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Top U.S. swimmers will gather on the campus of Ohio State University Thursday through Saturday for the Short-Course National Championships, contested in a 25-yard pool as opposed to the Olympic standard of 50 meters. Then it's on to Dubai in mid-December for the Short-Course World Championships, where it's 25 meters from wall to wall. Thirty-seven swimmers have been named to the roster for worlds, including Olympic champions Natalie Coughlin, Ryan Lochte, Aaron Peirsol and Rebecca Soni.
Why mix it up with formats substantially different from the 2011 Long-Course World Championships in China, or London 2012? Quite simply, the swimmers want to race, there are medals in all the familiar colors at stake, and Dubai offers their only chance to test themselves against a full international field between now and next summer. A few, like Lochte, have underwater technique that gives them an advantage with more frequent turns.
"I really need a fast meet in December to show where I am, what I need to work on for the next summer," butterfly and freestyle specialist Dana Vollmer said at last week's Golden Goggle Awards dinner in New York City. "It definitely fits in well and I love racing against the fastest athletes in the world. Therese [Alshammar] from Sweden and I, we're so close to each other ... she's definitely going to be my main competition. Being able to challenge myself that way really helps me to prepare for World Championships next summer."
Eleven-time Olympic medalist Coughlin will be making her first trip to short-course worlds for the same reason.
"For me personally, it's hard to stay motivated to train if I don't have little short-term goals along the way," she said. "Dubai is a great meet for me because it keeps me on point and working toward my goal of, ultimately, Shanghai next year and the Olympics. It keeps me on track and gives me a stepping stone along the way. Honestly, I love traveling, I've never been to Dubai and I probably wouldn't go otherwise, so I'm really looking forward to the meet as a growing experience and a competition experience."
But the swimmers acknowledged this isn't just any trip. Fran Crippen's death Oct. 23 in a 10-kilometer open-water race in Fujairah, another part of the United Arab Emirates, is still fresh, as is the criticism and controversy over the lack of safety precautions there.
The Crippen family, through Fran's sister and former Olympian Maddy Crippen, have made it clear they support the team's participation in the short-course worlds, and no serious consideration was given to a boycott.
"It wasn't a tough decision, but it was a decision we gave a lot of thought to," USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus said. "The dynamics are so dramatically different from an open-water event. This is a different venue and different people are involved in organizing and running it. But we're sensitive to the emotional journey."
Wielgus said the national team will be accompanied by U.S. Olympic Committee chief security officer Larry Buendorf and team psychologist Dr. Jim Bauman. Swimmers will wear Crippen's initials on their dress sweats and T-shirts.
"I definitely don't have any hesitation about going, because I think that it's important to commemorate Fran and his fight at the finish," said Jessica Hardy, the current world-record holder in the 50-meter short-course breaststroke event. "It's terrible. I don't even have words to talk about it. I'm hoping that can change open water at every single competition forever from now on. I'm happy to get to go and compete in Fran's honor. ... Not going isn't going to solve any problems. I think it's the sport of open water that needs to be reconsidered and re-evaluated. It's important to make a statement that we're strong and we obviously care. We're there with a voice. We're not just going to go passively."
Said breaststroke specialist Soni, who holds short-course world records in the 100- and 200-meter events: "Obviously, we're all angry. We all want to fix the issue, but how do you fix that issue? You can't bring him back. He was such a great guy. But I don't necessarily think we should run away and hide from the place that happened. Maybe if we go there, show up and demand a change while we're there, maybe that'll make more of a statement."
Coughlin said she is certain Crippen would want them to race. "It was his dream to be an Olympian, so I think the best way to pay homage to him is to do the sport we love and compete."