OMAHA, Neb. -- Here are five questions to ponder heading into the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, which begin here Monday:
1. Which of the many comeback "kids" is most likely to succeed at trials?
Drehs: Brendan Hansen. This is a no-brainer. Though he's only been seriously training for a little more than a year, Hansen showed at last year's national championships that his comeback is about winning and nothing else. At the trials, an event that is as much mental as it is physical, he exuded a sense of confidence and calmness at his weekend news conference that even he admitted wasn't there during Olympic runs in 2004 and 2008.
Hansen has more experience, is more mature and has already dealt with the highs and lows of the sport to know exactly what to expect this week. His time of 1:00.08 is the top-seeded mark in the 100-meter breaststroke and 2:09.64 is No. 2 in the 200 breast. "Knowing this is exactly where I want to be at this exact moment, I'm going to swim as fast as I possibly can this week," he said. Barring the unforeseen, Hansen should make the U.S. team in both events and vie for a potential medal next month in London.
Ford: Amanda Beard. Shooting for her fifth consecutive Summer Games at age 30, she has a great shot in the 200 breaststroke. Defending Olympic champion Rebecca Soni is the consensus pick for this race, and deservedly so; there are several candidates to qualify second, but Beard's big-meet experience could give her the edge. Beard burst on the scene as a wide-eyed 14-year-old double silver medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Games and won gold in the 200 in 2004. She took two seasons off after missing the 200 semifinals in the 2008 Games, married and had a son. When Beard decided to return to competition, she also elected to go public with the dark side of her life in a memoir that detailed eating disorders, depression, substance abuse and dysfunctional relationships. She has a life outside swimming and absolutely nothing to prove, which makes her dangerous.
2. Michael or Ryan?
Drehs: Ryan Lochte. I suppose it depends what exactly we're talking about here. If the question is who I'd rather roam Omaha's Old Market district with on a Friday night, the answer is Lochte. If you want to know whose facial hair I prefer, again, I'd go with Ryan. As for who I think will be the bigger star in the water this week, I'd go with Ryan. Wait what? Yeah, I said Ryan. Michael Phelps is without question the greatest Olympian of all time. Just the thought of him losing at trials or in London is nearly impossible to picture. Yet Lochte was the story at last year's world championships in Shanghai and he insisted this weekend he'll swim even faster here. Can Phelps catch him? I'm not so sure. I could see a scenario where Phelps beats Lochte head-to-head, but the Vogue cover boy walks away with more total medals than his rival. (Such was the scenario that U.S. national team teammate Ricky Berens predicted this weekend.) More total medals or more golds? I'll take the total medals, especially in London.
Ford: How many times have we faced the conundrum in sports that sustained excellence can be "boring?" Phelps is in a position where fans, both casual and hard-core, almost take him for granted. His dalliance with slacker-dom didn't last long enough for his resurgence to count as a comeback, although his coach Bob Bowman said Phelps is still "on the catching-up side" and he's certainly been dominated by Lochte in major meets in the past two years. However, everything changes when Olympic hardware is at stake, and the next few days will tell how Lochte deals with being a favorite in several events. Phelps' motivation to go beyond his already interstellar accomplishments may be as much of a mystery as the events he plans to swim in Omaha, but until proven otherwise, he is still The Man at this meet and the next one.
3. Which unknown swimmer will we be talking about this week?
Drehs: Katie Ledecky. Ledecky isn't exactly a long shot -- she is seeded third in the 800 freestyle (8:25.85) and fifth in the 400 free (4:05.79) -- but she's a relative unknown to all but hard-core swimming fans. Just 15 years old, she could potentially be the youngest member of the U.S. team headed to London next month. Ledecky stormed onto the national scene at the Charlotte Grand Prix in March after breaking a meet record to take second place in the 400. She then swam the fastest 800 for a 15-year-old in more than a decade, beating her best time by a whopping four seconds. To make the U.S. team, Ledecky will need to finish in the top two of a group that includes Allison Schmitt, Chloe Sutton, Katie Ziegler and Katie Hoff. Do that and she'll definitely be someone we'll all be talking about.
Ford: The men's 100-meter breaststroke has a couple of well-known names in Hansen and Eric Shanteau, but look out for 18-year-old University of Arizona freshman Kevin Cordes of Naperville, Ill. The 6-foot-5 son of a former Wildcats quarterback, Cordes broke the American short-course record in the distance at the NCAA championships last March and set a PR of 1:01.23 en route to winning the event at the recent Swimvitational in Omaha, a test event in the Olympic trials pool. That time topped an age group record that had stood for 12 years, set by none other than Hansen. However, it was too late to count for this meet and Cordes is seeded 12th in Monday's race.
4. What or who is the most overlooked story at trials?
Drehs: Marcus Titus. He can't hear the buzzer that starts the race, or the roar of the fans once he's in the water. But Titus insists none of that will stop his attempt to make his first Olympic team this week. The 26-year-old, who trains in Arizona, won five gold medals at last year's International Deaf Swimming Championships and will take on the likes of Hansen and Shanteau in Omaha. In April, he used social media to help convince USA Swimming to allow him to rely on a referee's hand signals and a strobe light behind his block to help him start the race. He enters trials with the sixth-seeded time in the 100 breaststroke, but he's less than a half second behind top-seeded Hansen. Should he finish in the top two in either event and qualify for London, he'll likely face a similar petition with FINA prior to the Olympics.
Ford: If Natalie Coughlin qualifies in her signature event, the 100 backstroke, she has a chance to do what only two other women in history have done before -- notch a three-peat in an individual Olympic swimming event. (Dawn Fraser of Australia in the 100 freestyle and Krisztina Egerszegi of Hungary in the 200 back are the others; no man has done it.) Coughlin, who could become the most decorated U.S. female Olympic athlete in history, is also a walking advertisement for the joys of healthy eating, community gardens and the locavore movement, all sorely needed messages. Honorable mention in sleeper storylines goes to breaststroke queen Soni, who has quietly built one of the most impressive résumés in the sport over the past four years but has made few ripples in public consciousness -- perhaps because she swims "only" one stroke. Here's to doing one thing and doing it well.
5. What will be the hardest race to qualify in?
Drehs: Women's 100 freestyle. If you're into the big names in U.S. women's swimming competing against each other at the same time, this is your event. Missy Franklin. Coughlin. Dana Vollmer. Schmitt. Jessica Hardy. It's like an All-Star Game. You've got Missy versus Natalie, the next big thing against arguably one of the greatest U.S. female Olympians of all time. Then there is butterfly specialist Vollmer, who is tied for the third-fastest time with Schmitt, the mid-distance stud. Those four are all seeded within 0.31 seconds of each other. Not far behind is Hardy, who has dominated the 50 freestyle this spring and Amanda Weir, the American record holder in the event. The top six finishers will punch their ticket to London and qualify for the 4x100 freestyle relay. But trying to finish in the top two and qualify for this event will be no easy task for anyone.
Ford: This in itself is a tough call, but I'll go with the men's 200 freestyle. Yes, there are hypothetically six slots for the relays, but all that means is there are more candidates going at it full-bore, and it's an event many versatile swimmers do well. There will be a big scramble after the Big Two of Phelps and Lochte, along with distance specialist Peter Vanderkaay.