Kyle Chalmers, Ariarne Titmus, Caeleb Dressel & Simone Manuel — Photos Courtesy: Delly Carr & Peter H. Bick

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By David Rieder.

For two years, American swimmers could do no wrong at international meets. The 2016 Olympics and 2017 World Championships each produced record medal hauls for the team in stars and stripes, and each was headlined by signature performances: Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky in 2016, Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel a year later.

But peel back the short-term memory and recall Kazan, specifically the 2015 World Championships where American swimmers won only eight gold medals, just one more than rival Australia, and a surprisingly-low 23 total medals. Not terrible, but still subpar given the high expectations American teams usually match.

This 2018 Pan Pacific Championships feels more like Kazan than Rio or Budapest. This week in Tokyo, American swimmers aren’t winning the close races. Veterans are swimming nowhere close to their best times. And after winning seven of eight relays at the World Championships in 2017, the U.S. has one gold in three tries this time—and it took a fantastic closing burst from Townley Haas to get that gold medal.

On the flip side, there’s Australia, seemingly always the runner-up in medal count. The proud Aussies have slogged through two poor Olympics in a row, winning only one gold medal in 2012 and then, when a double-digit gold tally was projected in Rio, only three in 2016.

Over the past two days in Tokyo, Australia has shown heart and pride in capturing four gold medals. Yes, the U.S. has already won eight golds, but each of Australia’s four has come in an event where an American swimmer or team won the World title last year—and in three of the four, wins came at the expense of heavy American favorites.

The first victory was a three-second thrashing in the mixed 4×100 medley relay Thursday. On Friday, Cate Campbell and Kyle Chalmers earned twin triumphs in the 100 free before a stunning upset in the women’s 4×200 free relay.

In the women’s 100 free, Campbell took down reigning World and Olympic champion Simone Manuel of the United States. She recorded the second-fastest time in history (52.03) behind Sarah Sjostrom’s world record, and the win was her first at a major international meet since a shocking sixth-place finish at the Rio Olympics—a race in which Campbell entered heavily favored.

With the win at Pan Pacs, Campbell felt that she proved a point.


Cate Campbell — Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr/Swimming Australia Ltd.

“It shows that I can stand up when it counts and perform when it counts. I can execute a good race under pressure. All those things I’ve been working on have finally come to fruition in 52 seconds,” Campbell said. “I’m really proud. I’m really proud of the person I’ve become, the athlete that I am.”

A few minutes later, Chalmers completed a sweet comeback of his own. He missed the World Championships in 2017 after heart surgery, and that was the meet where Dressel stormed to 100 free gold in 47.17, four tenths faster than Chalmers’ Olympic gold medal-winning time of 47.58.

Pan Pacs gold in 48.00 was a sweet comeback story for the Australian. Tying for silver in 48.22 left a whole lot of questions for the American.

“I would hope these times would never come, but it did, so we’ve got to learn from it,” Dressel said. “I don’t know if it’s a wake-up call as much as it is a learning experience. There’s nothing really shocking about it. We’ll just learn from that and get ready for next year.”

Then came the relays, and it’s not a stretch to say that the U.S. women should have easily taken gold in the 4×200 free. Undefeated for eight years, the question surrounding the race was whether the Ledecky-led quartet could challenge the world record.

Then Allison Schmitt led off in 1:58.62, leaving the Americans fourth out of four teams and more than three seconds behind Australia’s Ariarne Titmus (1:55.27).

Schmitt’s best time this year is 1:55.82, about a second behind Titmus’ 1:54.85. But for some reason, Schmitt fell apart after swimming even with Titmus through 125 meters.

The final difference in the relay was just 25-hundredths, but that was after Katie Ledecky hammered a 1:53.84 anchor leg. The race was never as close as the final margin indicated.

It took another heroic American anchor split for the men to avoid another Australian upset. After surprisingly poor splits from Andrew Seliskar and especially Blake Pieroni—who like Schmitt, looked great for 150 meters and then faded badly—Haas anchored in 1:43.78, the third-fastest split in history, to salvage American gold.

Yes, American swimmers have earned at least one medal in every race so far minus the men’s 100 breast, but it hasn’t always been pretty. Take the women’s 200 fly, for instance: Hali Flickinger won gold and Katie Drabot took bronze, but both swimmers were more than a second outside their times from U.S. Nationals just two weeks earlier.


Hali Flickinger — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

After the race, Flickinger admitted that the American team had been dealing with some “difficult circumstances.” Namely, the time change: The team did not arrive in Tokyo until Sunday and had no East Asian training camp before that. So in just four days, the swimmers had to adjust to an eight-hour time difference from California.

Asked how she was dealing with jet lag, Flickinger responded, “I’m just trying to stay alive.” She then added, “It’s a bit of a challenge, but Team USA is tough, and we’re going to get the job done.”

In the medal count, undoubtedly, the Americans will be fine—they will finish with more medals and more golds than anyone else. But they have shown cracks over the past two days, cracks that were easily glossed over during dominant efforts in Rio and Budapest.

And the Australians look revitalized. After a U.S. sweep of the women’s relays last year, the Aussies could win both 4×100 relays over the next two days for a sweep of their own, particularly with Campbell swimming better than she ever has. Even if the 4×100 medley is a tight USA-vs.-Australia dual, the Aussies should win the 4×100 free in a blowout.

Even the Australian men could put up a strong challenge to their American counterparts in Saturday’s 4×100 free relay, particularly after Chalmers won the 100 free and Jack Cartwright tied Dressel for silver.

All that said, it’s Pan Pacs. Should the U.S. team rebound at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, and again dominate the swimming back in Tokyo at the 2020 Olympics, Pan Pacs will be forgotten. If Australia should again struggle at the Olympics, few fans will take solace in what happened at Pan Pacs.

For the U.S., this performance is cause for concern. For Australia, it’s reason to be excited. For both, it’s not the end game.

Feel-Good Story of the Day: Katie McLaughlin’s Return to Team USA

At the 2015 World Championships, McLaughlin was a finalist in the 200 fly and swam a key leg on the U.S. women’s 4×200 free relay. Friday at Pan Pacs, she swam on that relay for the first time since Kazan. Her journey from there to Tokyo was anything but a straight line.

In January 2016, McLaughlin suffered a neck injury that derailed her freshman season at Cal and hampered her preparation for Olympic Trials. Under the circumstances, finishing eighth in the 200 free and sixth in the 200 fly was admirable. She couldn’t rebound the next year, finishing no higher than sixth in any event at Nationals and missing the A-final in the 200 free.

And then in 2018, McLaughlin struggled again at the beginning of U.S. Nationals. On day one, she missed the finals in both the 200 fly and 100 free. On day two, she missed the final in the 200 free. A pair of B-final wins was no consolation—they didn’t get her any closer to the Pan Pacs team.

But then, down to her last shot, McLaughlin finished second in the 100 fly, securing a trip to Pan Pacs. And with the chance to swim any event she wanted, the 21-year-old has put forth the best swims of her life in her freestyle events.


Katie McLaughlin — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

On day one, she crushed her best time with a 1:56.88 in the 200 free. At night, she won the B-final of the event in 1:57.34. Friday morning, she swam a 54.14 in the 100 free, another best time. And then, she got her shot to return to the 4×200 free relay, and she delivered.

The Americans did not win gold in that relay, but that was no fault of McLaughlin’s. She proved she belonged with a stellar split of 1:55.47, the second-quickest by an American. After Schmitt’s sluggish leadoff, it was McLaughlin’s third leg that put the Americans back into contention.

Ironically, since prelims times do not count towards selection for next year’s World Championships, McLaughlin has yet to secure her spot in Gwanju, but she is expected to do so in Saturday’s 100 fly. If she is on the team next summer, she can be placed on relays at the coaches’ discretion.

Back in 2015, Leah Smith, McLaughlin and Ledecky comprised the second, third and fourth, legs of the U.S. women’s 4×200 free relay. The trio swam in the same order Friday in Tokyo, with good friends Smith and McLaughlin again the inside of an Olympic gold medalist sandwich. A cool moment to see Katie McLaughlin’s rough few years come full circle.

Aquatic Stock Watch


Photo Courtesy: Scott Grant

UP – Kylie Masse

When it comes to the 100 back, all Kylie Masse does is win. She won her first World title in the event in 2017, and given two major challenges in 2018, she has taken care of both. She touched out Emily Seebohm to win the event at the Commonwealth Games in April, and now in Tokyo, she beat Seebohm and the woman who took away her world record, Kathleen Baker.

“I’m over the moon to have come out first. The time wasn’t where I wanted it to be, but I didn’t need to have a good time. I’m extremely happy with the first place,” Masse said. “To be able to have that close battle every single race, that’s awesome, and it’s definitely motivating for me day in and day out in training.”

UP – Fernando Scheffer

Who is Fernando Scheffer? Well, he’s the South American record-holder in both the 200 and 400 free. He just missed the podium in the individual 200 free at Pan Pacs, finishing fourth in 1:46.12. The next day, the 20-year-old split 1:44.87 on the second leg of Brazil’s 4×200 free relay, propelling his team into the lead at that point.

Haas split 1:43.78 on the anchor to push the U.S. team past Australia and win gold, and as it turned out, Scheffer was the only other man in the race to split under 1:45.

Impact Race of Tomorrow: Women’s 200 IM at Pan Pacific Championships

Medley races are often the most exciting in a major meet as swimmers trade off the lead as they swim their different specialty strokes. But Baker’s style is to go out as hard as she can and try not to let anyone catch her. Baker swam the world’s fastest time, 2:08.32, at U.S. Nationals two weeks ago.

The top seed in the event will be Japan’s Yui Ohashi, already the Pan Pacs champion in the 200 IM and the silver medalist at last year’s World Championships. Also entered are Melanie Margalis and Sydney Pickrem, both finalists at Worlds last year. Pickrem swallowed water and then had to quit that race after 50 meters, but she rebounded to earn a bronze in the 400 IM later in the week.

The spoiler in all of this, at least for Baker and Margalis, is Ella Eastin. After dealing with mononucleosis and barely qualifying for Pan Pacs, Eastin chose not to swim either the 400 IM or 200 fly in order to conserve herself for the 200 IM. But remember: Only two Americans can qualify for the A-final.

Swimming World Japanese correspondent Hideki Mochizuki contributed reporting.


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