Arena Grand Prix at Mesa: Men's Can't Miss Race
By Mike Gustafon//Correspondent
When Tyler Clary conquered the men’s 200m backstroke at last summer’s London Olympics, some swim fans were shocked. Clary over Ryan Lochte? After Clary had failed to qualify for the Olympics in the men’s IM events? Wasn’t the 200m backstroke supposed to be Lochte’s bread-n-butter event? The event in which Lochte won gold in 2008? Lochte’s “gimme” event?
For years in some media circles, Tyler Clary had played second fiddle to Phelps and Lochte. That’s what happens when you swim similar events – the 200 and 400 IM -- as the two greatest swimmers in the world. The 2012 Olympics appeared as though it would be no different. Many thought Clary’s best chance at a medal was in the 400 IM. Those chances were dashed one month prior to the Olympics when Phelps entered the 400 IM (an event he said he’d never swim again) and subsequently pushed Clary to the painful 3rd and non-qualifying place.
A few reporters pegged Clary as the Robin to Phlochte’s Batman. Forever the bridesmaid, never the bride. For years, Clary had wanted to etch his own name, his own resume, his own success, and break through the constant barrage of questions like, “Is it hard swimming all the events that Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte swim?”
So, Clary broke through. He won Olympic gold.
When Clary triumphed over Lochte in the 200m backstroke, it wasn’t just an upset. It was an announcement. One of the greatest overshadowed swimmers of the past five years finally touched the wall first and defeated the defending Olympic champion Lochte. At long last, one of the most successful and well-rounded swimmers in the world stood atop the victor’s podium.
This weekend, Clary and Lochte race once more. And perhaps this could shape up to be one of the great duels, the Ali vs. Frasier match-ups that could build all the way to 2016. However, there’s one more wrinkle in the equation. Another up-and-coming teenage phenom seeks to dethrone America’s two best 200 backstrokers. And with a few more years of training and experience, this swimmer could be even more formidable:
At the Arena Grand Prix at Mesa, all three elite backstrokers will race. The 2008 Olympic gold medalist, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist, and one of the most promising younger swimmers in America. Add in newlywed Matt Grevers – the 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the 100m backstroke – and you have a race that you can’t miss.
Now, before we declare a world record will be broken this weekend, it won’t. All swimmers are likely in heavy training, or in transitional phases of training. Ryan Lochte has been busy with his new reality show. Matt Grevers just got married. Tyler Clary, now training in Ann Arbor, and Ryan Murphy, who is preparing to go to college, are both eyeing this summer’s championship season.
Still, every race is an opportunity to learn, not only about your own racing strategy, but about your opponent’s. It’s a unique situation where three Olympic gold medalists in the backstroke are all racing one event. These are the most successful backstrokers in the world. Each race, they learn from each other. The athletes gauge each other. How they pace. How they turn. How they stretch before jumping into the water. In the backstroke, an event where you can constantly monitor out of the corner of your eye where your opponent next to you is, racing strategy becomes key. Just getting used to swimming against your opponent can be an advantage, especially when the difference between first and second can sometimes be mental.
For Murphy, this will be one of those invaluable learning opportunities. It’s not every day you can race three Olympic backstroke champions in one race. The United States is blessed to have such a rich tradition in backstroke events, and Murphy looks poised to carry the banner into the future.
But three veterans will stand in his way. Lochte, the superstar. Clary, the dragon slayer. And Grevers, the sprinter.
The 200m backstroke could shape up to be one of the most exciting events not just this summer, but throughout the next three years. Tyler Clary became an Olympic legend last summer. Ryan Lochte will try to recapture his claim as world’s best 200m backstroker. Ryan Murphy wants to make his own name. Matt Grevers has the length, talent, and the resume to be one of the world’s best 200m backstrokers.
It’s anyone’s race, really. Now, next summer, and in the years to come…
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USA Swimming and Splash Magazine.