The U.S. "spring nationals" is like a lost child searching for a home. It's been moving from March two years ago to February last year and then April this season.
No matter when it's on the calendar, the top swimmers don't all show up. And when the stars do compete, they're not always fully tapered or sometimes not rested at all.
"To call this meet a nationals is a joke," says University of Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek. Nonetheless, U.S. national team director Dennis Pursley feels the meet serves a purpose. "It's important to a segment of our swimming community," he says. That segment is the post-graduate swimmers. They don't have a top-quality meet to go to at this time of the year. The college competitors have their conference and NCAA meets. The high school swimmers have their state or sectional championships. "We have a smorgasboard of opportunities," explains Pursley. "For the college and high school team members, they use this meet as it serves them. Some years they use it."
But in Minneapolis, because the World Championships were held in January, even many of the leading post-graduate swimmers didn't use it. Among the post-grads who were gold medallists in individual events at Perth, no-shows were Bill Pilczuk, Kurt Grote, Jenny Thompson, and Lea Maurer. Tom Dolan competed without fully tapering. Amy Van Dyken trained through the meet and left before the 50 free final after qualifying first in 25.73. Kristy Kowal and Lenny Krayzelburg, the collegians who were world champions, skipped the meet. High schooler Brooke Bennett, the 800 titlist in Perth, was another who competed without resting and swam far off her best form.
"In my mind, there is no question we need a meet at this time of the year," Pursley states. "The two issues are: 1) should the meet be called a national championships; and 2) when should the competition be held? Maybe it should be designated a Grand Prix meet. And personally, I'd like to see it held earlier."
Skip Kenney, whose Stanford team won the men's NCAAs the preceding week, thinks you'd see a lot more college swimmers if the meet was short course. The championships was short course in non-Olympic years until 1991 and featured many college competitors.
"That the college swimmers don't come isn't necessarily a bad thing," says Pursley. "It gives the younger kids a change to shine and gain confidence. What some of the high school boys did at this meet is promising for the future of swimming in this country. If these boys are taking one step closer to the top, it's worthwhile.
"I may be wrong about this, but I think the reason the collegians are not coming is not because the meet is long course. I think it's because of the tough stretch with the conference and NCAA meets this month and missing so much class time."
Moreover, while the college swimmers would prefer this to be a short-course meet, that would not be good for them in the long run, Pursley believes.
Urbanchek agrees on this point. "The kids have got to get an idea about metres," he explains. "You have to make the transition to metres fast. This (meet) is a wakeup call."
Mecklenburg's (N.C.) Pat Hogan had favoured the long-course format. But this winter he was not able to find long-course meets to prepare for this nationals as he has in the past. He'd also like the meet earlier, giving coaches more time to prepare for the summer long course meets.
Gregg Troy, coach of the meet's team champion Bolles (Fla.) Sharks, agrees that it's tough to get ready for a long-course meet at this time. With the Junior Olympic meets the previous week being short course, coaches without two pools can't train for both at the same time.
"It would make more sense to have a nationals in December and have it short course," Troy says.
For some swimmers, it doesn't matter if they've been training long course. Four years ago, Tom Dolan came directly from the NCAAs and cracked the U.S. record in the 400 IM and won four events. Here, 15-year-old Ian Crocker of Portland, Maine, even split the 200 free to place second (1:51.57) in his first nationals despite strictly training short course.
"U.S.A. Swimming does give young people an opportunity with this meet," says Dolan. "It was great for those like myself to take advantage of it. It's good preparation for the long course season, too."
Going short course metres where there is the opportunity to set world records-which is what the rest of the world does at this time of year-is another alternative to build up the interest in these nationals. Pursley sees the growing emphasis on short course metres worldwide, with the World Cup series and individual promoters holding meets for prize money. He doesn't like its effect on the sport.
"The addition of 50-metre stroke races in the World Cup is doing to swimming what the creation of the short relay events in the NCAAs did," he says. "They have led to the decline of distance swimming."
Actually, though, Pursley has no problem with short course competition. The issue, for him, is the training."If we could train with an eye to be at our best on long course competition and then compete short course, that would be OK," he sums up.