Neither Michael Phelps nor Ryan Lochte was at the national championships last week. U.S. men’s swimming needs an athlete to fill a leadership role — and Nathan Adrian of Bremerton is a logical and willing choice.
INDIANAPOLIS – Swimmer Nathan Adrian of Bremerton felt a little strange walking around the pool during the national championships.
Michael Phelps wasn’t there last week. Ryan Lochte was missing, too. And for the first time in almost two decades, when the American team for the long-course world championships was announced, neither of its biggest male stars appeared on the roster.
“It’s weird, really weird,” the 28-year-old Adrian said. “I’d been focused on swimming for so long, and then it was about swimming fast and then it was like you’re a veteran, and then you look at it now and it’s like you’re one of the leaders of the team.
“It feels like it was only a few years ago I was nipping on the heels of Jason Lezak.”
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Actually, it was eight years ago that Adrian captured his first national title.
But things change, and the search for new leadership in the U.S. men’s program is starting over.
From Mark Spitz and John Naber in the 1970s to Matt Biondi and Rowdy Gaines in the 1980s, this changing of the guard has become relatively routine and virtually seamless.
This time, it might be a more dramatic transition.
Phelps qualified for his first Olympics as a gangly teenager in 2000. From that point on, he, Lochte or both have represented the United States on every Olympics or long-course world-championship team through the Rio Games last summer.
Adrian was with them at all those international meets since 2009.
So with Phelps retired and Lochte suspended, Adrian is in line to become the next face of the U.S. men’s team.
“He was a leader in Rio, and I think he’ll be the leader till he’s done,” 20-year-old Townley Haas said.
It won’t be easy, but nobody is more qualified for the role at the moment than Adrian, who made the world team in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle plus relays.
He owns five Olympic gold medals, has a smile that shines as brightly as any of them and a charisma that has made him one of the most popular swimmers. He apprenticed under Phelps and Lochte and, yes, even Lezak. A year ago, he was one of three captains on the men’s Olympic team. Now, he is the only one heading to Budapest, Hungary, for worlds.
The truth is, Adrian can’t do it alone.
“Those two are very big personalities,” said U.S. men’s coach David Durden, who also coaches college powerhouse California. “You’re not going to fill that void of Michael Phelps, for sure. We’re trying to get him back in the water for 2020. But we don’t need someone to be a Michael Phelps. We need them to be themselves, and that’s something we’ll work on.
“We’ll miss Ryan, as well, because he’s that versatile guy who keeps it really light. We’ll miss that personality and want it back in 2018.”
Adrian has plenty of teammates who can help.
Some, like 32-year-old Matt Grevers, have been around. The four-time Olympic gold medalist rebounded from a crushing 2016 Olympic trials to reclaim his spot on the U.S. team with a win in the 100 backstroke.
Others, like 22-year-old Ryan Murphy, are still carving out their place. The world-record holder in the 100 back and a three-time Olympic gold medalist in Rio de Janeiro, he qualified in the 100 and 200 back despite a less-than-stellar performance.
After taking home Olympic silver in the 400 individual medley last year, 23-year-old Chase Kalisz will compete in the 200 and 400 IMs at worlds.
But the man to watch might be 20-year-old Florida native Caeleb Dressel.
He won two golds on relay teams in Rio and embarks on an ambitious schedule from July 23 to 30. He qualified in six events at worlds — the 50 and 100 butterfly, the 50 and 100 freestyle and the 400 and 800 free relay.
“It’s incredible,” Adrian said when asked about Dressel’s feat. “But that’s a really grueling schedule at worlds.”
If Dressel can even come close to duplicating that feat in Budapest, Durden could have the perfect blend.
Up-and-coming stars such as Dressel would have three more years to grow into their new roles.
And Adrian, the veteran who is still on top of his game and plans to stick around at least through the 2020 Olympics, will provide the veteran voice.
“I’d certainly take ownership of it,” Adrian said. “I’ve been blessed to have older athletes take care of me, so I know a thing or two about it, and if that’s what it takes, I’m happy to do it.”