In the first part of the men’s meet, we picked Ryan Lochte to have a huge meet, and sweep gold in his four individual events, including two big wins over Michael Phelps.
As we move into the breaststroke, butterfly, and relay events, it’s time for Phelps to get in on the fun with some World Championships of his own.
In 2009, the men’s breaststroke races were all extremely tight. In the 200, for example, Hungary’s Daniel Gyurta out-touched Eric Shanteau by just .01 seconds. In fact, the average margin of victory in the three races was just over .05 seconds. While it’s going to be difficult that sort of competitive finish (simply from a statistical perspective), the story lines headed into this year’s meet are much more beefed up.
Men’s 50 breaststroke
1. Cameron van der Burgh (South Africa)
2. Felipe Silva (Brazil)
3. Fabio Scozzoli (Italy)
Darkhorse: Damir Dugonjic (Slovenia)
Breakdown: Van der Burgh has led the world in this race every year since 2007, where he ranked 2nd behind only Mark Gangloff. He’s learned how to successfully burn through all of his speed over 50 meters at the big meets, which is not always easy to do in this stroke. He won the World Championship in 2009, he won the Commonwealth Games Championship in 2010, and he should win the World Championship in 2011. Mark Gangloff will also be a factor here.
Men’s 100 breaststroke
1. Kosuke Kitajima (Japan)
2. Alexander Dale Oen (Norway)
3. Brenton Rickard (Australia)
Darkhorse: Felipe Silva (Brazil)
Breakdown: Though his Japanese teammates are definitely biting at his heels in the 200 breaststroke, Kitajima is still a dominant force in the 100. He’s been telling the media that he’s looking for World Records, suited or not, which means he’s confident coming off of a minor leg injury in April. He’s one of the real leaders of the USC breaststroking group, but he has to benefit from the competition he gets every day, whether training and competing domestically in Japan or abroad in the US. I might have only pegged Dale Oen for bronze before seeing his 59.98 (ranked 2nd in the world) at Norwegian Nationals last weekend. Going under a minute on a swim that was probably only a day or two into his taper, if that, is impressive, and I like him for silver.
Rickard was a heart-breaker in 2010: like many of the Australian men, he appeared to overextend himself with big tapers for LC Nationals, Pan Pacs, Commonwealth Games, and short course Worlds. He did earn a few medals out of it, but his best times in all three distances were from Nationals in March, which is certainly not the way anyone wants their season to go down. With a singular focus this year, he’ll be better and probably under a minute. Silva, after being a serious 50-meter specialist in through 2010, has finally figured out that he’s got the chops to contend over 100-meters. He’s already slashed more than a second off of his 2010 time in the 100 this year, and for the 2nd-best 50 breaststroker in history, that’s some scary upside.
Men’s 200 breaststroke
1. Kosuke Kitajima (Japan)
2. Naoya Tomita (Japan)
3. Eric Shanteau (USA)
Darkhorse: Michael Jamieson (Great Britain)
Breakdown: This is going to be a monumental race. In addition to the three listed above, there’s Christian vom Lehn from Germany, who was sub-2:09 at Nationals; a pair of Brit’s; the defending World Champ Daniel Gyurta; and Brazil’s Thiago Pereira, who’s been swimming out of his mind; who will all be chasing medals here. I’m going to take Kitajima’s word for it that he checked out on the 200 breaststroke at Japanese Nationals when he felt something in his leg tweak, and that he’s capable of going something very fast that his 100 earlier in the meet indicated. Tomita’s 2:08.2 was an awesome swim, but Kitajima was at 2:08.3 at Pan Pac’s last year, so we know it’s a time he can get to. Tomita’s history also suggests that he doesn’t have a lot more drop to go. As for Shanteau, I like him to keep the American men from going medal-less in the breaststrokes. He’s been putting up front-end speed in the 200 like he’s never done before (undoubtedly the Salo effect), and I think it will pay off at World’s. If I had to pick 4th-6th, I’d probably take Gyurta, though that time from vom Lehn is intimidating (early taper?)
Kris Gilchrist would be a great upset pick here, were it not for the fact that when he posted his 2:10.16 at ASA Nationals, which would’ve left him as the 4th-seed, two Brits had already qualified. As a result, he’s only swimming the 100.
Could the American men go medal-less in the breaststrokes? The last time that’s happened in any stroke was the 1994 World Championships, which were without 50 meter events aside from the freestyle. There, the Americans didn’t win a single medal in a butterfly event. You’ll remember that as the meet where the Chinese women absolutely dominated to the tune of 12 golds in 16 events. Among the medalists in those butterfly events was Lars Frolander, who is actually still competing for Sweden at the World Championships at 37.
Men’s 50 fly
1. Cesar Cielo (Brazil)
2. Matt Targett (Australia)
3. Roland Schoeman (South Africa)
4. Milorad Cavic (Serbia)
Darkhorse: Cullen Jones (USA)
Breakdown: If Cielo is allowed to swim, this will be the race with the least pressure, and thus I foresee it as his best chance at a championship. Last year, with his (relative) disappointment at Pan Pac’s, he still won this event in a world-best time. Without Rafael Munoz of Spain earning a qualifying mark (which is unfortunate, because he’s definitely a taper-swimmer who doesn’t often swim well in season), the other two medals are pretty open. I’ve really liked the way Targett has looked in the sprints since returning from a hiatus, and he should be silver (or gold if Cielo is out). It appears as though Schoeman had a bit of a fire lit in his belly after South African Nationals, so it will be hard to count against a medal from him in this race. This 50 butterfly is becoming more-and-more as a complimentary event for the 50 freestylers, rather than the 100 butterfliers, and I think Jones (along with other freestylers if they choose to swim it, like Andriy Govorov and Fred Bousquet) could be a real factor in this race.
Men’s 100 fly
1. Michael Phelps (USA)
2. Geoff Huegill (Australia)
3. Milorad Cavic (Serbia)
Darkhorse: Benjamin Starke (Germany)
Breakdown: I see this as the race that Phelps will win regardless of his conditioning, and he showed at the Canada Cup that he is tearing it up in the 100 fly right now. Huegill has really become a leader for this Australian team and seems to be too strong even at 32 (Google image search him, the guy is built like a house) to be denied a medal. Cavic has been laying low since World’s in 2009, but in the process has been swimming pretty decently. Something about racing Phelps always seems to get his gears going. In general, a lot of Germany’s Nationals swims have been discounted because of their incredibly fast qualifying times that required something close to full tapers. Still, a 51.65 from Starke is very quick, and tough to ignore.
Men’s 200 fly
1. Michael Phelps (USA)
2. Takeshi Matsuda (Japan)
3. Kaio Almeida (Brazil)
Darkhorse: Wu Peng (China)
Breakdown: Matsuda should have Phelps on upset alert in this race. He’s got the best time in the world this year, and his time from the Asian Games last year was better than Phelps’ from Pan Pac’s. This race is going to come down to the final stroke, and Phelps has a knack for pulling those races out. Wu Peng has beaten Phelps twice this year, which is not something that many (anybody?) can say in the last decade or so. What he’ll have to look out for is his tendency to have off-swims in early heats. The two Hungarians, Cseh and Biczo, will also be factors for bronze in this race (though I think Biczo might still be one more year away from a podium).
Men’s 400 free relay
Breakdown: Yes, if you look through World Rankings and psych sheets, it appears that the French have passed the Americans in this 100 free. After all, the French have four swimmers in the top 8 of the 100 free World Rankings, where the USA’s highest ranked swimmer in 2008 is 24th (Phelps). What people forget about, though, is that the Americans have those two surprise relay swimmers, Phelps and Ryan Lochte, who don’t compete the 100 individually at a high level, but are as good as anyone in the world. I’m most curious to see how, psychologically, the French decide to order their relay. The Russians have been good this year, but I don’t know if they’ve been impressive enough to warrant moving ahead of France for silver. The Italians are scary. They have three sprinters 21 or under, led by Luca Dotto. When you combine that youth with the experience of 29-year old Filippo Magnini, who was the 2005 and 2007 World Champion in the 100 free, they could rock a seriously-fast swim here.
Men’s 800 free relay
Breakdown: The emergence of Sun Yang at sub-1:45 this year makes China a real contender in this race. Their ability to contend for gold in this relay comes down to the swim of Zhang Lin. He has been in such awful shape this year, that China dropped him from the individual 800 free where he’s a World Record holder. They did enter him in this race individually though, so they seem to think he’s got everything figured out. The Russians took silver in this race in 2009, and were very young then. Their swims in the 200’s have been better this year than in the 100’s, though, so by no means are they counted out. The Americans again get my pick with Phelps and Lochte. The German’s are the only team in the world this year that can boast four swimmers under 1:48 already (though the Americans have been without a big taper meet, only Phelps has done it). This probably has most to do with the timing of their meet, but with a possible 1:44 from Biedermann on the anchor, that gives them advantage over competitors like Australia and Japan, who have depth but no anchor.
Men’s 400 medley relay
Darkhorse: The Netherlands
Breakdown: The USA is as vulnerable as it’s been in this medley relay since 2004 with the retirement of Aaron Peirsol and lack of a top-three 100 breaststroker. Lochte on the front of this relay could help assuage that concern, though this is the last event of a very long meet-schedule for him (including the 400 IM final earlier in the day). Phelps, no surprise is going to have to be the difference-maker for the Americans. France hasn’t had a 100 butterflier go better than 53.3 since the rubber suits went away. If Phelps is flirting with a 50.3 flat-start, and the Americans have a three-second advantage in just that one leg, it could make up a lot of ground they’ll lose on the first half against Camille Lacourt and Hugues Duboscq.
Or, could the Japanese sneak in and upset the whole turnip truck? Between Irie, Kitajima, and Fujii, they very well could have the lead at 300 meters. That’ however, is going to leave them with about a 48.7 on their anchor, compared to 47-mids from most of the Final. They probably won’t hold off the French or the Americans, but if they can fight back James Magnussen’s charge for Australia, they are bronze-quality.
The Netherlands is the “Johnny-come-lately” of this party, as their relay will be full of a bunch of guys most people haven’t heard of: Nick Driebergen, Lennart Stekelenburg, Joeri Verlinden, and Sebastiaan Verschuren, but they had a lot of exciting swims at Eindhoven in April. Thsi group DQ’ed in 2009 with an average age of about 21, but with the same exact squad likely to compete in Shanghai, they’ll have to shake off those demons.
I gave the Americans the sweep on the relays. The most talked about are the 400 and 800 free relays, though if I had to pick one for them to go down in, it would actually be the medleys.
We’re not done picking apart the relays. Next week, we’ll really disect each leg of these relays, and go much deeper than the top 3 or 4 to see what’s going to happen where.