INDIANAPOLIS — Even before the Americans’ world championship swimming roster was complete Saturday night, Natalie Coughlin and Bremerton’s Nathan Adrian realized things were going to be different in Barcelona.
Cullen Jones and Allison Schmitt didn’t make the team. Rebecca Soni is taking a year off. Michael Phelps retired, and some of last summer’s Olympic gold medalists who are competing, such as Ryan Lochte and Matt Grevers, are not back to world-class shape.
So the next generation of swimming stars took advantage to make a splash at last week’s U.S. national championships, changing the face of the team.
“It’s crazy talking with a lot of the other swimmers and seeing so many new faces,” said Coughlin, a three-time Olympian who will swim the 50-meter freestyle in Barcelona. “That’s great for the sport, but you miss some of your friends. I’m looking forward to seeing some new faces.”
The women will be led by two teenage stars who dominated the headlines in Indianapolis: 18-year-old Missy Franklin and 16-year-old Katie Ledecky.
In London, the enthusiastic Franklin became a breakout winner, taking home five medals, four of them gold.
Ledecky, the Americans’ top distance swimmer, has expanded her repertoire and is now positioned to improve on the one gold medal she won in London.
While neither has yet started college, each clearly is becoming a cornerstone for the Americans’ future.
Franklin qualified in four individual events — the 100 and 200 free and the 100 and 200 backstroke — by posting times that ranked among this year’s top five in the world in each event.
Ledecky’s ambitious schedule at nationals included the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 free. She qualified in all four, potentially setting up a head-to-head showdown with Franklin in the 200 free. The two also are likely to form the nucleus of multiple U.S. relay teams.
If Ledecky does compete in the four longest freestyle events at worlds, she would become the first American woman to achieve the feat. Shirley Babashoff came closest, competing in the 200, 400 and 800 in the 1975 worlds and 1976 Olympics — long before the 1,500 was added to the women’s schedule.
“I guess it’s not something I think about. I just want to come along and do the best I can in every event,” Ledecky said. “I’m really excited about being in the relay ...”
The youngsters are now beginning the traditional transformation in a post-Olympic year.
Of the 24 women on the U.S. roster, seven are teens and 15 are age 21 or younger. The list includes everyone from Franklin and Ledecky to 15-year-old open water contender Becca Mann and 16-year-old Simone Manuel, who qualified in the 50 free and 400 free relay.
Manuel came within an eyelash of beating Coughlin in the 50 free and broke the national age group record in that event twice Saturday, a mark Franklin held for two years.
The men are undergoing a similar transition.
Eleven swimmers on the men’s team won’t turn 23 until after the worlds, including five teens, and a dozen have never competed in an Olympics.
It’s a completely new look for a team that has relied on international veterans such as Brendan Hansen, Aaron Peirsol, and, of course, Phelps to pave the way over the last decade.
The 28-year-old Lochte and 24-year-old Adrian will now fill those veteran roles, though they both know this will be a very different kind of world championships for their teammates.
“There’s a lot of new faces, a lot of veterans gone. It’s sad leaving a guy like Cullen Jones behind because I think he has a lot more to offer us than just swimming,” said Adrian before discussing the absence of Phelps. “It’s going to feel very strange, and it’s tough. I think the entire team drew a lot strength from Michael, even in an off-year because of how good he is and how consistent he is.
“It’s going to be hard to replace him in the relays, but fortunately, we have Eugene (Godsoe) in the 100 fly.”