SHENZHEN, China -- The Summer University Games are hardly the Olympics or world championships. They're not the Pan American Games. For swimmers, they don't even offer a stage on the order of the Pan Pacific championships. Even so, these Games always herald the potential for breakthrough.
If, at next year's U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Tim Phillips makes the team that goes to London it won't be a huge surprise to swimming insiders. He announced himself here with four medals overall, two gold, the top U.S. swim performance of these 26th Summer University Games.
Phillips, who has finished two years at Ohio State, won both the 50 and 100 butterflys. He swam the second leg in the gold medal-winning 400 free relay. He swam the fly portion of the silver medal-winning medley relay.
His effort capped a performance that saw the U.S. team win a competition-high total of 29 swim medals. Japan took 27. New Zealand, intriguingly, took third, with 13.
A couple weeks ago, at the world championships In Shanghai, the U.S. coaches said the American program held unusual depth. Wait, they said, until you see some of these college swimmers.
Again, that's what in large measure makes these University Games such a novel proposition -- the notion of seeing tomorrow's stars today.
Rebecca Soni, for instance, the current Olympic and world breaststroke champion, was a gold medalist in the 200 breast at the 2005 University Games. Dana Vollmer, winner in Shanghai of the 100 butterfly, was also a member of that 2005 U.S. University Games team.
Though the fields here would obviously not match up with those at worlds, it's not as if there wasn't talent in Shenzhen. Hungary's Laszlo Cseh, arguably the third-best all-around swimmer in the world, along with Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, raced here, winning three gold medals, in the 200 fly and the 200 and 400 IMs.
Phillips grew up in West Virginia, of all places, where he went to Parkersburg High School. But he comes from an Ohio State family. His dad, Tom, swam at Ohio State. As a boy, Tim Phillips went to Buckeye football games. He went to Ohio State summer swim camps.
Signing with Ohio State, and coach Bill Wadley, and the new pool there -- one of the best in the country -- was pretty much a slam dunk.
In his first year at Ohio State, Phillips helped the Buckeyes win their first Big Ten championship in 54 years.
At the 2010 U.S. nationals, he finished third in the 100 fly, behind Phelps and Tyler McGill, in 52.41.
A couple weeks later, at the Pan Pacs, he finished ninth, winning the B final, in 52.21.
This is where things started getting even more interesting for Tim Phillips.
At the end of his sophomore year at Ohio State, Phillips moved down to Charlotte, N.C., to train with SwimMAC and coach David Marsh, along with the likes of Cullen Jones, Nick Brunelli, Nick Thoman and Josh Schneider, other U.S. national team members.
There are two spots up for grabs next summer at the Trials in the 100 fly. Unless something goes horribly awry, Phelps is going to get one of those spots. He's the Olympic and world champion in the event multiple times over, including again in Shanghai in 2011, when he wasn't even in tip-top shape.
At the 2010 nationals and 2010 Pan Pacs, McGill finished second, behind Phelps.
The 2011 U.S. nationals took place after Shanghai. Phelps, having already won worlds, opted not to race at nationals. Both McGill and Phillips, though, were there. This year in the 100 fly, Phillips came in first and McGill came in second -- Phillips in 51.69, McGill in 51.84.
For the math-challenged -- Phillips is roughly six-tenths of a second faster in 2011 than he was in 2010. That's a marked improvement, and 2012 is yet to come.
Here in Shenzhen, his winning 100 time, 52.06, reflected more the end of a long summer of racing than a suggestion of anything else; he led the race at the turn and won by more than half a second, over Tom Shields of Cal-Berkeley, who touched in 52.62, making it a 1-2 race for the Americans.
Phillips is an immensely likable 20-year-old from Small Town USA. When he got done swimming at this year's nationals, he said, he had dozens of text messages on his phone, "from, like, everyone at home."
When he won the 100, he pointed to the American flag on his cap. Representing the United States, he said, is "always a big deal for me."
"Every time he goes on a trip," said Wadley, his coach at Ohio State, who was here in Shenzhen, "he comes back hungrier, he comes back better, he comes back more excited. It has been quite a trajectory."