Just Kids

by Casey Barrett

Letter from Junior Nationals… When Did These Kids Get So Fast?

Maybe it’s time to drop the “Junior.” Can we just call them “18 & Under Nationals?” Because what just went down in Austin, Texas last week was anything but junior… Sure, the kids were all in high school, or even younger, but the times they posted – scratch that, the times it took just to get there – were stunningly accomplished. Some didn’t seem real, not for kids born a decade and a blink ago in the late 90’s.

Take a look at the times, right HERE. (Take special note of Mr. Ryan Murphy, soon-to-be Olympian, age 16, from the Bolles School: 20.02 50 free; 1:45.77 200 IM; 46.72 100 back; 1:40.90 200 back — all NAG records… And take a closer look at the men’s relays from Bolles: 1:19.82 in 4×50 Free; 1:27.77 4×50 medley; 2:56.94 4×100 free — No high school seniors on any of these relays…)

There was a time when U.S. Juniors used to be a springboard to Senior Nationals. That was the point. For swimmers burning with ambition and a bit of talent, it was a way-station, a brief stop on the path to greener pastures. Problem was, for swimmers perhaps lacking those two essential qualities, it was also a plateau, a meet where once improving guys and girls decided they’d reached their station in the sport, and decided to stop dreaming and graze contently right where they were. The meet was fast. But not really…

Not like now.

Looking at the cuts just to make the meet in 2011, one thing seems clear — if you make Junior Nationals in high school, you’re swimming at a U.S. university. Very likely a Division I school, probably on scholarship, especially if you’re a girl (given the extra scholarships…) It’s not a springboard now but a calling card. One that says: I am among the very fastest teenage swimmers on earth. Oh, and it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily American. Some of these teens blazing crazy times carry different colored passports (aka Singapore’s / Bolles’ butterfly phenom Joseph Schooling), but they’re as welcome at the next swimmer to tear it up at Juniors. Like NCAA’s, this is a meet that has become an international showcase of short course yards at its finest. Just with kids a few years younger…

The analogy to NCAA’s works on a number of levels. Now, if you make one fast cut, you can swim two more individual events, just like at NC’s. Now, swimming the time standard in a given event means you’re probably going to get a second swim at night. And now there’s even some overlap — the times Ryan Murphy posted in the backstrokes would already put him in the big finals at NCAA’s!

A few weeks back, I wrote about the slow stalled cuts that it takes to make U.S. Olympic Trials nowadays, how they’re mostly the same, or even slower, than they were twenty years ago. The idea is inclusion, for promising young talents to race alongside the likes of Phelps and Franklin at the biggest domestic meet there is. Fair enough. But curiously, the exact opposite has evolved with U.S. Junior Nationals. What was once an expected rite of passage for 15 and 16-year-olds at club teams across America is now a brutally difficult standard. In the 200’s of the strokes, the cuts are four full seconds faster now than they were 20 years ago.

Trials stay the same, Juniors go insane. Go figure.

Full disclosure: I’m not exactly unbiased here. The team leading this youth brigade, the Bolles School, is my alma mater. I have an immense amount of pride in the House That Troy Built, and one of the only reasons I’m still scrolling through these Juniors results so intently is because these Bolles kids are so damn good these days. In the summer of 1992, I arrived as a Bolles border in Jacksonville, FL and quickly bought in. All in. The school records were the national records in many cases; the expectation was to go all the way — whatever that meant for you. (Note: dreams are for the deluded, goals for the real…)

With this attitude, cuts become incidental. Whatever they are is what you have to make. Make ’em whatever you want, kids will figure out how to get there. That was Coach Troy’s attitude, and it’s one reason he’s now the head U.S. Olympic coach, coaching the world’s best swimmer, and a major reason he left a legacy at Bolles that continues to perpetuate itself 13 years since he left for the University of Florida. Ryan Murphy might list Sergio Lopez as his coach of record, but he’s swimming deep in a tradition that has set a sky high bar across all of pre-college swimming.

Once upon a time, when you made a U.S. Seniors cut, you couldn’t swim that event anymore at Juniors. No more. Now, when a 16-year-old superstar crushes a Junior National record, you can expect to see him again next year, eager to lower that mark further still. Fact is, this meet is more exciting than most “Senior” Nationals, and is a meet of more consequence.

How exciting is it to watch tired National Teamers swim beat up in-season times at Winter U.S. Nationals? It’s always great to get any airtime at all from NBC, a nice way to promote the stars of the next Games, but even those bold-faced names will admit that it’s kind of a joke to trot out the cameras and air them racing in competitions that are, essentially, glorified workouts.

Instead, swim fans, take a look at the current state of Junior Nationals. It’s an event that’s evolved in fits and starts. It used to be two meets, East and West, back in the day. Then, it was canceled altogether, briefly, around the turn of the century. Then, it was united and brought back, with time standards that prevented any too-soon plateaus. I still love the idea of Juniors as a graduation meet, a time when you earn your ticket to the next level. But there’s a reason things like March Madness remain more compelling than any NBA Finals:

There’s nothing like that first flush of success.