With the recent announcement of an unchanged Olympic Schedule for London 2012, what better time to go through some of the talking points. I sat down with two esteemed swim bloggers, Braden Keith of The Swimmers Circle(BK) and David Rieder of TheSwimGeek.com (DR) to hack, dig, crawl, and otherwise muddle our way through the Olympic Schedule.
Men's 100m Freestyle
Alain Bernard and Eamon Sullivan dominated this race in 2008, but will either swim this race in London? Can Cesar Cielo add the 100 free gold to his 50 free title from Beijing, or will a younger sprinter steal the crown? If he swims it, will Michael Phelps be a factor, and can an American win?
DR - I feel like Cielo still has something to prove in the 100 free, and it won't be an easy challenge for him with all of the great sprinters out there. For someone who's most natural event is the 50, it will be interesting to see how he deals with the actual 100 freestylers out there. Of course, he is the world champ and world record-holder, so never count him out!
I don't think Phelps will swim the 100 free because of the conflicts with the 200 fly and 800 free relay. (The 100 free semis come just before those two finals.) I think Phelps will put up a time that would win a medal as a relay lead-off, just as he did in Beijing, but the 200 fly is the priority for him still. Similarly, I think Ryan Lochte will skip the 100 free to focus on his many other events, such as the aforementioned relay and 200 back/200 IM, both of which have their semi-finals on the day of the 100 free final.
America's best hope is 2008 World Short Course Champ and 2010 Pan Pac Champ Nathan Adrian. He is young and talented and rapidly-improving, and he is certainly a favorite for a medal, at the very least, come London. Jason Lezak will be 36 at the Olympics, but he's still out swimming fast, and he could challenge for an individual spot, as could Matt Grevers, Garrett Weber-Gale, and Dave Walters. As always, plenty of outside shots in Jimmy Feigen, Scot Robison, Ricky Berens, Nick Brunelli, and even Josh Schneider.
Bernard and Sullivan have tough paths to make it back to the individual final, and assuming he has no more injury problems - not especially likely - I give Sullivan the better shot to be back, based on domestic competition. Bernard has to deal with the likes of Fabien Gilot, Yannick Agnel, William Meynard, and Jeremy Stravius in the battle for individual spots, while Aussie James Magnussen has dropped seven tenths in six months to establish himself as a bona fide medal contender.
Darkhorses - Vlad Morozov (Russia) has a scary amount of potential. He has said he wants to be 47 by this summer, and his coach Dave Salo is known to make such magic happen. I expect him to be an individual threat for a medal by 2012. Also, watch out for the South Africans Graeme Moore and Gideon Louw, both with 48-low potential. Both have now finished their collegiate eligibility and move their focus to long course, where South Africa has a storied tradition in the 100 free.
Prediction: 1) Adrian, 2) Cielo, 3) Magnussen
BK - I commented on this the other day, but I think, because of how fast he is, we forget that Cielo is only 24. He's by no means past his prime in these sprints, despite a big "miss" last season on his taper. Cielo is a big-time 50 swimmer, but after seeing him in Dubai, I'm confident that the turn is going to work to his strengths, not his disadvantage. He's swimming double the yards in Brazil, but going the same in-season times...that's exciting for his taper.
I think a guy who hasn't been getting enough love for what he did last year is Canada's Brent Hayden. After the tech-suit driven years of 46's and 47's, under 48-seconds is still a magical barrier in textile, and Hayden is one of a tiny handful who has done it. Until 2008, Hoogenband's World Records stood at 47.84 for 8 years, and last year Hayden swam a 47.98. If it weren't for rubber-suits, Hayden would be paraded around as one of the best sprinters of all-time right now.
Adrian is obviously scary because of his age. He's just now graduating college, and will be able to focus a much bigger chunk of his training on long course, which should help him. If you asked me the placing for Worlds this summer, I'd have a different answer. But for London:
Prediction 1) Cielo, 2) Adrian, 3) Hayden. Darkhorse: Matt Targett was a 2008 Olympic Finalist in this 100 free, but thereafter took a hiatus to finish his studies (and hopefully mature mentally). Now he's back and refocused, and with only a few months back in training has qualified for World's. If he keeps his eyes on the prize, he could be dangerous in 2012.
DR - Not saying the turn won't work to Cielo's advantage. He pulled away off the turn at Pan Pacs. It was that last 25 where he fell flat as a pancake.
TW - You just can't underestimate Cielo's ability to raise his game at major meets. At Pan Pacs last year he was less than impressive, but at the only global meet of the year, World SC, he dominated. He seems to have a mental edge over a lot of his competitors in the 50 and 100 Free.
The kicker here is Phelps. How will Cielo react to racing the greatest of all-time? Phelps is certainly not going to be intimidated by anyone else in the pool. Looking at the schedule, the 100 fits in ‘ok’ with Phelps' schedule. He will have some busy sessions, but nothing 'the great one' can't handle. With an increased focus on speed, Phelps has to be considered a serious contender in this event. For those with doubts about his proficiency in the dark arts of fast twitch fibres, just remember that he has a sub-50 second 100m Butterfly to his name and will likely be focusing solely on 100s and 200s.
I have Cielo and Phelps as the top two on my cheat sheet, third place, however, is wide open. I have a feeling that one of the Russian behemoths (Lagunov, Lobintsev, Grechin or even Siberia's very own Vlad Morozov) will pull an upset. To play it safe though I will pick Fabien Gilot as my bronze medalist. Whilst he's not as flashy as Alain Bernard or Fred Bousquet, Gilot has quickly emerged as France's most consistent 100 Freestyler. Silver in Dubai should have whetted his appetite for more international success going forward.
Bernard and Sullivan are fantastic swimmers, however in my mind they now have black marks against their names. Bernard suffers from consistency issues which puts his place on a competitive French team under threat. Sullivan just can't shake the injury bug.
Prediction 1) Cielo - Huge lead at 50, just holds on, 2) Phelps - Out of the race at 50, turns on the jets and misses Gold by a fingertip (karma for the 100 Fly in Beijing), 3) Gilot - Keeps his head while others around him lose theirs.
Wildcard - Ian Thorpe. There, I said it. Its definitely a long-shot for Thorpe to be able to compete with the top guys in the world and his impact in London might be tied more to his contribution to the Aussie relay... but if you take Thorpe's incredible talent, team it with Gennadi Touretski's sprint coaching skills, something very special could happen.
Honorable mention - Adam Brown. Has a chance to become Britain's first Olympic finalist in this event since Bobby McGregor in 1968.
DR - No mention of Adrian? He has a lot looking up for him. I see him and Cielo as the top two by London, but I'm still not convinced of Cielo's potential for the 100 free in London. We shall see. As for Phelps, the 100 Free semis come right before the 200 Fly final. 800 Free relay final is also that night. Not a risk I can see him taking.
Thorpe is a perfect wildcard! I do see some serious potential for him in this race, but we will find out soon enough. Like the Brown pick for a wildcard, and I think Simon Burnett could also make a mark if he repeats his Delhi performance.
TW - Phelps can win the 200 fly in his sleep. Getting Top 8 in the 100 Free, winning the fly and then smoking the relay is well within him. Consider Gilot, Adrian and Hayden as my 3 a), b) and c) picks. All very close.
BK - I'm totally lost as to what to think about Phelps in the 100 free. David makes a good point about the triple, but Phelps really wants to swim the 100 free. REALLY wants to. I see a scenario where he swims both, but is fine with the 200 fly being after a 100 free double, because he wants to do it that badly. In that scenario, he might not be worried about how fast he swims in the 800 free relay, because the Americans are going to be hard to beat there regardless.
Women's 200m Butterfly
China and Britain both have strong 1-2 punches in this event - will those swimmers dominate the podium? Can Jessicah Schipper get back to her winning ways? And will any Americans be factors?
BK - I can't see the Chinese women winning less than two medals in this 200 fly, though in which order might be a better question. Both Liu Zige and Jiao Liuyang are young, and I don't think anyone is going to catch either swimmer in the next year-and-a-half. They were so close at Chinese Nationals, and I think Zige still has the mental edge this summer, but that Liuyang will beat her in London.
That leaves a tough decision, as there's only 1 available slot for a lot of very good swimmers. The Australians (Schipper and Stephanie Rice) looked so-so at Nationals a few weeks ago, but when compared to how most of the other events went at that meet, these times didn't quite measure up. The Brits will have the home-field advantage, and Ellen Gandy is coming on strong.
But the swimmer I'm looking at to take that last spot is Mireia Belmonte. This year, she's already crushed her career-best by almost a second, and won this event in Dubai on the front-half of a DOUBLE with the 400 IM. If she continues on her current path, she might go down as one of the toughest, strongest, and grittiest women's swimmers we've ever seen. And those are three qualities that do well in this 200 fly.
Picks: 1) Jiao Liuyang 2) Liu Zige 3) Mireia Belmonte
Darkhorse: Zsuzsanna Jakabos pushed Belmonte at Spanish Nats, and has been swimming great since her silver in this event at Euro's last year. This will be her third Olympics despite being only 23 at the start of the meet, and she could even scare her teammate Katinka Hosszu in this race.
TW - This is one of those events that I'm 'sneaky looking forward to'. Not the most glamorous event with big star names (unless you're Chinese), but equally as intriguing.
In terms of raw ability it is hard to look past Liu Zige for gold. Even with a techsuit, 2:01.81 is an astonishing time, especially when you consider nobody else has even broken 2:03. She's backed that up with a textile record in 2011 after making sporadic appearances in 2010. Liu's achilles heel has been her race pacing. She's brave, but sometimes foolhardy. At Worlds in 2009 and again in Dubai last year she gunned the first 150m before falling away on the last 50m.
In Wuhan just a few weeks ago she was passed by Jiao Liuyang on the final 50 but managed to muster one final effort to claim victory (video here). This race pacing of Liu's is risky, but also produces stunning times. I'm going to pick Liu, and hang on tight for the rollercoaster ride.
Jiao Liuyang is making a habit of finishing behind her compatriot and I'll pick her again in 2012 for a repeat of the top 2 in Beijing.
Third place I will go with Ellen Gandy, swimming infront of her home (ish) crowd (Gandy is from Beckenham, 15 miles away from the Olympic pool, but trains with Nunawading in Australia). The mark against Gandy is that she finished 15th in both of the last major championships in this event, when more was expected from her. She is one of those British swimmers that will either rise to the occasion or suffer from the huge pressure and expectation. Using un-British-like optimism, I'm going to go with the former outcome.
Belmonte is a big threat, but you have to wonder how well she will cope with a schedule as tough as Dubai when she is swimming long course instead of short course. The 200 Fly semi and final are favourably scheduled but she will have had a lot of racing by the time this event comes around.
Prediction, 1) Liu Zige, 2) Jiao Liuyang, 3) Ellen Gandy.
Wildcard - Natsumi Hoshi. Has flown under the radar internationally so far, despite taking silver at the 2010 Asian Games (2 seconds behind Jiao). Last month she made the rest of the world take notice with a Japanese record of 2:06.13. At 21, Hoshi is at a good age to make a breakthrough in this event and swims a well paced race which could pay dividends if some of the favourites fall away on the last 50m.
DR - Jiao is the more consistent of the two Chinese swimmers, and I think it'll pay off by London with a gold. After not swimming the entire 2010 season, Liu showed up to Dubai where she absolutely collapsed the final 50 in a truly remarkable (for all the wrong reasons) race. However, she is known for getting it done at the Olympics, as when she came out of nowhere to win in 2008.
This event is really wide open, and along with Belmonte and Gandy, I really think Jessicah Schipper will be in the mix for a medal. She is second all-time in this one, and she actually hasn't lost a head-to-head race in the 200 fly since Beijing. We will know a lot more about her international status after Shanghai this summer. I almost picked Katinka Hosszu for bronze, as she too has shown a lot of potential, but I stuck with the veteran Schipper. Speaking of Australians, the 200 fly looks like it fits with Stephanie Rice's schedule, and she may add it for London. She finished second to Schipper at Trials and will swim it in Shanghai. She is certainly known for stepping up on the international stage.
Prediction - 1) Jiao Liuyang, 2) Liu Zige, 3) Jessicah Schipper
Darkhorse: The Americans! This is NOT America's strongest event, and no American has won a medal since Misty Hyman's upset win in 2000. In fact, the only U.S. swimmer on a Worlds podium recently was Kim Vandenberg back in 2007 (and she could be in the mix for London). World teamers Kathleen Hersey and Teresa Crippen, Olympian Elaine Breeden, and American record-holder Mary Mohler are the favorites to make the U.S. squad, and outsiders such as Lyndsay De Paul, Amanda Sims, or even Dagny Knutson could have an impact. That said, at this point, I doubt any Americans will be in the medal equation, and having two swimmers in the final - even if they finish seventh and eighth like in Beijing - will be a victory I think.