By Sharon Robb
April 24, 2014
Three-time Jamaican Olympian Alia Atkinson of South Florida Aquatic Club blew past the women’s field to break her own national record and win gold on opening night of the Arena Grand Prix Thursday at Skyline Aquatic Center in Mesa, Arizona.
Atkinson, 25, making her meet debut for Speedo, won the 200-meter breaststroke by a body length in a lifetime-best 2:25.52, breaking her own Jamaican national record of 2:28.77. She picked up $500 for first place.
It was a near-perfect swim as Atkinson attacked the race going out fast from the opening 50 meters with a 33.57 split. She led at the 100 at 1:11.07 and by the third 50 meters was ahead by a body length in 1:48.08.
The talented field included Micah Lawrence of SwimMAC, Breeja Larson of Texas A&M, competing in her home pool, and Caitlin Leverenz of California Aquatics.
“I am very happy with my race,” Atkinson said. “In college (Texas A&M) I focused on the 100 and now I am gradually getting back into the 200. I definitely had to focus on my own race.
“I am getting ready for this summer’s Commonwealth Games in Scotland,” Atkinson said. “I only have half the world to worry about.”
In morning prelims, Atkinson finished second in her heat in 2:31.86 with the fourth fastest time overall.
Atkinson also showed her versatility with a ninth place seeding in the 100-meter butterfly prelims in a best time 1:01.38 as top qualifier in the “B” final. She came back and won the “B” final in another best time 1:00.87, bettering her Jamaican national record twice. Her previous best was 1:02.52.
“Two personal bests in one night is a great job,” said her longtime SOFLO coach Chris Anderson. “I know it’s been a long time for her 200 to click. She is really understanding the patience in the race. That was a world-class breaststroke. I am very excited about the swim. She is starting to emerge as the best 50, 100 and 200 breaststroke swimmer in the world. It is coming.”
On Friday Atkinson will swim the 50- and 200-meter freestyles and end the meet on Saturday with the 100 breaststroke and 100 backstroke.
In his first race since the 2012 Olympics, Michael Phelps of North Baltimore Aquatic Club posted the fastest 100-meter butterfly time in 52.84 during morning prelims. Despite the time away from the pool, the winningest Olympian of all-time hit his stroke count, underwater kick and distance. He earned the top seed over Ryan Lochte, who came back in finals to finish first in 51.93. Phelps was second in 52.13.
“I felt like a kid, I was enjoying it…I literally felt like a 10-year old kid,” Phelps said after prelims.
Another veteran swimmer in the midst of a comeback also had a good showing.
Katie Hoff, 24, of Hurricane Aquatics was ninth in the 100-meter freestyle prelims in 56.04, bettering her 56.46 seed time and came back in the 100-meter butterfly to qualify fifth in 1:00.67. Hoff finished tenth in the 100 freestyle in 56.17 and was fifth in the 100 butterfly in 1:00.95.
Also in prelims, teenager Katie Ledecky, 17, broke the FINA junior world record in the 400-meter freestyle in 4:05.27, breaking the previous mark of 4:06.30 set in 2008 by Russian Elena Sokolova. Ledecky came back at night to re-break her own record in finals winning in 4:03.84.
The fourth stop of the Arena Grand Prix Series has a star-studded field of more than 500 swimmers with 27 Olympic medalists from seven countries who have combined to win 97 medals. Nearly 50 members of the U.S. national team are also in the field.
In other championship finals:
Women’s 100-meter freestyle: On the comeback trail, Allison Schmitt, 23, of North Baltimore Aquatic Club re-established herself as a force with a victory in 54.46. “It was a great race, I was happy with it,” she said. “I tried to take it out as fast as I could.” She was second fastest qualifier in the 100 freestyle in 55.11 and sixth fastest qualifier in the 400-meter freestyle in 4:12.12. Clara Smiddy, 18, of AquaKids Sharks was second in the “C” final and 18th overall in 56.61.
Men’s 100-meter freestyle: Olympian Nathan Adrian, 25, of California Aquatics, went out quickly in 23.00 and won in 48.23. Roland Schoeman, 33, of Phoenix Swim Club was second in 49.39. Conor Dwyer was third in 49.57 and Lochte was fourth in 49.68. “Not a bad time,” Adrian said. “I am absolutely happy with a 48.2. This meet is a good time to try things. The goal this summer is always to go best times. I have been fortunate to go pretty fast. I know I have to put together a pretty good one to do that.”
Men’s 200-meter breaststroke: In an international-flavored final, Jorge Murillo Valdes, 22, of Bolles, the fourth seed, won in 2:14.81 ahead of top-seed Azad Al-Barazi, 26, of Trojan Swim Club in 2:15.43.
Women’s 400-meter freestyle: Katie Ledecky, 17, of Nation’s Capital, after finishing fourth in the 100 freestyle in 55.22, tied for the fastest time in the world winning in 4:03.84. “That felt pretty good,” she said. “The 100 got me going a little bit for my 400. My coach does a good job of mixing it up in practice.” Clearwater’s Becca Mann, 16, swimming unattached for North Baltimore, was third in 4:08.70.
Men’s 400-meter freestyle: Michael McBroom, 22, of The Woodlands won in 3:50.87 ahead of Conor Dwyer in 3:53.85. “I felt good at the 200 but the second 200 didn’t feel that good,” McBroom said. “I am just coming into the season. I am listening to my coaches more and trying to swim and race better.” Marcelo Acosta, 17, of Azura Florida Aquatics was eighth in 4:00.83.
Women’s 100-meter butterfly: Olympic gold medalist Claire Donahue, 25, of Western Kentucky, who frequently trains with Atkinson and SOFLO, won in 59.05. “This is a pretty good time for now, I am just trying to do and find everything I can to get faster,” Donahue said.
Men’s 100-meter butterfly: And the rivalry resumes. Swimming alongside each other, Daytona Beach’s Ryan Lochte, 29, of Swim MAC won in 51.93 and Phelps was second in 52.13. “At the turn I peaked over and almost started smiling at him,” Lochte said. “Why? Because you were beating me,” Phelps said with a laugh. Added Phelps, “I am my hardest critic. I know what I can do there to improve. There is nothing like being here, having fun in front of packed stands cheering us on. We don’t want to lose to each other but that’s what makes us swim faster. I think I was more calm tonight. Two races down, let’s see what happens tomorrow.” Phelps will compete in the 50-meter freestyle in the same heat as 15-year-old phenom Michael Andrew.
Women’s 400-meter freestyle relay: SwimMAC won the two-team race in 3:55.09 with Katie Meili, Becca Postoll, Alyssa Marsh and Kathryn Sauborn.
Men’s 400-meter freestyle relay: Nitro Swimming won the three-team race in 3:36.12 with Tate Jackson, Sean Grieshop, Mason Tenney and Taylor Abbott.
The Grand Prix Series offers $150,000 in total prize money, $25,000 per stop during its six-meet schedule. The top three finishers in each event earn $500 for first, $300 for second and $100 for third along with grand prix points. The top male and female point earners will win a one-year lease on a BMW.
The meet will be live-streamed at usaswimming.org at noon EST with the prelims and 8 p.m. EST with the finals. Universal Sports Network will air live coverage of the meet on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.
Friday’s events are women’s and men’s 400-meter individual medley, 200-meter freestyle, 200-meter backstroke, 50-meter freestyle and 800-meter freestyle relays.
Sharon Robb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org