A Tale of Two Genders

by Casey Barrett

The American women have never been stronger… As for the U.S. men? They’re feeling some pain in a post-Phelps universe… 

They accounted for ten gold medals between them. Six for Missy; Four for Katie. Setting aside the sprints, these two ladies own the long axis. When it comes to freestyle and backstroke, these two teenagers (combined age, 34) are already the two best in history. Missy doesn’t yet have the 100 back world record, and Katie didn’t quite break the suit-assisted world record in the 400 free, but even so, they’re both already in uncharted territory.

Expect them to be the face of Team USA in Rio. Not just among the swimmers, but among the entire American delegation. Here’s an early bet that it’s Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky who grace the cover of Sports Illustrated in their Rio Olympic issue.

They lead a cast of American women that might be the best ever. They have the Hall of Fame veterans (Coughlin, Vollmer, etc.); they have the relay depth (winning all three in Barcelona); and of course they have the young superstars. And in Barcelona they were also missing two of their best – Rebecca Soni and Allison Schmitt. Both will be back, and now both have just a bit to prove. I doubt Soni expected to see her 200 breast world record slashed so decisively. And while Schmitt had a very rough meet in Indy, her times from London would still place her on top of podiums and on the relays.

All in all, these are sunny days for the women of Team USA. As for the men, let’s just say there are a few shadows. The longest of all, of course, is the absence of Michael Phelps. It’s a forgone conclusion that he’s coming back. The public hedging has actually become quite boring. Not worth further words or wondering. But it’s overwhelmingly clear that the American men were a bit adrift without him. I can’t speak to Michael’s leadership backstage on the National Team, but under the spotlight of competition, he projected such swagger, such confidence, that it had to be infectious for his brothers in arms.

Without his ubiquitous presence, the American men were absent from the podium in the butterfly. (At least in the Olympic distances. All respect to Eugene Godsoe’s silver in the 50, but that event has an asterisk…) The last time there were no American guys on the podium in the butterfly was… hell, does anyone even remember? Has it ever happened? Before there was Michael, there was Malchow. Before there was Malchow there was Mel.

But Phelps will fill that fly hole as soon as he returns, so hard to worry there. Of greater concern to the American contingent has to be the breaststroke. Fair to say that in Barcelona, the short axis strokes fell far short of expectations. They never so much as sniffed a breaststroke podium. No American in the final of the 50 or the 200. In the 100, Kevin Cordes and Nic Fink finished 7th and 8th, the only two men in the final who didn’t break 1:00.

Cordes and Fink, these are two big young talents with promising futures. As long as Barcelona didn’t break their spirits. As Kevin Cordes returns to Arizona for his junior year, that has to be a concern for his coaches. Until last week, Cordes had enjoyed a turbulence-free ascent to top of the breaststroke ranks. His short course times last spring were mind-boggling. Many called his 1:48 200 yard breast the greatest swim in NCAA history, including yours truly. Unfortunately, his international debut on the big boys stage fell far short of expectations. No sense pouring salt into surely still festering wounds, but we’ll see how he responds to this considerable setback.

The guys are well stocked in the IMs, with Lochte and the rise of Chase Kalisz, and the presumed return to form of Tyler Clary. And despite missing the top of the podium in Barcelona, the freestyle events appear plenty loaded with talent across the board. As for backstroke, Jesus, what is it about the American guys and backstroke? It never seems to miss a beat. Another gold-silver finish in the 100; another victory in the 200. Why is this specific stroke so completely dominated by generation after generation of Americans? Perhaps a subject for a future post…

But for now, back to Barcelona and the wider take aways. Long axis strokes among the U.S. women: A+… Short axis strokes among the U.S. men: C-.

Not that anyone’s keeping score…