Note: Pan Pacs rules allow each country to enter as many swimmers as they want in prelims, but only two can swim in the A-final and a third in the B final. Keep that in mind as we will not pick more than two swimmers for a country in our top 6 picks.
When you think of junior breaststroke stars in the international swimming scene right now, the first name that comes to mind is Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte. But with all due respect to the current world record-holder, Japan has its own young breaststroking phenom who is nipping at Meilutyte’s heels. Kanako Watanabe is the top seed in both breaststroke races heading into Pan Pacs, and she holds the second-ranked times in the world in both the 100 and 200.
Watanabe is no newcomer to the scene, having competed in the London Olympics at the age of 15. But she’s having an outstanding season, winning titles at the Japan Open, Japanese Nationals and on the Mare Nostrum circuit. Watanabe has been 1:05.88 this season, just two tenths back of world leader Meilutyte.
In the 100, she’ll have to compete with a strong US trio, plus one of her own countrywomen. Former World Record-holder Jessica Hardy tied with rising American star Micah Lawrence at U.S. Nationals two weeks ago, and the two will clash again in Australia. At 1:06.51, the duo rank 6th in the world for 2014, but clearly have their work cut out for them in tracking down Watanabe if she’s on. Joining them is Breeja Larson, the splashy Olympian with a knack for big breakout swims. The trio is an interesting mix: Hardy is a pure sprinter from Club Trojan who also swims the 50 and 100 free. Lawrence is a 200 specialist who is beginning to show elite speed over the 100 distance. Larson might be the most natural for the 100, where she can use her size and power without being forced to spin out front.
Japan has two more of the top 6 seeds, meaning those 6 all belong to the US or Japan. Satomi Suzuki won a pair of breaststroking medals in London, including bronze at this distance. She sits 5th in the world, and there’s a good chance she’s been saving her best stuff for late summer meets like Pan Pacs or Asian Games. Then there’s Rie Kaneto, at 25 a longtime staple of the Japanese swimming roster.
Only four of those six can make the A final, with the other two likely doing battle in the B heat. Fighting for the other championship heat slots are most of the top swimmers from Australia and Canada. Lorna Tonks and 29-year-old Sally Hunter are the top two seeds for the host nation, with Tera Van Beilen leading the Canadians.
Pick-6: My Top Six Predictions (With Season-Bests)
- Kanako Watanabe (JPN) – 1:05.88
- Jessica Hardy (USA) – 1:06.51
- Satomi Suzuki (JPN) – 1:06.48
- Micah Lawrence (USA) – 1:06.51
- Lorna Tonks (AUS) – 1:07.27
- Tera Van Beilen (CAN) – 1:08.11
Kanako Watanabe also leads the seeds in this one, but she’ll have a major battle to be the top Japanese finisher. That’s because the co-national record-holders are both entered just behind her. Satomi Suzuki and Rie Kaneto have each been 2:20.72, Suzuki in London and Kaneto at the 2009 Japan University Championships.
Suzuki is an interesting case, holding national records in the 50 and 200 breast, but saw Watanabe steal the 100 mark earlier this year. That combination of speed and endurance makes her an intriguing pick in this race, provided she can get by Watanabe and fend off Kaneto.
Australia enters a pair of swimmers seeded in the top 5. Taylor McKeown sits fourth in the world this year, and looks like another legitimate threat to the Japanese trio.McKeown won Australian Nationals and extended her dominance to the Commonwealth Games, putting up 2:22-lows in both competitions. She was part of a 1-2 sweep for Australia at Commonwealths, as Sally Hunter took home second place; Hunter is the 5th seed here in front of the home crowd in what’s probably her better of the two breaststroke distances.
This longer event is also the primary event for the USA’s Micah Lawrence. Lawrence was a 2012 Olympian in the event, taking 6th overall, and won the U.S. National title two weeks ago on a huge last-50 comeback. She’ll likely need some more early speed to keep pace with Watanabe & co., but Lawrence seems like the best medal chance for the U.S.
She’ll be joined by Breeja Larson, the recent college grad and fellow 2012 Olympian.
A few more names to keep track of: Japan’s Mio Motegi could be the best swimmer in this field, but she’ll need to get by her three teammates to do it. She ranks 8th in the world so far this year, still behind Watanabe and Kaneto and just ahead of Suzuki. Canada enters veteran Martha McCabe, national champion Tera Van Beilen, plus young star Kierra Smith, the national runner-up and 5th-place finisher at Commonwealths, Canada’s top Glasgow finisher.
Pick-6: My Top Six Predictions (With Season-Bests)
- Rie Kaneto (JPN) – 2:21.58
- Kanako Watanabe (JPN) – 2:21.09
- Taylor McKeown (AUS) – 2:22.10
- Micah Lawrence (USA) – 2:23.05
- Sally Hunter (AUS) – 2:23.33
- Breeja Larson (USA) – 2:24.16