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Ten swimmers to watch at U.S. Swimming Championships

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This week’s U.S. Swimming Championships won’t be nearly as cutthroat as an Olympic Trials, where the top two per individual event make the team.

A top-three finish should be enough to get a swimmer on the 26-per-gender team for the year’s major international meet, the Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo in August (a gathering of non-European nations). Even some fourth-place finishers made the last Pan Pacs team in 2014.

The more swimmers who make the team in multiple events (such as Katie Ledecky), the more spots open up for third- and fourth-place finishers.

Once a swimmer makes the Pan Pacs team in one event, he or she can swim any event at Pan Pacs. That’s key for 2019, since next year’s world championships team (which will be two per event, like the Olympics) will be chosen from swimmers’ best times between nationals and Pan Pacs.

Got it? That in mind, here are 10 swimmers expected to headline the racing in Irvine, Calif., from Wednesday through Sunday at nationals.

MORE: U.S. Champs TV/Stream Schedule

Katie Ledecky
Events: 100m free, 200m free, 400m free, 800m free, 1500m free
Five Olympic Gold Medals
World Records: 400m, 800m, 1500m frees

Ledecky failed to go a personal best in her main events in a calendar year for the first time in 2017. But she still earned five golds and a silver at the world championships, following a hectic post-Rio move to Stanford and full freshman season of competition. If anybody thought Ledecky’s fastest times were behind her, she silenced them on May 16 by taking five seconds off her 1500m world record at a Grand Prix-level meet. Ledecky broke the 400m free world record for the first time at nationals in Irvine four years ago. Every Ledecky final is a must-watch, even if she might not be fully tapered for this meet.

Simone Manuel
50m free, 100m free, 200m free
Two Olympic Gold Medals
Seven World Championships Gold Medals

Manuel was arguably more impressive than her good friend and Stanford teammate Ledecky at the 2017 Worlds. The 21-year-old broke the American record in her primary events — the 50m and 100m freestyles — en route to five golds (four on relays). She is a quarter of a second faster than any other woman at nationals in the 50m free, significant in a 24-second race, and a full second faster than all but one swimmer in the 100m free.

Lilly King
50m breast, 100m breast, 200m breast, 200m IM
Two Olympic Gold Medals
World Records: 50m, 100m breast

The Reggie Miller of swimming (hand-gesturing, blunt-talking and Indiana-honed) is best known for her rivalry with Russian Yuliya Efimova, who of course will not be competing this week. But King has accomplished enough to be highlighted solely for her own swimming. She was the only man or woman to break world records in multiple individual events at 2017 Worlds. Olympic and world silver medalist Katie Meili and Molly Hannis could give King close races in the sprint breaststrokes this week, though.

Kathleen Baker
50m back, 100m back, 200m back, 200m IM
Olympic 100m backstroke silver medalist
Three World Championships Medals

While Ledecky, Manuel and King earned most of the headlines in 2016 and 2017, Baker succeeded Natalie Coughlin and Missy Franklin as the U.S. backstroke queen with 100m silvers in Rio and at 2017 Worlds. Baker, diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2010, added a 200m back bronze in 2017 and is heading toward Pan Pacs showdowns with Australian Emily Seebohm and Canadians Kylie Masse and Taylor Ruck.

Missy Franklin
100m free, 200m free
Five Olympic Gold Medals
World Record: 200m back

At this point in the last Olympic cycle, Franklin was still the top U.S. swimmer, coming off six golds at the 2013 Worlds and an impressive freshman season at Cal. It began unraveling at the 2014 Pan Pacs with back spasms, followed by coaching changes and shoulder surgeries and a disappointing Rio Olympic performance (one medal, a gold, as a morning relay swimmer). Franklin recently competed for the first time since Rio. She would not make this team going by rankings this year. She is skipping her trademark backstrokes this week. Her best shot is in the 200m free, where she ranks 10th in the U.S. this year. She must be top four on Thursday, though.

Caeleb Dressel
50m free, 100m free, 200m free, 50m fly, 100m fly, 50m breast, 100m breast, 200m IM
Two Olympic Gold Medals
Seven 2017 World Championships Gold Medals

Dressel is now the U.S.’ marquee male swimmer after matching Michael Phelps‘ record seven gold medals at 2017 Worlds (albeit two of them came in mixed-gender relays not on the program during Phelps’ heyday). The tattooed 21-year-old is entered in eight events this week but likely will drop some of them. The butterfly and freestyle sprinter could chase records this week or at Pan Pacs. His best times are .26 off the 100m free world record and .04 off Phelps’ world record in the 100m butterfly.

Chase Kalisz
200m breast, 200m fly, 200m IM, 400m IM
Olympic 400m IM silver medalist
World Champion: 200m IM, 400m IM

If individual medleys determine the world’s greatest all-around swimmer, then Kalisz is undoubtedly the man after sweeping the IMs at 2017 Worlds. Kalisz, a Baltimore native, began swimming at the same pool as Phelps at age 6 in 2000 and trained with the 28-time Olympic medalist leading up to the Rio Games after competing for the University of Georgia. Kalisz, the most impressive swimmer in USA Swimming’s spring Pro Series, could make the 2019 Worlds team in all four of his events.

Ryan Murphy
100m free, 50m back, 100m back, 200m back
Three Olympic Gold Medals
World Record: 100m back

Dressel’s former high school club teammate was a revelation in Rio, sweeping the backstrokes and breaking the 100m back world record in the medley relay. But he dropped to silver and bronze at the 2017 Worlds. He ranks No. 1 in the U.S. this year in both events, but his top international rivals (Russian Evgeny Rylov, China’s Xu Jiayu, Australia’s Mitch Larkin) have been faster in 2018. Can Murphy post times this week or at Pan Pacs to prove he is the world’s best backstroker?

Nathan Adrian
50m free, 100m free
Five Olympic Gold Medals
Eight World Championships Gold Medals

The affable Adrian is approaching a decade as a U.S. sprinting mainstay. The 2012 Olympic 100m free champion (by .01) has ceded the king’s title to Dressel, but he remains in the conversation among the world’s best. Nationals and Pan Pacs will be about holding off the rest of the young generation to stay in the top two in the 50m and 100m frees and make the world team beyond the relays.

Matt Grevers
50m free, 100m free, 50m back, 100m back
Four Olympic Gold Medals
Six World Championships Gold Medals

Grevers is in a similar position. He and Adrian shared an Olympic debut at Beijing 2008. The 6-foot-8 Grevers has had more of a roller-coaster career, failing to make the 2011 World Championships and 2016 Olympic teams, but he roared back at age 32 last year, beating Murphy in the 100m back at the U.S. Championships and taking silver at worlds. Again, he must fend off Father Time this week and next month.

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David Boudia adjusts diving event, goal for world championships

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David Boudia earned diving medals at his last three world championships and the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, but that was on the platform. He competes on the global stage on the springboard for the first time at worlds this week.

“I don’t have a lot of high hopes,” Boudia, who is still learning the springboard after switching to it in the last year, said in a phone interview from South Korea, where he begins competition Wednesday (TV schedule here). “But I think my biggest goal is to walk away with an Olympic spot.”

An Olympic spot not necessarily for himself, but for the U.S.

Boudia, a 30-year-old father of three, and any other American will clinch 2020 Olympic quota spots by placing in the top 12 in their respective individual events this week. Those spots, and any others earned at later competitions in the next year, will be filled at trials in June in Indianapolis.

NBC Sports analyst Cynthia Potter believes Boudia, who left the sport to sell homes in 2017 and came back and suffered a concussion off the platform in 2018, can meet his goal of making Friday’s 12-man final in Gwangju.

“He would have to dive well, but not better than he’s been diving,” she said. “His springboard is really well-timed, rhythmic, and he’s for a long time known how to go into the water without making a splash.”

But challenging Rio Olympic gold and silver medalists Cao Yuan of China and Jack Laugher of Great Britain, plus defending world champion Xie Siyi of China would be very tough.

Boudia lacks their degrees of difficulty, for now. He hopes to switch out two of his six dives before his first competition of 2020, though he could insert one of them should he make the world final.

“I need a good six months, so from August to December is when we’re kind of really drilling the fundamentals of learning those new dives and getting them perfected,” he said.

Boudia rallied to beat Rio Olympic springboard diver Michael Hixon for the title in May at nationals, where the top two per event earned world berths. But Boudia competed there with about a month of competition dive practice, about half as long as he would prefer.

“Hix and I are going to have a lot of training to do if we want to be even close to cracking that top five,” at worlds, Boudia said in May, according to TeamUSA.org.

Boudia is the lone U.S. diver to earn an individual world medal in an Olympic diving event since 2009.

The U.S. produced breakthroughs at worlds so far. Sarah Bacon became the first American woman to earn a world title since 2005, taking the non-Olympic 1m springboard event. Murphy Bromberg and Katrina Young bagged bronze in synchronized platform, ending a decade-long medal drought in any synchro event.

But Boudia’s goal must be shared among the whole team — as many top-12 finishes individually and top three in synchro events to gobble up Tokyo 2020 quota spots. The U.S. failed to qualify full teams for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

“Getting in the top 12 in the four individual Olympic events is the big deal right now,” Potter said. “Whether you are on the awards stand or not, that would be icing on the cake for a lot of these divers.”

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Anita Wlodarczyk, one of track and field’s most dominant, sidelined

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Poland hammer thrower Anita Wlodarczyk, the only woman to win the last five combined Olympic and world titles in a track and field event, will not go for a fourth straight world championship this fall.

Wlodarczyk had season-ending, arthroscopic left knee surgery on Monday, according to Polish media citing her coach.

Wlodarczyk, 33, has the top 15 throws on the IAAF’s all-time list, and 27 of the top 29. Her world record of 82.98 meters (scribbled on her leg pre-op) is 11 and a half feet farther the second-best woman in history. She originally took silver at the 2012 Olympics and 2013 Worlds but was upgraded to gold after Russian Tatyana Lysenko was stripped for doping.

Wlodarczyk won a reported 42 straight finals between 2014 and 2017, then suffered three losses in 2018 and two so far this year in three lower-level meets before the operation.

Americans DeAnna Price and Brooke Anderson rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the world this year. A U.S. woman has never finished in the top five of an Olympic or world championships hammer throw, which debuted at worlds in 1999 and the Olympics in 2000.

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