By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent | Thursday, June 22, 2017
The 2017 Phillips 66 National Championships, beginning June 27th, are here, and I’m giddier than Michael Phelps racing a great white shark. (Side note: If Michael Phelps races a shark, doesn’t that count as a comeback? Racing a shark is about the same intensity as racing Chad Le Clos, right? Then again, Le Clos isn’t known to eat humans, as some great white sharks are, so maybe racing a shark is even more intense. I’ll say it now: Happy about the comeback, MP!)
As of now, there is no scheduled shark-racing in the Indiana University Natatorium in Indianapolis, and there is no “halftime show” involving Michael Phelps racing a Narwhal or Orca or anything other aquatic beast. Instead, there will be new storylines: Up-and-coming high school and NCAA swimmers begin their Olympiad quest with the first large championship swim meet following last summer’s Olympics; Olympic veterans return to the long course pool and seek a return to the podium; Katie Ledecky continues her unparalleled dominance towards sports greatness; new international rosters are formulated and new World Championship teams are produced.
The year-after-the-Olympics is always swimming’s most surprising year, the year when seismic shifts begin to take shape. It is the year when the sport’s hungriest swimmers make statements. When, after a collective exhale from last summer’s ultra-intense Olympic programming, the sport itself begins its tensioning once more, and produces some of the Olympiads best pure racing.
As always, here are your 5 Storylines…
1. Katie. Ledecky. A storyline all herself.
Scanning the psych sheet for “Katie Ledecky” is an easy enough process: Look for any freestyle event over the 100m distance, and check the event’s top spot. Katie Ledecky is already a legend, already one of the most transcendent, dominant swimmers in modern Olympic history. And yet, she’s still only 20-years-old. One wonders: How fast can she go? At the 2017 Phillips 66 Nationals, Ledecky is entered in the 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1500-meter freestyles. She’s favored to win in all but the 100-meter sprint. And even then, I wouldn’t necessarily bet against her. We are witnessing history. We are witnessing Katie Ledecky.
2. A Nationals without Michael Phelps.
The GOAT has now, again, retired. Michael Phelps will not compete at these summer nationals, and in his wake, a slew of new butterflyers and IMers hope to ascend the podium. The butterfly events, in particular, take on greater intrigue: Who will be Team USA’s sprint butterfly representative? Can Tom Shields, Seth Stubberfield, Jack Conger, or Tim Phillips come close to that elusive 50-point barrier? Who will be the victor in one of the most grueling events in sports, the 200-meter butterfly? More questions than answers in this post-Phelps world… but answers are slated to arrive soon.
3. World Championship roster selections.
The 2017 Phillips 66 National Championships not only determine our nation’s best swimmers; it also determines who represents the United States at the World Championships and World University Games. There’s a lot riding on this meet — stipend support for National Teamers, international experience that proves invaluable throughout a swimmer’s career, and the opportunity to extend the competitive season alongside some of the world’s fastest swimmers. Long course World Championships are often the fastest and most competitive international championships outside the Olympics, so this summer’s roster selections are a big, big deal to swimmers competing.
4. Matt Grevers begins the journey back. (Pun intended.)
Fan-favorite and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Grevers may have missed last summer’s Olympic roster, but that doesn’t mean the new father is going anywhere soon. Grevers is scheduled to compete in the 100-meter backstroke, and it’ll be one of the great races of the nationals. Grevers will battle Jacob Pebley and 2016 gold medalist (and world record holder) Ryan Murphy in what could be an epic showdown. The United States has long been spoiled with a plethora of elite backstrokers, and a World Championship roster spot (and relay spot) on the line adds to this race’s importance.
5. The new generation of elite swimmers.
Any year-after-the-Olympics means several things: Some swimmers take time off to heal and ready themselves for a new Olympiad (Missy Franklin). Other swimmers who just missed the previous Olympics hop back in the pool seeking a return (Matt Grevers). But the biggest storyline are all those new faces and up-and-coming names seeking to solidify their own aquatic destinies. Scanning the psych sheet, those names who are 15, 16, 17, and 18-years-old are likely the same swimmers who could be finaling at the 2020 Olympic Trials. This is a “first-look” at some of those up-and-coming swimmers. What’s fun about this nationals? Finding new names on the psych sheet and witnessing new journeys coming to fruition. Take notice of those swimmers who have substantial time drops, who make finals in their teenage years, who race without anything to lose. This is their Nationals — a big-time long-course meet to prove themselves.