By Daniel Paulling//Contributor | Thursday, May 2, 2019
The 2020 Olympic Games are still over a year away, but USA Swimming Open Water Director Bryce Elser hopes to know in just a few months who’ll represent the United States.
The path to Tokyo for open water swimmers begins May 3rd with the Open Water National Championships in Miami. The top two men and top two women in the 10k races advance to the 18th FINA World Championships in July in Gwangju, South Korea, where they can guarantee themselves a spot in the Olympics with a top 10 finish.
“This is basically the National Championship everybody’s got to be gearing up for,” Elser said. “I think a lot of the athletes are taking this as kind of the make-or-break for them.”
Jordan Wilimovsky figures to be one of the top contenders on the men’s side after his fifth-place finish at the 2016 Olympics and his silver medal at the 17th FINA World Championships in 2017. Another contender, Brendan Casey, finished ninth at the latter competition.
Ashley Twichell and Haley Anderson are two of the top female open water swimmers in the U.S. Twichell won gold and Anderson finished fifth at FINA Worlds in 2017, though that was a 5K, half the Olympic distance. Anderson, a two-time Olympian, won silver in the 2012 Olympics.
All of these high-caliber athletes are an indication of how much open water swimming has grown in the U.S. since the 10K became an Olympic event in 2008. The U.S. had just one male, eighth-place finisher Mark Warkentin, and one female, 22nd-place finisher Chloe Sutton, then. The country had just two qualifiers at the 2012 Olympics and three at the 2016 Olympics.
“I’m hoping our program as a whole, with how things have progressed (since the 2016 Olympics), the signs we’re seeing, the depth of our program is huge,” Elser said. “It’s the best program we’ve had in this country. It’s not just one or two athletes. It’s a great national team.
“And even beyond our national team, the domestic athletes we can put forward for National Championships is much better. I think our Nationals are going to be more competitive and as a result of that, our top two athletes who come out of Nationals are going to be better, and then we’ll take our best two men and best two women to World Championships.”
The competitors at the Open Water National Championships will be racing on a course that’s similar to what they would face at Worlds and the Olympics. The water will be around 80 degrees and salty, and the course will be protected, meaning there will be fewer waves.
The course was chosen to mimic what qualifiers will face in the future, Elser said, because it’s important to choose swimmers who perform best under those conditions.
“I’m really excited they’re mimicking World Championships as closely as possible,” Anderson said. “I think it’s really important to start acclimating as soon as possible for the race we’re going to have at Worlds. The more chances you get to race in something like that, the better.”
All of this planning, of course, doesn’t guarantee the U.S. will have its two male swimmers and two female swimmers at Worlds qualify for the Olympics. And if they don’t advance, the qualification process becomes more complicated from there.
If no male or no female swimmer from the U.S. finishes in the top 10 at Worlds, U.S. swimmers would have to go through another qualification process, which is another competition next year. However, the country can then advance just one swimmer of each gender.
For example, if just one male or just one female swimmer from the U.S. finishes in the top 10 at FINA Worlds, the U.S. wouldn’t be allowed to qualify another swimmer of that sex. If none of the U.S.’s male swimmers or female swimmers qualify, the U.S. could then only qualify at most one swimmer from that sex in the designated qualifying event next year.
The latter scenario is one Elser would like to avoid, if possible. Having the qualification process finished early can be very valuable for the swimmers.
“It allows us to get a little more strategic with the approach,” Elser said. “Instead of (wondering) which of our athletes are going to be the ones representing us at Tokyo, we’ll know exactly the personnel we’re going to have. It allows us to be a little bit more direct with our support. We’ll get the coaches of those athletes on a conference call and say, ‘What do you need from USA Swimming to make sure that your athletes are getting on the podium at the Olympics?’”
Qualifying for the Olympics this summer would also give the swimmers the opportunity to focus on their pool swimming leading up to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Swimming next June.
“I know for a lot of pool (swimming) guys, the lead-up to Trials can be stressful,” said Wilimovsky, who qualified for the 2016 Olympics in open water and in the pool. “It’s great going into Olympic Trials and not really having any pressure to make the team (because you already qualified for the open water swim). It’s a great feeling to know you’re already on the team.”
But the swimmers at the Open Water National Championship will still be more than a year away from the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Swimming. They’ll be vying for one of the two spots available for their sex at FINA Worlds, where Elser hopes the U.S. will have four swimmers qualify for the Olympics. It would be the first time any country has accomplished that feat.
“That would be amazing,” Twichell said. “To have a full roster of two men and two women on the open water team for the year leading up to (the Olympics), to be able to do training camps together, to be able to have a full squad in Tokyo, would be awesome and a big honor.
“Having the USA flag on your cap is such an honor, and when you’re competing internationally and you’re in the middle of a race, especially if you’re not feeling great or you’re at a tough point in the race and you see another American flag cap, it’s such a boost. It’s so huge.”
Live coverage of each race from Miami will be available each morning May 3 - 5 atsftest.usaswimming.org. The full webcast schedule is now available.