Jack Conger finished fifth in the 200-meter backstroke at last year's Olympic Trials. He was joined by Ryan Murphy, 16, and Jacob Pebley, 18, in the finals heat as the only three teenagers — rare in the top tier of men's swimming that has recently been dominated by post-collegiate professional swimmers. The finals appearance was expected by his coach Sue Chen, but many in the swimming world had to double check their meet programs to see such elite times from teenagers alongside future Olympic medalists Tyler Clary (gold) and Ryan Lochte (silver).
A year can make a world of difference. Conger — who recently moved with his coach Sue Chen to Machine Aquatics — finds himself in an entirely different position entering tonight's championship final. He isn't a wide-eyed kid in his first major national final. His prelim swim of 1:57.51 ranks the 18-year-old ninth in the world in the event and is the second fastest time by an American this year — behind only Tyler Clary's prelim swim at this meet.
Seeded third behind Conger is his age group rival Murphy (Bolles School), followed by Pebley and Lochte. Lochte is a phenomenal finals swimmer who tends to cruise in prelim swims. Plus it is not likely Lochte has forgotten his finals loss to Clary in this event in London. Tonight could be a statement swim for the 11-time Olympic medalist that, at 28 years old, he isn't ready to turn things over to the new guard.
Still, the rivalry between Murphy and Conger is the intrigue in this event. The two have traded national age group records in the backstroke events for years, and both have their sites set on five-time Olympic champion Aaron Peirsol's 17-18 NAG record in the event set in 2002. Conger currently owns the NAG record in the 100 backstroke in both long course meters and short course yards. Murphy has the SCY record in the 200 back.
Making the finals was the goal a year ago for both age group swimmers. Tonight, finishing outside of the top two would be a missed opportunity for Conger and Murphy who have never made competed at a major international event beyond the junior level — experience that is highly valued as the sport's rising stars begin to set their eyes on Rio in 2016.
NCAP's Katie Ledecky and former Virginia swimmer Matt Mclean also made “A” finals. They are seeded third in the women's and men's 200 freestyle. Ledecky has already qualified for the team headed to Barcelona with a victory in her signature event, women's 800 free, in which she won Olympic gold in 2012. She is also expected to compete for a spot in the 400- and 1,500-freestyle events later in the week.
Last year, McLean fell off the pace in the 400 free at Olympic Trials and barely made the team as a relay swimmer in the 4×200 free relay. It was a disappointment that weighed heavily on the 25-year-old even as he received his gold medal in London for swimming in the prelims. Tonight, he attempts to erase last year's Trials swim by making the world championship squad in an individual event.
Both are expected to easily qualify for the 4×200 free relay by finishing in the top four.
Other area finalists: Janet Hu will swim in the “A” final in the women's 50 butterfly. She is seeded sixth. 13-year-old Cassidy Bayer made the “B” final in fifth position. Sean Fletcher and Andrew Seliskar qualified for the “B” final in the men's event as the first and third seeds. Chuck Katis will be the seventh seed in the men's 200 breaststroke in the “B” final. Carsten Vissering is the top seed in the C final. Lastly, Emily Meilus qualified last in the “C” final of the women's 200 backstroke.
Tonight's finals will be broadcast live on Universal Sports and via webcast at USASwimming.org starting at 6 pm ET.