Aside from the United States, there are very few countries where, across the board, the Olympic events have an overflow of FINA A-time qualifiers to where Olympic Trials are more of a race against each other rather than a race against the clock. China probably falls into this category, though it’s hard to ever know with the limited information that comes out of that country. Russia probably falls into that category in most races. To a lesser extent maybe Japan. Great Britain is getting to that point in their development, especially ahead of the 2012 home games.
But the country besides the United States where a game of picking “darkhorses” (let’s call them “darkdingoes” in honor of a more native animal) becomes most interesting is Australia. They have the depth of swimmers and events to the point where it really is a throw-down for Olympic spots, not just Olympic times.
Click here to see our favorite picks for American darkhorses.
Let’s take a look at a few of the Australian darkdingoes to make next year’s Olympic team. The timetable for the Aussies is a bit shorter than for the Americans, with their trials taking place from March 15-22, in Adelaide, but they also don’t have the interference of the Pan Am Games or the NCAA Championships (for the most part).
15-year old Bonnie MacDonald out of the Gold Coast’s Miami Swim Club is not exactly an underdog in the national swimming scene: she was the 2010 Australian runner-up in the 5k. But in terms of pool swimming, her national-level prowess is newly found. She lit up the FINA Junior World Championships two weeks ago with a new Meet Record in the girls 800 free in 8:32.30. At Miami, she trains with the reigning National Champion, Katie Goldman, which will continue to help push her (she’s already cut 5-seconds off of her career-best time this year). MacDonald has a tough competitive-edge for a swimmer as young as she is, and that usually bodes well in the longer races.
Her ability to qualify for the Olympic team could partially depend on what the swimmers around her do. Open water star Melissa Gorman has a very tough decision to make, for example. She has already qualified for London in the 10k marathon, but unlike at the World Championships, open water comes after pool swimming at next year’s Olympics. Gorman already had trouble with the 800 at Worlds, and it will be even harder for her to swim the 800 before the 10k. She won’t, however, have that conflict at trials, so if she goes for it she could qualify anyways. Kylie Palmer seems to be set to focus on the 200 and 400, but if she adds the 800 back into to her schedule, she’s very good there as well. Blair Evans also seems better suited to focus on those shorter freestyles. The 2nd spot in this 800 could come down to a fight between MacDonald and 17-year old Jessica Ashwood, who would also make a very good subtle sort of pick. If there’s any doubt about whether the battle between the two teenagers would be awesome, if it came down to that for the second spot, consider that their best times in 2011 were only .01 seconds apart. Could be a battle of will between two young swimmers.
At the other end of the age-spectrum is 27-year old Kelly Stubbins out of Melbourne, who trains with the Victoria Institute of Sport. She has made a few Australian international squads, including 2010 Pan Pacs, but never an Olympic or Long Course World Championship team until this year in Shanghai as a part of Australia’s 400 free relay. It seems odd to call a member of the World Championship team a “darkdingo”, but Stubbins’ spot on that relay is very precarious on the expectation of a healthy return from Emily Seebohm. Based on season-best times from this year, Stubbins is the odd swimmer out in either relay.
Stubbins is a 100/200 freestyler, and though the Australian free relays are incredibly crowded, I like her chances. Even at 27, Stubbins swam career-bests in both the 100 (54.93) and 200 (1:58.58) freestyles.
In the men’s freestyles, Cameron McEvoy impressed at the FINA Junior World Championships, including becoming the first swimmer in the history of the meet to break 50 seconds when he led off the Australian free relay in 49.67. That time leaves him only 11th in the Australian 2011 rankings, but if you compare his best time in August of 2011 to those from 12-months prior, he knocked off 1.6 seconds in that span. He’s only 17, and could still see big improvements before March’s Olympic Trials. The Australian 400 free relay is obviously good, as the defending World Champions, but if they want to feel really comfortable going towards London, they need to find improvements from somewhere besides James Magnussen. A healthy push from a youngster like McEvoy could be just the shot that Australia’s elite need to hold on to their title.
As of now, Kyle Richardson sits 6th in the Australian rankings in 48.92, which is well withing reach of McEvoy.
Travis Mahoney of the Nunawading swim club had a huge breakout meet at Australian Nationals when he took 5th at Aussie Nationals in the 200 IM, with a best time from prelims of 2:01.70; and tied for 3rd in the 400 IM in 4:21.22. Those swims earned him a spot on the World University Games squad, where he was slower in both races. Those swims knocked almost 4 seconds in the 200, and almost 11 seconds in the 400, off of his career-bests. He works with a solid IM training group at Nunawading, including Shane Asbury and Jeremy Saunders. In addition, his best piece of the IM is the backstroke, where he gets to work with 200 National Champion Ashley Delaney.
In terms of the top Australian IM’ers, he’s actually a touch older, so his youth isn’t as much of an advantage as it might seem. All three IM’ers that they sent to Shanghai were teenagers, including 17-year old Mitch Larkin. Still, if Mahoney can improve his opening butterfly leg with some easy speed, he’ll be in the mix.
An area where there’s a lot of opportunities for a darkhorse to step up is the men’s 200 backstroke. There are two young backstrokers from Victoria, both 18, who could jump up and take an Olympic spot. Matson Lawson (2:00.25) and Josh Beaver (2:01.11) both represent the Casey Tigersharks, and currently rank 4th and 5th, respectively in the event. Though Lawson has the better time, I think Beaver is the better pick for an upset and top-two spot. He gets a ton of speed for his size (he’s quite diminuative compared to Lawson), including a much-better 100 time of 55.83. If Beaver hits a growth-spurt, he could be a 1:58 200 backstroker by March.
If any of these swimmers are going to jump up and surprise to steal a spot on the 2012 Australian Olympic Team, then they need to start now, with only 6-months to go.