Trials, Now or Later?

by Casey Barrett

Brits and Aussies choose their squads while Yanks wait till June…

Finally it gets interesting. Covering the swim beat isn’t much like being on the trail of a pro sports league. No real season to track, no daily, or even semi-weekly highlights for SportsCenter. Just long underwater intervals between meets, when we get a peak at what’s been going on in those endless workouts… This suits me just fine. How can one care about 162 games of anything? Still, those long slow winter months can sure try the patience of your earnest swim fan.

But that’s all over now. It’s March and it’s an Olympic year, and that means the results matter.

Last week, British Olympic Trials kicked things off. The London hosts were decent, sure to be a few Olympic champions amongst them. Hannah Miley’s 400 IM (4:32.6) and Rebecca Adlington’s 400 free (4:02.3) were a couple of stand-outs, with Adlington primed to defend her Beijing gold on home soil and Miley ready to square off against Australia’s Stephanie Rice and defending world champ Elizabeth Beisel.

Still, the Brits are like the Canadians (pumped to be in Montreal in two weeks time…) and the Germans, the Dutch, the South Africans and the rest. Always a few amazing gold medal threats mixed in there, but still a tier below the big guns when it comes to overall Olympic dominance. That, for now, remains the domain of two nations above all others. The Aussies and the Americans, of course.

One of those superpowers is in the water as we speak; the other still has a few months before the Team is chosen.

Last night, on day one of Aussie Trials, Stephanie Rice showed she’s still got it, super suit or not, with a fast 400 IM of 4:33.4. The other finals were respectable (an Aussie record for Thomas Fraser-Holmes in the 400 IM, at 4:11.8), but not exactly podium potential.

Tomorrow – or make that in a few hours, Aussie time – is when things really get interesting. It’s Ian Thorpe’s return – with his 200 free prelims and semis. By almost every indication, time, and quote, the Thorpedo will fail to launch. Which is why I’m hoping he drops an insane swim out of nowhere. A 1:45 or so, to really get folks chattering, taking back all that schadenfreude that’s been circling his comeback for months. Of course, Michael Phelps went 1:45 last weekend at the Grand Prix in Columbus, coming straight from altitude training in Colorado Springs, so maybe it will take a lot more than for Thorpe to impress…

Whatever he does, it will overshadow the greatest swimmer Down Under. A 20-year-old kid named James Magnussen, who happens to be the greatest 100 freestyler on earth, and has to be considered the even-money favorite to take gold in London. He’ll probably beat Thorpe in the 100 by two seconds or so, and get a lot less ink in doing it. No matter, Magnussen would have to swim one armed to miss making the Team, while Thorpe may need that full-body suit of old just to deliver a respectable top-6 showing in an end lane.

Once upon a time U.S. Trials were in early March of the Olympic year too. That changed back in 2000, when USA Swimming moved the Trials up, just a few weeks before the Games. The tactic clearly worked beautifully, so they stuck with it. Fact is, that strategy probably works best for their best performers – guys like Phelps and Lochte and Coughlin and Franklin. Swimmers who don’t necessarily have to peak at Trails to make the Team. They have to be fast, no question, say 95% or so. But they don’t need to leave it all out there in Omaha. For swimmers who need every last bit of mental and physical energy to get their hand on the wall in 2nd – or 3rd, 4th, 5th, or 6th in relay events – that tight turnaround makes an Olympic peak a whole lot harder.

In the meantime, there’s still plenty of NCAA and Grand Prix action ahead, for those you merely interested in results stateside.

Before you know it, the rest of the dry land world will be paying attention too…