Michael Phelps will gather the most buzz, but this week’s Pro Swim Series at Mesa is loaded with the most men’s and women’s talent at one meet since last summer.
Entry lists for the Arizona competition include 24 Olympic medalists that combined to capture 95 total medals across the last three Summer Games, according to USA Swimming.
The meet begins with distance races Wednesday. Universal Sports Network will air live TV coverage of finals Thursday and Friday at 9 p.m. ET. Racing concludes Saturday. A complete webcast of the meet will be available on USASwimming.org.
1. Michael Phelps’ return
Last year, Mesa marked Phelps’ first meet in 20 months, since the London Olympics. This year, it’s his first meet in eight months, since his September DUI arrest and six-month suspension.
Phelps is entered in the 100m butterfly (Thursday), 100m backstroke and 400m freestyle (Friday) and 200m individual medley and 100m free (Saturday). He could very well scratch out of one of those events, particularly the 400m free, which was only once part of his schedule at an Olympics or World Championships (2005).
The 100m butterfly, 200m individual medley and 100m free are the key events for Phelps. Those are the three individual events that he qualified to swim at this summer’s World Championships, before his name was taken off the roster as part of his punishment for the arrest.
Phelps was the fastest man in the world in the 100m fly in 2014. The next three fastest Americans are all entered in Mesa — Tom Shields, Ryan Lochte and Tim Phillips.
Phelps was No. 3 in the world in the 200m IM in 2014. The only American faster than him is entered in Mesa — Lochte — as is the No. 3 American — Conor Dwyer.
Phelps was the No. 2 American in the 100m free in 2014. Missing from Mesa is the fastest American, Olympic champion Nathan Adrian. But Lochte and 2013 World silver medalist Jimmy Feigen are entered.
How Phelps measures up to those domestic rivals will show how well he’s trained during the competitive absence.
2. Katie Ledecky and the 100m freestyle
Ledecky is entered in every freestyle race from 100 meters through 1500 meters, plus the 400m individual medley. Like Phelps, she might opt out of events. The 400m IM appears the likeliest drop.
Nobody will challenge her in the 1500m free (Wednesday), 400m free (Friday) or 800m free (Saturday), and if she’s on form she should take the 200m free (Thursday) since Missy Franklin and the top Europeans in the event aren’t competing.
Then comes the biggest intrigue for Ledecky to close the meet Saturday night. That’s the 100m free. The last time she swam it, she beat her personal best in the preliminaries and the final in Austin, Texas, on Jan. 15.
Ledecky’s personal best in the 100m free is down to 54.55. That would have placed seventh at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. Usually, the top six from trials make the Olympic 4x100m free relay when including preliminary swimmers.
In Mesa, she is slated to face Simone Manuel, the fastest U.S. woman in the 100m free in 2014. Manuel and Franklin are favorites to take the two individual 2016 U.S. Olympic spots in the 100m free, but Ledecky will enter the discussion if she continues to swim the event, and improve in it.
If Ledecky makes the 2016 U.S. Olympic team in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m frees, she could swim seven events at the Rio Olympics when including relays. No woman has won seven swimming medals at a single Olympics (only one has done so in any sport, summer or winter, Soviet gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaya in 1952).
3. Ryan Lochte and the 400m IM
In January, Lochte raced a 400m individual medley, the grueling decathlon of swimming that Phelps has sworn off, for the first time in 20 months. It did not go well.
But Lochte said then that he would definitely swim the 400m IM at his next Pro Swim Series appearance. He did not. Lochte only swam one event at the Pro Swim Series stop in Orlando, but he was a late addition to the meet due to travel issues coming back from Australia.
Lochte did not enter the 400m IM for Mesa, either. The 11-time Olympic medalist has been on and off about his future in the 400m IM since he captured gold in the event at the London Games.
In Mesa, Lochte is entered in the 100m, 200m and 400m frees, 100m backstroke, 100m fly and 200m IM. He and Phelps could go head to head in five events.
But what could be most interesting is if Lochte says whether or not the 400m IM is in his long-term plans.
4. The Swimmer of the Year
One reigning World Swimmer of the Year is also entered in Mesa. It’s not Phelps, Lochte or Ledecky. It’s Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, the reigning World champion in the 200m and 400m individual medleys.
Hosszu entered 14 races for Mesa, which is about her norm. However, a swimmer can’t compete in more than seven in the Pro Swim Series, so she must cut down.
It surprised some when swimming’s international governing body announced Hosszu as its female Swimmer of the Year for 2014, given Ledecky was the only woman to break a world record in an individual Olympic event last year. And Ledecky did so in two events, plus in the 1500m free.
Hosszu, a three-time Olympian and 25 years old, bagged three individual gold medals at the 2014 European Championships and six medals overall. The same week she was named World Swimmer of the Year over Ledecky, she totaled eight more individual medals at the World Short Course Championships (the meet missed the top Americans and Chinese in Hosszu’s best events).
As the individual medley queen, she is the world’s best all-around female swimmer. But is she more dominant than Ledecky? That’s debatable.
She could race Ledecky in the 400m IM — if Ledecky doesn’t drop it — or any freestyle from 100m through 1500m.
Flashback: Michael Phelps at the Sydney 2000 Olympics