Last year was Kevin Cordes' breakthrough season, putting him in the ranks of elite U.S. swimmers.
This year has been Cordes' breakout season, and it could wind up with him as not only the best in the United States, but also a medalist at the world championships.
That repositioning began last June, when he missed the 2012 Olympic team in the 100-meter breaststroke by one place and .43 of a second.
"I wouldn't say it took me a long time to get over it, but it definitely made it harder to watch the Olympics," Cordes said. "I thought, 'I could have been there, it would have been so cool,' all those feelings.
"Seeing how special it could be gave me motivation to be there next time. I turned a negative into a positive."
That attitude sparked an improvement that sends the Neuqua Valley alumnus into the U.S. Championships beginning Tuesday in Indianapolis as the favorite in the 200 and one of the favorites in the 100. The top two in each (and the 50 breaststroke, swum at worlds but not in the Olympics) make the U.S. team for the world meet July 28-Aug. 4 in Barcelona, Spain.
Cordes is among several Chicago-area swimmers with world team aspirations. Others include 2012 Olympic gold medalists Matt Grevers and Conor Dwyer, 2008 Olympic silver medalist Christine Magnuson, reigning Tribune prep athlete of the year Olivia Smoliga and Becca Mann, 15, who made the finals at the 2012 Olympic trials in the distance freestyles and 400 individual medley.
The motivation Cordes found from getting so painfully close to the London Games became just what he needed to focus for the 200. Both his club coach, Dave Krotiak of the Fox Valley Swim Team, and his college coach, Eric Hansen of Arizona, long have insisted the longer race would be his better event.
"I wouldn't say I was scared of it, but I wasn't always willing to train for it," Cordes said.
That changed last fall. Cordes, 19, who was 12th in the Olympic trials 200 after a third at the NCAA meet, began to train a lot more and a lot harder. The results became abundantly clear at the 2013 NCAA Championships, where the sophomore blew the record for the 200-yard breaststroke completely out of the water and was named collegiate swimmer of the year.
Cordes became the first to break 1 minute, 50 seconds, winning the prelims in 1:49.79 and the final in 1:48.68. That was more than two seconds faster than the U.S. open record for the distance before his prelim.
He also won a second straight NCAA title in the 100 with a U.S. open record of 50.74 and became the first to break 50 seconds for 100 yards on a breaststroke relay leg (49.56) as Arizona won the medley relay.
"His improvements have come with his continued physical maturation, perfecting his technique, sticking with a race plan and not worrying about anybody else,'' Hansen said. "His NCAA swims were just a step in the direction of what we both know he is capable of. The sky is the limit."
Cordes admits to some surprise over how fast he swam at the NCAAs. And although the math is only an approximation, converting those times from short course yards (25-yard pool) to long course meters (50-meter pool) yields some verrrrrrry interesting numbers.
Using a calculator from swimswam.com, the 200 time converts to 2:04.63, more than two seconds better than the world record. The 100 time becomes 58.32, slightly faster than the world record.
"Long course is a completely different race," Cordes said. "If you go all out in the 100, you will die. In both the 100 and the 200, you really have to focus on being able to get into a stroke and a rhythm.
"The best in the world train long course all the time. For me, training long course in just the short span (since the end of the college season), it's nice to have the confidence from those NCAA times and feel good about yourself."
Cordes made his first world meet last December, the far less important short course championships (25-meter pool). He took third in the 100 breaststroke.
"His time is coming," Hansen said.
The clock agrees.
U.S. Swimming Championships
Where: Indiana University Natatorium, Indianapolis.
When: Tuesday through Saturday.
At stake: Places on the U.S. team for the World Championships on July 28–Aug. 4 in Barcelona, Spain. The top two in each event qualify, provided there are enough multiple-event qualifiers that the team does not exceed 26 men and 26 women.
TV/Internet: Tuesday, Universal Sports, 5-7 p.m.; Wednesday, Universal Sports, 5-7:30 p.m.; Saturday, WMAQ-Ch. 5, noon-1:30 p.m.; NBC Sports Network, 10-11 p.m. Webcast of every session at usaswimming.org/nationals. Prelims at 8 a.m.; finals at 5 p.m.
Whom to watch: Other than Michael Phelps and Rebecca Soni, a two-time champion in the 200 breaststroke, all the stars of the 2012 Olympic team will be competing. That includes Missy Franklin, who plans to swim six events, and Ryan Lochte, who should be a lot more interesting in the water than on his reality show. A number of Chicago-area swimmers also figure prominently, including Olympic 100-meter backstroke champion Matt Grevers.