Elizabeth Beisel previews U.S. Open, assesses Regan Smith’s bright future

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On Thursday, swimming analyst and two-time Olympic medalist Elizabeth Beisel sat down with On Her Turf to preview the women’s competition at this week’s U.S. Open swimming championships. This Q&A has been edited lightly and condensed for clarity.

On Her Turf: For people who aren’t super familiar with swimming, can you explain what the U.S. Open is and how it’s different this year? 

Elizabeth Beisel: The U.S. Open is a national swim meet. It’s kind of a checkpoint meet. Does it mean a ton in the grand scheme of the entire season? No, but it is a chance for you to see where you are, what do you need to work on race-wise.

The U.S. Open happens every December in a normal year. Of course, we are in 2020, so nothing is normal. So this year, it’s in November, and due to COVID restrictions and regulations, it’s being held at nine locations across the United States. All of the results will be compiled at the end of this weekend and a champion will be crowned in each event.

This year’s meet is also different because there are no prelim sessions. Normally in swimming, if you’re racing an event on a Friday, you swim the prelims on Friday morning and you advance to the finals on Friday night. But this weekend, everything is a timed final. So you step up on the blocks, and that is your one chance to swim that race.

OHT: Not being a swimmer myself, I’ve never quite understood the peaks and valleys of the training schedule, when athletes are training hard and when they’re giving their bodies more of a break. Can you give me a sense of what a November training block typically looks like?  

Beisel: Yeah, so November is a very high yardage, heavy training block. The swimming season is typically year-round, it’s September to August. And then, at the end of August, we get two weeks off. So once we’re back in the water in September, we’re grinding and we are building up a base so that when we hit December, we are ready for what we call “Christmas training.” Christmas training is the most miserable three weeks of a swimmer’s entire season. You’re doubling every single day, you’re lifting weights or doing dry land training. So in November, it’s heavy training, but athletes are mostly getting their bodies prepared for the work that they’re going to put in in December. So November is a hard month, but it’s not the hardest.

OHT: Given that this year’s U.S. Open is a November meet in the middle of a pandemic, and there are eight months until the Olympics, what do you expect to see? 

Beisel: I think this meet is going to be a huge indicator of who has done the work during quarantine. I don’t mean that in a negative way; it’s more about who has had access to pools and who hasn’t.

Mentally, I don’t think anybody should stress about anything that happens this weekend. It’s November; it does not matter. I have seen people heading into an Olympic year, not even swimming right now because they’re injured or something’s gone wrong. And then they show up at Olympic Trials eight months later, and they make the team. This is strictly just a checkpoint to see where you are.

I want to urge all the athletes that are competing this weekend: do not stress. I’ve been there, I’ve stressed about November. And I now have the hindsight to know that November does not matter. So it really is just an opportunity to put on that racing suit and shake off the cobwebs that have accumulated over the past few months.

OHT: Which races and athletes are you most excited to watch?

Beisel: I’ll be watching from the U.S. Open site in Greensboro, and I’m super excited about Claire Curzan, who is competing here. She’s a 16-year-old up-and-coming sprinter who does freestyle, backstroke, and butterfly. She’s definitely in contention to make the U.S. Olympic team in a few months.

Also in Greensboro, there’s 19-year-old Katharine Berkoff. She’s actually the daughter of Olympic gold medalist David Berkoff. But she’s like, ‘Dad, I don’t need your accolades. I’m gonna get my own,’ and she’s absolutely crushing it.

Competing in Des Moines, I’m very excited to watch Phoebe Bacon and Regan Smith go head-to-head. They’re two backstroke teenage prodigies.

So there are a lot of young athletes that I’m super excited to watch. I think the young swimmers are kind of at an advantage with this extra year added to the Olympic quad. Because they’re only getting stronger, they’re only getting more confident, whereas the older swimmers, they’re not getting any younger, they’re kind of just hanging on. So I’m excited to see what these young swimmers do with the extra year of training. I think it could throw a wrench into everything that we thought was going to happen this past summer.

Of the older athletes… one of the swimmers I’m excited about is Ashley Twichell. She has actually already punched her ticket to Tokyo in the open water event; she was named to the U.S. Olympic team back in the summer of 2019. She’s one of the oldest athletes right now… but she’s so tough and she’s so positive. And so for her to stick it out for another year, preparing for the 10km open water event, it’s not easy, but she’s doing it.

OHT: Looking ahead to U.S. Olympic Trials… With only two Americans able to make the team in each individual event, it is sometimes more difficult to make the U.S. Olympic team than the Olympic podium. Which women’s events do you think will be the hardest to make?

Beisel: Women’s backstroke is absolutely stacked, it’s the deepest it’s ever been. Regan Smith, who is the world record in the 100 and 200m back, is the heavy favorite. But behind her in second place, you could have Phoebe Bacon, Katharine Berkoff, Olivia Smoliga, Kathleen Baker, and that’s not even naming all of them.

Personally, I’m excited to watch the women’s 400m IM because that was my event. Now we have Melanie Margalis, who had an absolute breakout swim back in February. She’s kind of had this chip on her shoulder in the 400m IM. She never wanted to swim it, and then she had a breakout swim, and she’s finally not afraid of it. And then we have a youngster from Sarasota, Emma Weyant, who is kind of a dark horse.

OHT: Going back to Regan Smith… She was already expected to be a big threat at the Olympics before the Games were delayed. Looking ahead to 2021, what do you make of her potential? 

Beisel: I’ll call it now: Regan is going to the Olympics in the backstrokes. Butterfly is kind of her dark horse event. There’s some open space in the U.S. in the butterflies and I think Regan is going to see that opportunity and seize it, especially with this extra year that she’s had to get stronger. She has so much versatility and I’m so excited for her.

[READ MORE: Olympic delay gave Regan Smith a chance to be a kid again.]

I also think she she has a good head on her shoulders. And that is the most important thing when it comes to being that kind of breakout prodigy star. She’s never going to let that success go to her head, she’s always going to swim humble. She’s going to swim like she’s hunting something and I think that’s going to give her longevity in the sport.

OHT: Do you remember the first time she popped up on your radar?

Beisel: Absolutely. It was the 2017 World Championships. It was my retirement meet. I was like, ‘See ya later!’ And it was her first meet.

She came in – super quiet and reserved – she was 15. And I saw so much of myself in her. I remember making my first national team; I was 13 and I was intimidated by literally everyone. I still had posters of these people on my walls.

And so in 2017, Regan was competing in the 200m backstroke, the same event I competed in at my first world championships. I was so happy that I was on that team to take her under my wing, show her the ropes, because I knew exactly how she felt.

You do feel out of place when you’re on a team with your idols, so I was like, ‘Alright Regan, it’s you and me, girl. I’m going to tell you everything that I know. I’m going to give you all the advice that I have because this is it and I’m never going to be on a team with you again.’ And hopefully, one day, she can do that for another young athlete that makes the team.

OHT: Looking at a competition currently happening over 4,000 miles away in Budapest, what have been your takeaways from the International Swim League (ISL) season so far?

Beisel: I think the ISL has been incredible. I’m jealous. I wish I was still swimming competitively because I would be there in a heartbeat. I keep in touch with so many swimmers who are out there, Allison Schmitt being one of them, and she’s so happy that she’s racing. And I think that’s the one takeaway for all of those athletes in Budapest: if they weren’t there, they would not be racing.

OHT: In addition to the Americans in Budapest, there are also a few other prominent athletes missing from this week’s competition, most notably Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel. Do you have a sense of why they made the choice not to compete and what they will be doing in place of the U.S. Open?

Beisel: I think some athletes are playing it super safe and staying home. Maybe they’re going to suit up on their own and hold their own meet. I can imagine Greg Meehan at Stanford getting a stopwatch and saying, “Alright, Katie, Simone… step up.”

I think that right now, a lot of people are going to be suiting up, whether or not they’re at a meet, just so they can compare themselves to where everybody else is.

HOW TO WATCH THE U.S. OPEN SWIMMING CHAMPIONSHIPS:

In addition to the televised coverage below, this weekend’s coverage will stream on OlympicChannel.com and the Olympic Channel app, in addition to NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

Date Network Time (ET)
Fri., Nov. 13 NBCSN 10 a.m. – Noon (LIVE)
Fri., Nov. 13 Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA 6 – 9 p.m. (LIVE)
Sat., Nov. 14 Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA 10 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. (LIVE)
Sat., Nov. 14 NBCSN 1:30 – 3 a.m.
Sun., Nov. 15 NBC 3 – 4 p.m.

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