Blown Out on the Trail

by Casey Barrett

Checking in with the Comeback Crew…

There won’t be many happy endings. Most of these stories will end with an underwhelmed whimper. Some will end well before London. If gold and a return to past glory is perhaps an unfair and unrealistic expectation, then what can be expected of this Olympic jonesing cast of comeback junkies? A proud and respectable showing? The ability to say the inevitable “I have no regrets” with a straight and believable face?

Two months back, I wrote about the strange trend of so many past champions unable to resist the lure of London. Back in the water, back on the sauce, desperate for another hit of Olympic crack. Well, now the results have begun to roll in. Some seem to have picked up right where they left off, some are exceeding expectations, and others… Well, others may be fighting that nasty virus called Doubt right about now.

So, let’s take a look. Starting with the biggest dog of all… the mighty Ian Thorpe. I know I’m not alone in saying that there’s no comeback I’m pulling for more. Thorpe is a class act. Much smarter than your average superstar athlete, with a self awareness and eloquence that has always cast our sport in the finest light. We all want to see him back on the blocks in London, flanked by Phelps and Lochte, ready to deliver a 200 free showdown for the ages. Problem is, that’s beginning to seem less and less likely. His recent times are not inspiring confidence.

At the recent Italian Nationals, the Thorpedo was not exactly living up to his nickname. His times: 50.8 in the 100 free / 1:51.5 in the 200 free. Ouch. Now, don’t read too much into this. Thorpe is still going to make the Aussie Team. He’s going to drop a load of time in both those races at his Trials. I’m betting he wins the 200 Down Under and also qualifies on the Aussie’s 4×100 free relay – one that will probably be the favorite in London. Still, he’s running out of time; the Aussie Trials are in March. And while I can see him going 1:46 or so in the 200, that won’t put him anywhere near the podium in London.

What about his guitar-smashing compadre Michael Klim? A bit faster lately – 49.8 in the 100 at a recent meet in Melbourne. Think he grabs a spot on the Team too, probably as a prelims-only guy on that 4×100 relay… Which will make his return a success, I suppose, but how much more can really be said about being the fifth or sixth fastest guy in your country in one event? As for Thorpe, he knows that anything less than a London dog fight with the two-headed Phepte beast will go down as a disappointment…

Speaking of smarter than average Olympic champs with flawless freestyles… Here’s a comeback that’s shaping up beautifully out in the Berkeley hills. Last week, Anthony Ervin showed he’s back in the game with a vengeance, posting two impossible to ignore times: 19.4 in the 50 and 42.6 in the 100. While conversion from yards to long course meters is a highly inexact science, I’d say that translates to around 22.5  and 49-low in the big pool. I’ll admit a bit of bias here, as Tony is a friend and former colleague here in New York, but like Thorpe, this is a comeback worth rooting for. Not only because it’s a terrific story about re-embracing long discarded other-worldly talent, but because Tony is doing it with grace and humility. Congratulated recently for his times last week, he replied that while encouraging, there’s still a long ways to go – and then cited Nathan Adrian’s frequent schooling of him in Cal workouts as evidence of exactly what he’s up against.

Ah yes, humility… And then there’s the breaststrokers. First the good news. Brendan Hansen has clearly not missed a beat. His winning times at the recent U.S. Nationals – 1:00.3 in the 100 and 2:09.6 in the 200 – prove that he’s not just on track to make the Team, but that he has a shot to threaten his arch-rival Kosuke Kitajima for gold in London.

A bit further down the breaststroke results page, you’ll find Ed Moses. His comeback has produced a hip hop music video, a reality TV show, oh, and he made it all the way to the ‘C’ final at the recent U.S. Nationals. I’m all for shameless self-promotion, but only when there’s a bit of substance to back it up… Note to the savvy programmers at Universal Sports: See ‘Dan & Dave’, circa 1992.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a pair of ageless beauties with plenty of substance – Dara Torres and Amanda Beard. Both of these ladies clearly like to have their picture taken, and they’ve both been very savvy in promoting themselves beyond the pool, but they back it up, year after year after year, with brilliant performances when they hit the water. At some point, you’d think we’d stop being surprised. Months before the next Games, and there’s Torres and Beard once again posting eye-popping times, on track to return to yet another Games. At some point a body has to slow and age. Doesn’t it? No telling when with these two though…

Finally, there’s the comeback that remains a bit of a mystery. Does anyone know how Janet Evans has been swimming? Despite repeated Google searches with every conceivable keyword, I could not find any results at all for her since she swam at Masters Nationals last summer. Those times – 4:19 in the 400 and 8:50 in the 800 – show that there’s still a very long way to go – just to get to the U.S. Trials. But Evans was one of the hardest working, most determined champions in Olympic history; it seems ludicrous to count her out. Still, has she not been to a single meet this fall? At the Golden Goggles at L.A. last month, Summer Sanders conducted a table-side interview with her former Barcelona teammate, and the first thing Summer said was that she’d promised Janet she wouldn’t ask about the comeback. Ok…

So, now you know. Fascinating stories, as they go… Everybody loves a comeback. But sooner or later, the clock stops. To steal a pun from Mr. Ervin: Only time will tell.