It was easy to tell where Olympians Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin were at any time during USA Swimming’s Minneapolis Grand Prix this weekend.
Just follow the hordes of preteen to college-age girls running back and forth on the upper deck of the University Aquatic Center.
Lochte and Franklin were undoubtedly the stars of the three-day meet, the first in a six-city tour over eight months in which collegiate, youth, international and Olympic athletes compete.
The gold medalists signed autographs and took pictures with fans and fellow swimmers alike, all while competing in several events each day.
“The fans are really what make the meet so much fun and what make it worth it for the athletes,” Franklin said. “I wish I could sign everyone’s, and I’m trying to.”
Lochte said this Grand Prix isn’t about winning.
“I come to this meet to have fun,” Lochte said. “I come to this meet basically for the fans.”
Although the two weren’t expecting to repeat their gold-medal performances from this summer’s London Olympics, they still managed some impressive swims.
On the first night of competition Friday, Franklin set a national record for 17- and 18-year-old girls in the 200-yard freestyle with a time of 1:42.28 — more than four seconds ahead of the second-place swimmer.
Lochte also took first place in the 200 freestyle at 1:35.15. Later, he won the 100 butterfly in 46.73. The Gophers’ Kyler Van Swol finished second at 47.66.
“I expected Lochte to beat me,” Van Swol said. “It’s always fun to race someone like Ryan Lochte if you get the chance. Watching from the side is one thing, but when all of a sudden you’re next to him, and you watch him kick by you, it’s like yeah, that’s impressive.”
Van Swol also finished second to Lochte in the 200 individual medley. Lochte clocked in at 1:45.62 to Van Swol’s 1:49.24.
“I talked to [Van Swol] in the warm-down pool about his underwaters,” Lochte said. “He has a lot of talent. He’s a young, up-and-coming swimmer, so hopefully the advice I gave him will help out, and hopefully I’ll get to see him in the Olympics.”
Lochte also won the 100 backstroke in 46.21 and the 200 backstroke in 1:41.13, while Franklin won the 50 freestyle in 22.15, the 100 freestyle in 48.31, the 100 backstroke in 50.97 and the 200 backstroke in 1:50.10.
But the golden pair didn’t win all of their races.
Lochte placed last in the 50 freestyle final because he used the wrong stroke.
“I’m never going to swim a 50 free in my life, so there really was no point in me swimming it. I wanted to try a 50 [butterfly],” Lochte said. “I might as well do something that correlates to something I actually do swim, like the 200 [individual medley].”
Franklin was a part of two of her club team’s relays. She finished third in both the 400 freestyle relay and the 800 freestyle relay behind the two Gophers teams.
The two Olympians aren’t too concerned about their results, though.
“This is just a fun meet,” Franklin said. “It’s just a time to come out here and just see where we’re at and see what we need to work on.”
Franklin took five weeks off after the Olympics, and Lochte started training again three weeks ago.
“I’m a little tired,” Lochte said Friday. “I wasn’t expecting it to hurt that bad.”
While Lochte admitted he wasn’t in his best shape, he said all he wanted to get out of this meet was a lot of racing.
“As soon as I got back in the water, I was already starting to train for Rio [de Janeiro],” Lochte said. “It’s a four-year process … and my first step starts at this meet.”
Franklin said she was just happy to be back on the starting block after the break.
Each Olympian has shorter-term goals than the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Lochte said he is preparing for the 2012 FINA Short Course World Championships in December. Franklin said she is looking forward to the 2013 FINA World Championships next summer.
Minnesota makes a mark
Lochte said he has been competing in Minnesota for six or seven years, and Franklin said this was her third time at the Minneapolis Grand Prix.
“Even though it’s a little chilly here … it’s a great pool and a lot of good racing,” Lochte said. “I always like coming here.”
Franklin also said she is a big fan of the University Aquatic Center.
“This is one of my favorite pools. I absolutely love it. I think it’s a really, really fast pool,” Franklin said. “I love coming back here every year.”
Franklin said she was thinking a lot about the collegiate atmosphere at the meet, since she recently committed to University of California-Berkeley.
“It’s been so fun just seeing Minnesota, how the team has been cheering for each other and just racing together,” Franklin said. “It’s been awesome to watch, and knowing that I’m going to be a part of that makes me really excited.”
The 17-year-old didn’t stop at discussing the facility and atmosphere — she also praised the swimmers themselves.
“Everyone on that team is so amazing,” Franklin said. “I only know a few of them really well, but they’re all so sweet, and they’re such great competitors to race against.”
And some Gophers swimmers did impress at the high-caliber meet.
Freshman Kierra Smith was the lone individual champion from the team when she won the 200 breaststroke at 2:08.11.
Smith also finished second in the 200 individual medley and third in the 100 breaststroke – between former Minnesota swimmer and Canadian Olympian Jillian Tyler (2nd) and Gophers senior Haley Spencer (4th).
“I’m just really honored to be able to train with them,” Smith said. “I have an Olympian and an NCAA champion … in my lane. So it’s a really great place to be right now for breaststroke.”
Sophomore transfer Luke Bushman also placed first in the 400 individual medley at 3:53.93, but he competed unattached because he is not eligible until 2013.
Minnesota also won the top-two spots in every men’s and women’s relay.
“I think what’s exciting for Minnesota is all the positive comments that … Missy and Ryan and other swimmers at this meet have been saying about Minnesota,” Gophers head swimming coach Kelly Kremer said. “And that’s great for the Minnesota swimming and diving community and for the University of Minnesota, as well.”