Cameron Mee takes a high-level look as to how Swimming Australia has progressed following their massive post-Olympic gutting and reorganization from top-to-bottom. Has all of the effort, the time, and the money really made a difference?
Those articles in our “Shouts from the Stands” series do not necessarily represent the opinions of SwimSwam or its staff; rather they are thoughts that are submitted by our readers that we feel are well-though, well-written, and insightful. Anybody interested in submitting something for Shouts From the Stands is invited to send it to [email protected], and if it’s good, unique, and interesting, we might run it.
After plunging to previously unseen depths following the disastrous London Olympics campaign, many trumpeted the return of Australian Swimming following a supposedly successful Commonwealth Games competition. However a quick check of the world rankings revealed that all was not right and this past weekend’s Pan-Pacific Championships on the Gold Coast only served to reinforce that fact. Whilst it is hard to compare times in swimming, especially with the competition held in an outdoor pool in atrocious conditions, we can compare results and the results show that this team has not yet recovered to the position that many claimed following Glasgow.
The four-day competition started off with a major surprise as Commonwealth Games Golden Girl Emma McKeon came crashing back down to earth. Pan-Pacs rules stipulate that only the top two athletes from each nation can qualify for the final of each event, McKeon was the third fastest Australian in the heats and, as such, missed out on the final, along with Missy Franklin who was the unlucky third for the Americans. Unfortunately, this robbed us of a showdown with 17 year old American star Katie Ledecky, who subsequently took out the A Final in a time of 1:55.74, respectable given the conditions, but not outstanding. McKeon remains third in the 2014 World Rankings, behind Ledecky and Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom. The Women’s 200m Freestyle is an incredibly congested event; McKeon must continue to improve in the upcoming years if she hopes to reach the top step of the podium in Rio.
An event that has become a significant trouble spot for Australia is the 200m Butterfly event, an event we traditionally dominated. This is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, events on the program, anyone who swims this race has to be commended, but it appears as though the likes of O’Neill, Thomas and Schipper have not motivated new 200m Butterflyers in this country. The chief 200m Butterflyers coming through are Grant Irvine and Madeline Groves. Both have shown flashes of potential, however must be more consistent with their performances. The pair is joined by ‘new’ Australian, former British swimmer Ellen Gandy, who has lived and trained here since 2007. Gandy is 23 years of age, four years older than Groves and hopefully the two will be able to push themselves in a Phelps-Lochte manner. If they are able to do so, they could become a force in world swimming. Groves has swum sub-2:07 on multiple occasions this year, she should have medalled at Pan-Pacs, instea d she scraped into the final with a poor time of 2:13 and then swam a 2:10.15 in the final.
The best male in this event is 23-year-old Grant Irvine, who, despite finishing second at the Commonwealth Games did not even qualify for the Pan-Pacs. Irvine’s swim at the Australian Championships in May is the 14th fastest this year, almost two seconds behind South African star Chad Le Clos. I’ve seen 200m Butterflyers training for years just to swim a one second PB, I’m not sure if Irvine will be able to catch the 22 year old Le Clos. I hope I’m wrong.
Unfortunately for Australia, the 200m is not our only troublesome Men’s Butterfly event. The 100m Butterfly is another area of concern. Despite finishing fourth on Saturday night, it was clear that both Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte were a level above Tommaso D’Orsogna. This is understandable, Phelps is arguably the greatest swimmer ever and despite retiring after the London Olympics, he is currently the fastest 100m Butterflyer in the World. What is most concerning for Australia is that Chris Wright and D’Orosogna are currently ranked 23rd and 24th in the world in this event, respectively. This is a long way off where they need to be and where Australia needs them to be.
There are instances in any team that an athlete is so good that they are able to paper over serious cracks in the team, but once an injury occurs, or the intensity ramps up, the cracks that every body should have recognised and didn’t become very clear. LeBron James in Miami is a pretty good example. This is exactly the case with the Men’s 100m Breaststroke event and the Australian Swimming team. Christian Sprenger is a superstar, defending World Champion and Olympic Silver Medalist. Unfortunately he is Australia’s only World-Class male breaststroker. This is all well and good when he’s healthy and winning Gold Medals, but when he gets injured, as he did in Glasgow, the gap is there for everybody to see. Sprenger was the only male breaststroker to qualify for Glasgow and a very embarrassing situation was only just averted at the Pan-Pacs, as Jake Packard was only selected for the meet because Australia needed a breaststroker for the Medley Relay. Admittedly, the Au stralian qualification standards are considerably harder than the FINA ‘A’ Qualifiers and the Australian qualification time would be ranked 12th in the world this year, but Packard swam a time at Pan-Pacs that is the 21st best in the world and is only just one hundredth of a second faster than the ‘A’ Qualifier. However, Packard has managed to swim big PB’s over the past year and delivered an outstanding Medley Relay swim; if he continues to work hard, he could develop into a legitimate challenger to Christian Sprenger.
Thankfully, it’s not all bad news for Australia though. Both the Men’s and Women’s freestylers are amongst the best in the world. Cameron McEvoy and James Magnusson are the currently the two fastest swimmers in the world this year and, if they are able to deliver their best on the day, Gold Medals are not out of the question. Whilst Magnussen has been inconsistent in the past, Women’s 100m World Champion Cate Campbell is the epitome of consistency (when she’s healthy, at least – which is easier said than done). Campbell always manages to turn it on when it’s time to race and at the moment it looks like her closest rival is her sister Bronte. Not only does this depth bode well for the individual events, but it bodes well for the relays. Not much needs to be said about their Women after their World Record breaking performance in Glasgow, and the men look to be returning to their best, after defeating the strong American and Brazilian teams.
There are other bright spots, the Women’s backstrokers, led by Emily Seebohm and Belinda Hocking are the best in the world. Hocking holds the four fastest 200m backstroke times in the world this year, with Emily Seebohm holding the fifth and the injured Meagen Nay not too far behind. On top of this, Seebohm’s 100m Backstroke time at the Pan-Pacs was the fastest in the world this year and it is clear that she is becoming a more consistent performer, having learnt from her mistakes a youngster in London.
Australian Swimming has had its fair share of struggles in recent years and it will take time before we return to the top of the world. However, whilst the early signs of improvement are beginning to appear, it is still very clear that there is a long way to go. Hopefully with a lot of hard work, good coaching and smartly directed funding, Australia can deliver a strong showing in Rio.