Thursday, 28 April 2011

Swimming at the 2012 Olympic Games - Day 4 Roundtable Part II

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 (DR) to hack, dig, crawl, and otherwise muddle our way through the Olympic Schedule.

Men’s 200m Breaststroke

Japan’s apparent strength and America’s supposed weakness, a pre-cursor of what’s to come, or the usual smoke and mirror show in pre-Olympic years? Discuss.

Tom Willdridge - I am an unashamed Japanese swimming fan. The strength in depth Japan has quietly assembled hasn’t been given enough notice from the wider swimming world, but they are on the cusp of achieving some huge results internationally. No event sums this up like the 200 Breaststroke.

In 2012, there is a strong chance that Japan might have the 3rd ranked 200 Breaststroker in the world and not be able to take him to the Olympics because two teammates out qualify him. At the recent Japanese nationals, Naoya Tomita set a new textile record and was one of three men under 2:10, Kosuke Kitajima and Kazuki Otsuka were the others. Ryo Tateishi wasn’t far behind.

Here is the scary part for non-Japanese fans, while Kitajima, the greatest Breaststroker of all-time, will be 30 in 2012, Tomita, Otsuka and Tateishi will be either 23 or 24. The ceiling for these guys, especially Tomita is huge. The world record is not out of reach.

I find it incredibly hard to bet against Kitajima, but I think his focus might shift towards favouring the 100m, especially with the likely return of rival Brendan Hansen, who presumably will be better suited to the shorter distance after time out of the sport. Instead, I will go with the World Short Course champ, Tomita for gold with Kitajima a close second.

As Japan can’t sweep a 1-2-3 I will pick the proven major championship expertise of Daniel Gyurta. In 2010, only Kitajima, Tomita and Gyurta got down to 2:08 so if one man can upset the Japanese domination it’s likely to be the Hungarian.

Prediction 1) Tomita, 2) Kitajima, 3) Gyurta

Wildcard – Russia’s Anton Lobanov was an accomplished junior swimmer and has successfully made the leap up to the senior level. I am still hopeful that Britain’s quartet of Michael Jamieson, Kris Gilchrist, Andrew Willis and Richard Webb can get it right in time for their home Olympics.

Braden Keith - It truly is brutal to be a Japanese breaststroker right now (much like it is to be an IM'er in the USA). I buy that Kitajima might be stronger in the 100 than the 200, but I'm not ready to step him down off of his 200 throne yet either. Tomita is going to generate a ton of buzz because he upset Kitajima at Nationals, but rumors are that Kitajima tweaked something in his leg coming off of the blocks in the 200. This could be written off as an excuse, but he led that race most of the way before falling off hard on the final 50, which is something you could expect if he was battling a hamstring-type of injury.

At the same time, given the amount of ground that Tomita has made up on him in the last year, and with another year before the Olympics, the younger swimmer makes it very hard to pick against him. Kitajima, despite being almost 30, is swimming faster than he did when he was 24 and 25 in textile. Definitely an overlooked example of how swimming is redefining its definition of "old".

Brenton Rickard and Eric Shanteau are the last two global major championship silver medalists (2008 in Beijing and 2009 in Rome, respectively), but with a bad year each have somehow managed to push themselves quickly to the fringe of the breaststroke discussions. Neither is that far removed from being in the world's-best-breaststroker discussions. Especially with Shanteau back revamping his breaststroke at USC.

I really like Tom's pick (sans swapping the top two), but to change things up a little, I'll take Shanteau for bronze. 1) Kitajima, 2) Tomita, 3) Shanteau.

Wildcard- I've got two. First, if Shanteau is going to have American company in the 200 breast A-final, I think Sean Mahoney is going to be the one to do so. Since finishing up his collegiate career at Cal, he's been on FIRE, especially in this 200 where he was a 2011 early-season pacesetter.

The other is Melquiades Alvarez from Spain. I'll admit that I hadn't heard of him until Spanish Nationals this year (where he planted a 2:11.0) but after reading up on him and watching a few videos, I think he's got potential to be a real star. He's only 22, and is successfully making a transition from short-course to long-course before he gets too old to do so (he was the European Record Holder in the 200 SCM prior to Gyurta). There's no reason for him to be better SC than LC-he's painfully slow through the walls. I'd go so far as to pick him for a top-5 finish if we were going that deep.

David Rieder - I think Kitajima's age will start to catch up with him more in the 200 than in the 100. I picked him for silver or bronze in the 100, but that is definitely his better shot at the three-peat. Here's a thought: what if Kitajima gets knocked out of the top-two in his own country? I really wouldn't be all that surprised. It happened to Brendan Hansen in shocking fashion in 2008, but it really wouldn't be as shocking for Kitajima.

As for the Americans, there is really no clear favorite for that second spot. In his comeback (which twitter has confirmed multiple times), I'm not sure how much of a factor Hansen can be in the 200. Mahoney had some rest (along with his Cal teammates) for Indy, but he is always talked about as a possibility. He has been under 2:10, at the WUGs in 2009. He had a doping suspension this summer (only 6 months, so he's good for the Olympics), but he could definitely be in the top-two.

Mike Alexandrov is still a wildcard for the 200. He is awesome at it short course - I think if he had been able to swim it in Dubai he would have come close to a medal - but he faded a bit in that one at Long Course Nationals this summer. Clark Burckle has also been dropping time lately, coming off momentum built from his NCAA championship last year. Scott Spann has been very up-and-down since Beijing, but he does have the spot on the Worlds team for this summer. Look for Texas teammates Eric Friedland and Nick D'Innocenzo to be in the mix as well.

One guy no one has mentioned is world record-holder Christian Sprenger. And for good reason - he is dropping this event! He announced after winning bronze at Commonwealths that he couldn't stand knowing he would never come close to his best time. Will be interesting to see if he reconsiders after a year off before Beijing. In his absence, Craig Calder is the second Australian, and he has clearly put emphasis on the 200 with the opportunity. He's a good darkhorse to make a final.

Prediction: 1) Gyurta, 2) Tomita, 3) Shanteau

Gyurta has been around for nearly a decade. In 2004, he was just a 15 year-old in a speedo - and the top qualifier! He ended up running down the then-WR-holder Hansen for the silver. He didn't do much until Beijing, when he posted a time in the heats that ranked second for 2008 and would have won silver in the finals. By Rome, he fulfilled years of potential by winning gold, by just one one-hundredth over Shanteau. (Shant-EAU MY GOD! - courtesy of Priyant Pratap)

Tomita, meanwhile, has been improving rapidly since Pan Pacs, where he finished fourth behind Kitajima, Rickard, and Shanteau. In the process, he knocked Tom's radical gold medal pick (Tatieshi) out of the A-final. (Tatieshi proceeded to barely hold off USA's Elliot Keefer for the B-final win.) Asian Games champion, Short Course World Champion... will the string of titles end?

Darkhorse - Michael Jamieson. I know Tom mentioned him, but at his current rate of improvement I could see Jamieson making a push into the top group of breaststrokers and thus a medal shot. He came within a tenth of Brenton Rickard at Commonwealth Games, and I have been extremely impressed with him in the past year.

Men’s 4 x 200m Freestyle Relay

The Russians have challenged the Americans in the past few years, but can anyone get by a fully loaded American team? How will Ian Thorpe's presence affect the Aussies?

Braden Keith - In my mind, there's only 4 relays with a medal chance here-USA, Russia, China, and Australia. There's plenty of darkhorse picks to be thrown out (Great Britain, South Africa, France, Germany), but none of them have the complete package like the top four do.

There are some YOUNG relays around, but I think the Americans still have the edge on everybody with a Phelps leadoff and Lochte anchor. Those other two parts are going to be interesting. Vanderkaay is probably on the finals roster, and I think it will be down to Conor Dwyer (who trains with Lochte) and Ricky Berens for the final spot. I think Dave Walters is a solid prelims swimmer who will help the US get a good lane, but it's almost unfathomable how fast Dwyer could've gone at NCAA's if he hadn't gotten sick. This is his best shot at the Olympic team (and an Olympic final for that matter), so I think it's where he's going to be putting a lot of focus over the next year.

Then it comes down to the other three for medals. The Russians and the Chinese are the "potential" picks,

I'll focus on the Russians. Their A relay is all '88 births or later, meaning they'll be entering their primes in London (including Danila Izotov, the youngest, who's still learning how to use his 6'5 frame). The big question on everyone's mind is "who is the 4th swimmer on this relay?" Last year, it was Sergey Pernunin, who split a 1:47.9 at Euro's. They do like to front-load this relay, so they could very well have a lead at the halfway mark, before coming back to the field a little.

Picks - 1) USA, 2) Russia, 3) Australia - Thorpe, along with a program-wide improvement from what we saw last year, will get the Aussies on the podium.

A team to watch for a top-5 spot is the Netherlands. You don't hear much about the Dutch men, and they were only 6th at European Champs last year, but they've got a great start to this relay with Sebastiaan Verschuren and Joost Reijns, the latter of whom blew away his 2010 times in Eindhoven.

Tom Willdridge - The Americans are red-hot favourites and rightfully so with the luxury of being able to call on Phelps and Lochte. With the emergence of Dwyer, their team might be even stronger than in 2008.

Russia have a great core of guys, but when you match them up 1-on-1 against the Americans you’re hard pressed to see where they can win this race.

China looks like the nation most suitable for the big upset (and it would surely be one of the biggest shocks in Olympic swimming history). The emergence of Sun Yang is a game changer. He looks capable of matching whatever the Americans throw at him, and that includes Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte. The rest of the team is loaded with young talents with huge upside. Li Yun Qi is still only 17 years old and has a 1:47.6 to his name this year. Jiang Haiqi, 19, has also been sub-1:48 this year. Both men, as well as Sun Yang, are big guys. Li is 6’3” (192cm), Sun Yang is 6’5” (198cm) and Hiang beats them both at 6’5” (199cm). (According to their Asian Games bios)

The team is boosted by some good depth, including IM specialist Wang Shun, who having just turned 17 looks to be a prodigious talent, but at just 5’6” (170cm) might not have the size to drop down to the 1:44/1:45 relay splits China will need. The joker in China’s pack is Zhang Lin. Assuming he recovers from his injury issues, here is a guy that’s been 1:45 (admittedly in a techsuit) and will be 25 when London rolls around. If he shows up in top form for this relay, Sun Yang continues his stunning ascent and China sees the type of drops swimmers of Li and Hiang’s age are capable of.... watch out. A lot of ‘ifs’, but none that seem to stretch the imagination too far.

Australia is relying on Ian Thorpe coming back at close to his best. This year alone they have three guys on 1:47 and a further four on 1:48. Depth is not the issue, where they come up short is having a guy to compete with Phelps/Lochte/Sun Yang/Biedermann/Agnel etc. In London they might end up having four guys on 1:46, but if they are 4-5m behind after the first leg the race will be over for the Aussies.

Prediction – 1) USA, 2) Russia, 3) China

Wilcard - In 2010, only two countries had four men under 1:48. One was USA, the other was Japan. Not filled with superstars (with the exception of Flyer Takeshi Matsuda), Japan has quietly put together a rock solid 4 x 200 Free team.

David Rieder - It would be somewhat surprising (at this point) for America to lose the 400 medley relay or too a lesser extent the 400 free relay. It would be a huge upset to see a Yankee defeat in the 800 free. Phelps and Lochte could go 1-2 in the 200 free (in whatever order), and Vanderkaay is the defending bronze medalist. Vanderkaay and final Beijing relay member Ricky Berens have both recently moved training sites, and I expect both to be thriving in their new environments by London. Dwyer is training with some awesome 200 freestylers in Florida, including the aforementioned Lochte and PVK, the Fraser brothers, and now Dagny Knutson, and he has been taking no prisoners when healthy as of late. Matt McLean could really translate his NCAA successes to a blazing 200 free long course - 1:46-range or better is my expectation for him - and I also think Tom Shields will make a serious run at this relay. He will be a superstar internationally sooner than we think. Finally, four Texas guys will all come in with varying degrees of a chance to make this team: Dave Walters, Garrett Weber-Gale, Clay Youngquist, and Dax Hill.

Russia is a classic pick for silver, as they have that all-around depth really required to outlast anyone else. Germany, on the other side of the coin, should really fall back after Biedermann's opening leg. The Japanese are similar to the Russians, though not as fast, and I agree about the potential of the Chinese, though I want to see them match up with the Americans and Russians before I make too many judgements on them.

My sleeper is the Aussies. Ian Thorpe is coming back, and even with a sprint focus, his 200 will be pretty fast as well. I'd say he can split a 1:44-mid/low at least. Thomas Fraser-Holmes is not even 20 yet, and he's suddenly become an individual 200 free darkhorse. Kenrick Monk has one of the best final 50s in the field, and guys like Ryan Napoleon and Tomasso D'Orsogna all have room to drop. Other than Thorpe, this is still a fairly young team from which we could see big results in 2012.

Prediction: 1) USA, 2) China, 3) Australia

That one is out on a limb. I think it will take big swims to keep the Russians off the podium, and I may have just put a bit too much faith in the less seasoned Chinese and Australian teams to do it. But we'll see, a lot can happen in one year.

Darkhorse: France - France has a big name in Yannick Agnel, who will be 1:44 for sure by London. Jeremy Stravius has been coming on strong in the 200 free, splitting a 1:45 out of nowhere in Budapest. Likewise, he should be splitting a 1:44 by London. Clement Lefert has some background in mid-distance free, and he took third at NCAAs this year, holding off a hard-charging McLean. If Fabien Gilot can step up to the 200 distance or Amaury Leveaux can get his groove back even a bit, this team could end up in medal territory.


  1. I agree with all the predictions. The mens 200 breast and 800 FR is definitely one of the most predictable events. I dont think we'll see much changes in the next years.
    The japanese guys for 2 medals, and Gyurta for the third one.

    The 800FR : USA - Australia (Thorpe effect will force the other aussie guys to step up a notch) - Russia.

    Lack of experience at the world stage for the chinese guys will cost them bronze.

  2. When did Dagny Knutson leave Fast and is she training with the Gator Swim club?

  3. Anonymous-was very recently announced that Dagny would be headed to Florida (specifically, in a Brett Fraser interview).

  4. If you subtract 2 seconds for relay starts off the flat starts of top 4 finishers from Russian, Chinese and Australian trials, the times are:

    Chinese 7:07.02
    Russian 7:07.43
    Australia 7:08.64.

    Now, the Chinese and Russians typically drop humongous times going into WC, that's how they usually lie under the radar until the last moment (I remember in 09, American had 5 of the top 6 200m freestylers and someone was quoted saying America could put any four of time in any order for gold-- but was inevitably challenged by Russia). On the other hand Australians I feel like want to "prove themselves" and usually do not drop as much time, if at all.

    That said, I don't see Australia dropping the time necessary to knock either of the above teams off the podium. I think the difference between the US and rus/chn is about the same as rus/chn to Australia.

    I agree with you Tom, China is the ultimate dark horse in this race. They have the firepower to put together a 702 on this relay, and while the russians are good, I think China is the only team -capable- of taking down the US, since as of yet, the Russian team is good, but not -spectacular-.

    I think its possible that the US could win by as much as 3 seconds this summer, but also, like in Rome when all the tapering is said and done, there could be less than a second in it between the top 3.

  5. john26,

    you forgot that australian combined time is without ian thorpe.
    thorpe could easily take off 3 seconds of the combined time.

  6. London will require depth. Currently china is pretty mediocre in number 4-6. Its handy to look at the numbers of swimmers in the world top 25 ?59 & add up the ranks . Lowest numbers 1-4th fastest is for 2011. (I am assuming USA best but no times as yet). Russia & Australia =42 . China 67.

    Relays are about comparative strength & perception of the swimmers on the block. China 5&6 are very weak so far whereas Russia & Aust 4-6 are pretty close. This also allows a last minute switch even if no1 & 2 are off form .Aust dropped national champ Monk in Beijing to gain Bronze . (a good result for that no stars team ).

    I would also look at the ranks of 100 mtr guys who sense they wont get a 400 relay spot . Time to train up.Russia & australia are strong here whereas china is currently weak.

  7. Oh, Ive just noticed that John might have made his prediction for the Shanghai WC, while the discussion is about 2012 London