By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Wednesday, July 19, 2017It is one of the most iconic images in sports: For hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of miles, a torch is passed from person to person, carried across countries and continents, and treks all the way from Athens to a stadium far-away, where a large cauldron is finally lit. The Olympic torch relay represents community, collaboration, the spirit of thousands of people coming together, anointing the next Olympic city. It is an inspiring metaphor to think about, especially for any transition, whether it be an Olympic city, a political leader, or a veteran athlete hanging up a cap and goggles.
“To pass the torch” — to carry on, to keep going, to continue.
In swimming, though, there is no actual torch to pass. When one generation of swimmers “passes the torch” to the next, swimming lacks a literal object to provide the symbolism. I was thinking about this recently: Track and field has its baton. Basketball has a ball, hockey has a puck, football has a football, baseball has a bat, and so on.
Swimming, of course, has none of these. The closest thing swimming has is the relay exchange. Instead of a ball or baton, in swimming, it is an exchange of person. A well-executed, exactly-timed leap. Often, this relay exchange is not about speed or power. The swimmer’s relay exchange is judged a success not by the trajectory of a ball or baton, but, fittingly, people and time.
I can think of no better metaphor for this summer’s 2017 FINA World Championships. The year-after any Olympics is often rife with change. It is a time when many changes occur: Many swimmers, some who have been national roster staples for a decade, hang up suits and goggles. Others take extended breaks or hiatuses after the stress and tension from the previous summer. In this post-Olympic year, a new generation of swimmers who have stood on blocks like relay swimmers and patiently awaiting their turn finally have their chance to leap.
This year, we are witnessing the sport execute its relay exchange. With major, mainstream sports stars like Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, and Ryan Lochte not on this world’s team due to a variety of reasons, the next generation of swimmers are not only poised and ready; they are swimming, sprinting, and continuing on. If a sport’s transition is about timing, like a well-executed relay exchange, now’s the time.
As always, here are your 5 Storylines To Watch for next week’s 2017 FINA World Championships:
1. This summer’s most exciting races? The breaststrokes.
Two people dominated the breaststroke events, and both could become major storylines at next week’s World Championships. On the women’s side, Lily King once again proved she is a force. She has set-up a showdown with rival breaststroker Yulia Efimova once again, in races that will certainly captivate sports fans (and TV broadcasters, I’m sure). On the men’s side, Kevin Cordes looks to become America’s go-to breaststroker in both the 100 and 200-meter events, as well as the medley relay. Both have the experience and mental fortitude. Look for King and Cordes to make splashy statements this summer.
2. New names to watch.
Every Phillips 66 Nationals brings a surprise, and this past summer was no different. While there are a slew of new names to watch, remember the names Mallory Comerford and Zane Grothe. Each had breakout performances this past Nationals, and each will gain valuable international racing experience at next week’s Worlds. Comerford in particular had a stellar Nationals, breaking the U.S. Open record in the 100-meter freestyle and dropping below the 53-barrier. It’ll be fascinating to see how she performs with the world’s eyes watching.
3. With Phelps and Lochte gone, Caeleb Dressel & Chase Kalisz take over.
Michael Phelps is retired. Ryan Lochte, after serving his suspension, is not on this Worlds team. Which means there are large gaps to fill in on this international Team USA men’s roster. However, two swimmers seem like they are up to the challenge, Caeleb Dressel and Chase Kalisz. For Team USA, one of the major question marks is the 100-meter butterfly. With Phelps gone, Team USA — and the all-important 400 medley relay — cannot afford to take a step back in this stroke. However, with Dressel’s national title in the 100-meter butterfly, we wonder: Could he step in and perform in that medley relay? It certainly appears so. In the 200 IM, there were even more question marks heading into this summer. The 200 IM has been so dominated by Phelps and Lochte for so long, I wondered if we’d ever see anyone else in this event. Chase Kalisz, former Phelps teammate, has answered, sweeping both IM events at Nationals and looking like he will be a major player next week.
4. Simone Manuel
The reigning Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle should do big things next week, in both freestyle sprints and the relays. Look for Manuel to use her experience to lead Team USA, especially in the relays. One of the best stories from last summer should keep getting better, and Manuel has the experience and the confidence to become a leader for not only the relays, but the entire Team USA.
5. Legendary Ledecky.
I’m not quite sure what else Katie Ledecky can do at this point, because, seemingly, she’s already done everything. She’s rewritten what was perceived as “possible” in distance swimming. She’s rejuvenated an entire nation’s interest in longer-form events. She’s astounded swim fans, flummoxed competitors, and left an entire world jaw-dropped. What else can she do? Sort of like watching Michael Phelps last summer, every race and every victory only adds to her legend status. Do not miss any one of her races. She’s a once-in-a-lifetime swimmer. Like watching Tom Brady throw a football or Venus Williams hit a tennis ball, we’re watching greatness.