Five swimmers at nationals who could be next Olympic stars

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When watching this week’s USA Swimming national championships, take a minute to think about the year 2001.

A boy named Michael Phelps began his record-smashing career in earnest the year after the Sydney Olympics. He set his first world mark in the 200-meter butterfly at the 2001 spring nationals, then did it again to win the world title in Fukuoka, Japan, four months later.

Certainly it’s ambitious to predict a Phelpsian feat at the IUPUI Natatorium in Indianapolis this week, but what happened 12 years ago shows that seeds for the next Olympics can be planted three years early.

That in mind, here are five U.S. swimmers who may not be familiar names yet, but they might just be setting the table for Rio with their performances this week and at the world championships next month.

Chase Kalisz: Fittingly, the list starts with a North Baltimore Aquatic Club product. No doubt if you follow Phelps on Twitter, you’ve seen Kalisz’s handle. Kalisz, 19, began training with Phelps between the Beijing and London Olympics and reached the finals of the 2012 Olympic trials in two of Phelps’ events – taking fifth and sixth, respectively, in the 200 and 400 individual medleys. He’s seeded third in both events in Indianapolis. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him pass gold medalists Tyler Clary or Conor Dwyer (Ryan Lochte might be a stretch) to snatch a world championships spot.

Becca Mann: Could 15 be the magic age for U.S. female swimmers? Seven-time world champion Katie Hoff made her Olympic debut at 15. Missy Franklin was 15 when she swam in her first major international meet. Katie Ledecky won 800 free gold in London at 15 as well. Mann, a novelist, tried to beat them all by flirting with the London Olympic team at age 14 last year, making three trials finals with two fifth-place finishes. She’s already on the worlds roster for open-water swimming and has five more events to try to make the team in the pool. Her best shot may be in the grueling 1,500 free, a non-Olympic event where she’s seeded third.

Maya DiRado: No U.S. woman has medaled in the 200 butterfly at an Olympics since Misty Hyman stunned Sydney in 2000. It’s the longest drought for USA Swimming in any individual event – man or woman. DiRado could be the answer. She’s shaved five seconds off her personal best in the event in 2013, capped by a second-place finish to make her first world championship team Tuesday. The Stanford star is scheduled for several more swims in Indianapolis, including the 400 IM, where she’s seeded fourth.

Jack Conger: Conger, 18, was a high school sensation in the D.C. area and will begin swimming for NCAA powerhouse Texas next season. On the national scene, Conger’s task is tough. Of his four events at nationals, he was seeded highest in the 200 backstroke – third – looking up at the last two Olympic champions Clary and Lochte. There’s also his prep rival, Florida’s Ryan Murphy, to contend with on the road to Rio.

Kevin Cordes: If there’s one opening for a young U.S. man to break through internationally, it’s in the breaststroke. It’s the only discipline Phelps and Lochte haven’t taken up at major meets. It’s also lacking star power with Brendan Hansen and Eric Shanteau not competing this week. Enter the Arizona Wildcat Cordes, 19, a threat in the 50, 100 and 200 breast. How good is he? Cordes won the 200-yard breast at the NCAA Championships in a time two seconds faster than anyone else ever and lowered his American record in the 100 en route to being named NCAA Swimmer of the Year – as a sophomore.

Matthew Centrowitz, after ‘rock bottom,’ glad with runner-up at USAs

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Matthew Centrowitz said he hit rock bottom two weeks ago.

“I was ready to do the depressed thing that most people do,” Centrowitz, whose normal dark buzz was topped with faded blonde, said Saturday. “Bleach it like Justin Bieber.”

Back then, Centrowitz did not believe he would be racing this weekend at the USATF Outdoor Championships, part of the TeamUSA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast.

The Olympic 1500m champion was sidelined for weeks due to a series of ailments.

A left adductor strain in April. A May visit to the emergency room with a viral infection similar to his 2014 bout with pericarditis. His heart rate was through the roof. Then, a right adductor tear.

“I was ready to can the season, to be honest with you,” said Centrowitz, who in Rio became the first U.S. Olympic 1500m gold medalist in 108 years. “I was like, no one’s going to see me. I’m done with my year. So I dyed it.”

The next day, people told Centrowitz that, regardless of hair color, he would be racing. At some point, he came to believe them.

So, on about 10 days of training, Centrowitz came to Sacramento to try and earn a place on the three-man world championships team.

Centrowitz did just that Saturday, finishing second to Robby Andrews in the 1500m final.

Third is as good as first,” said Centrowitz, who is going to his fourth straight worlds, seeking to complete his medal collection (bronze in 2011, silver in 2013).

Andrews, in fifth place going into the final lap, surged past Centrowitz on the last straightaway to win in 3:43.29. Centrowitz was second in 3:43.41.

“He’s been banged up, I’m not going to say it’s a true battle,” said Andrews, who was second to Centrowitz at the 2015 USATF Outdoors, 2016 USATF Indoors and 2016 Olympic Trials.

Andrews, who was disqualified in the Rio semifinals, is not yet on the team for worlds in London in August. He must still run the world championships qualification standard of 3:36.00 by July 23.

USATF OUTDOORS: Broadcast Schedule | Full Results

Earlier Saturday, Allyson Felix headlined the qualifiers for Sunday’s 200m semifinals, which do not include Justin Gatlin.

World-record holder Keni Harrison won the 100m hurdles in 12.60 seconds, after shockingly failing to make the Rio Olympic team. Harrison was followed by Olympic silver medalist Nia Ali in 12.68. Also making the world team was 2008 Olympic champion Dawn Harper.

Harrison had not raced since May 5 after breaking her left hand in a warm-up and undergoing surgery.

“In a few more weeks, my hand will be back to normal,” said Harrison, whose world record from July is 12.20. “I’m not race sharp.”

Olympic bronze medalist Jenny Simpson took the women’s 1500m in 4:06.33. She’s joined on the world team by Olympian Kate Grace and surprise Sara Vaughn, a 31-year-old mother of three daughters.

“It’s a lot of times about squeezing in the training whenever I can do it,” Vaughn, a first-time world team member, told media in Sacramento. “It’s not always the primary focus, so coming out to Sacramento for a week and pretending to be nothing but a professional runner is kind of weird for me. I feel like I’m forgetting something, but I felt extra light on the track. It brings a lot more joy to the sport when I can share it with my three daughters.”

American record holder Shannon Rowbury shockingly missed the world team, fading to eighth.

In the 400m, Fred Kerley and Quanera Hayes each won their first U.S. titles.

Kerley, who didn’t make it out of the Olympic Trials first round, won comfortably in 44.03 seconds. The NCAA champion from Texas A&M now owns the five fastest times in the world this year.

Kerley is joined on the world team by Olympian Gil Roberts (44.22), Wil London III (44.47) and 2008 Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt. Merritt has a bye into worlds as the 2016 Diamond League champion, so he didn’t race the 400m in Sacramento.

Kerley and Merritt are medal contenders, though gold will be difficult against South African Wayde van Niekerk, who broke Michael Johnson‘s world record in Rio.

Hayes, who was eighth at the 2016 Olympic Trials, won the women’s 400m in 49.72 seconds, the fastest time in the world this year. She’s joined on the world team by Olympian Phyllis Francis and Kendall Ellis.

Three-time Olympian Natasha Hastings finished fourth, just missing the individual 400m world team. She also finished fourth in the Rio 400m.

Hayes, Francis and Ellis join the 2015 World champion Felix on the U.S. team in the 400m in London. They’re looking to unseat Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas.

Olympic champion Michelle Carter was upset in the shot put, finishing third behind Raven Saunders and Dani Bunch. They’re all going to worlds.

Tianna Bartoletta edged Brittney Reese in a battle of Olympic long jump champions, 7.05 meters to 6.98 meters.

Olympic bronze medalist Sam Kendricks became the first American to clear six meters in the pole vault since 2008.

MORE: Gatlin gets one more shot at Bolt after surprise U.S. 100m title

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Allyson Felix leads 200m semifinalists at USAs, minus Justin Gatlin

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Allyson Felix eased into the U.S. 200m semifinals as ninth fastest from the first round Saturday, but she probably won’t contest the 200m at the world championships in August.

Felix, the 2012 Olympic 200m champion, won her heat in 22.95 seconds, letting off the gas for most of the final straightaway in Sacramento, Calif.

Deajah Stevens (22.55), Ariana Washington (22.57) and Rio bronze medalist Tori Bowie (22.69) led the 16 qualifiers into Sunday’s semifinals at the USATF Outdoor Championships, part of the TeamUSA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast.

The final is also Sunday, when the top three qualify for the world championships in London in August.

USATF OUTDOORS: Broadcast Schedule | Full Results

On Friday, Felix finished eighth in the 100m, but she did not plan to race the 100m at worlds even if she made the team in that event.

Felix has a bye into the world 400m as defending champion. The 31-year-old said after Saturday’s race that the 400m will probably be her only individual event at worlds, even if she makes the 200m team, according to USA Track and Field.

Felix missed the 2016 Olympic team in the 200m by .01 at the Olympic Trials, slowed by an ankle injury. She ranks No. 4 in the U.S. in the 200m this year behind Bowie, NCAA champion Kyra Jefferson and Stevens.

Justin Gatlin chose not to start the men’s 200m, about 16 hours after winning the 100m title. Gatlin said after being eliminated in the Olympic 200m semifinals that he intended to focus on the 100m this season.

Likewise, Usain Bolt is not racing the 200m in his farewell season.

In Gatlin’s absence, Isiah Young and U.S. 100m runner-up Christian Coleman posted the fastest 200m first-round times of 20.29 and 20.34 seconds.

Olympian Ameer Webb (20.50), favorite Noah Lyles (20.54), Walter Dix (20.57), Tyson Gay (20.60) and LaShawn Merritt (20.74) also made the semifinals.

MORE: Gatlin gets one more shot at Bolt after surprise U.S. 100m title

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