From surprises to busts, the week that was at U.S. swimming trials
OMAHA, Neb. -- As the Clash's "London Calling" blares across the temporary pool in Omaha's CenturyLink Center to close the 2012 Olympic Swimming Trials, let's review what transpired here this week:
• The head-to-head races between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte were, for the most part, everything they had been hyped up to be. To recap the races that are no longer relevant: in the 200 freestyle, Phelps got Lochte at the wall, out-touching him by .05 second in a race that both conceded wasn't fast enough to win a gold in London. In the 100 butterfly, Lochte, who had never raced that event at the national or junior national level and said he was doing it just "for fun," placed third, .51 behind winner Phelps and .33 behind runner-up Tyler McGill.
Phelps's Monday morning decision to pull out of the 200 free to focus on the 4x100 free relay distills the rivalry down to the two individual medley races in London. In Omaha, Lochte won the 400 IM by .83 second; Phelps, taking advantage of Lochte's fatigue from the 200 backstroke half an hour earlier, won the 200 IM by .05. Both races could go either way in London, and it's not likely the main international contenders, Hungary's Laszlo Cseh and Brazil's Thiago Pereira, will threaten. "Whenever they race, those guys are going to put on a good show," says 1984 triple gold-medalist Rowdy Gaines of Phelps and Lochte. "But they both know that here is totally irrelevant. I think they both understand that twenty years from now nobody is going to remember who won the Olympic Trials." For the record, Phelps' program in London will be seven events: both IMs, the 100 and 200 butterfly and all three relays. Lochte qualified in five: both IMs, the 200 backstroke, the 200 freestyle and the 4x200 free relay. He'll also be in consideration for the 4x100 free relay.
• Missy Franklin is the U.S. team's Golden Girl apparent. Having deposed her role model, Natalie Coughlin, in the 100 backstroke here, the bubbly 17-year-old high school senior from Colorado is poised to take over as the biggest star of U.S. women's team. In addition to clocking the best time in the world in both the 100 and 200 backstrokes, Franklin placed second in the 100 and 200 freestyles. Throwing in all three relays, she will be in a position to become the first American female to swim and medal in seven events.
• There were disappointments. Katie Hoff, who has experienced a rocky quadrennium since winning five individual events at the 2008 Trials, picked up some kind of stomach virus early in the meet and didn't make the finals of any of the three events she swam, the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles. "I'm proud of myself for doing it," she said after the 800 free prelims, in which she finished 13th. "Obviously I wanted to be better." After finishing sixth in the 100 fly and third in the 100 backstroke, the event she has owned at the last two Olympics, 11-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin just made the team with a sixth-place finish in the 100 freestyle, which gave her the final spot on the 4x100 relay squad. Ever the professional, she was gracious about her reduced role in London. After the relay, she said, "I'll be there to support my teammates and the rest of Team USA, and I think that will be my bigger role this Olympics."
• There were surprises. In the biggest upset of the meet, Scott Weltz, a 25-year-old Northern Californian who has trained alone with his college coach, Pete Motekaitis, since the UC Davis men's team was cut two years ago, beat both American-record holder Eric Shanteau and former world-record holder Brendan Hansen in the 200 breaststroke with a time of 2:09.01, more than four seconds better than his previous personal best. Texas A&M junior Breeja Larson didn't start swimming competitively until she was 17, yet she upset heavy favorite Rebecca Soni in the 100 breaststroke, winning in a time of 1:05.92. (Said Jessica Hardy, who came in third, "I never heard of her before. Ever.") And in the 800 freestyle Katie Ledecky, a 15-year-old from Bethesda, Md., who didn't earn her 800 trials cut until last summer, beat 2008 Olympian Kate Ziegler by 2.09 seconds in a time of 8:19.78, a new Olympic Trials record.
• There were comebacks. Four years ago Hardy, who had made the 2008 Olympic team in the 100 breaststroke and 100 and 50 freestyles, got the shock of her life when learned she had tested positive for the banned substance clenbuterol and had to leave the team in training camp. (Though an arbitration panel accepted her claim that a contaminated supplement was the culprit, Hardy still had to serve a one-year suspension.) In Omaha this week, Hardy experienced surprise of a different nature. A swimmer who considers the 100 breaststroke her best event, Hardy came in third in that but won both the 100 and 50 freestyles. "I'm still processing now being a sprint freestyler exclusively," she said after the 50. "Winning two races here, I couldn't have predicted this in a million years."
The comeback story of 31-year-old Anthony Ervin, who tied Gary Hall, Jr., for first in the 50 free at the 2000 Olympics, requires at least one volume of a book. A few years after leaving the sport in 2003 he auctioned off his gold medal on eBay and donated the $17,000 proceeds to help victims of the 2004 Southeast Asia Tsunami. On Sunday Ervin got a chance to earn another valuable piece of hardware when he finished one one hundredth of a second behind 2008 Olympian Cullen Jones in the 50 free with a personal best of 21.60, good for second place and an unlikely spot on the team. In a neat bit of serendipity, the dignitary assigned to drape a trials medal around his neck was Gary Hall, Jr.
There was a "Come back! Come back!" Davis Tarwater, who had finished fourth in the 200 fly in the 2004 trials and third in the 2008 trials, left Omaha Monday morning empty-handed again. The 28-year-old had made the finals in each of his three events -- the 200 free, and the 200 and 100 butterfly -- but he had failed to do better than fourth in any of them. On Sunday night, he sat on an Omaha rooftop smoking cigars with his coach, Dave Marsh, and talking about life beyond swimming, from which he had just retired. The next morning he broke his training diet with a slice of airport pizza and boarded his plane for Charlotte. When he landed he heard that Phelps, a former teammate at Club Wolverine in Michigan, had dropped the 200 free, an event Tarwater had finished in seventh, one spot out of the relay pool. Twenty minutes later Marsh called in tears. Phelps' exit had created a space for him on the 4x200 free relay. At long last, Tarwater was an Olympian.