of how we can analyze this meet. Today, I’ll break down the 50 Free.
Men’s 50 Free
In 2012 the NCAA Champion was Texas’s Jimmy Feigen, who turned in a 19.01 to edge Vlad Morozov (who swam for Southern California). Feigen trained LCM leading up to Olympic Trials in 2012, and when it came to the showdown in Omaha Feigen finished 5th behind top qualifier Cullen Jones and the Olympic Veteran 31-year-old Anthony Ervin. US favorite Nathan Adrian and Josh Schneider finished 3rd and 4th respectively.
From the NCAA final heat, Jason Schnur of the Ohio State University also made the top 8 in Omaha, but neither he, Feigen, nor Morozov for Russia made it to the Olympics in 2012. Feigen also took the NCAA title in the 100 free, which I’ll get back to another day.
This year, you haven’t been paying much attention to swimming if you don’t know the name Caeleb Dressel. Competing for Florida he shattered the world record in the 50 Freestyle at NCAAs this March (foreshadowed by his dominance at SEC Championships just weeks before). His 18.23 was the fastest swim ever, and discounting times from the infamous ‘tech-suit era’ (with two amazingly fast swimmers, Brazil’s Cesar Cielo and Australia’s Matt Targett) Dressel’s is the fastest time by .4 seconds, soundly besting international stars Vlad Morozov of Russia, Kristian Gkolomeev of Greece, and Nathan Adrian of the USA.
Now that time, like Feigen’s above, is for a collegiate SCY (25 short course yard) pool; the Olympics are 50 long course meters (LCM). Conversions put his time around a 21.0, though Dressel derives much of his advantage from superhuman underwater kicks off the turn, which is absent in LCM. France’s Florent Manaudou won London’s 2012 Olympics with a 21.34, so there’s reason for excitement.
Dressel is considered a strong contender to make it to the big show this year (his LCM time of 21.53 from last summer is the 2nd fastest this cycle and would have won 2012 Trials), but the field is full. Of the contenders in 2012, look for both qualifiers (Jones and Ervin) along with Schneider, Feigen, Adrian, perennial threat and backstroker Matt Grevers, and more to vie for a place on Team USA. Around the world, France’s Manaudou, Bruno Fratus of Brazil, and Australia’s Cam McEvoy pose the most immediate threat for the medal stand; although 2nd and 3rd place 2016 NCAA finishers Simonas Bilis of Lithuania and Gkolomeev of Greece will both be hoping to make the Olympic final as well. It should be a good fight – the US has won 3x since the 50’s introduction in 1988 (1988 – Matt Biondi, 2000 – Gary Hall Jr & Anthony Ervin tie, 2004 – Gary Hall Jr).
Women’s 50 Free
On the Women’s side, 2012 NCAA Champion Liv Jensen of Cal had a disappointing prelims, finishing 11th going into semi-finals where she was disqualified. The NCAA runner up, Margo Geer of Arizona, fought her way into an experienced Final Heat at trials in which she lost to qualifiers Jessica Hardy and Kara Lynn Joyce, and the prestigious likes of Christine Magnuson and Dara Torres (then 45). Rounding out the NCAA’s podium was Bahamanian swimmer Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace from Auburn. Despite having the top two NCAA finishers, the USA’s women didn’t fare particularly well that Olympics, with Hardy grabbing 7th just ahead of Vanderpool-Wallace. The Olympic Finals in the 50 was a runaway by the Netherland’s Ranomi Kromowidjojo, clocking in at a 24.05, faster than Dara Torres’s American Record set in 2008.
The 2016 NCAA Champion, Georgia’s Olivia Smoliga, had a definitive win, though not as dominant as Dressel’s. Outside of the collegiate world, Stanford standout Simone Manuel took this year off from NCAA swimming to train for the Olympics; she currently has the 4th fastest time in US history behind the retired Torres, Amanda Weir, and 5th-place finisher from 2012 Trials Madison Kennedy. Manuel and Kennedy are already faster than both Hardy and Joyce in recorded LCM times. So where will Smoliga fit? Her converted time puts her right in the mix, and her SCY time is a couple tenths faster than 2012’s Jensen, so it’s going to be a tough fight.
The 2016 NCAA runner-up, Cal’s Farida Osman, expects to represent Egypt this summer; also in that NCAA heat were London-2012 sprinter Lea Neal who finished 6th, and Kelsi Worrell. Worrell, who we’d expect to make the biggest splash in the 100 fly, grabbed 4th behind the Ohio State’s Liz Li. Worrell has the 10th fastest qualifying time for trials as of June 14th.
Besides Kennedy, look for Olympic Trials veterans Natalie Coughlin, Dana Vollmer, Geer, Neal, Hardy and Weir to be in the mix. Missy Franklin also has the cut.
No matter who qualifies, they’ll have their work cut out for them in Rio fighting Australia’s Cate Campbell with the second fastest time ever (23.84) behind Britta Steffen’s 2009 World Record. Campbell is the only woman with multiple swims under 24.00. The US has only won one Olympic gold on the women’s side, with Amy van Dyken in 1996. Of the other 4 medals won by US women in the 50, 2 belong to Dara Torres (silver and bronze), and the last two are both bronze, won by Angel Martino in 1992 and Jill Sterkel in the inaugural women’s 50 in 1988.