Kids These Days

by Casey Barrett

Forget the NCAA champs, this has been the finest month in age group swimming history… 

The man knows a few things about fast age groupers. After all, he’s the coach of the greatest college recruit ever. That would be Missy Franklin. And the man in question, of course, would be Todd Schmitz. Earlier this week, Coach Schmitz made this observation on Twitter: I bet last week was the fastest week in age group swimming ever in the USA. Look how many NAGs went down. 

Well, the astute folks over at Swim Swam jumped on that particular tweet and they followed up on it. Turns out, Schmitz was dead on – and even underestimated the excellence. After reading that fine bit of reporting, I was inspired to do a bit more. There have been some truly crazy swims this month, and this season. So far, there’s been 27 NAG records set in March 2013 – 23 in a crazy seven day stretch from March 12 – 19. This season, 78 NAG records have gone done – out of a total of 196. That’s around 40%. Not since that artificial year of 2009 and the era of the super suits have so many records been left in shreds.

So, what’s going on? We know it’s not the suits. There’s nothing artificial about this onslaught. We also know it’s not limited to a certain region of the U.S. Back in the day, elite swimming was more or less the domain of California and Florida, with a large percentage of the U.S. National Team coming from those two states. No longer. These age group records have been falling everywhere from Maryland to Minnesota to Washington to Texas, and of course, plenty in Florida. Swim Swam also notes that California hasn’t even held its high school championships yet, meaning we can expect quite a few more before the short course season concludes.

Check out a few of the highlights, thus far: A 10-year-girl named Regan Smith became the youngest ever to break a minute in both the 100 fly and 100 back for two of her four NAG records. A 12-year-old boy named Reece Whitley became the youngest guy ever to break a minute in the 100 breast. 14-year-old Becca Mann crushed the NAG record in the mile, going 15:54.46 – a time that would seed her 4th at the women’s NCAAs this weekend. Then there’s the crew of 14-year-old boys. In this particular age group, a whole slew of records has been slashed, led by young Ryan Hoffer who went 20.0 and 44.8 in the 50 and the 100. The 13-14 backstroke records now stand at 48.7 and 1:45.7 (Thomas Anderson and Benjamin Ho, respectively.) And my personal favorite – the 1000 free. Last weekend, a kid named Matthew Hirschberger clocked a 9:02.3. Yes, you read that correctly. These are 14-year-olds.

In the upper age groups, the names are more familiar. It comes as no surprise that Katie Ledecky annihilated the 15-16 NAG records in the distance frees. (4:31 / 9:22 / 15:28) It’s also not much of a surprise to see other bold-faced names like Missy Franklin, Ryan Murphy, and Jack Conger appear among the 18-year-old record setters. Those three make up what is quite possibly the best recruiting class of all time this year. However, the crop of recruits in the years ahead appear to be no less astounding, when guys like Caleb Dressel, Andrew Selisker, and Dylan Carter start considering their college choices. Check out some of the times from that trio of 16-year-olds: Dressel – 19.8 / 43.2 in the 50 / 100 free; Selisker – 53.2 / 1:54.8 in the 100 / 200 breast, plus an eye-popping 1:44.0 in the 200 IM; and Carter – 1:35.2 in the 200 free.

How is this happening? Well, great coaching for one. 14-year-old distance phenoms Becca Mann and Matthew Hirschberger are teammates at Clearwater Aquatics, coached by Randy Reese. Caleb Dressel and Ryan Murphy are both products of the Bolles machine. Out of Minnesota, Coach Kate Lundsten must now be considered among the top rank of club coaches in the world. A year after graduating Olympian Rachel Bootsma, Lundsten coached three 15-year-olds and one 14-year-old girl to an insane 1:40.6 in the 200 medley relay. And of course, you have Todd Schmitz and his Franklin-led Colorado Stars.

However, let’s give the lion’s share of credit where it’s due – to this incredible crop of young swimmers moving through the club ranks. USA Swimming has always done an almost eerie and disheartening (to the rest of the world) job at replenishing its talent coffers through each Olympiad. Yet, it’s fair to say there was just a bit of apprehension out in Colorado Springs when Elvis left the building. Regardless of the talent in the wings, the retirement of Phelps left the single biggest hole ever, on any national team. Sure, Lochte capably fills a large piece of that, but he’s still Steve Young to Phelps’s Joe Montana.

But today’s NAG record setter is tomorrow’s Olympian. Based on this barrage of records this season, Team USA’s roster in Rio could be packed with plenty of new faces with the talent to climb plenty of podiums.