The huge take-home from day 1 of the Baku European Games has been the explosive swimming of Dutch teenager Marrit Steenbergen.
Steenbergen has been on the edge of greatness for awhile now, but Baku has to serve as her official “breakout” meet on the international stage. On day 1, Steenbergen blasted a 53.97 in semifinals of the 100 free, rattling the Junior World Record.
And she wasn’t done yet. Later in the evening, Steenbergen anchored the Dutch relay in a blistering 53.00, powering her team from fourth to second.
Those are big-league times, the type that would put Steenbergen into the driver’s seat for a relay spot on even the toughest of world relays.
In fact, Steenbergen’s ascension means she very likely will be a part of one of the world’s best relays shortly. The Dutch are building up an outstanding sprint corps, and could even be reaching a stratosphere in the 4×100 free relay that only Australia currently occupies.
The Dutch were second at last summer’s European Championships in the 4×100 free relay, but that was without Olympic gold medalist Ranomi Kromowidjojo, who bowed out of the meet in advance. That left a lot of burden on current world leader Femke Heemskerk, who swam admirably, but couldn’t hold off Sweden’s otherworldly Sarah Sjostrom in the closing meters.
With Kromowidjojo back in action at the Doha Short Course Worlds, though, the Dutch were unstoppable, winning all three gold medals in the free relays and breaking world records with each swim.
Obviously, short course and long course are two different animals, and the Dutch domination in Doha was majorly aided by the absence of Australia’s Campbell sisters. But Steenbergen’s emergence might be enough for the Dutch to give Australia a run for its money, if not this summer, then by the Rio 2016 Olympics.
The Aussie roster is loaded, with Cate and Bronte Campbell representing probably the best 1-2 punch in the world in the 100 free, combining with strong depth – there’s a reason the Aussies smashed the world record at Commonwealth Games last summer, going over five seconds faster than the Dutch would at Euros.
But there’s reason to believe the Dutch could match up favorably on nearly every leg. Here’s a quick look at the likely competitors for each team:
*Note: Australia’s depth means we could see a few of these legs swapped out, with perhaps Brittany Elmslie or even Madison Wilson getting into the hunt. For now, we’ll use the returning legs from Australia’s world record-setting relay last year.
Cate Campbell vs. Femke Heemskerk
This is the slugfest. Currently tied for the lead in our season-long World Rankings, Campbell and Heemskerk are on the short list of gold medal favorites in the individual 100 free in both Kazan and Rio. Very much a tossup here.
Bronte Campbell vs. Ranomi Kromowidjojo
The younger Campbell sister has been faster this season, but Kromowidjojo has the better lifetime-best by about a tenth, and her three Olympic gold medals in 2012 have to count for something.
Melanie (Schlanger) Wright vs. Marrit Steenbergen
Steenbergen is obviously less of a proven commidity, but at just 15 years old, she probably has more upside at this point in her career, too. Wright (known as Mel Schlanger last summer before getting married) was 52.76 on that world record-setting relay; Steenbergen was 53.00 at European Games this week. How much will that split change by Rio? That’s hard to predict.
Emma McKeon vs. Inge Dekker
This is probably the biggest advantage for Australia, with that depth really showing through. McKeon was a lifetime-best 53.32 just last month and still seems to be on the rise. Dekker is a star in the short course World Cup setting, but can she keep things close enough long course to give her teammates a shot?
It’s no surprise that these two federations are dominating the world ranks in the 100 free right now. Australia currently has 5 of the top 8 swimmers in the world, and with Steenbergen, the Netherlands has 3 in the top 11: