WRITTEN BY SHARON ROBB
August 17, 2010
With 708 days to go until the July 27, 2012 opening day of the London Olympics, the United States is out to reassert its swimming dominance over Australia at the Mutual of Omaha Pan Pacific Championships that begin Wednesday in Irvine, Calif.
“Over the years we have always had the rivalry with the Australians and in my eyes I see it continuing the more we gear up for London,” said 14-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps.
Added backstroke Olympic gold medalist and world record holder Aaron Peirsol: “We will treat them as if they will come out with their arms swinging.”
It is the first time the U.S. has hosted a major international meet since the 2004 World Short Course Championships in Indianapolis.
The Pan Pacs were first held in 1985. The long course meet was first staged every odd year to allow for an international championship-level meet in the non-Olympic and non-World Championships years.
However, beginning with the 2002 championships (and the changing of the World Championships from every four years (even year between Olympics) to every two years (every odd year), the meet is a quadrennial event, held in the even year between Summer Olympics.
“In 1999 at the Sydney Olympic pool we ran an international meet as a test event to mirror the Olympics with heats, semifinals and finals,” explained Mark Schubert, U.S. national team head coach and general manager.
“The event was a ferocious dual meet between the U.S. and Australia and it came down to the relays at the end of eight days,” Schubert said. “That really got America’s attention and we are still paying attention. The Pan Pacs are a very important event since all the countries not eligible for the European Championships will be here.”
A total of 21 countries including the Pan Pac charter nations of Canada, Australia, Japan and the U.S. will compete. Brazil, China and Korea are also entered.
Sixty of the nation’s top swimmers including Olympic gold medalists Ryan Lochte of Daytona Beach, Michael Phelps, Natalie Coughlin, Aaron Peirsol and Rebecca Soni will compete through Sunday at the William Woollett Jr. Aquatics Center while the 10K open water event will be held Sunday at Long Beach Marine Stadium.
The U.S. team features 27 Olympians. The men’s head coach is University of Florida and former Bolles coach Gregg Troy. The women’s team head coach is California’s Teri McKeever.
Interestingly, the teams have been practicing together at UC Irvine based on strokes and not gender in the training camp. Schubert calls it a “slightly new concept with the men and women training together.”
“The camp is going great and spirits are high,” Schubert said. “The veteran swimmers are helping out the youngsters. On the second day of practice after we had team uniforming, in the world of Missy Franklin and Rachel Bootsma they walked into afternoon practice giddy with joy talking about how cool the uniforms and swim suits were because they were partially pink. I don’t think either of those girls are overwhelmed with any pressure.”
Schubert said the head coaches have stressed to the veterans that “our swimming culture is never something to be taken for granted.
“Historically, 70 to 80 percent of our Olympic team comes from this Pan Pac team,” Schubert said. “Two years out from the Olympics seldom to Olympians win medals without very good experience. I could point to some very prominent exceptions like Rebecca Soni but this Pan Pac and experience are extremely important for the future in London.”
The U.S. will face a strong field of competitors at the largest international meet of the year including Australia’s Jessica Schipper, Eamon Sullivan, Stephanie Rice and Leisel Jones in addition to several Aussie international meet newcomers. Brazil’s Cesar Cielo and Tunisia’s Ous Mellouli are also part of the star-studded field.
In an unaccustomed sight, swimmers on their way to the starting blocks will be required to stop at a poolside suit inspection tent. Officials there will check to make sure their suits carry a sticker saying they have been approved by FINA, the sport’s international governing body.
No longer are the high-tech, full-body compression suits allowed in competition since the Jan. 1 FINA ban. Polyurethane is out and swimmers now must wear textile suits. Men’s suits cannot extend above the naval or below the knee. Women’s suits cannot extend to the neck, past the shoulders or below the knee. There are also restrictions against thickness, buoyancy, external stimulation and customization, according to FINA.
Phelps, Lochte and other U.S. swimmers are excited to see swimming return to head-to-head tight races which they had at nationals.
“I think to see two athletes or a number of athletes go at it and really bring the best out of each other, I think that’s just going to make people as excited as seeing a world record,” Phelps said.
Schubert echoes Phelps’ sentiments.
“When we had the high tech suits last year, they were basically wetsuits,” Schubert said. “Times are different. Faster is especially not better in regards to last year. This year it’s about racing head-to-head and focusing on the races and not the times.”
Phelps said Monday that he will be swimming the 400-meter individual medley, an event that was supposed to be history in his future plans. It will be the first time since winning Olympic gold in Beijing he will swim the event which he holds the world record in.
“I figured, why not give it a shot? Phelps said. “Like I said before, I’m probably not in the best shape I want to be to swim that race. We’ll see if we can make worlds. And if we can make worlds, I’ll know what to do to put my body in shape for next summer to be able to swim the kind of times and level I want to swim.”
Phelps is swimming four individual events—200 butterfly, 400 IM, 100 butterfly and 200 IM. Thursday will be the 400 IM, a showdown against American teammate and friendly rival Ryan Lochte, who is swimming five events and two relays, which may be a precursor of his 2012 Olympic schedule.
Lochte knocked off Phelps in the 200 IM and 200 backstroke at the recent national meet. The pair will face off in both the 400 and 200 IMs.
“I love racing, it doesn’t matter what events I do,” Lochte said. “I want to do as many as possible. Getting up on the blocks and racing someone is why I love swimming and why I am doing it.
“I am going in every race thinking I can win. I am stronger in the water and more focused than ever and I am actually listening to my coaches now which is starting to help out.”
The five-day meet will be webcast on SwimNetwork starting at 1 p.m. EST for prelims and 9 p.m. EST for finals and will also be shown on UniversalSports.com.
Sharon Robb can be reached at email@example.com.