US with plenty to prove in World Championships pool
Vulnerable, or perfectly primed to destroy the opposition -- that`s the tantalizing question surrounding the US team headed to Russia for the 2015 swimming World Championships.
Marquee names including Olympic champions Missy Franklin, Katie Ledecky, Ryan Lochte and Nathan Adrian ought to see the Americans favored for multiple gold in the meeting that will set the tone for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
But treble world record-holder Ledecky is the only American to top the 2015 world rankings in her events, with the year`s best times in the 400m, 800m and 1,500m freestyle.
USA Swimming`s decision to select the team in 2014 has allowed the Americans to train through the season without tapering for trials.
The idea is that with months of barely interrupted training behind them, they`ll be at their best when they take on the world in Kazan.
But the fiery test of the US trials also serves to bond and motivate American teams, and men`s coach Dave Durden admitted that one of his tasks will be to build that emotion and unity.
"We normally go to these championships coming off a selection meet," Durden said. "You qualify for the meet with a bit of a euphoric high and take that to the meet. We had that, but it was last year."
Instead he tried to foster the typical US swagger at a pre-meet men`s training camp in Croatia.
"We`re going to have to create a bit of an atmosphere, a little bit of a psychological edge," he said.
One weapon Durden won`t have at his disposal is 18-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps, whose comeback aimed at the Rio Games was disrupted last autumn by a drink-driving arrest.
In addition to serving a six-month ban, Phelps agreed to withdraw from the world championships team. Despite FINA`s desire to welcome the sport`s greatest star to it`s biggest event, Phelps will be swimming half the world away at the US nationals in Texas.
But the US men boast plenty of experience in Lochte, Adrian, Anthony Ervin, Tyler Clary and Matt Grevers.
The coach is confident that when it`s time to shine, his swimmers will have the speed they need.
But Franklin -- who starred in college competition early this season -- underscored the air of uncertainty after failing to win an event at the Santa Clara pro swim in June -- her only world championships tuneup.
"All my strokes felt really strong and powerful," Franklin said. "There just wasn`t a whole lot of speed there, which, I guess, is right where I want to be right now going into worlds."
For Lochte -- who has long thrived on a tough training regime -- these worlds are a chance to show he`s bounced back from a 2014 he called "probably my worst year of swimming."
Lochte injured his left knee in November of 2013 and a premature return to competition in February of 2014 set him back.
Now, he says, "I`m just becoming my normal self again."
Lochte, the three-time defending world champion in the 200m individual medley, will benefit from the absence of three-time reigning Olympic champion Phelps as well as Japan`s Kosuke Hagino -- who beat both Phelps and Lochte at the Pan Pacific Championships last year.
Lochte -- a five-time Olympic champion and who has 15 long course world championship gold medals -- said there would be plenty of new challengers ready to unseat him.
"There`s a bunch of other people out there," Lochte said. "Just because they`re not there doesn`t mean it should be a shoo-in for me."