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Cal Olympic Swim hopefuls shine in ISL, US Open, and meet vs. Stanford this past weekend
Ryan Murphy, Tom Shields, Abbey Weitzeil, Reece Whitley, Kathleen Baker, etc. all got to race last weekend. International Swimming League grand final is this Sat/Sun.
With the Tokyo Olympic games pushed to 2021, the various Cal Olympic hopefuls are still preparing for their shot at glory despite the coronavirus pandemic. Swimming has been the sport where Cal has had the most success in recent Olympics. In a typical year, current Cal student-athletes and alumni have trained side-by-side in Berkeley; that routine is obviously different for 2020.
This past weekend saw Cal Bears racing from all over the world: from Budapest, Hungary, Berkeley, and other parts of the US. While the Olympic Games and the major international swimming competitions are all using the meter-based long courses (LCM for Long Course Meters), the standard college events are raced in yard-based short courses (SCY for Short Course Yards) that are half the distance of the long courses and requires 2x more turns, a rather technical part of swimming. The Cal pros in Budapest have been racing in meter-based short courses (SCM for Short Course Meters). The Cal meets took place in SCY while the Toyota US Open from 9 satellite pools was raced in LCM. Different records exist for different courses.
Several members of the Cal Pro group are racing in the International Swimming League (ISL) Bubble, affectionately called the ISLand, in Budapest, Hungary for the past 5 weeks. This is only the second year of ISL competition with its unique team concept and scoring system. The ISL Grand Final pit the top 4 teams against each other this weekend for the team championship.
I will first give a quick recap of the ISL year 2 action before updating on the current Cal Bears from their non-scoring meets against Stanford last Saturday. The Cal Bears at US Open results will be mentioned in the end.
Cal Bears in International Swimming League (ISL) - Year 2
A total of 10 teams representing three continents compete in the ISL Year 2. They are the Italy-based Aqua Centurions, France-based Energy Standard, Hungary-based Iron, and London Roar in Europe; Cali Condors, DC Trident, LA Current, NY Breakers, and Toronto Titans in North America; and Tokyo Frog Kings representing Asia. Toronto Titans and Tokyo Frog Kings are expansion teams for the 2020 season.
Each of the 10 teams competed in 4 regular season meets in 2020. The top 8 teams advanced to the two semifinals where the top 2 teams from each semifinal advanced to the grand final this weekend. The participants for the 2020 grand finals are the same as that of 2019 - defending champ Energy Standard, London Roar, Cali Condors, and LA Current (in the order of the 2019 finish).
Each ISL meet has 4 teams, which means 2 competitors per team in each event (since the standard pool has 8 lanes). There are three types of events - individuals, relays, and skins. Points are rewarded with the most as well as possible bonuses for the winner and deprecate with the order of finish. Should a swimmer finish by a certain time margin behind the winner, their points may be “stolen” by the winner who gets the “jackpot”.
Out of the 39-40 total events, the last two of the meet are the “skins”. In the Skins races, 8 competitors have to swim in 50m races where the field will be cut from 8 swimmers to 4 swimmers to a final of just 2. There are only 90 seconds of rest between the races, adding to the excitement with a countdown clock. The most points can be earned in these two events (one for each gender).
A big part of the strategy lies in the stroke of the skin being determined by the team that wins the Medley relays for the corresponding gender. Relays scores count more than individual events and there are 5 of them in a meet: men’s 4x100 Free, women’s 4x100 Free, men’s 4x100 Medley, women’s 4x100 Medley, and mixed 4x100 Medley. By the way, that mixed gender relay will be a new addition to the Olympic Games in Tokyo next year.
Over $6 million of prize money is on the line in ISL Year 2. There is a rather complicated scoring system (MVP rating points, which I will refer to below) that will determine the share that each of the 300+ swimmers will get out of this pot.
Cal Bears who competed in ISL Year 1 but not Year 2:
Natalie Coughlin, Farida Osman, Kathleen Baker, Nathan Adrian, and Matthew Josa (who was a midseason replacement)
Cal and Olympic legend Natalie Coughlin might finally be retired from competitive swimming. Egyptian “Calympian” Farida Osman, who usually trains in Berkeley, may have had different training plans this year. Both Kathleen Baker (Crohn’s Disease) and Nathan Adrian (Testicular Cancer) have medical reasons to not enter the Budapest swimming bubble.
Outside of these Cal swimmers, a major name that opted to skip the ISL bubble in year 2 after competing in year 1 is Stanford alum Katie Ledecky. Fellow Stanford and Team USA star Simone Manuel had opted out of the ISL for the second consecutive year.
This post was originally written before Day 1 of the ISL Grand Final - Final Day 1 result will be noted below in bold. All MVP points noted do not include the final.
For the second straight season, the LA Current is the squad loaded with the most Cal Bears. Year 1 saw a total of 10 Bears on the LA Current with 6 men (Murphy, Shields, Seliskar, Adrian, Prenot, Josa) and 4 women (Baker, Bilquist, Osman, McLaughlin). That total decreased to a still sizable 6 for 2020.
Ryan Murphy dominated the backstroke in college, winning both backstroke championships (100y and 200y) for all 4 years of his Cal career. The Olympic Gold medalist for both the 100m and 200m will try to be the first men to win back-to-back 200m Gold in Olympic history. “Murph” certainly could achieve that feat as he is still one of the top backstrokers in the world.
In each meet, Ryan Murphy has the chance to win three different backstroke races - 50m, 100m, and 200m. Due to how dominant he has been, Murphy has often picked up plenty of bonus points in ISL action this year, particularly the 200m races, to earn the jackpot in many of those races from the time differential achieved. Even more pivotally, the LA Current strategy has been to win the men’s 4x100 Medley (with big help from the Cal duo of Tom Shields and Ryan Murphy) to allow Murphy to dominate the backstroke skins.
Thanks to that dominance, Murphy is currently 3rd in ISL in the MVP scoring with 292.50 points, just behind teammate Beryl Gastaldello (296) and the presumptive league MVP Caeleb Dressel (367.50) of the Cali Condors.
Not too surprisingly, almost all of the top backstrokers in ISL this year have advanced to the grand final. This weekend should have some interesting backstroke races.
Murphy got edged in 200m Back by Russian Evgeny Rylov. Murphy won 50m Back but was again edged in the leadoff leg of the 4x100 Medley relay by another Russian in Kliment Kolesnikov.
One of the major proponents for the formation of the ISL from the athlete-side was Cal alum Tom Shields. The “Calympian” has also seemingly rejuvenated his swimming career with two strong seasons in this format.
In the 2020 ISL semifinal, Tom Shields broke his own 5-year old 200m Fly SCM record, which is the 4th best time in history. Shields was the 6th MVP of the semifinal and 8th overall for the season with 217 points. In ISL 2019 season, Tom Shields was the top Cal Bears overall in production, edging teammate Ryan Murphy.
Tom Shields had the lead at 50m but finished 3rd in 100m Fly to Caeleb Dressel and Chad le Clos. Shields also had a strong fly leg in LA Current’s 2nd place finish in the 4x100 Medley Relay.
Another one of the 2016 “Calympian” is Josh Prenot. The 200m breaststroke Silver Medalist from Rio has unfortunately struggled for the past 2+ years by his lofty standard. Prenot is a top breaststroker for the Current but not in the league.
Prenot has also raced in a lot of the Individual Medley races. His 46 MVP points are only good for 162nd in ISL action right now.
Looking ahead to the 2021 US Olympic Trials, one of Prenot’s top competitor for another Olympic berth may be current Cal junior Reece Whitley (more on Reece later).
Prenot finished 7th in the 200m Breast in the ISL Grand Final.
One of the biggest “what if” from the shortened 2020 NCAA swimming season was if Abbey Weitzeil could have delivered a Cal team national championship just by dominating the relays. The 2016 US “Calympian” has essentially replaced Farida Osman as the main female sprinter for the LA Current. She has been one of the top ISL rookies this year.
Among the highlight for Weitzeil in 2020 ISL action is her setting a new 50m Free SCM American record. Her time of 51.26 is the 4th best in the world and 9th best all-time. In that same race, Weitzeil was edged by teammate Beryl Gastaldello of France. Weitzeil is 28th overall in ISL with 138 points on the season.
Looking ahead to 2021, Weitzeil and Simone Manuel are the two favorites for the sprint events a the US Olympic trials again, even though anything could happen. Weitzeil needs to continue to improve her time for a shot at an individual medal in Tokyo next summer.
Weitzeil was 3rd in the 50m Free in ISL Final, she also swam the anchor for both women’s relays for LA Current on Day 1.
The star for the 2019 NCAA winning Cal Bears, Andrew Seliskar is a versatile swimmer for the Current. Seliskar was held out of the middle two of LA’s regular-season matches possibly due to an injury.
Seliskar did race in the semifinal finishing 2nd in 200m IM and 6th in 200m Free. A year after being one of the top male swimmers in ISL action, Seli is merely 152nd in MVP points with 50 so far.
After narrowly missing out on an Olympic berth in 2016, Seliskar will be in the mix to fill the void in American swimming left in IM/Fly/Free by the retirement of Michael Phelps.
The most pleasantly surprising Cal news from ISL Final Day 1 was Seliskar winning the 200m IM with an ISL season-best time of 1:51.53.
Despite a freak neck injury in her freshman year, Katie McLaughlin eventually recovered to become a part of several NCAA winning relays for the Cal Bears. She has also got stronger in 2018 and 2019 to be a dark horse for a 2021 Olympic berth.
McLaughlin is a Fly specialist for the Current although she will also race in the 4x100 Free relays. The semifinal this past weekend was her best meet of the ISL season. She has 23.5 points to be ranked 225th in the MVP race.
McLaughlin finished 7th in 400m Free on Day 1.
LA Current outlook for the Grand Final:
The San Francisco-based Cali Condors that somehow have ZERO Cal swimmers are undefeated going into the Final. Condors are carried by ISL MVP Caeleb Dressel (Florida alum) with a lot of help from female Breaststroke powerhouse in Lily King (Indiana alum) if/when they can decide the stroke for the female skins races. Energy Standard, champion of ISL year one in 2019, are the co-favorites with the Condors for this weekend. Energy Standard is owned by the ISL founder Konstantin Grigorishin, a Russian-Ukrainian businessman and billionaire. There is some weird behind-the-scene drama as the Energy Standard GM has just quit with an angry open letter to the press concerning Grigorishin last week.
LA Current should win some events, particularly Ryan Murphy in the three backstroke events, but they will really need to exceed reasonable expectations to be in the mix for the team championship.
LA Current sits at 4th place after ISL Grand Final Day 1 with 177 points. Cali Condors are in the lead with 267 points while Energy Standard is 2nd at 239.5. Condors and Energy controls the stroke decision for skins of the women and men, respectively.
The ISL Grand Final will take place on November 21st and 22nd. Fans can catch the action for Day 1, Saturday 5-7 AM Pacific Time, and Day 2, Sunday 9-11 AM Pacific Time, on CBS Sports Network.
A year after coaxing Natalie Coughlin to join their squad, DC Trident added two Cal Bears to their roster for 2020, poaching Amy Bilquist from the LA Current and Jacob Pebley from the NY Breakers. Unfortunately for DC, they lost on a tiebreaker for 8th place and had to settle for 9th place at the end of the regular season to miss the semifinals.
Backstroker Amy Bilquist had one of the few DC Trident successes when she won 200m Back in Match 2. She finished 85th in MVP point with 87 points which were good for the top female and 2nd overall on the 2020 DC Trident team.
Bilquist was a part of that famed Cal women’s swimming recruiting class that included “Calympian” Kathleen Baker, Katie McLaughlin, and another “Calympian” in Abbey Weitzeil (who ended up deferring for a year). After a solid collegiate career, Bilquist is another dark horse at the super-competitive US Olympic trial for the two backstroke events. She will have to find a way to drop more time to make her first Olympic games.
While sprinters do have the longest career in swimming, Madison Kennedy at age 32 may no longer be a realistic contender for an Olympic berth. Nonetheless, Kennedy is one of the veteran leaders for DC Trident for the second straight season.
In the pool, Kennedy’s contribution came mostly in relays. She earned 20.5 points on the year to be placed 236th in the overall ranking.
“Calympian” Jacob Pebley was the lone Cal US Swimming male Olympian to not medal at the 2016 games (he was 5th in 200m Back). Pebley had to swim in the shadow of teammate Ryan Murphy at Cal and Team USA but got the chance to compete on a different team in ISL.
Pebley joined DC Trident from NY Breakers this offseason. His best performance was a 2nd place finish in 200m Back in Match 4. His 80.5 points were good for 94th overall in the MVP standing.
In the ideal case, Murphy and Pebley will go 1-2 in the US Olympic Trials in the backstroke events again. Pebley’s experience may help him in getting back to the Olympic games, but he will have a lot of competitions come next June (assuming the Olympic games and the Olympic Trials can take place of course).
Cal Bears vs. Stanford in non-scoring meets
Perhaps to the surprise of some Cal fans, the City of Berkeley did allow Cal men’s and women’s swimming teams to host non-scoring meets against Stanford this past Saturday in the first competitions of the 2020-21 season.
One of the headline news from this meet was a personal record for Olympic hopeful Reece Whitley in 200y Breaststroke. Whitley posted an NCAA A-time to already book a spot in next year’s championship (if that’s not again canceled).
This was a personal best for Whitley in his first race in 9 months and good for a Spieker pool record.
Other Cal men
Trenton Julian is the other Cal Bear to post an A-time, with a pool record 200y Fly swim. 5 other Cal Bears, in addition to Whitley and Julian, set Spieker pool records. Usual suspects Ryan Hoffer (50y Free), Sean Grieshop (400y IM), Daniel Carr (200y Back) are joined by newcomers in freshman Destin Lasco (100y Back) and Notre Dame graduate transfer Zach Yeadon (500y Free) in setting records.
Cal women also had a strong season-opening meet although no A-time has been met (which is usual for this early in the season). Junior Isabel Ivey had two top swims in 100y Flay and 100y Back. UK Olympic hopeful Alicia Wilson won 200y IM. Freshwomen Isabelle Stadden (200y Back) and Emily Gantriis (50y Free) as well as Australian sophomore Eloise Riley (100y Free) and fellow sophomore Rachel Klinker (200y Fly) also had strong swims in wins.
Cal Bears in 2020 Toyota US Open
An unprecedented US Open of Swimming took place this past weekend across 8 different sites. This event represented the first race for a lot of swimmers. While it is only so useful to compare swimmers in different pools, SwimSwam has the combined results across all the satellite sites.
Three “Calympians” managed to place in the top 8 overall best times in at least one event. US “Calympian” Kathleen Baker had the 3rd best 200m Back time of 2:11.38. Baker won an individual Silver in 100y Back and a relay Gold at 2016 Rio. Egypt “Calympian” Farida Osman had the 6th best 100m Free time of 55.49. Osman has a strong chance of being the first African woman to win an Olympic swimming medal.
Singapore “Calympian” Zheng Wen Quah had the 6th best 200m Fly time of 1:59.16.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, some of the foreign Cal Bears have to stay and train in their home countries. Redshirt-senior Hugo Gonzalez will race in a number of events (50m/100m/200m Breast, 100m Fly, 200m Back, and 200mIM) at the 2020 Spanish Winter Championships this upcoming weekend.
Check back on W4C for more intermittent updates on your favorite Cal swimmers!