New wave rises at swimming trials

U.S. veterans find rougher waters

- Nicole Auerbach OMAHA @NicoleAuer­bach USA TODAY Sports

Natalie Coughlin has seen this unfold before. Four years ago, in fact.

She watched a new wave of athletes take over the U.S. Olympic swim team, led by a bubbly 17year-old named Missy Franklin, who would bump Coughlin from the 100-meter backstroke, the event Coughlin had won in the 2008 Summer Games.

Now it’s Franklin who got bumped from the 100 back, which she won in the London Olympics, by Olivia Smoliga and Kathleen Baker, who finished 1-2 at the U.S. trials Tuesday and secured roster spots for the Rio Games. Franklin did qualify for the U.S. team, however, in the women’s 200 freestyle Wednesday.

Through 13 individual event finals at the trials (with 26 individual spots available), 16 swimmers have qualified for their first Olympics. The week isn’t over yet, but it’s clear that the complexion of the U.S. team will be markedly different than it was four years ago, leaving some veteran, big-name swimmers perhaps on the outside looking in.

“That’s going to happen every trials,” Coughlin, 33, said after finishing eighth and failing to qualify in the 100 back. “It happened last time. It’s just natural.”

Nathan Adrian, 27, the top qualifier heading into the men’s 100 free final Thursday, said of the trend, “That’s a testament to the depth of USA Swimming. I couldn’t have predicted when it was going to happen, but I knew it was going to happen. I’m just trying to keep up.”

The suddenness of the sea change has been perhaps most apparent in certain swimmers’ signature events. Ryan Lochte failed to qualify in the 400-meter individual medley, which he won in London. Matt Grevers finished third behind Ryan Murphy and David Plummer and missed a roster spot in the 100 back, which he won four years ago.

“When I was on that block, I didn’t have any regrets,” Grevers said. “I didn’t think about any training I missed or food habits or any indulgence­s I had. I really put everything I had into this season and through the last couple of years. There’s nothing to attribute that to except the other guys doing really well.”

To those who tune in to worldclass swimming once every four years, some of this week’s results are shocking. But to those who have watched young swimmers such as Smoliga and Murphy develop while posting impressive times over the last year or two, it’s not as big a surprise.

“This sport is so cruel,” NBC commentato­r and former Olympian Rowdy Gaines said. “It’s every four years. Hypothetic­ally, if LeBron (James) has a bad year one year, his athletic career is not going to end — because he’s got next year. The media looks at it like four years. ‘Well, Missy won gold four years ago, why isn’t she gold now?’ It’s four years! A swimmer’s lifespan sometimes only lasts four years. It’s not a long lifespan.”

Franklin bounced back Wednesday, finishing behind Katie Ledecky in the 200 free final. She also will try to make the team in the women’s 200 back, which she will swim Friday and, assuming she makes the final, Saturday.

Gaines thinks Lochte will qualify in the 200 IM, which he’ll swim Thursday despite a groin injury he’s been battling all week. Lochte has been named to the Olympic team as a relay member, so he is Rio-bound.

For many observers, it was tough to watch Franklin and Lochte struggle or see Grevers stunned as he tries to visualize life without competitiv­e swimming after he missed the cut for the 100 free final. It was strange, too, to see four-time Olympic medalist Cullen Jones fail to qualify for the 100 free semifinals. These swimmers, particular­ly on the men’s side, have been the bedrock of the U.S. team for the past two or three Olympics.

At the same time, it makes what Michael Phelps, 31, has done even more astonishin­g. He’s almost as old as Lochte, Grevers and Jones, yet Phelps is as dominant as ever and says he’s in his best shape since the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

“All the guys know there’s a new era that’s going to be ushered in,” said David Marsh, Lochte’s coach and the Olympic women’s team head coach. “What you want to do is to have it be ushered in at a very high level. It’s a natural, really, clash of the titans that’s happening here with the older guys and the younger guys.”

“It’s a natural ... clash of the titans happening here with the older guys and the younger guys.” David Marsh, U.S. women’s swim coach

 ??  ?? ERICH SCHLEGEL, USA TODAY SPORTS Olivia Smoliga celebrates after winning the 100-meter backstroke in the U.S. swimming trials for a spot in the Rio Games.
ERICH SCHLEGEL, USA TODAY SPORTS Olivia Smoliga celebrates after winning the 100-meter backstroke in the U.S. swimming trials for a spot in the Rio Games.

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