The FINA world championships made it clear that United States swimming fans have plenty to feast on as the countdown to the 2016 Olympic Trials in Omaha is officially underway.
With some big names missing from the roster — Michael Phelps (retired, for the moment), Rebecca Soni (taking a one-year break from competition) and Allison Schmitt (didn't qualify) — the meet in Barcelona offered a chance for other U.S. swimmers to shine.
The young guns didn't shoot blanks, and the Americans missed on just a few chances to ascend the medal stand. They finished with more than twice as many as runner-up Australia (29 to 13).
No two other countries combined came within seven of the total won by U.S. swimmers. Americans won 13 gold medals to go with eight silver and eight bronze.
As anticipated two weeks ago, the name Katie Ledecky has become much more familiar to a whole lot of people. The 16-year-old from Bethesda, Md., was named the female swimmer of the meet after winning four gold medals and setting three American and two world records.
The world records came in the 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle races. Ledecky shaved more than six seconds off the 1,500 record, winning the non-Olympic event in 15:36.53. She lowered the 800 free world record to 8:13.86.
Ledecky nearly got a third world record in the 400 free with a 3:59.82, just 0.67 seconds off the record set by Federica Pellegrini of Italy in 2009 at the end of the scoot-suit era. No one was within 2.5 seconds of Ledecky, who removed Schmitt's 4:01.77 from the American record list.
That was the kind of performance it took to share the spotlight with America's other teenage swimming superstar, Missy Franklin. She became the first female to win six gold medals at the world meet — three individual and all three relays.
Two women — Tracy Caulkins in 1978 and Libby Trickett in 2007 — had won five golds, and Kristin Otto of East Germany won six at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Men who have won at least six golds at the worlds or Olympics are Phelps, Mark Spitz and Ian Thorpe of Australia.
Ryan Lochte led the U.S. men with gold medals in the 200 individual medley and 200 backstroke. The burgeoning multimedia star won another gold medal on the U.S. 800 freestyle relay team and would have had a fourth if not for the false start by a teammate in the 400 medley relay.
Several new names emerged from the Barcelona worlds as potential candidates for berths on the Rio Olympics team. For these athletes, a trip to Brazil via Omaha has become more than just a stare-at-the-ceiling dream.
» Megan Romano: After leading the University of Georgia to the NCAA team title this year, she established herself as America's premier relay anchor swimmer. The U.S. trailed Australia by almost a second in the 400 free relay until Romano swam her 100 meters in 52.60 to move the U.S. into first. She also anchored the gold-medal 400 medley relay team and is a budding backstroke swimmer.
» Shannon Vreeland: The swimmer from Overland Park, Kan., another leader on the Georgia national title team, won two relay gold medals, including one with Romano in the 400 relay. She also was a member of the 800 free relay team, the event in which she won a gold medal for the U.S. at the London Olympics.
» Eugene Godsoe: The former Stanford swimmer finished second in the 50 fly in Barcelona and is one of the leading candidates to contend for a spot in Rio in the 100 fly if Phelps indeed remains retired.
» Michael McBroom: This Texas Longhorn won a silver medal in the non-Olympic 800 freestyle, less than 2.5 seconds behind the male swimmer of the meet, China's Sun Yang. McBroom was fifth in the 1,500, one spot behind fellow American Connor Jaeger.
The next big international competition will be the 2014 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Australia. The next FINA world meet is in 2015 in Kazan, Russia.
About those four words in parentheses behind the name Michael Phelps in the second paragraph. Phelps cracked the door open to a potential return in 2016 in comments made in Barcelona early in the meet.
Whether he's being coy or seriously considering returning for a few events — the two butterfly races would be the best bets — it's difficult for someone as competitive as Phelps to walk away if there's still a little smoke with a chance to reignite the flames. Until he says no — again, maybe two more times — there's a chance we'll see him at the CenturyLink Center.
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