World Championships Spots Are On The Line At Indianapolis World Series
by Karen Price
Lizzi Smith competes in backstroke at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
The Paralympic Games have come and gone, and for some athletes who competed in Tokyo last summer these past few months have been a time of rest.
That time is over.
The country’s top Para swimmers are gathered in Indianapolis this week for the Para Swimming World Series, with a lot on the line. The results from the meet, which is being held Thursday through Saturday at the Indiana University Natatorium, will be used to determine the roster for the upcoming world championships in Portugal this June.
The competition presents an opportunity for not only the most decorated athletes to continue their dominance, but also for newcomers to step up and shine.
“I think seeing breakthrough swims any time is really exciting, but there is a little extra excitement around these events that happen as trials for the Games or something big,” said Nathan Manley, the associate director of high performance for U.S. Paralympics Swimming. “Not only do they put it together after all the preparation that they put into it, but they’re able to do it under the bright lights.”
About 80 U.S. athletes will be competing, including 29 Tokyo participants. They include Robert Griswold, Ellie Marks, Lawrence Sapp, Gia Pergolini, Leanne Smith, Lizzi Smith, Zach Shattuck and David Abrahams.
Lizzi Smith will be competing in her first race since Tokyo.
“There’s a lot of shaking rust off and feeling my nerves again,” said the two-time Paralympian who won silver in the 100-meter butterfly in Tokyo. “That’s something I got away from, and when you feel the nerves again, you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that. I was in shape for that, and now they’re very much catching me off guard.’
“So it’s really putting the pieces back together for making the next three years — well two and a half, really — successful. So looking at Indy, this is kind of my first step to then building the foundation again.”
Another returning veteran is three-time Paralympian Evan Austin, who will be competing in his first meet since winning gold in the 50-meter butterfly and bronze in the 400-meter freestyle in Tokyo.
“I think my preparation’s been coming along,” he said. “It’s always a different experience in the first competition post-Games, so I’m interested to see what times I post and where not only I’m at in my racing and preparation and training but also where the entire national team is and where some of the new up-and-comers are. It’s the first real test for everyone and our first exposure to how everyone’s progressed in their training after Tokyo.”
The U.S. can take up to 25 athletes to the world championships, which will be the first since 2019 following cancellations due to COVID-19. The minimum criteria, Manley said, is that an athlete’s time must be within 5 percent of the current third-place athlete in the world in each event in order to be eligible.
“It’ll hopefully be a smaller, more competitive team than some other events,” he said.
In addition to the Americans competing this week in Indianapolis, there are 60 international athletes representing 12 countries. This is the final stop on the World Series schedule, which means that the overall World Series winner will be named at the conclusion of the event. However, with the pandemic still impacting travel and competition in many parts of the world since Tokyo, the international contingent is more likely to be the result of athletes seeking to get their international classifications.
None of the U.S. athletes have participated in the previous four World Series stops.
In a typical quad, competition in the first year following the Paralympics can often be more sparsely attended than usual. With just three years between the Tokyo and Paris Games, however, this cycle could be less predictable.
“It isn’t actually crazy for the first world championships to be a younger, less experienced team,” Manley said. “But that remains to be seen this year since we’re a year deep into the quad already.”
The national team staff is looking forward to seeing not only the return of some veterans, but also newer athletes who will push them in the race for the podium.
“I think the exciting thing would be seeing some people who didn’t go to Tokyo but continued to work over the eight months since (2020 Paralympic team) trials and are ready to take that next step,” Manley said. “I’d love to see some people we didn’t see in Tokyo on the world team and get excited about the future of U.S. Para swimming.”
This will be the fifth time that IU has hosted a World Series stop, and for some swimmers this will be their first time competing in a major event in front of spectators since the pandemic started.
“I grew up (near IU), so that’s my old stomping grounds,” Manley said. “There’s a lot of great history there. It’s my favorite place to go in the country, honestly. The atmosphere is usually driven by attendance, so hopefully as people are coming back out of this COVID stuff we’ll see more faces in the stands because that’s what drives the atmosphere.”