Trials of a Supergroup
by Casey Barrett
Bob Bowman’s NBAC crew might be the most talented group of swimmers ever assembled… But is there such a thing as too much talent in one pool? Recent results raise questions…
It’s all about the long term, the next Games. Let’s not forget that. Bob Bowman’s thoughts and plans remain focused two years down the road. He’s been thinking Rio since the flame went out in London. This summer is the halfway point, nothing to get worked up about, he’ll be the first to say. No argument there. Yet, when we’re talking about highly delicate egos and bodies as finely tuned and fragile as a Triple Crown contender, it can be easy to get wrapped up in the present tense.
This can’t be an easy time to be running NBAC’s supergroup. Because this summer has not exactly gone according to plan. Just ask Yannick Agnel and Allison Schmitt and Tom Luchsinger
Two years ago, Agnel was the most impressive swimmer in London. He won double gold, while his stature was perhaps most enhanced by the memory of Michael Phelps imploring his teammates to “get me a lead” before he anchored the 4 x 200 freestyle relay against the towering Frenchman. Phelps fears no swimmer, yet in London he knew he was no match for Agnel. Soon after those Games, with Phelps in retirement, Yannick rang up Bowman and crossed the pond for Baltimore. Even after Michael’s comeback, he has reportedly embraced Bowman’s program. Though he might be doubting that right about now.
Agnel is in the midst of an underwhelming campaign at the European Championships in Berlin. In the 400 freestyle he failed to final. The French coaches left him off the gold-medal-winning 4×100 free relay, and today he raced to bronze in the 200 free, a whopping three and a half seconds off of his lifetime best. This from the reigning Olympic champion in that event.
The defending Olympic champ in the 200 free on the women’s side is Allison Schmitt. In London, she scorched to gold in an American record of 1:53.61. She hasn’t approached those lofty times since. Last week in Irvine at the U.S. Nationals, she failed to final in any event, and settled for a B final victory in her signature event, almost five seconds slower than her personal best. Like Agnel, at the Olympics she anchored her country’s 4 x 100 free relay, and like Agnel, two years later she’s sitting on the sidelines.
As for Tom Luchsinger, he’s clearly nowhere near as decorated as those two Olympic champs. However, he’s worth noting here due to his world class form last summer. In 2013, Luchsinger was the U.S. National champion in the 200 fly and at the World Championships in Barcelona, he raced to a respectable 5th place. He appeared to be the next American 200 flyer, ready to inherit the mantle from Michael. And so, he did what so many are doing these days – he moved to Baltimore and joined Bowman’s supergroup. Last week in Irvine, Luchsinger raced to a less than inspiring 7th place at Nationals, almost three seconds off his best.
Is it unfair that I’m singling out these three? The NBAC supergroup is made up of a lot more than this trio. In addition to Phelps, there’s also Tunisian distance legend and USC Trojan, Ous Mellouli. There’s Olympians Connor Dwyer and Matt McLean and, in the summers at least, there’s the best 400 IMer in the world, Chase Kalisz. Joining Schmitt on the women’s side, there’s open water stud Becca Mann and, most recent to emerge among the world class, future Cal Bear, Cierra Runge.
In Irvine, it was Runge who burst on the scene with the best meet among any of her illustrious North Baltimore teammates. It was largely due to a stroke of inspired coaching by Bowman. Not long ago, Runge was a good but not great sprinter. She was fast, but not getting much faster. Bowman noticed something in her stroke or temperament that spoke to a distance pedigree. And so, like the horse trainers he so respects, Bowman opted for a change of distance and tried to stretch his young filly out. Runge embraced the challenge, moved over to the D-group, and at Nationals she charged onto her first National Team in the 400 and 800 freestyles, behind Queen Katie Ledecky.
It’s not all doubt and underwhelming results from past champions at North Baltimore these days. There are highlights, there always will be. So, is it fair to dwell a bit on the lowlights? Well, if you decide to post a live Twitter feed of your Saturday morning workout, you’re inviting the scrutiny. And when you train a group with six Olympic champions, with 27 Olympic gold between them, you’re going to get the attention, like it or not.
18 of those gold, of course, belong to one man. The elephant in the pool, so to speak. And speaking of elephants, the man has the memory of one when it comes to sets and slights. That prodigious memory of challenges and doubters, real and perceived, has always fueled Phelps. His competitive fire would seem to enhance any aquatic arena. What better example could there be for Luchsinger or Dwyer or McLean or Kalisz, or Agnel for that matter? Well, define example. Are you thinking MP circa 2003, devouring every set, never missing day, laying the foundation that would make him the greatest of all time? Are you envisioning MP circa 2010, coasting on that foundation, still able to dominate without showing up much at all, a questionable example to the worshipping young teammates around him. Or are you thinking elder statesman MP, a man with rekindled joy for the sport, a fresh perspective, and a desire to mentor his ambitious teammates? The latter, one hopes. But when comebacks begin and those being mentored become competitors once more, things can get a little sticky.
Do you think Phelps is going to like when Bowman focuses his energies on Agnel, should he decide to reinsert the 200 free into his Rio program? Do you think he’ll be as generous with Dwyer or Luchsinger when he decides these are new foes that need a little head-messing? Do you think that renewed hunger can last another two years? And most of all, do you think Bowman would ever grant more of his attention to anyone else?
The question of hunger is a valid one with this group. The problem with eating it all is that it’s hard to stay hungry, and there are champions in Bowman’s group who have gorged at the Olympic feast. How Phelps stays hungry for more is beyond anyone’s guess. But how does Ous Mellouli stay hungry? After 1500 gold in Beijing and open water gold in London, he’s an Olympic legend no matter what. Allison Schmitt has her one shining moment, and it’s hard to envision anything surpassing that in Rio.
It’s also hard to imagine Yannick Agnel surpassing his London exploits two years from now. Which begs the question – is Yannick doing the swimming version of the Euro soccer icon, a la David Beckham? You know the drill – shoot to fame and fortune at your peak in Europe, then come over stateside to explore your options, after your place in history is secure. Agnel would surely deny this, and Bowman would never have welcomed him if he believed that, but his results in Berlin this week make one wonder.
While Phelps, Mellouli, Schmitt and Agnel have little else to prove, their Olympic resumés already sparkling, there should be no lack of hunger among the North Baltimore crew. Chase Kalisz has hinted, with his NCAA performances, that he could soon be threatening the insane standards of Phelps and Lochte in the long course version of his event. After his breakout season in 2013 and his disappointment this summer, Tom Luchsinger would seem to have something to prove in the years ahead.
Then there’s Connor Dwyer, already an Olympic champion as a member of the men’s 4 x 200 relay in London. Many consider him the next great all-around talent in American swimming. Many, including his former coach Gregg Troy at Florida, think Dwyer has the talent to take down the likes of Agnel in the 200 free and to contend with Lochte and Phelps in the 200 IM. His times at Nationals (1:47.1 in the free and 1:57.4 in the IM) don’t put him in the ballgame just yet, but he may be sitting on big swims at Pan Pacs in Brisbane in the week ahead.
Then again, this summer doesn’t matter. It’s tune-up time. A midway check-in on the way to Brazil. No one will remember if it all works out two years from now. Except Phelps and Bowman, men who remember everything.