By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
During every Olympiad, the “middle year” is saturated with drama. Flashback to the 2010 season, the mid-year between Beijing and London, when Michael Phelps scratched events at the Mutual of Omaha Pan Pacific Championships, when unheralded David Plummer knocked off Aaron Peirsol for a national title, and when a tearful Amanda Beard qualified for yet another international roster, holding her newborn, at a crossroads in her professional career.
For whatever reason, this middle year historically had more unexpected surprises and drama than a Game of Thrones episode. Perhaps because swimmers are just beginning to eye an Olympic roster spot. Perhaps because athletes are turning eyes towards Rio, analyzing their two-year-plan, and making changes in nutrition, coaching, and training. Perhaps because this is the first season athletes begin to make moves.
In drama, there is what is called a “mid-point.” In screenwriting, this mid-point isn’t necessarily a turning point, but a launching of a new direction. The guy admits to the girl that he’s falling for her. The bank robbers realize they must go through with their most daring heist yet. A swimmer realizes that he needs to make major changes in his training regime.
It launches you into the second half of the plot.
This weekend, the 2013 Arena Grand Prix at Minneapolis kicks off a new season. Watch the live webcast beginning Thursday morning
We are at swimming’s mid-point. And, during this new season filled with opportunities, we will witness surprising plotlines that launch swimmers towards the next Olympics. There won’t be turning points, per se, because there’s plenty of time to turn around mistakes, fix failings, and stitch together injuries. For the victorious swimmers, this is the season that will launch them in a new opportunistic direction.
As always, here are 5 Storylines To Watch.
1. The New Baltimore Bullet?
Yannick Agnel, member of the infamous French squad responsible for handing Team USA another international relay loss, wears a new cap this weekend: North Baltimore. Home of the retired Phelps. Home of Bob Bowman. Home of quite a number of elite swimmers. Agnel wanted a new training regime and moved to Baltimore, along with Connor Dwyer and others. At only age 20, Agnel was one of the biggest stars of the London Olympics, turning in jaw-dropping freestyle performances. Pay attention to this weekend’s men’s 200 yard freestyle: Agnel battles Tom Luchsinger, a training teammate at North Baltimore (and this summer’s winner of the 200m butterfly). Interestingly, both are experts in two of Phelps’ former fortes – the 200 free and 200 fly – and, given the success Bob Bowman has training 200 freestylers (Phelps, Allison Schmitt, now Dwyer, etc..) Agnel should turn in some swift performances.
2. An Arena Grand Prix meet in short course yards format.
This meet will feature the NCAA-friendly yards format, allowing post-graduates to compare themselves to NCAA times turned in around the nation. Not only will this meet be an appropriate gauge, but watching short course yards is really, really fun. Part of me wishes the Winter Olympics would adopt a Short Course Olympics for swimming. Certain swimmers perform better in the smaller format. And they’re also exciting. Looking to hone your turn? Any club swimmer within a 100-mile radius of Minneapolis should attend this Arena Grand Prix meet. It will be a turn clinic. Tune in this weekend to see the best turns in the world.
3. A sprint dual; a prelude to next summer?
Megan Romano was one of last season’s newest bright stars. After a few anchor legs that quickly became “instant classics,” Romano followed the wake of Jason Lezak. She became her own verb: “Romano’d.” (Meaning: “Australia got Romano’d on that relay.”) As a post-graduate, Megan Romano shifts her focus from NCAA competition to international competition. One race to watch is this weekend’s 50 yard freestyle. Romano battles sprint aficionado and Olympian Jessica Hardy. Keep your eyes on this race. Next summer, we could see Romano vs. Hardy in sprint events at the Phillips National Championships and beyond.
4. David Plummer, the aquatic Paul Bunyan of Minneapolis.
Last year at this same meet, swim fans witnessed the return of David Plummer. Though Plummer narrowly (by .12) missed an Olympic birth in the men’s 100 backstroke, he battled back and earned a World Championship silver medal. Now, a Golden Goggle Award nominee, Plummer looks to continue his momentum. A new father and one of the more introspective interviews in swimming, Plummer looks to make waves in his home pool. Expect him to perform well in the sprint backstroke, which is the most competitive event in USA Swimming.
5. The Return of Allison Schmitt.
Allison Schmitt, known as “Schmitty,” is back and is aiming to compete. Though she failed to qualify for the World Championship roster last summer--a surprising result for an individual Olympic gold medalist—expect Allison Schmitt to do big things in the next few years. She has the talent, and she has the coaching. Now all we need is for her to convince her favorite Olympic training partner, Phelps, to make a comeback as well.