By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
For certain reasons, different clubs are renown for different specialties. The University of Michigan is a distance freestyle factory. Bob Bowman creates and refines 200 freestylers. SwimMAC utilizes unique training to hone sprinters, many of whom are post-graduates. Of course, a program's specialty largely has to do with coaching. Certain coaches just excel at certain distances and strokes. But after a few years of dominance, the program's specialty takes on a tradition, an identity that sometimes lasts longer than one team or one coach.
Probably the most dominant and star-laden specialty training group is the Cal women sprint backstrokers. They are, right now, on the verge of creating not just a legacy, but a legendary contingent. Two Olympians. A World Championship member. An NCAA Champion. And I'm not even counting one of the greatest female backstrokers of all-time, who still trains at Cal as a professional. (Natalie Coughlin swims with Dave Durden, the Cal men's coach, though having her in the same pool has to count for something.)
This weekend, four Cal women converge in a Splash-n-Dash 100 backstroke extravaganza. Missy Franklin, of course, is the favorite. The defending Olympic champion and freshman dons a new cap for the first time in a major national championship. Naturally, she won't be at Olympic levels of rest and taper, but she is the swimmer to beat as the defending Olympic and World Champion. After Todd Schmitz coached Franklin to near-legendary
performances, Franklin will compete for the first time in a national championship meet under a new cap, new coach, and new team. Though she has some great battles in store with Katie Ledecky this weekend, the 100 backstroke could be the one event in which Franklin makes a statement.
But make no mistake: In a short course format, Olympic resumes go out the window.
Battling her will be her three teammates who also happen to be some of the best backstrokers in the world, Elizabeth Pelton, Rachel Bootsma, and Cindy Tran. All four have championship resumes. Any four can win. That's how deep this training group is.
To underscore this group's depth, think about this: Cal could potentially leave an Olympian off a medley relay at the NCAA Championships. Not many programs have the depth to say the morning of a 400 medley relay, "I know you made the Olympics in this event, but we're using someone else."
Can you imagine?
They say the best way to sharpen steel is with steel. Make no mistake: This daily inter-squad competition will only make these women better. It's a natural consequence when you battle the world's best day in, day out, in practice, at dual meets, conference championships, and nationals.
See, at Cal, every backstroke set is a Nationals final.
Or, potentially, an Olympic Trials final, if you want to prognosticate.
The 100 backstroke is perhaps the deepest event in women's swimming, just like the men's 100 back. The difference is, we rarely see so many superstars in one stroke, in one event, at similar ages, training side-by-side in the same pool. Usually you have to attend a National Team training camp to see this kind of inter-team depth.
The Can't Miss Race at these 2013 AT&T Winter National Championships is the women's 100 backstroke. Though the final may end up being just another Cal backstroke practice, that's not necessary a bad thing.
If anything, knowing these women not only are friends with each other, but also teammates and training partners who know first-hand each other's strategies, starts, turns, pacings, dreams, fears, and aspirations only makes this more interesting. And exciting.
No doubt, the Cal backstrokers will only make each other better. And they'll add one more layer to one of the most competitive events in swimming.
But more than that, they're formulating an iconic training group, the likes of which we haven't seen in a long time, one that could become not just great, but legendary. Watch the live webcast of the AT&T Winter National Championships today through Saturday with prelims at 9 a.m. and finals at 5 p.m. ET at usaswimming.org/nationals.