A friend of mine (for the sake of protecting his anonymity, let's call him G. McCaffrey) pointed out an anniversary of sorts the last time we talked. With the World Championships in Budapest (the pool portion) about to get underway, it was time for my annual bed-wetting about American swimming.
But nine years in, I've learned my lesson. In the year after the Olympics, the US team usually takes a dip from "extremely dominant" to "dominant" on the world stage. That is nothing to wet the bed over. However, if you don't follow your history, you might be tempted to get concerned as the results unfold next week in Hungary.
That's why I'm hear with this message: expect weirdness in Budapest. What kind of weirdness? I'm glad you asked. I'll give you a historical example and then take some guesses.
The Relay Blunder of 2009
It's hard to fathom the US every missing a relay final in international competition. That very thing happened in 2009, when the Women's 4x100 Medley squad only managed 10th in the preliminary session
Yes, some of the swimmers on that relay didn't perform to their potential, but the US also elected to not use their fastest stroke swimmer in either backstroke, butterfly or breaststroke. For freestyle the coaches went with a swimmer who didn't even make the 4x100 night relay. Weird indeed.
More Than Just "No Phelps"
A US slip in the medal count will undoubtedly be attributed to "No Phelps" so I won't focus on that obvious narrative. There are other events in which the US all of a sudden finds it's position far less certain than 2016 and could lead to some Budapest Bed wetting:
1. The Men's 1500 Freestyle: The loss of Connor Jaeger puts the US well behind the world standard in this race, in fact our results from trials would have last looked promising for a medal even twenty years ago.
2. Women's Butterfly: Dana Vollmer's continued excellence is on pause to create life again, leaving the US without their most consistent butterfly Olympic medal threat. While the US has some promising swimmers in all distances, they need considerable improvement to make the medal stand in Budapest.
3. Women's IM: Likewise the women's IM are hurting for the kind of performances that Maya DiRado gave us in Rio. As good as Melanie Margalis and Leah Smith swam, there's another level for them to find to break through at this meet.
4. Ryan Murphy is beatable: Ryan Murphy was the best non-Phelps male swimmer for the US Team in Rio. He crushed Australian Mitch Larkin's dreams and effectively ended the 4x100 Medley relay on the opening leg. But he looked far more human at Trials, He's a candidate for a "swoon" the same way that Phelps himself took a bit of a backwards step in 2005 Montreal
That said, most swimmers would probably kill for a disappointing Ryan Murphy swim.
Ultimately, the post Olympic World Championship meet is always good for a reshuffling of the world swimming deck, and even if the US team seems only normally dominant, any step back always seems to motivate them to crush the rest of the world by the end of the Olympic cycle.