In an event pitting most of the world’s best swimmers against one another, a name that is perhaps unexpected came to be one of the defining names of the weekend. That name was Cal, as the school’s swimming program reestablished itself as one of the most important, high-achieving names in swim.
Anywhere one looked on the leaderboards of the Santa Clara Grand Prix over the weekend — the final one of the 2015 Arena Pro Swim Series — Cal’s presence could be felt, whether it was with the current members of the team or with the many Olympians who used to swim for the Bears.
Perhaps the biggest names in the women’s races were 12-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin and Missy Franklin, who left the Bears’ swimming program after last season to turn pro. Coughlin, especially, continued to show why she is widely regarded as one of the best women’s swimmers of all time. She won the 50-meter backstroke in 27.51 seconds and set a new American record in the process. The race was stacked with current and former Cal swimmers. Rachel Bootsma, who is going into her senior season at Cal, finished in second place with a time of 28.05. Elizabeth Pelton, who will also be a senior, was a second behind with a time of 29.05 and finished in fifth place.
Franklin, who does not traditionally race these short sprints, still showed how naturally talented she is. She progressed to the finals of the race and finished eighth. This was not the best weekend for Franklin, however, as she went winless in her five races. This was Franklin’s first time racing since she led the Bears to an NCAA Championship in March.
She raced in the 100-meter backstroke, where she finished in third place, .34 seconds behind Pelton. Franklin placed third in the 200-meter backstroke as well, this time finishing more than a full second ahead of Pelton. Both Pelton and Franklin failed to catch the Hungarian Katinka Hosszu in the events.
Franklin also raced in the 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle races, where she finished sixth and third, respectively. She has spent the past few months aggressively training for the World Championships, which begin Aug. 2, and her fatigue showed.
“A lot of mixed feelings,” Franklin told NBC Sports. “All my strokes felt really strong and powerful. There just wasn’t a whole lot of speed there.”
A women’s swimmer from Cal who managed to have some more success was rising junior Farida Osman. She set the African continental record en route to a win in the 50-meter butterfly with a time of 26.09. Osman also excelled in the 100-meter version of the event, finishing in second place.
Some other notable performances from Cal-affiliated swimmers came from Caitlin Leverenz, a former Bear, and Cierra Runge, a rising sophomore for the Bears. Runge finished in fourth place in the 800-meter freestyle — impressive for such a young swimmer. She came in with a time of 8:31.55. Meanwhile, Leverenz raced to second place in the 200-meter individual medley with a time of 2:11.52. She finished behind the juggernaut that was Hosszu, who put up the world’s second-fastest time of the year in the event.
Cal’s swimmers littered the top of the leaderboards on the men’s side as well. Nathan Adrian, a former Bear and a three-time Olympic gold medalist, won the 50-meter freestyle by less than a tenth of a second. Rising junior Ryan Murphy, who is emerging as the world’s premier backstroking talent, was dominant. He raced past a stacked field in the 200-meter backstroke with a time of 1:57.06, which beat Tyler Clary, the reigning Olympic gold medalist in the event, by two seconds. Murphy’s teammate at Cal, rising senior Jacob Pebley, was a half-second behind in third.
Murphy also won the 100-meter backstroke, finishing .6 seconds ahead of second place. Murphy’s former college teammate Tom Shields also shined at the Santa Clara Grand Prix. He was tops in the 100-meter butterfly with a time of 52.22. Shields was third in the 200-meter version of the event, finishing third. More importantly, he managed to come within a second of winner Michael Phelps.
Another one of Shields’ teammates found himself in a close competition with Phelps, only to come short. Rising senior Josh Prenot finished second behind Phelps in the 200-meter individual medley.
Despite the close loss, this race and most of the others this weekend still showed a promising future for Cal swimmers. Cal’s current swimmers, who are excelling, can look to the former Bear stars, such as Adrian and Coughlin, as examples of what they should try to emulate as their careers progress.