As the one-minute barrier no longer seems to be quite the challenge that it once was, the women’s 100 backstroke should be a lot of fun at this summer’s World Championships.
At the Olympics last year, this race took a 1:00.2 to just make it out of prelims, a 59.8 to make finals, and a 58.8 to find oneself upon the medal podium. The latter of those two have happened before (albeit at the 2009 World Championships in rubber suits), but even then there wasn’t the same depth in the preliminary rounds.
American Missy Franklin is the defending Olympic champion in this race, and appears to have continued to push hard this year, avoiding the double danger of the post-Olympic swoon and the senior-year swoon that we see from some American high school students.
Year-over-year, she was faster at this summer’s trials (58.67) than she was at last summer’s (58.85). But here’s the thing: she needs to be faster if she wants to feel comfortable to repeat her gold medal success from the Olympics.
That’s because of Australia’s Emily Seebohm. Franklin’s American fans might overlook her, because when Seebohm was in the states for the Santa Clara Grand Prix, she was just shy of being a non-factor (she only made A-finals in the 100 and 200 backstroke, placing 5th and 4th respectively, and being nowhere near Franklin’s wins). But Seebohm swims big at big meets, and her 59.17 from Australia’s trials ranks her 3rd in the world.
It’s going to take a 58-low to win in Barcelona this year, so a 59.1 isn’t going to scare anybody too badly, but that’s just the setup to show that she’s still swimming well this year.
The spike is that, you will recall, Seebohm had the fastest time of all three rounds at the Olympics last year with her 58.23 in prelims, she just did it in the wrong round. Franklin was a 58.33 in finals, and Seebohm walked away with a silver medal and the Olympic Record.
The point is: Missy is the reigning global champion, but the margins are slim enough that this race will come down to who gets those tenths or hundredths in the finals in Barcelona. By those criteria, Franklin has to be the favorite based on last year, but Seebohm has every opportunity in the world to prove that she can step up too, especially now that she’s been able to put together back-to-back training cycles together for the first time in a long well.
It’s a little cliche, and perhaps boring, but my pick for the medalists is pretty much to chalk from what we saw at the Olympics last year, with bronze for Japan’s Aya Terakawa. She’s extremely consistent (she was a 58.83 at the Olympics, and has been a 58.84 this year), and though she hasn’t shown us the ability to get down to Franklin/Seebohm times, she’s not going to have any big time-adds either.
Those are the three Olympic medalists, and the three best in the world thus far in 2013. Who, then, is within reach of picking them off? It doesn’t appear as though there are many. The second American, Liz Pelton, is 2nd in the world this year with a 59.27, and gave Franklin a full run for her money at U.S. Nationals. That was a best time for Pelton, and one long overdue. If she’s got another little bit of a taper in her, she could go after bronze in this race.
Sinead Russell could be a sleeper to get onto the medal stand. After suffering a hip injury, she fell out in the semi-finals of this race at the Olympics, Prior to that, however, she was well-on-track to be sub-59. She had a very good first season of training in Florida, and has been really solid this year (she was 59.9 at Canada’s Trials – the fastest she’s been prior to the World Championships).
China’s Fu Yuanhui was lucky number 8 at last year’s Olympics. She finished 8th in the prelims, she finished 8th in the semi-finals, and then 8th in the finals. The number 8 is a good one in Chinese culture, especially several 8’s together (A phone number of all 8’s was sold for more than a quarter-of-a-million US dollars once in China), and at only 17 years old looks like she may have taken over the mantle as China’s top backstroker – she leads the world in the 50, for example.
Her teammate Zhao Jing is also on the roster, and though she’s not been great this year, she was still very, very good at the Olympics, finishing 6th.
Russian Anastasia Zueva swam well at the World University Games, but is recovering from an injury and preparing for her own wedding, and still has to have another surgery on a steel plate in her leg. She’s out of this meet, though she might have been the best candidate (when healthy) to steal a medal away.
The other Australian is Belinda Hocking, who has also been very good this season (but not quite as good as in past years).
Georgia Davies will carry the British torch after breaking a minute in-season for the first time in Eindhoven in April. She performed much better than a lot of the British team at their late-June trials, despite spending a lot of time working on her law degree that she deferred after the Olympics. Even though Lauren Quigley bested her at that meet, and is likely going to be a star by the 2016 Olympics, this year I’d give Davies a better chance at
Expect Seebohm to lead this race at the turn, with Terakawa and Franklin not too hard behind. On the back-half, though, look out for those two, along with Hocking, to close very well. Yuanhui is a bit of a mystery, as she’s clearly one of the best 50 backstrokers in the world, but she’s not a big fast starter; she swims a very balanced race. She still has to prove that she can get through three rounds; if she does, she could be top-4, if she doesn’t, then she could be 8th again.
Our top 8 picks, with the best times since January 1, 2010:
1. Missy Franklin, USA, 58.33
2. Emily Seebohm, Australia, 58.23
3. Aya Terakawa, Japan, 58.83
4. Belinda Hocking, Australia, 59.29
5. Liz Pelton, USA, 59.27
6. Yuanhui Fu, China, 59.56
7. Georgia Davies, Great Britain, 59.92
8. Jing Zhao, China, 58.94
Darkhorse: Katinka Hosszu, Hungary, 1:00.24