Monday, June 13, 2016

5 more to watch for...

5 swimmers to watch





Every year, there are several swimmers who have the meets of their lives to make their first Olympic team. This summer in Omaha will most likely be no exception. 

Here are five more of the United States best swimming hopefuls to have their breakthrough meet at U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Swimming this summer. 

Jacob Pebley (large)

Jacob Pebley
With just a few weeks remaining before the start of 2016 Olympic Trials, Jacob Pebley feels he has as a better chance at making this year’s Olympic team than ever before.
Even though his best event – the 200 backstroke – is comprised of one of the deepest pools of talent in the meet, he knows under the right circumstances and with a real belief that he can succeed, he’s right there with everyone else.

“I feel that once everyone gets into Omaha, we all have the same shot at making the team as the next person,” he said. “The past doesn’t seem to apply to the Olympic Trials.

“Being more of a spectator last time, I saw amazing upsets in multiple events, but I would guess if you asked those people that we thought were underdogs they would tell you they believed they could do it.”

Four years ago in Omaha, a young, relatively inexperienced Pebley made the finals of the 200 back (finishing seventh) but went into the competition with a different mindset than he will in a few weeks.

Because he had a couple of rough weeks leading up to 2012 Trials, as he looks behind him to those days, he said he realizes his health issues were most likely psychosomatic.

“For that meet I just wanted to place as high as I could,” he said. “Looking back, I think that (feeling sick) was all stress and pressure I was putting on myself to succeed. The overall experience was up and down.

“I swam no best times and was only able to swim the semi-finals of the 100 back because Ryan Lochte scratched. As for the 200 back, I managed to make the final, but I still did not go a best time through those three rounds.”

Having completed his final season as a Cal Bear this past spring, Pebley said he knows he has taken necessary steps to improve his game since Trials four years ago.

In order to better prepare for the Olympic Trials, he and his coaches added extra long course practices while training for the short course collegiate season.

Those goals have resulted in some fantastic results in the water. Last summer, he won the 200 backstroke at the 2015 Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships.

Before that, he won gold in the 200 back and silver in the 400 medley relay at the 2015 World University Games in Korea – improving upon his bronze medals in the 100 and 200 backstrokes and 400 medley relay at 2013 WUGs.

Unlike four years ago when he saw himself as more of a spectator than competitor, this time at Olympic Trials, his view and goals are quite different.

“It would be nothing less than a dream come true (to make the Olympic team),” he said. “It’s hard to describe the feeling I get when I picture that dream as a reality and it is something I have imagined numerous times when this sport gets very tough.

“This goal has been the driving force for my career and is what makes me so passionate about the sport of swimming. To see a goal I have been holding onto for so long be accomplished would be very satisfying.

Leah Smith (large)

Leah Smith
Leah Smith has a good bit to live up to when it comes to her athletic genealogy.

Her dad, Dan, was a pole vaulter at the University of Virginia (where she is an All-American distance swimmer); older brother, Daniel, swam for Williams College (where he also played baseball); and sister, Aileen, swam all four years at Columbia University. Her younger brother, Neal, is a distance freestyler who just finished his freshman year at the U.S. Naval Academy.

On top of that, her great uncle, Bill Conn, was the World Light Heavyweight Boxing Champion, and her great-grandfather, Jimmy Smith, was an infielder on the 1919 World Series Champion Cincinnati Reds.

So with all of those athletic accomplishments, does Smith feel any extra pressure to be successful in her own sport?

Not really.

“I don’t think it causes me any stress or pressure,” she said. “I think it’s more of an inspirational feeling because all I want is to carry on the sports tradition that my family is so proud of.”

Based upon the past couple of years since she won bronze medals in the 200 and 400 freestyle events at the 2014 Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships and qualified for the 2014 Pan Pacific and 2015 FINA World Championship teams, it’s pretty clear that Smith is doing just fine representing her family and especially herself.

At Pan Pacs, her first senior international meet, she came up short of medaling in her individual events, but she swam a pivotal leg on the 800 freestyle relay to win the gold medal. At Worlds, Smith won gold swimming a leg on the 800 freestyle relay.

Smith said having once-in-a-generation competitors and teammates like Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky consistently ahead of her at the wall as well as on the podium doesn’t discourage her.

If anything, seeing their names on the list at meets gives her additional incentive to push herself and strive for even more.

And she knows she’ll see both at Olympic Trials in a few weeks. Based upon her wins (200 and 400 freestyle events) last weekend at the Arena Pro Swim Series meet in Indianapolis, she knows she’s more than prepared.

“It definitely motivates me (competing in the same events as Franklin and Ledecky) because they are constantly raising the bar,” she said. “I love racing them, though, because there is always someone fast to chase and people to learn from.

“Being able to learn from the best swimmers in the world and racing swimmers from the fastest swimming countries in the world – especially my own teammates – was such a valuable experience.”

And she anticipates things will be much different for her at Trials this time around.
“There was so much excitement surrounding Trials that I think the pressure really got to me,” Smith said. “I didn’t get any best times and I was really disappointed, but I came out of the meet with a new perspective on swimming.

“Though I have had ups and downs, all of my coaches have taught me to never lose sight of my overall goals, and to never compromise my attitude in swimming for something that is temporary. There is always someone who is better than you or is working to be better than you, and you always have a chance to change the outcome of your season with hard work and dedication.”

Zane Grothe (large)

Zane Grothe
In order to elevate his swim game to a new level in March 2015, Zane Grothe made a couple significant changes.

At the 2015 Phillips 66 National Championships this past summer, he reaped the benefits of those changes – winning his first National title in the 400 freestyle and making his second U.S National team in both the 200 and 400 freestyles.

He also served notice to his fellow U.S. competitors that he’ll be a factor next summer at Trials – and if he continues progressing as he did this year, the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. 

“First, I moved to Bloomington to train at Indiana University, and the way they train is drastically different from anything I've ever done,” said Grothe, pronounced Gro-thee 

“And I've made a slight technical adjustment to the way I train my freestyle in practice specifically. Seeing a 1 next to my name (at Nationals) was not the ultimate goal of the summer. It was to hit my goal times.”

And Grothe did just that. His winning time of 3:45.98 in the 400 would have been fast enough for him to finish 5th at World Championships – quite an accomplishment for someone who finished 16th and was almost 10 seconds slower at Nationals in 2014. 

Grothe said his times at Phillips 66 Nationals in 2014 were right on with his best, but having focused solely on going his best time in the mile at that meet, he missed re-qualifying for the National team and all international teams. 

But based on last summer’s results, Grothe admits 2015 was his breakout year on the National level after some pretty successful years at NCAAs “but nothing compared to what I had this summer.”

“I wouldn't say I've ‘arrived,’ but I do feel like I'm beginning to finally prove myself,” he said. “After my graduation in May (2014), I tapered for meets in August, December and March in 2015 and swam considerably slower than I thought possible at each met. 

“After the third meet, I seriously considered ending my career right then and there. I graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, and any job utilizing that would obviously pay off. But I ultimately decided that I was better than those performances, and that I needed to pursue the option of a new coach and a new program.”

Having competed at the last two Olympic Trials in Omaha, Grothe said he is expecting a much different experience – and much different results – next summer at his third Trials. 

“I definitely feel like I am already a strong contender for the Olympic team this year,” he said. “I am very glad that it will be in Omaha again because I will know what to expect as far as meet environment. 

“I already know that I will be walking onto that deck holding a grudge because I am ready to once and for all prove that I am one of the best and not just a good college swimmer or a has been.”

Stephanie Peacock (large)

Stephanie Peacock 
When Stephanie Peacock graduated from the University of North Carolina in 2014, she faced the question many top-level college athletes ask themselves. 

What do I do now?

After some soul-searching, Peacock decided if she wanted to give professional swimming a real go, she needed to mix things up a bit – including uprooting her life and moving cross country to train with a new coach and team.
Almost a year into this experiment, Peacock said she wishes she’d done it sooner. 

“When I was at UNC, my days and time were very structured between swimming, classes and studying; after I graduated, there was no one there telling me what to do or where to be,” she said.

“If I was going to give making the Olympic team one more shot, I had to find my own motivation, and that came with a new environment altogether.”

That new environment is Mission Viejo, Calif., where Peacock moved to train with the Nadadores and one of the top groups of post-graduate swimmer programs around. 

She left her family home near Fort Myers, Fla., in September where she was training with Swim Florida and made the 2,600-mile trek. It took her five days, but she said she knew it was the right decision right away. 

“I knew I needed a change under someone new because I was just going through the motions back home,”

Peacock said. “I had taken a few trips out here and stayed with a host family, and I knew it was the right place for me to give me the best chance of doing something at Trials this summer.

“Working with someone like Coach (Bill) Rose has renewed my love for swimming. I think this is the most I’ve ever enjoyed swimming, and I hope that shows in my swimming and my results this year.”

Regardless of what happens in Omaha this June and July, Peacock has decided it will be her final meet – her final races. 

She plans to hang up her goggles and focus on the next phase of her life, which includes returning to graduate school and preparing to be an elementary school teacher. 

Still, she said she knows when the time comes to stop swimming, it won’t be an easy transition. 

After all, she’s enjoyed a very successful career that’s included winning the bronze last summer in the 10K open water competition at World University Games as well as gold (1500 freestyle) and silver (800 free) medals at 2013 WUGs and bronze (400 free) at 2011 WUGs. 

“After 2014, I actually thought about retiring and two more years (to Olympic Trials) felt like a long ways away,” said Peacock, the 2012 NCAA Champion in the 1650 freestyle. “But something in me felt like I needed to keep going. I guess I wasn’t ready to leave yet.

“I hate to think that we’re all just racing for second place because Katie (Ledecky) is such a great swimmer, but in the case of Olympic Trials (top 2 in each individual event usually make the team), getting second behind her wouldn’t be bad at all. I’m excited to see how I swim because of all the changes I’ve made over the past several months and because I’m feeling so great about where I am with my swimming.”

Brendan McHugh (large)

Brendan McHugh
Having the same first name and swimming the same events as one of the world’s greatest swimmers to ever don a Speedo comes with both perks and challenges.

Just ask Brendan McHugh. 

Through high school and college, McHugh was often compared to former world record holder and Olympic champion Brendan Hansen not only because they have the same name but also because they swim the breaststroke events.

And while that could have been detrimental to some because of the expectations that come with those similarities, McHugh capitalized on the comparison.

“It actually became a running joke among my friends and teammates that I was the ‘other’ Brendan,” McHugh said. “I only competed against him once or twice before he retired, but I think I was in the lane next to him at (2012) Trials. He’s not only a great swimmer but he’s also a really nice guy.”

Now one of the top breaststroke sprinters in the United States, McHugh is energized and excited to differentiate himself from swimmers past and future named Brendan or otherwise. 

The past few years, he’s taken the necessary steps to make this happen. At the 2014 Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships, he edged Kevin Cordes to win the 50 breaststroke. He also made the finals of the 100 breast, finishing seventh overall.

The 50 breast win set him up to compete last summer in Kazan, Russia, as a member of the U.S. contingent at the FINA World Championships. 

And although he didn’t swim as well as he hoped (he finished 18th), the experience gave McHugh a tremendous boost in confidence as he continues to think ahead and prepare for the 2016 Olympic Trials in Omaha.

“I look at it like this, being at Worlds sets me up well if I make the Olympic team,” McHugh said. “A meet that size with that many athletes is a real eye-opener, and the opportunity to train with a bunch of other top athletes taught me a lot about the habits that make them great. 

“The opportunity to observe them was great. I always wondered what other swimmers were doing to get where they are, and everyone has their own way. It’s a special formula.”

Having competed at Worlds and been through a Trials experience before, he said he feels like he will be much better prepared in Omaha and is expecting some great things from himself. 

“If you’ve never been in an environment like that (Worlds and Trials) with so many fans and so much excitement in the air, it can overwhelm you if you let it,” he said. “I feel so much more prepared now. I have definitely learned how to walk out on deck for my events and not get lost in the crowd and the moment.”

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