As the 2011 FINA World Championships looms now only a week away (with the swimming portion beginning a week later on July 24th), the hot-topic is Cesar Cielo and his pending suspension (or not) from the World Championships.
This will not be the last big story of the meet, however. Somebody will get hurt, miss a flight, DQ a relay, oversleep a session, lop 4-seconds off of a career best for a surprise medal, swimmers will be pulled from events for lack of fitness, or any other number of explosive news stories that will blow up the swimming community again.
With that in mind, I begin (in earnest) my first World Championship prediction piece. We’ll split these into four separate articles, to hopefully prevent some prediction-overload. We’ll also include a few interjections that go beyond just why we picked who we did, and look at things like why we didn’t pick who we didn’t pick. I’m starting with the women in the hopes that the Cielo situation will be worked out sooner rather than later, and beginning with the freestyles, backstrokes, and IM’s. Next week, we’ll let our fans get in on the fun…
Women’s 50 free
1. Ranomi Kromowidjojo (The Netherlands)
2. Therese Alshammar (Sweden)
3. Aleksandra Herasimenia (Belarus)
Darkhorse – Dorothea Brandt (Germany)
Breakdown: This one is going to come down to Kromowidjojo’s youth (at 20) versus Alshammar’s experience (at 33). Alshammar has the best time in the post-rubber era with a 24.27 from last year, but an unfortunate bout of illnesses has kept Kro from a true taper meet for years. Plus, she’ll have the motivation of chasing countrymate Inge de Bruijn’s textile best of 24.13 to give herself a real claim to the fastest Dutch sprinter ever: a not-inconsequential title. Herasimenia is finally living up to the talent that she showed at 16, before a doping suspension derailed her career, and this is one of several potential medals for her. With all of the focus on Britta Steffen, the two-time World Record holder, the pressure is off of the strong and long Brandt, who could sneak in for a medal.
Women’s 100 free
1. Ranomi Kromowidjojo (The Netherlands)
2. Fran Halsall (Great Britain)
3. Alicia Coutts (Australia)
Darkhorse: Natalie Coughlin (USA)
Breakdown: I take Kromowidjojo in the sweep, as I think she’s the greatest female sprinter of her generation. I like Halsall’s chances better here in the 100 than I do in the 50, and she looked on fire at ASA Nationals in June. Now, without the 100 fly to worry about, she can really focus and turnover this 100 free. Coutts has come on like a freight-train the last two years and won 5 golds at the Commonwealth Games. I see her winning three individual medals (of some color) in Shanghai and really implanting herself with some international recognition. Coughlin won’t be a darkhorse in the 100 back, but nobody thinks about her in this 100 free. She’s raced so infrequently this season, it’s hard to really know where she’s at, but she’s still capable of throwing out a 53.4 or 53.5 to medal here.
Two races gone, and no mention of a medal for the dual World-Record holder Britta Steffen, who will be a very buzzy name at this year’s World Championships. She’s certainly looked as good as anyone since her return from a swimming hiatus, but she hasn’t been the dominant force that she was in 2009 in rubber suits where nobody could touch her in the 100. If she’s going to medal, I like her chances there, but I’m worried about the late timing of the German Trials that forced her into a later-than-ideal rest period (she had to go 24.8 or a 54.o just to make the team). Hopefully, the DSV straightens that mess out in time for their Olympic Trials and she can medal in London, but I see her going home empty-handed (maybe two fourth place finishes?) from China.
Women’s 200 free
1. Federica Pellegrini (Italy)
2. Allison Schmitt (USA)
3. Camille Muffat (France)
Darkhorse: Yi Tang (China)
Breakdown: There’s been some reports in the Italian papers that Pellegrini is emotionally shaky, because of some trouble in her relationship with fellow swimmer Luca Marin, according to SwimNews. While we’ve seen what can happen in these races with emotional baggage weighing swimmers down (ala Laure Manaudou in the 2008 Olympics), I’m going to play the optimist and pick Pellegrini anyways. I was a little unsure on how to order the other two – Schmitt has had a relatively quick turnaround after the NCAA season to work with, but Muffat seems to be focused on the 400. I’ll take Schmitt based on history, especially without the pressure of Dana Vollmer in the race.
Women’s 400 free
1. Rebecca Adlington (Great Britain)
2. Camille Muffat (France)
3. Federica Pellegrini (Italy)
Darkhorse: Katie Hoff (USA)
Breakdown: This event will hand out the first women’s medals at the World Championships, and it will be a great way to start things off. Adlington swam a 4:02.8 in early March, and backed it up with a couple of 4:08’s-or-worse the rest of the season. What that says to me is that she was pretty well rested for the first leg of the British trials, but has been hitting the laps hard since then. She’s confident enough that she’s barely raced at all in 2011 (only three meets on her record) and who can blame her. I don’t know that anyone else in the field is capable of the 4:01 that I see out of her. Pellegrini took the race out in 1:59 in Rome, and held off an Adlington charge, but as Tom Willdridge put it, I don’t see her having the same confidence without a rubber-suit to carry her through the back half of the race. Until two weeks ago and the Paris Open, this looked a two-swimmer race. But Muffat put up a great swim there to insert herself as a real challenger. Hoff only has two events to worry about in Shanghai: this individual 400 and the 800 free relay. That streamlined preparation (compared to six events in Beijing at her last International Championship) could lead to a surprise medal in this 400.
These women’s middle-distance races are in a real golden-era right now, and there’s a load of swimmers with medal potential in another year that didn’t even get a mention here. Kylie Palmer of Australia is a great example: she leads the world in the 200 free this year, but I don’t see her in the top 5 in Shanghai. The Netherlands’ Femke Heemskerk, a great young swimmer like Sarah Sjostrom, the new Russian Record holder Veronika Popova, plenty of Chinese swimmers, and maybe even Chloe Sutton coming down for the 400. There’s no room for error in prelims in the early rounds of the 200 and the 400.
Women’s 800 free
1. Rebecca Adlington (Great Britain)
2. Kate Ziegler (USA)
3. Lotte Friis (Denmark)
Darkhorse: Grainne Murphy (Ireland)
Breakdown: Adlington has been disgustingly good in this event, though nobody thinks she’ll get close to her World Record of 8:14.10. She’s got the top three times in the World in this event in 2011, and four out of the top 6. That 6th-ranked time came at ASA Nationals in June, where on full training she went a 4:24 and actually negative-split her race (out in a 4:12.5, back in a 4:12.2). That’s unreal pacing, and based on what we saw from her in the 400, she wasn’t even close to her top form. Either American (Ziegler or Chloe Sutton) could medal here, but Ziegler’s got about three years of pent-up frustrations to take out on this race. Friis is the distance swimmer that never really gets talked about as much as she should, despite being the defending World Champion in this event, and she won’t slip below bronze. As for Murphy, this is her last meet where she’ll swim in anonymity, and I think she’s the best hope of Ireland’s goal to put a swimmer in an Olympic final in 2012. By then, however, I doubt that she’ll be sneaking up on anybody. In Shanghai, she might still have a bit of an element of surprise in her favor, which always plays better in the longer races.
Women’s 1500 free
1. Chloe Sutton (USA)
2. Lotte Friis (Denmark)
3. Kristel Kobrich (Chile)
Darkhorse: Erika Villaecija (Spain)
Breakdown: In 2009, Sutton was 8th in the final of this race while still identifying as an “open water swimmer.” Now, a year after turning her sights exclusively to the pool, we’re ready to see her unveil the effect of all of her hard work. You know with her open water background that she is going to train as hard as anyone else, and (in whispers, as it’s Sutton’s least favorite topic of conversation) she had the most ground to be gained simply by learning how to do a flipturn like a professional pool-swimmer. If Sutton isn’t the winner here, then it has to be Friis, who was the only swimmer in the world under 16-minutes in 2010. Kobrich carries the weight of a nation on her back, as one of the Chile’s most accomplished athletes ever in any sport. She took bronze at Pan Pac’s last year as well. Villaecija was 5th at the 2008 Olympics in the 800, an event where she was also last year’s Short Course World Champion. Distance freestyles are kind of becoming “a thing” for Spain, and Villaecija is the leader of that group. In long course, she seems to be better in the longer race, which gives her a good possibility of a medal.
What about Australia’s Melissa Gorman in the distance events? She was, afterall, the Pan-Pac Champion last year. The difference between last year’s Pan Pac’s and this year’s World Championships, however, is that Gorman will have the draining open water swims before hand, rather than afterwards like she did last season. If she had skipped the open water competition, I would’ve picked her as the bronze-medalist, but as it is I see her struggling to place in the top 5.
Women’s 50 back
1. Gao Chang (China)
2. Aleksandra Herasimenia (Belarus)
3. Anastasia Zueva (Russia)
Darkhorse: Emily Seebohm (Australia)
Breakdown: I’ve got the “Chris Desantis” fever, and the only cure is more Gao Chang. She was the fastest in the world in 2010, though this year wasn’t great at Chinese Nationals with her big rival Jing Zhao not competing in this race. I think she’ll step up on the big stage though. For Herasimenia, who I think has a good shot to medal in the 50 free as well, this is her best event and would put a total cap on her redemption story. Of course, if China sneaks Zhao, the defending World Champion in both long course and short course, into this race despite her not swimming it this year, the whole story changes and she immediately becomes the favorite. Chinese Media reports that she’ll only swim the 100 and 200, however.
Women’s 100 back
1. Jing Zhao (China)
2. Aya Terakawa (Japan)
3. Natalie Coughlin (USA)
Darkhorse: Julia Wilkinson (Canada)
Breakdown: Zhao is the best swimmer in the world in this event, and though that doesn’t always mean a victory, in front of a home crowd I like her chances. Terakawa, has been fast many times this year, which is ok given that her best time is a 59.1. She won’t come down much off of that mark, but I also don’t see her needing to go a whole lot faster than that at World’s. Coughlin was a bit of a sentimental pick here. If she’s going to medal here, she’s going to have to prove that she’s put in the pool time to get it done. The level of competition in this race is too high for her to rely on her incredible walls like she was able to do short course in Dubai. Julia Wilkinson sneaks ever-closer to that one-minute mark every time she swims this race, and finally feels like her shoulder is back to normal three-years after surgery. She might be the biggest long-shot darkhorse I pick, but she’s not as far off as the times might seem.
Women’s 200 backstroke
1. Jing Zhao
2. Elizabeth Simmonds (Great Britain)
3. Belinda Hocking (Australia)
Darkhorse: Alexianne Castel (France)
Breakdown: Chinese media is reporting that Jing Zhao will swim this race, though not the 50, despite having not competed in it this year. That makes her the automatic favorite. Simmonds is so consistent in this race, and that’s going to pay off at the World Championships. Hocking has gotta be a medalist pick if you buy the results from Australian Nationals as an indication that the Aussies have turned things around from last season. Meagan Nay is a popular Australian choice too, but I’ll take Hocking’s 2:06.8 from April over Nay’s 2:07.1 from June, though the latter’s swim in Santa Clara was very impressive. If Liz Pelton were swimming this race, she’d be a top three contender for sure, but she’s not, so look out for Beisel, who’s finally fully indoctrinated to Gregg Troy’s system in Florida, to flirt with bronze. There isn’t much in the way of good darkhorses (it’s a pretty big dropoff from the big names to the rest of the swimmers), but France’s Alexianne Castel is the best option there because of her age: she’ll turn only 21 the day after the World Championships begin.
If USA Swimming had managed to swap Missy Franklin and Liz Pelton in the 100 and 200 backs, there’s a good chance that there could be an extra medal coming in. With how things stand, I like Franklin’s chances in the 200 better than Pelton’s in the 100, based on Franklin’s bronze at short course World’s. It was also tough not to give Zueva another medal. She’s probably the most balanced amongst all of the backstrokers in the competition across all three events along with another gut-wrenching miss, Gemma Spofforth. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either one of them medal, especially in the 100 backstroke. It’s hard to pick Chinese swimmers with the limited information coming out about who will swim what events, but things shake up significantly if we find that Zhao will be in all three backstrokes.
Women’s 200 IM
1. Ariana Kukors (USA)
2. Shiwen Ye (China)
3. Mireia Belmonte (Spain)
Darkhorse: Julia Wilkinson (Canada)
Breakdown: WOW is this women’s 200 IM field loaded. When you look down the list of candidates, you go about 10 deep with swimmers who have a great claim at a medal. Excluded from my picks are the European Champions 1A and 1B (separated by only .01), the defending long course bronze medalist, the defending Olympic gold and silver medalists, and the current World #2. But Kukors asserted herself as a favorite for top two with her 2:09.5 in Santa Clara. Ye is the textile-record holder, and this will be a great battle. For Kukors to hold off Ye for the win, it’s going to come down to her giving a little extra oomph on the backstroke leg. Belmonte, the short course World Champion, gets the benefit of the doubt on all of the stories we’ve heard about how hard she’s trained through very good in-season swims. It’s the first of her brutal finals triple (400 IM, 200 fly), so I think that she’ll be fresh enough to medal. Alicia Coutts will be a popular pick for a medal, but this will be her 2nd final of the day along with the 100 fly. Wilkinson is my pick again as the darkhorse – she was a finalist in Beijing in this race shortly before shoulder surgery, so you know she was hurting.
Women’s 400 IM
1. Hannah Miley (Great Britain)
2. Mireia Belmonte (Spain)
3. Katinka Hosszu (Hungary)
Darkhorse: Anja Klinar (Slovenia)
Breakdown: The 400 IM isn’t quite as deep as the 200 IM, but it’s still got plenty of medal candidates. Miley is the clear favorite, in my mind. She won both the European and Commonwealth Games Championships last year, and with only one meet to focus on this year, she’s going to be very swift. The longer the race gets, the more confidence I have in Belmonte. Hosszu is the defending World Champion, and the silver will be a race between her and Elizabeth Beisel. After NCAA’s last year, and as the defending champion, I give the mental edge to Hosszu. Klinar took bronze in this race at the 2004 European Championship meet when she was only 17. That was her last major medal in any event. The last year or so, however, she’s really kicked things into gear.
I think Rice is a little too short off of her recovery to win a medal in either IM. By London though, all bets are off (or on as the case may be). No medal picks for Coventry either in three attempts. Both of these facts make me a little nervous.
In looking through my picks, I’ve only got 4 American medals thus far, which is a lot fewer than other pickers have chosen, especially those who reside stateside. Places where the Americans could make up some ground in the medal count in this portion include the distance freestyles and another medal in the backstrokes somewhere. But, looking at the 2009 results, the American women only had four medals through this same set of events, so maybe it’s not that far off. I’ll also have a lot more American picks in the second-half, that’s for sure.