Current and future Olympians underwent a pivotal final tuneup in Austin, Texas over the weekend. Many of the nation's elite male and female competitive swimmers converged on the college town for the Longhorn Aquatics Elite Invite, held June 1-3 at the University of Texas.
Michael Phelps joined a portion of the anticipated Team USA roster at the Jamail Texas Swim Center. Missy Franklin, a 17-year-old sensation surrounded by high expectations, was also in attendance.
It was a big weekend for Olympic swimmers, as the events in Austin and the Santa Clara Grand Prix in California, represented the final time that most of them will race competitively until the U.S. Olympic Team Trials take place later this month. The final roster for the 2012 Games in London will be settled during those trials, held June 25-July 2 in Omaha, Nebraska
As these world-class athletes prepare to taper off their training regiments in preparation for the final hurdle before Olympic competition, the Austin Elite presented an opportunity for swimmers to make a statement about their current physical condition. It also gives us a chance to analyze a few key performances and project who's in prime position to make a legitimate impact at the 2012 Games.
From Phelps' continued excellence to a few surprises, the weekend gave us a glimpse of what may lie ahead in London. Let's dive right into it, shall we?
After winning an Olympic-record eight gold medals in the 2008 Summer Games, all eyes are on Michael Phelps. The 26-year-old is preparing for his fourth—and likely final—Olympic appearance.
If his latest performance in Austin is any indication, he'll head into early retirement with a few more items for his expansive trophy case.
Phelps established a new pool record in the 200-meter butterfly on Sunday and also took top honors in the 100-fly and 400-individual medley. His finishing time of 1:54.79 in the 200 narrowly broke a record that had stood for over a decade.
Amazingly, it was Phelps' own record. In 2001, he swam for a 1:54.92 as a 15-year-old.
At the time, it was a landmark moment for Phelps, adding to his quickly growing reputation as the sports' next big thing. He became the youngest Olympic swimmer to represent America in 68 years a year earlier, when he qualified for the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia.
Today, things are much different in the world of Mr. Phelps. His 14 Olympic gold medals are unmatched and his marketability is through the roof, evidenced by a growing number of appearances in various advertisements (the guy loves his Subway sandwiches).
Phelps has little left to prove in the pool and he plans on leaving the competitive swimming scene for good after this summer. However, his pride and dedication seem to have driven him to stay in peak shape and end this incredible Olympic run on a high note.
Following his dominance in Austin, the world will be watching every one of Phelps' Olympic races closely once again. Judging by the weekend's developments, his legendary career could be capped by a memorable and successful final chapter.
Missy Franklin is a phenom. She may be the future of the United States women's swimming program.
But at the moment, she's a 17-year-old girl trying to prepare for her first foray into Olympic Games competition. Franklin continued to progress toward that highly anticipated Olympic debut with a solid performance in Austin.
"Missy the Missile" surged past the competition to claim first place in the 200 backstroke. Her time of 2:08.74 wasn't her best of the year, but it's still rather impressive considering the increased workload that Franklin has taken on during her quest to fulfill lofty expectations.
The Colorado resident's resume speaks for itself.
Franklin earned five medals, including three gold, at the 2011 FINA World Championships. That performance, combined with five additional medals at the Minneapolis Grand Prix, put her on the map as one of this Olympics' official up-and-comers.
Count her among America's top candidates for "breakout star" during the 2012 Games. Although she may not be surrounded by the same frenzy as Team USA soccer standout and fellow Olympic first-timer Alex Morgan, you'll hear plenty about Franklin leading up to her races this summer.
Of course, with great promise comes the risk of a major letdown. Franklin wouldn't be the first heralded Olympic newcomer to fall flat if she does in fact struggle in London.
Speculation aside, her victory in Austin is a positive sign that she's ready for prime time.
Franklin may have been the biggest draw aside from Michael Phelps when it came to intrigue in Austin, but it was Allison Schmitt who ultimately emerged as the star of the women's ranks.
The 21-year-old Pittsburgh native shattered the United States Open record in the 200 freestyle. Schmitt's time of 1:55.04 is the second-fastest finish in the event recorded in the world this year.
That blistering time kept her ahead of Franklin, who finished in second place with a time of 1:57.91.
Schmitt is no stranger to big races.
A star at the University of Georgia, she was a four-time national college champion. She also earned a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Yet, Schmitt may be one of the more overlooked members on Team USA. Her performance at the Austin Elite should remind people that she has matured quite a bit since her last Olympics appearance, when she was merely a 17-year-old high school student.
While reading over an interview with USA Swimming, it becomes apparent that she knows London presents an important opportunity for her to emerge as one of the globe's elite competitors.
"I don’t know how much longer I’ll swim," she said in the discussion. "Maybe to the next Olympics (2016), maybe not; it depends on a lot of things. This is my best shot right now. I am focused on it completely and will not have any regrets."
Brendan Hansen's swimming career was supposed to be done after the 2008 Games in Beijing. Following an inspired performance at the 2004 Games in Athens (he earned a silver medal in the 100 breaststroke and bronze in the 200 breaststroke), he struggled in China and departed the sport for nearly three years.
Although he won a gold medal as a member of the United States 4x400 relay team, Hansen told USA Today that his mentality simply wasn't where it needed to be in 2008.
"It wasn't so much the drive that I was missing (in '08)," Hansen said. "You swim for so long and you put a lot of the rest of your life on hold. I just felt there were a lot of things on the backburners that I really had never gotten to. That kind of weighed me down a little bit when I was swimming."
Four years later, Hansen has recharged his batteries and is ready for another Olympic run. He continued to shake off the rust at the Austin Elite, where Hansen won Sunday's 100 backstroke in 1:01.16.
He is a former University of Texas swimmer.
Hansen kicked off his comeback journey with victories in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke at the 2011 national championships. Sunday's race shows that the 30-year-old Pennsylvanian has his swagger back and is ready for a redemption tour in London.
Jimmy Feigen has accomplished quite a lot on the University of Texas campus. The 22-year-old spent the past four years starring as a member of the Longhorns swim team and has been a mainstay of the program since he arrived on campus as a heavily-recruited and highly-touted freshman.
Yet even after all the wins he's racked up in his home pool at the Jamail Texas Swimming Center, it's hard to imagine any could have been much sweeter than the victory he earned on Friday evening.
The Hawaii-born Feigen shocked onlookers by beating out Michael Phelps in the final moments of the 100 freestyle. As hard as it may have been to believe, the numbers didn't lie.
Feigen finished in 48.63. Phelps touched the wall at 49.05.
“It is a good confidence booster because Phelps is one of the best in the world,” Feigen told texassports.com after the victory. “Just to swim next to him is an honor, much less to pull out a win. It is a humbling, awesome experience.”
He gained momentum with a silver medal in the 50 freestyle at the 2011 National Championships. Now that he's bested Phelps, it makes you wonder what else this kid has up his sleeve.
Though Feigen still has to be considered a bit of a long shot to make the final United States Olympic team, his efforts have at least thrust him onto the squad's radar more than ever before. It also provided a Longhorn alum and his home crowd with a moment they'll cherish forever.