OMAHA, Neb. – The Tik Tok generation is going to Tokyo. I could see the youth movement in American swimming, but not to this point, and now it presents a tremendous challenge for the leaders of the US Olympic swimming team.
Coach Greg Meehan leads a delegation of American women that includes a whopping 10 teens among the 26 spots on the list: one 15-year-old, two 16-year-old, one 17-year-old from Alaska, two 18-year-old, and four 19-year-old. of those 10 have never gone to college. Some have never left the country, been on the American international team, or been on a big swim trip without their parents. Forgive Meehan if you occasionally feel like you are running a daycare and not a swim team going to the other side of the world on a high-risk business trip amidst adverse lockdown conditions.
These teens (and their older teammates) will leave the contiguous 48 states for a training camp in Hawaii next week. From there, it goes to Japan. It can be a long and lonely routine, and that is in a non-pandemic situation. They will be away from their families for more than a month, and foreign fans will not be able to attend the Games. FaceTime could be the life saver.
“It’s a really young team,” observed Katie Ledecky, the 24-year-old star now heading to her third Olympics. “So I hope that we older swimmers can teach them the ropes and create that family atmosphere.”
Ledecky said that at a news conference Saturday night while sharing the stage with Katie Grimes, 15, who finished second in the 800m freestyle. If anything illustrated the sudden arrival of the next generation of American swimmers, it was hearing Grimes’s endearing attempt to process her Olympic spot alongside the greatest freestyler ever.
“I used to think it was cool that we had the same name,” Grimes said. “Now we are going to be together in the team. … I don’t know, I’m just … I’m speechless right now. I can’t even begin to explain how excited I am. Oh God yeah. “
This is another side effect of the pandemic on American sports life: lengthening the window between the Olympics to five years killed some dreams and brought others to life. Most of these 10 teens would not have made Team USA in 2020; they just weren’t ready yet. With one more year to grow and mature, they seized the moment.
In 2019, the last time there was a full season of competition, Bella Sims did not rank in the American top 100 in the 200 freestyle. Today, the 16-year-old is going to Tokyo as a relay swimmer at that event. Lydia Jacoby was the 17th fastest American in the 100 strokes two years ago. Today, she is the first swimmer from Alaska to make the Olympics, finishing second in that event behind Lilly King.
There’s Grimes, now 21 seconds faster in the 800 freestyle than in 2019, crashing an event he couldn’t have dreamed of doing in 2020. And there’s 18-year-old back Phoebe Bacon, who worked to branch out from 100v200 and outperformed World record holder Regan Smith for second place in the longest event on Saturday night.
“I don’t know where I would have placed myself a year ago,” Bacon said. “I would say that this year it definitely helped.”
And then there are the ones that hurt. The youth movement was, in some cases, created by the vulnerability of older Olympians trying to maintain their position during the extra year. Kelsi Dahlia, 26, entered the team in 2016 in the 100 butterflies, but finished behind 18-year-old Torri Huske and 16-year-old Claire Curzan this year. Melanie Margalis, 29, was seeded in the 400 individual medley, but gave way to Emma Weyant, 19, in the final meters, and then missed the 200 IM who swam in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. 26-year-old Leah Smith (and for many years from Robin to Ledecky’s Batman in remote freestyle), could have overshot her schedule at this encounter and couldn’t keep up with some of the youngsters. Olivia Smoliga, 26, struggled for a spot in freestyle relay but was unable to beat a younger competition in individual backstroke events.
There were other American women after college who were brutally left out: Madison Cox, 26, had the best time in the world in the 200 IMs who entered this match and then finished third in the event, losing to Tokyo by .02 seconds. Kathleen Baker, 24, an Olympian from Rio, suffered a broken foot in early May and tried to hold out, but was swept away by the younger competition on her back and 200 MI.
Meehan and the American staff will be enormously grateful to have Allison Schmitt, 31, on the Olympic team for the fourth time. His leadership presence was valuable in Rio de Janeiro five years ago, and it will be even more important in Tokyo given the inexperience on the list. Entering the strangest of all the Olympics (endless COVID-19 protocols, strict inhibition of free time, little or no hobbies, virtually no interaction with anyone outside the Olympic Village), this could be precisely the wrong competition for a young team .
The US men’s team was much less affected by the year-long delay to the Games, but there is some of the same dynamic to be found there. Hunter Armstrong, 20, was virtually anonymous until this spring. After finishing 13th in the NCAA championships for Ohio State in the 100 backstroke in March, he finished second in the Olympic Trials, beating NCAA champion Shaine Casas to score his ticket to Tokyo. Also among those defeated in that 100-runner final was 36-year-old Matt Grevers, attempting his third Olympic bid.
Florida freestylers Kieran Smith and Bobby Finke, both 21, might have been ready to appear in 2020. They definitely they were ready in ’21. That came at the expense of 29-year-old Zane Grothe, who was one of the linchpins of American distance freestyle in 2018-19. He didn’t even make the final at Omaha in the 400s and 800s.
The biggest blow to the men’s team was the loss of 32-year-old Nathan Adrian, who lost his usual spot as a relay star after finishing 13th in the 100 freestyle semifinals. The three-time Olympian missed the team Sunday night, finishing third in the 50 freestyle. That will leave a great gulf of leadership for American men to bridge.
Women’s swimming is especially capricious, prone to youngsters appearing on the scene and having a short lifespan. At the 2008 Olympic Trials, 19-year-old Katie Hoff was the female star; she did not form a later Olympic team. In 2012, Missy Franklin was a 17-year-old phenomenon; by ’16 he barely joined the team. For whatever reason, it’s harder to stay on top for a long period on the women’s side.
Even Ledecky, now in his ninth year of mastering distance, is chasing his 19-year-old self – his times at these Olympics are slower across the board compared to what he posted here in 2016. Ariarne Titmus, Australian twenty years. she will be the favorite to beat Ledecky in the shortest two of her four individual races.
But unlike many of his new teammates, Ledecky knows his way around the Olympic block. As vital as it will be in the pool next month, it could be just as important in helping a terrifyingly young American team grow quickly.
More coverage of the Olympics:
• How the Los Angeles 84 Olympics changed everything
• The Art and Science of Full Body Swimmers
• Sha’Carri Richardson Cruises to Win Women’s 100-Meter Olympic Trials Title
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.