Can't Miss Race of the Arena Grand Prix at Orlando
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Pop quiz: If I told you at this weekend’s Arena Grand Prix at Orlando that Ryan Lochte was seeded in the 100 backstroke and there was a 17-year-old seeded ahead of him, would you believe me?
If no, read on. If yes, then you probably know the name: Ryan Murphy.
The seed is no fluke, misunderstanding, or false time. Ryan Murphy is really that fast. The 17-year-old Cal-bound high school swimmer is entered in the 100m backstroke at 53.76, a time that would have won Olympic gold in 2004. The teenager trains at Bolles under head coach Sergio Lopez with a plethora of teenage up-and-coming superstars, and he’s been on the radar of many swim fans for a while now.
The 100m backstroke has been one of the most successful events for the United States internationally. The names of past Olympic champions are legendary, and they’re all from the United States: Rouse. Krayzelburg, Peirsol, Grevers. The United States is so deep and so talented at this singular event that Ryan Lochte, gold medal champion in the 200m backstroke in 2008 and bronze medalist in 2012, has never qualified in the Olympic Trials’ Top 2 in the 100m distance.
The men aren’t alone. The U.S. women are equally – or more – talented and deep at this event than the men’s side. This weekend, for instance, Missy Franklin (Olympic champion) races another teenager, Olivia Smoliga (2012 Short Course World Champion). Consider that the U.S. also has in its pockets Natalie Coughlin (2004 and 2008 Olympic champion), Rachel Bootsma (Olympic qualifier), Cindy Tran (2-time NCAA Champion), and many talented others, like Liz Pelton, you begin to understand just how deep this event for the United States really is.
This weekend, we will witness three of the best backstroke teenagers who will continue the U.S. dominance in the 100m backstroke. Ryan Murphy is one to watch on the men’s side. He’ll race another Floridian, Lochte, in front of a home crowd. This is invaluable experience for the younger swimmer, as the 100m backstroke is often filled with veterans like Matt Grevers, Nick Thoman, David Plummer, and Ryan Lochte. Murphy may not have the racing experience like the aforementioned swimmers, but he makes up for that with youth and confidence.
On the women’s side, we’ll see two phenoms race: Franklin vs. Smoliga. 2012 Olympic Champion vs. 2012 World Champion. You won’t see a better race than this. Franklin is coming off an incredible and likely emotional high school state championship performance, while Smoliga had her state championships last November and is likely in heavy training. For these two swimmers, this weekend’s Arena Grand Prix at Orlando provides another opportunity to learn each other’s racing strategies, enjoy competition, and a fast mid-season race opportunity.
You want one race to watch this weekend? Well, how about two?
Both 100m backstrokes should pose not only great races, but a foreshadowing of what could come later this summer when championship season rolls around. Both 100m backstrokes feature a teenage phenom (Smoliga or Murphy) racing one of the two biggest names in competitive swimming today (Franklin or Lochte).
The U.S. has a dominant history in the backstroke, and it begins at meets like the Arena Grand Prix at Orlando. It’s like that old adage: “Sharpen steel with steel.” The more swimmers race, compete, and measure themselves by the world’s best, the better they’ll become. We’re fortunate to have the best backstrokes in the world for the better part of the last decade, and this weekend, we’ll see a few of them compete.
It begins with races, with these mid-season opportunities. Olympic gold medals aren’t won in one race. They’re one through a lifelong process of racing and competing, and that lifelong process will be on full display this weekend in Orlando. Watch the prelims live at 9 a.m. ET with finals at 6 p.m. ET on the USA Swimming Network.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USA Swimming and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeLGustafson.