Five Storylines to Watch at the Arena Grand Prix at Austin
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
The first big meet in January is an exaltation for swimmers. Holiday training is over. School or work is back and regular routines return. Practices are still tough, but not nearly as brutal as a seemingly unending four hour practice on Christmas Eve. Swimmers re-emerge from the winter training cycle more in-shape than ever before -- sharp, keen, battle-tested, excited, and ready to finally race.
This weekend’s Arena Grand Prix at Austin provides top swimmers the chance to gauge how that winter training is faring. While many are still in peak training cycles, this weekend is an important meet heading into the “meat ‘n’ potatoes” of the racing season. It’s the first big USA Swimming long course meet of 2013, and it’s still early enough to make training tweaks heading into February.
As always, here are your 5 Storylines To Watch this weekend…
5. Is there anything Missy the Missile can’t do?
If you were like me, ogling the E! Red Carpet Golden Globes special waiting to see our favorite swimmers (many of whom were in attendance last night), unfortunately, Ryan Seacrest didn’t pull aside any Olympians for televised one-on-ones. But swim fans have an opportunity to watch Universal Sports this weekend and see our favorite swimmers on the “blue carpet.” Swimmers like Missy Franklin. Missy the Missile will compete in six events, including a few she rarely swims, like the women’s 400m freestyle. (She’s seeded 9th.) Should be fun to see Missy in a full long course meet schedule coming off winter training (she’s entered in six events) and how she recovers from what looked to be a very fun Golden Globes weekend. Expect her to win a few golds herself this weekend.
4. Nathan Adrian vs. Anthony Ervin in the men’s 50 free.
Before last month’s AT&T Winter Nationals battle in the 50 freestyle, Nathan Adrian busted his finger and scratched finals. It was disappointing not to see the defending Olympic 100 free champ in swimming’s splash ‘n’ dash. But Adrian is signed up for the 50 in this meet, and he’ll be competing against recent World Championship bronze medalist Anthon Ervin for Arena Grand Prix gold. Expect a swift race from these two Cal training partners (as long as neither are too broken down). Remember: Ervin just returned to the sport a year ago. He’s still improving. This weekend’s sprint could be a preview of what could be one of the best races this upcoming summer.
3. Tyler Clary returns to the 400 IM.
This summer, one of the biggest storylines was Tyler Clary. It wasn’t always easy for Clary. For years, Clary competed under the shadow of two of the best all-around swimmers our sport has ever seen, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. You saw this battle come to a head at the Olympic Trials in the 400 IM. Clary just lost against Phelps and Lochte, and you thought, “Man, when can this guy catch a break?” Then Clary went out and won Olympic gold in the 200 backstroke. Subsequently, Clary became one of the great surprises of the Games. Now, Phelps has retired. Tyler Clary returns to the 400 IM, an event that could be his best in 2016. Should be exciting to see how he does in an event he could have medaled in.
2. What will Ryan Lochte do?
This headline is not just a play on his upcoming E! reality show, “What Would Ryan Lochte Do?” I’m genuinely interested: What will Lochte do to get himself on the 400 medley relay in Rio 2016? Will he try for the 100 back? The 100 free? Or the 100 fly? (The 100 breast is too much of a longshot, although Lochte is decent at that event, too.) Lochte is one of the world’s best backstrokers. But unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to get in the top two 100 backstroke spots at the last two Olympic Trials. Last summer, he tried in the 100 fly, and he came up just short. Does Phelps’ retirement open up a 2016 butterfly spot for Lochte? Anything can happen between now and then, but Lochte should eye the 100 fly as a potential way to secure an Olympic medley relay roster spot. He’ll swim the sprint fly this weekend. I wonder if we’ll also see a few E! video cameras following him around….
1. A different look for a different Arena Grand Prix.
One quick glance at the psyche sheet, and you’ll notice a completely different Arena Grand Prix than those in the past. Before, hundreds of swimmers packed onto the pool deck. The natatoriums were crowded. Prelims lasted hours. Now, it’s a lean ‘n’ mean attendance – perhaps, in a couple events, a little too lean. There are nine women entered in the 400 IM. Eight women in the 100 breast. In the men’s 400 freestyle relay, it’s literally Stanford versus Stanford. But for Olympic-caliber swimmers, this skimmed-down meet offers an opportunity to focus on racing. There are decent odds for post-graduate swimmers to finish in the Top 3 and accept some of that $150,000 prize money. With fewer swimmers, there are also even better odds of younger swimmers with qualification times competing alongside Olympians. The line-ups at future Arena Grand Prix meets need some tweaking to ensure enough swimmers can fill a championship and consolation heat, but it’ll be an exciting, fast, action-packed line-up for those who travel to Austin.
Remember swim fans: getcha popcorn ready, sit back and relax, and skip those NFL playoffs. You can catch the Arena Grand Prix at Austin, January 18-20th, on Universal Sports TV and LIVE right here on USASwimming.org.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.