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An Olympics in 2021 gives teenage swimmers one more year to surface

Phoebe Bacon

POTOMAC, MARYLAND - APRIL 28: Olympic hopeful and USA Swimming National Team member Phoebe Bacon trains amid the coronavirus pandemic at a family friend’s covered, 15-meter pool on April 28, 2020 in Potomac, Maryland. Bacon, a high school senior and PanAmerican gold medalist, qualified for the U.S. Olympic swimming trials and is using the small-sized pool to continue to train in the water after COVID-19 closed pools. The U.S. trials and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics have been postponed due the coronavirus, but that hasn’t deterred athletes like Bacon from finding non-traditional ways of training. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

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U.S. swimming can boast a history of teenagers ruling the Olympic pool. At this week’s U.S. Open, a host of women born in the 2000s can take strokes toward becoming next in line.

Nine women who will still be teenagers next summer are ranked in the top five in the nation in an individual event since the start of 2019. Seven of them are entered in the U.S. Open, the biggest domestic meet in eight months (TV schedule here).

The meet, originally scheduled for Atlanta in December, was split into nine different sites for travel safety precautions amid the coronavirus pandemic. Results will be combined from all nine pools and have no bearing on Olympic team selection.

Top pros racing in the International Swimming League in Budapest (in smaller, 25-meter pools, making their times incomparable) will be absent.

So the stage is set for up-and-comers to show they are contenders to make the Olympic team at June’s trials, where the top two per individual event earn tickets to Tokyo.

Back in Rio, then-19-year-old Katie Ledecky extended the U.S. teenage tradition -- from Don Schollander (1964) to Janet Evans (1988) to Michael Phelps (2004) and Missy Franklin (2012), to name a few.

The amount of teens on U.S. Olympic swim teams has dropped, with top performers now earning enough money to make it a profession into their 30s. But, especially on the women’s side, recent history argues that at least one U.S. swimmer born in 2001 or later will make a splash in an Olympic debut next year.

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gave a batch of high schoolers added motivation: 364 more days to ascend the rankings, while veterans fight to stay on top.

“The older swimmers aren’t getting any younger. They’re not getting any faster. They’re not getting any stronger. They’re kind of just holding on,” said Elizabeth Beisel, who swam at the 2008 Beijing Olympics at age 15, retired at 25 and will call the U.S. Open on NBC Sports this weekend. “Whereas the younger swimmers, they have nothing to lose. They’re only getting stronger. They’re only getting faster.”

MORE: Beisel on U.S. Open, Regan Smith’s future

The headliner of the 2000s generation is Regan Smith, an 18-year-old who broke the 100m and 200m backstroke world records in 2019.

“Suddenly, I’m not going to be the youngest anymore,” Smith, a Minnesotan who deferred matriculating at Stanford by one year after the Olympics were postponed, told On Her Turf.

While Smith was already favored to make the Tokyo team, other teens bid to supplant swimmers in their 20s.

Some hope to mimic Ledecky, who went from ranked 14th in the U.S. in the 800m free in 2011 to a 15-year-old Olympic champion in 2012. And Lilly King, who was fourth in the U.S. in the 100m breaststroke in 2015, then won the Rio Olympic title at age 19.

Phoebe Bacon, set to race Smith in Des Moines this weekend, is a candidate for obvious reasons.

The 18-year-old from the same Maryland high school as Ledecky is ranked third in the U.S. in the 100m backstroke since the start of 2019. The only faster Americans are Smith, the world-record holder, and Olivia Smoliga, the 2019 World bronze medalist.

Bacon chose not to delay her NCAA career. She’s a freshman at Wisconsin, where Ledecky’s youth coach Yuri Suguiyama is the head coach.

Torri Huske, a 17-year-old ranked fourth in the 100m butterfly, is committed to head to Stanford, where Ledecky trains, after the Tokyo Olympics.

“This year is kind of like a blessing in disguise,” Huske, who races in Richmond this week, said on the SwimSwam podcast. “Corona is obviously not something I would have wished for, but I’m trying to look on the bright side of things as much as possible. I think it will help me.”

Alex Walsh, 19, and Gretchen Walsh, 17, could become the third set of sisters to make the same U.S. Olympic swim team, and the second to do it in the pool after Dana Kirk and Tara Kirk in 2004.

Before Alex moved to start her freshman year at the University of Virginia, the sisters signed up for a 90-day free Peloton trial for weight training while their pool and gym were closed in Tennessee. Now, Alex benefits from being a five-minute walk from her university pool and swimming 20 hours a week, more than ever before.

“We’re fortunate enough because we are younger, our muscles are still able to get stronger,” said Alex, who is ranked third in the 200m individual medley and fifth in the 200m back and is racing in Richmond this weekend. “The good news is we still have time to get a lot better. It has been a benefit for us to have that extra year.”

Gretchen, committed to Virginia after she graduates in 2021, was the youngest swimmer at the 2016 Olympic Trials at age 13. She is ranked fourth in the 50m freestyle and fifth in the 100m free, where the top six are in line to go to Tokyo for the relay.

She is “pretty tapered” for the U.S. Open, where she’s entered in both sprint frees and the 100m back in Huntsville, Ala., and believes she could lower a personal best. After digesting the Olympic postponement, she said being as young as she is was a “saving grace.”

Before the pandemic, Gretchen hoped to drop her 100m free personal best from 53.74 into the low 53s at the Olympic Trials in 2020. Going even faster is more realistic with an Olympic Trials in 2021.

“I definitely want to use that to my advantage because I think I’m still in a period where I can drop time,” she said. “Honestly, I don’t know what I’m going to be capable of. I think I’ve always dreamed of going a 52.”

Claire Curzan, a 16-year-old who earned four medals at last year’s junior worlds, will race the U.S. Open in Greensboro, N.C., an hour drive from her home in Cary.

Curzan already swam personal bests and national age-group records in intrasquad meets during the pandemic. She credited the six weeks off from regular training when her pool was closed.

“To take a step back, focus on me and not really worry about swimming that much, competitively and times and all that stuff, I think it was great for my mental health,” said Curzan, who swam tethered in a wetsuit in an unheated backyard pool for a few weeks in the spring. “When I actually got back into training, it just made me appreciate it so much more. I was so much more thankful for how lucky I was with my pool and all my amazing teammates to train with. It made me want to work that much harder.”

NBC Sports’ Alex Azzi contributed to this report.

MORE: Olympic delay gives Regan Smith a chance to be a kid again

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