The most anticipated swim meet of 2014 (so far) is in the books, the fourth of six USA Swimming Grand Prix events leading up to the National Championships in Irvine, Calif., and the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia, both in August.
Michael Phelps and Co. next head to Charlotte, N.C., from May 15-18. Before looking ahead, here are five takeaways from the Arena Grand Prix at Mesa, Ariz.:
1. Michael Phelps looked great, but it was only a glimpse. Phelps initially entered three events in Mesa, his first meet since the 2012 Olympics, swam two and made the finals in one. The attention put on his comeback was great for the sport — a Brazilian media outlet even showed for his pre-meet press conference — but there wasn’t too much to analyze.
Phelps was the top qualifier into the finals of the 100m butterfly, an event he won at the last three Olympics. He was faster in those preliminaries than Ryan Lochte, the world’s best all-around swimmer. Phelps then took second to Lochte in the final, by a mere two tenths of a second.
Headlines said Phelps challenged Lochte in his first meet in 20 months, but truth be told Lochte suffered major knee injuries in November, and he came back too quickly in February. It’s also April, still early in the season. Times and results are less vital now than closer to the National Championships and Pan Pacific Championships.
But, this is all we have to go on with Phelps, so let’s look at the time. He clocked 52.13 seconds, which would have placed fourth at the 2013 U.S. Championships, where the top two made the World Championships team. Lochte was second at last year’s nationals, in 51.73.
Phelps, for whatever form he was in last week, must shave about a half-second off his 100m butterfly to feel confident of a top-two finish at nationals in Irvine, Calif., in August. That’s certainly doable. Who knows if Lochte will swim the 100m butterfly in four months, as it has usually not been on his program for major international meets.
2. Katie Ledecky a sprinter? The 17-year-old high school junior is renowned for her distance dominance. She’s the Olympic and world champion in the 800m freestyle and world champion in the 400m and 1500m events, too.
She was peerless in those three at the 2013 World Championships, winning all of them by at least two seconds. That’s why it was intriguing to see Ledecky swim not only the 200m freestyle but also the 100m freestyle in Mesa.
Ledecky actually swam the 200m free at last year’s U.S. Championships, taking second to Missy Franklin, and dropped it from her program at the World Championships. Ledecky did lead off the U.S. 4x200m free relay at worlds in 1:56.32, the fourth fastest in the 32-swimmer field (impressive for a leadoff leg, which is typically slower), and a time that would have placed fourth in the individual 200m free in Barcelona. (Franklin won in 1:54.81)
In Mesa, Ledecky won the 200m free in 1:56.27, a personal best. Any personal best in the month of April is fantastic, given the plan is to peak in the summer. She beat the Olympic 200m free champion, Allison Schmitt, though Franklin was not in the field.
There is little doubt Ledecky is one of the top two U.S. swimmers in the 200m freestyle. It’s just a matter of if she wants to add it to her busy program at a major international meet. The 200m free came the day after the 1500m free final at last year’s World Championships, but the grueling 1500m is not an Olympic event.
Then there’s the 100m free. Ledecky clocked 55.22 for fourth in Mesa, which would have placed 13th at last year’s U.S. Championships. She doesn’t swim the 100m free often, but it’s interesting to note she clocked 56.00 at last year’s Mesa Grand Prix. She’ll continue to improve there if she focuses on it.
It’s said that the distance freestyles are young women’s events. Britain’s Rebecca Adlington won the 2008 Olympic 800m free at age 19, dropped to bronze four years later and is now retired at age 25.
The shorter freestyles offer Ledecky more short-term challenges and long-term viability, but there’s no reason to give up the distance events (yet) after seeing her beat the World Championships silver medalist in the 800m free by nearly 13 seconds in Mesa.
3. Give Ryan Lochte some time. We’re not six months removed from Lochte’s fan run-in that yielded a torn MCL and sprained ACL. He said the knee hurt after coming back too early in February. Here’s Lochte’s scorecard from Mesa:
100m freestyle: Fourth, 49.68
200m freestyle: First, 1:49.48
100m butterfly: First, 51.93
100m backstroke: Fourth, 56.58 (prelims)
200m backstroke: Fifth, 2:02.54 (prelims)
200m individual medley: Fourth, 2:06.91 (prelims)
Lochte scratched out of the finals of the latter three, including both of his finals on the final day Saturday, due to a leg issue in warm-ups. His coach, David Marsh, said it was a precautionary move and Lochte wasn’t expected to miss training time.
Those results for Lochte would have been satisfactory for an April meet even if he wasn’t coming off the knee injury — two wins, a fourth in a strong 100m free field and three prelim times that safely advanced him to A finals.
Lochte, who is one year older than Phelps, should only get stronger as spring turns to summer. A key in upcoming meets will be his ability, at 29, to turn in the kind of loaded schedules we’re accustomed to seeing after not finishing things off in Mesa.
4. Katie Hoff’s comeback also looks strong. The three-time 2008 Olympic medalist took about a year off from competition after missing the 2012 Olympic Team.
Hoff is a three-time Olympian, but she’s only 24 years old and has the talent to be among the world’s best all-around swimmers. That was evident at her most competitive meet since her break. Hoff built up as the meet went on, going from 10th in the 100m free to fifth in the 100m butterfly to third in the 200m free to winning the 200m individual medley on Saturday.
The 200m IM was key. Hoff won by nearly two seconds over a field that included the top U.S. women at last summer’s nationals, Caitlin Leverenz and Elizabeth Beisel. She’s gone from full-time student in Miami back to top-ranked American in an all-around event in less than a year. Not too bad.
5. Give Michael Andrew time, too. The 15-year-old phenom of national age group swimming finished eighth in the 100m backstroke, 12th in the 50m free, 18th in the 100m butterfly, 19th in the 100m breaststroke, 26th in the 100m free, 43rd in the 200m free and 14th in the 200m individual medley prelims.
The times and results aren’t as important as the stat that Andrew wasn’t beaten by anybody at his age or younger in six of his seven events.
Really, the highlight of the meet for Andrew may have been chatting with Phelps, to whom he’s often been compared. Keep in mind that Phelps made an Olympic final at age 15. Andrew has plenty of promise, but he’s getting his feet wet in long-course meters competition, a significance noted by Phelps last week.
Andrew’s goal is to make junior national teams this summer. Mesa was a solid meet from which to build.