With the majority of the Spring National Championship season over around the World (of course, the US doesn’t have a big spring Nationals meet in World Championship years), it’s time to take a step back. We still have Brazil’s Maria Lenk trophy next week, but aside from that, most countries have pretty-well set their World Championship rosters. We could fill volumes with the story-lines from the various meets-and basically have- but we want to take the best of the best and look at them, as well as open them up for discussion.
These aren’t necessarily all stories about swimmers who will be 2011 World Champs, but they’re the ones that are (or should be) generating the most buzz and conversation.
1. Sun Yang fever has swept the world, and he was one of the first huge stories of the season with the times he posted at Chinese Nationals. He swam a 14:42 in the 1500 (ranked 12th best all-time), and now has by far the two fastest times in the post-suit era. His 800 time of 7:44.1 puts him 5-seconds clear of the rest of the world, 2 seconds clear in the 400 (3:41.48, which betters Tae-Hwan Park’s world-best from 2010 by .05). Even his 200 time of 1:44.99, his weakest of the events, is best in the world this year by half-a-second. He’s got Chinese swimming fans excited–the session with the men’s 1500m, where he could challenge Grant Hackett’s World Record, was the first to sell out at this summer’s World Championships. On top of all of that, he’s only 19 (and will be through Shanghai). This kid’s the real deal.
I don’t think any of these races will be a runaway. The Chinese swim so infrequently, and when they do the results are so hard to find, that it’s difficult to make any sound assertions about what his taper will show. I think that looking at a 14:38-ish is the worst case in the 1500, and a 7:43 or better can be hoped for in the 800. He’ll probably drop the 200 at World’s. He’s by no means locked in to the 400-800-1500 sweep, (Mellouli and Cochrane still lurk), but he’s in a great position to grab a huge Shanghai medal-haul.
2. With Eamon Sullivan on the slow-trail back from a rough heel injury, James Magnussen (who just turned 20 a few weeks ago) stormed to the top of the World Rankings in the men’s 100 free with a 48.29. In about 6 months, he’s gone from barely sneaking on to the Australian free relay (with a 48.94 from Pan Pac’s) to garnering some buzz as a strong darkhorse pick to medal in London. That time of 48.29 won’t hold up this summer in Shanghai (not that he’s done dropping yet), or probably even through next week and the Maria Lenk trophy. But it would have been top 5 in the world in 2010, and is a great springboard for 2012.
3. Magnussen isn’t the only Aussie who lit up the pool at their Nationals. The Australian women led a charge that I have been expecting for months that includes a big bounceback from a very difficult and long 2010 season. Their 200 freestylers were SMOKING fast, and it took 1:58.5 or better just to be in the top 9, led by a pair of 1:55.7’s from Kylie Palmer and Bronte Barratt. That doesn’t even include Emily Seebohm, who collapsed following the 100 back, but would have likely been in that A-final as well.
Let’s put that in perspective. Last year, the 3 fastest 800 free relays were the Americans, Chinese, and Hungarians. They had 6, 4, and 2 swimmers, respectively, at 1:58.5 or better. The Australian women have to be considered a favorite for Shanghai after that performance, and if they could enter a B-relay, they’d be very strong medal contenders too-with an aggregate time (no relay starts) of 7:52.98! Shocking stuff.
4. If the Australian women own the middle-distance right now, then the Dutch women are the overlords of the sprints. They hold the top 3 times in the world in the 50 free (Ranomi Kromowidjojo-24.35, Marleen Veldhuis-24.54, and Inge Dekker-24.69). The return of Marleen Veldhuis has taken a rock-star group of sprinters and made them darn near unbeatable. The dutch can assemble a full relay of 54.7 or better in the 100 free flat starts, and we haven’t even hit the championship meet yet.
5. The French Men are the dutch women of the men’s sprints. They have 4 out of the 6-best times in the world, led by a 48.3 from Fabien Gilot. In Shanghai, the A-relay will be Gilot, William Meynard, Yannick Agnel, and Alain Bernard. This means that Jeremy Stravius’ 48.82 from Nationals; the fastest 5o freestyler in the world (two-years running) Fred Bousquet; and Amaury Leveaux, who ranked 12th in the world last year; will all be either prelims-only swimmers or left out altogether. The question this summer will be if the Americans can stave them off. Team USA is capable of two 47’s flat-start (Phelps and Adrian), and another two 47’s off of relay starts (Lochte and Lezak, or maybe Garrett Weber-Gale). But so are the French. Should be another epic battle (with the Aussies, Russians, and maybe even Brazilians capable of pulling a major upset).
Ok, I promise no more freestyle.
6. Camille Lacourt is more than just a one-hit wonder, flash-in-the-pan type. Many questioned whether he could recapture his magic from last year where he scared both sprint backstroke world records, and I’d say that so far: mission accomplished. He won both events at French Nationals (the 50 in 24.36 and the 100 in 52.44) and is already approaching his marks from Europeans last year. He’s battled a little bit of an elbow problem, but seems to have come out of it no-worse for the wear. He’s still the man to beat in both of the shorter backstrokes.
7. If anyone’s going to beat Lacourt in the 100, it’s Japan’s Ryosuke Irie. In tough circumstances in post-earthquake Japan, he lit up their National Championships to the tune of a 53.10 100 backstroke and a 1:54.08 200 backstroke: the latter of which is the all-time best mark in textile. The Japanese don’t always have the greatest tapers in the world, but if he can even match his mark from Nationals in the 200, he’s going to be tough to beat.
8. The Japanese Breaststrokers hath released a reign of fury upon the world. So bad is it that last year’s 6th-ranked 200 breaststroker (and 10th-ranked 100 breaststroker) in the world, Yuta Suenaga, quit in a post-race interview after losing to Kitajima in a February short course meet. At the end of the day, they have the top two 100 breaststrokers in the world (Kitajima 59.44, and Suenaga 59.93) and 4 out of the 5 best 200 breaststokers.
9. Matt Targett is back on track to being a massive part of the Australian National team. After taking a brief hiatus from hard training, he roared back at Aussie Nationals and posted the world’s best time in the 50 fly (23.27), as well as top-10 times in the 50 free (22.15) and 100 free (48.66). Along with Ian Thorpe, if the Australians want to win relay gold in London, he’s going to be a huge part of the effort.
10. Ok, one more freestyle shot. The big rivalry of the meet this summer is shaping up to be Rebecca Adlington and Federica Pellegrini in the women’s 400 free. Adlington’s 4:02.84 was a huge number, and makes her the 2nd-best performer outside of the 2008-2009 rubber suit era (only Laure Manadou is faster outside of that era, though I’m not positive that all of the swims on the list were actually done in polyurethane). But Pellegrini was not far behind in 4:03.49, and still holds the two fastest swims in history. With such an early championship meet (the first week in March), it’s probable that Adlington was a little more rested because she has more time to build her yardage back up before Shanghai. But this sets up for a spectacular shootout.
11. If there was still any doubt after her impressive performance in Dubai, Spain’s Mireia Belmonte quashed speculation pretty quickly that she wouldn’t be able to turn her success over into the long course pool. She has the world’s top time in the 400 IM (4:34.91), and also has top-5 numbers in the 200 IM (2:10.26) and 200 fly (2:06.25). She’s definitely proven herself more-than-capable of working it in a 50 meter pool, though it’s still going to be hard to sweep those three races like she did in December.
12. Coming off of shoulder-surgery last fall that kept her out of the Pan Pac and Commonwealth Games, nobody was quite sure where Stephanie Rice would be in terms of training. She did exactly what she needed to do given the circumstances, and earned World Championship spots in both IM races (2:10.41/4:38.61), as well as both Olympic butterfly distances if she chooses to attack that many events. She unfortunately missed a spot on the 800 free relay, where she helped the Aussies win gold in Beijing, but way more importantly emerged from the meet reporting not one bit of shoulder soreness the whole week. That’s something that even swimmers with healthy shoulders can’t always say. This should reaffirm her confidence in her body’s abilities, and I wouldn’t want to be the one who bet against her this summer.
13. Japan’s Aya Terakawa blasted a 59.17 100 backstroke, that just missed her 59.13 from last year. Again, probably fairly rested for Japanese Nationals, but is still an awesome time.
14. The Russian Women, usually outshined by their male counterparts, were the real stars of Russian Nationals. Specifically, the emergence of a serious medley relay threat. Veronika Popova set new National Records in the 100 (54.22) and 200 (1:56.94) freestyles. Yulia Efimova (1:07.42) ripped up the breaststrokes, though both her 50 and 200 swims were better than her 100; and Anastasia Zueva looked similarly awesome in the backstrokes (59.35 in the 100). The big hole here is the butterflier, Irina Bespalova. She only swam a 58.99, a pretty good time for her, but at almost 30 isn’t getting any younger. They have three-legs to a gold-medal relay, but if they can’t figure out a sub-58 (relay split) butterflier, they might be left out of the medals completely. Either way, it’s exciting for the Russians to be bringing their women’s program to the level where their men’s is at.
15. Another program in a similar scenario is the South African women. Again, the men here have done some impressive things (like Cameron van der Burgh posting top-3 times in both the 50 and 100 breaststroke), but the women are bringing themselves up to that level as well. Wendy Trott is top-15 in both of the distance freestyles, and a group that includes Karin Prinsloo, winner of 5 National Titles, and Kathryn Meaklim swept the IM titles at only 21-years old. If Swimming South Africa plays their cards right, they could really develop some talent on the women’s side. If they don’t, their women might start jumping ship to the United States like so many of their men have done to get high-level training.
16. The American men are still clearly the favorites in the 800 free relay. But Russia and China’s relays are loaded with young (22 & under) swimmers who are making incredible improvements. Both Russia and China project out to about a 7:05 800 free relay as is, while I like the Americans at about a 7:02-low. I’m not sure that they’ll mature and grow enough to make up that 3-second gap by summer of 2011, but in the summer of 2012, this race is going to be ON.
17. Aleksandra Herasimenia is having a great 12-months, and currently ranks in the world top 10 in the 50 free (25.00), 100 free (54.28), and 50 back (28.06). In 2003, at only 17, a highly promising career was derailed by a two-year doping ban. But with a great Belarusian Championships in January, following a solid European Championships, it looks like she may finally be realizing her full potential. She’s been through a lot in her career, but is still only 25 years old. I’m going to be rooting for her to take a medal in Shanghai, and I think the 50 back is her best shot.