While U.S. male swimmers earned gold medals in every other stroke at the Rio Olympics, the last American man to win an Olympic breaststroke event was in 1992.
“I did not know that stat,” Josh Prenot said last week. He knows now, and he may be reminded more and more as the Tokyo Games approach.
Prenot, the 2016 Olympic 200m breast silver medalist, is the clear hope to end that drought among a maturing group of American breaststrokers.
Consider the 100m breast a long shot for anybody other than Brit Adam Peaty, the Olympic and world champion and world-record holder who has been more than a second clear of the rest of the world each of the last three years.
Prenot is glad that Peaty’s dominance is limited to the shorter distance. In the last five years, five different men topped the year-end rankings in the 200m breast.
Prenot was No. 1 in the most important year — 2016 — when he broke the American record at the Olympic Trials. In Rio, he touched .06 after surprise Kazakh Dmitriy Balandin, the last qualifier into the eight-man final whose time was nearly three tenths slower than Prenot’s in Omaha a month and a half prior.
“It’s tough to come up what I could have done better [in Rio] given the skills that I had at the time,” Prenot, 25, said last week while promoting his role as an athlete mentor for Classroom Champions. “I think my start’s better. I think my turn’s better. I think my underwater’s better now.”
That confidence was absent in 2017, when Prenot was third at nationals and failed to make the world championships team. He later said he was “going through stuff” and prefers to leave it at that.
“I maintain that going to that meet was a bad idea for me, and I think I proved that by embarrassing myself on the national stage,” he said.
Prenot stuck with his coaches at Cal-Berkeley, endured a spring shoulder/lat injury and had the best training stint of his life going into the U.S. Championships in July.
It showed. Prenot clocked the fastest time in the world for 2018 at nationals (a 2:07.28, since surpassed by Russian Anton Chupkov), 1.44 seconds faster than at the same meet in 2017 and .11 off his American record.
“It does not rank that high on the satisfaction scale,” he said, leaving it a level below the swifter Olympic Trials win and slower Rio silver. “I can’t be mad. It’s a great time, but at the same time, I know I’m better than that.”
He may have to be come 2020. Chupkov, the Rio bronze medalist, has gone faster each of the last two years. Japan’s Ippei Watanabe lowered the world record in January 2017, a 2:06.67 that’s a half-second faster than Prenot’s best.
Prenot later struggled at August’s Pan Pacific Championships, the major international meet of 2018. He was fifth in a 200m breast final that did not include Chupkov, swimming more than a second slower than he did at nationals two weeks earlier.
He noted the quick turnaround from meet to meet (less than half the time between Trials and the Olympics) and that his stroke timing was off.
“That’s the reason why I swam bad,” he said.
Prenot’s ups and downs bring to mind his idol, the most famous U.S. male breaststroker of the last 25 years.
Brendan Hansen went from a pair of third-place finishes at the 2000 Olympic Trials (where the top two per event go to the Games), to breaking both breaststroke world records at the 2004 Olympic Trials to silver and bronze medals at the Athens Games, a retirement, an unretirement and an unexpected individual bronze medal at London 2012.
Prenot said he’s had one conversation with Hansen. Three months before the Rio Olympic Trials, Hansen presented the 200-yard breaststroke awards at the NCAA Championships. Prenot took second to Will Licon, with both men lowering personal bests by more than a second (Licon shattered the American record).
“[Hansen] was talking to me and Licon and said, ‘You guys are going to be going 2:07, 2:06,'” Prenot recalled. Prenot’s best 200m breast at the time was 2:08.90. Hansen’s personal best was 2:08.50.
Now Prenot is one of just three U.S. men to break 2:08. To listen to him, 2:06 appears on the horizon.
“When I look at my career, I ask myself, how long am I going to go for? Am I going to transition to the real world?” said Prenot, who grew up on Air Force bases and studied physics at Cal. “Knowing that I’m capable of a performance that I have not delivered yet keeps me going.”
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