Earlier this week, swimmer Missy Franklin compared the U.S. National Championships to a hypothetical event in which LeBron James is playing games with a bunch of high school players.
Olympians like Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Katie Ledecky compete on the same blocks as unknown high school and college swimmers, sometimes even in the same heats. Every race happens in the same pool, and everyone gets treated the same.
This allows for moments like Friday’s, when Cal swimmer Tom Shields won the 100-meter butterfly, beating out Phelps by a fingertip. After the race, Shields said, “I was so stoked to be racing in between Ryan and Michael. I grew up watching those guys. I worshiped them.”
It also allows for swimmers who are in completely different stages of their careers to compete side by side. Enter Natalie Coughlin and Simone Manuel.
Coughlin has 12 Olympic medals, tying her with fellow swimmers Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres as the most decorated American female Olympians. The Vallejo native, who will turn 32 on Aug. 23, is entrenched in her third decade of international swimming and has competed in three Olympics. Though some assumed she would retire after the London Games in 2012, she’s still hoping to be in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
The 18-year-old Manuel is starting at Stanford in September and has never been to an Olympics. She’s one of the best young sprinters in the country, and just qualified for her first Pan Pacific Games later this month by finishing second in Wednesday’s 100-meter freestyle. In that same event, four lanes away, Coughlin finished seventh.
On Sunday, the two will be competing against each other in the 50-meter freestyle, as long as both qualify for the final.
For Coughlin, focusing on sprints is a recent development. When she was younger, she could manage competing in five or six events in a single meet, and could do well in the sprint events without focusing on them.
After failing to qualify for the U.S. team in an individual event in London, Coughlin adjusted her focus. Sprints have become the focal point instead of the afterthought. She trains with Nathan Adrian and Anthony Ervin, two of the best male sprinters in the world, and estimates this is the strongest she’s ever been.
At nationals, Coughlin is competing in only the 100 and 50 freestyles, both sprints. After a disappointing finish the 100, the 50 is her last chance to qualify for the Pan Pacifics. It doesn’t affect her chances of making it to Rio, but it’s a good indicator of her chances.
Because of this, her mind-set has changed over the years.
“I love doing this, and I don’t think you necessarily love it as much when you’re younger,” Coughlin said. “When you’re a little younger you take it for granted, when a lot of times, especially in college swimming, you feel like you have to do it, whether it’s because of the scholarship or because you’ve always done it. No one is making me do this. I love doing this. . . . It’s just a different perspective that naturally comes with age, that comes from having done this for so long.”
For Manuel, the shorter sprints are her specialty. She won a gold medal at the 2012 junior Pan Pacifics in the 100 free, and is a heavy favorite to finish in the top three in the 50 free Sunday.
The world record in the 50 free is 23.73 seconds. It’s a race that seems to be over almost as soon as it starts, one that requires pure strength without mistakes. One sub-optimal stroke can be the difference.
“It’s tough trying to make everything perfect in a race,” Manuel said. “I guess that’s what I love about it, because you have to be very meticulous and pay attention to detail. Every time I swim a sprint, it’s not perfect, which is good because you feel like you can always get better.”
On Sunday, Coughlin and Manuel will line up on the blocks for a race that will be done in under 30 seconds. They’re at different points in their careers, but they’re still swimming to the same place.
In the race after Ledecky set a world record in the women’s 400-meter freestyle, Michael McBroom won the men’s 400. . . . In the 100-meter breaststroke, Cody Miller won the men’s final, and Jessica Hardy and Micah Lawrence tied for first place on the women’s side. . . . In the last individual event of the night, Franklin won the women’s 100-meter backstroke, her third victory of the meet, with the third-fastest time in the world this year. Matt Grevers won the men’s final, beating Michael Phelps by more than a second. Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, finished sixth.
Follow Everett Cook on Twitter @everettcook