IRVINE, Calif. — Like all the elite swimmers at this U.S. Championships, Winnetka's Conor Dwyer faced a dilemma because of the unusual selection process to which results from this meet contribute.
The top two finishers in nearly all events at nationals — and top four in the 100 and 200 freestyles — have qualified for the U.S. team at the Pan Pacific Championships Aug. 21-24 in Australia.
After Pan Pacs, USA Swimming will pick its team for the 2015 World Championships. That is where this gets curious, complicated and confusing.
All members of the Pan Pac team can enter any event they want in Australia. Anyone can snatch a place in a particular event at next year's worlds by swimming faster in the "A" or "B" final at Pan Pacs than one of the top two did in the "A" final at nationals.
"It's going to be kind of a weird situation at Pan Pacs where we are a team but we are still competing for places at worlds," said Cal-Berkeley's Teri McKeever, women's team coach at Pan Pacs.
The impact of that system — also used in 2010 for that year's Pan Pacs and the following year's worlds — means many athletes have been "swimming through" nationals, doing just enough to make the Pan Pac team.
Dwyer, who qualified for Pan Pacs with a second in the 200 free and fourth in the 100, is among that group.
"I hate to say it, but I have been kind of looking toward to Australia instead of focusing on this," he said.
That did not deter the 2012 Olympic relay gold medalist from swimming a personal-best time in the Sunday heats of the 200 individual medley.
"I know I'm going to have to go fast in Australia to make worlds, so why not play with it now?" Dwyer said.
A time of 1 minute, 57.74 seconds made him the fastest in the heats and briefly the third-fastest swimmer in the world this year, a list topped by Japan's Kosuke Hagino (1:55.38.).
Dwyer dropped two places after finishing fourth with a slower time in a final when the two old U.S. superstars, Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps, staged a battle that recalled the glory days of their rivalry.
Lochte, 30, won in 1:56.50, with Phelps, 29, second in 1:56.55. That made them No. 2 and No. 3 in the event worldwide this season. Dwyer clocked 1:58.03.
"This has been an up-and-down year, and I'm glad to get a win," said Lochte, second, seventh and fifth in his other three finals here.
For Phelps, this was the first time he has left the summer national meet without a title in 12 appearances dating to 2000. After finishing seventh, second and sixth in his other three events, Phelps clearly was pleased with his performance in the 200 IM, an event in which he won two of his record 18 Olympic gold medals.
"Being able to finish this way is definitely better than where I was at the beginning of the meet," Phelps said.
Given the global dominance of U.S. swimming in recent years, there usually is a raft of world-leading times at the national championships, but this meet has produced just two: Katie Ledecky's world record in the final of the 400 freestyle (her time from the heats had been the world leader), and Phelps' time in the heats of the 100 butterfly. Competing in an outdoor pool likely slowed many swimmers.
Matt Grevers, 2012 Olympic backstroke gold medalist and double winner at this nationals, does not like the two-years-in-one selection process, which does not necessarily pick swimmers who will have improved substantially to be at their best right before the 2015 world meet next July in Kazan, Russia.
"The weirdest part is you know you have to qualify (this year) for 2015 worlds," Dwyer said. "It's all about just focusing on best times."
National team director Frank Busch said the selection process was designed to give leading swimmers a year of uninterrupted training leading to worlds.
"There will be some kids next summer faster than some of the athletes who performed here," Busch said.