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 200m Backstroke
The Americans have dominated this race for a long time. Ryan Lochte is a stud, but Peirsol is retired, and Japan's Irie now holds the fastest textile mark in history. Who gives way first? Or is there a darkhorse that has the chance to upset two of the best ever?
David Rieder - This event has been dominated by Americans for four Olympiads now. In 1996, Brad Bridgewater and Tripp Schwenk finished 1-2, and Lenny Krayzelburg and Aaron Peirsol matched that feat. Peirsol won in 2004, and then Lochte and Peirsol went 1-2 in 2008. Indeed, had Michael Phelps not dropped the event from his program in 2004, we would almost definitely be talking about four 1-2s in a row, since Phelps' time from Olympic Trials out-distanced the next best Olympics time by almost a second and a half.
Lochte is the favorite to repeat as Olympic champion and make it five consecutive U.S. victories in the 200 back. At Pan Pacs last year he clocked 1:54.12, and in that race he not only slowed down at the end (to conserve energy for the upcoming 400 free relay), but he also hit the lane line as he came into the wall. I expect him to be well under his lifetime best time (1:53.82) in Shanghai and take gold in London. This will be the first of two finals tonight, which I will talk about more when we get to the 200 IM.
Ryosuke Irie showed that he's going to be a force with his 1:54.08 recently. Still, Irie is not the most consistent swimmer, and I would be surprised if he makes the improvements Lochte will in the lead-up to London. Still, his best time is 1:52.51, the second-fastest time in history, and he has the potential to be right with Lochte. I don't think either will get down to Peirsol's world record of 1:51.92, but they could be in the 1:52 range.
The wildcard in the mix is Tyler Clary. He broke 1:55 last year to take silver at Pan Pacs - ahead of Irie - and he has been lights out so far this year. He posted a 1:56.61 in the midst of heavy training at the Michigan Grand Prix, and he looks on track for a medal. I think the 200 back is his most natural event. Clary trains for the 400 IM, since that has always been his best shot on the international stage based on his endurance, but backstroke is still is best stroke, and breast is still his worst, leaving him with a dangerous 200 back. He could be in the 1:53 or even 1:52-range sooner than we want to admit.
With Peirsol's retirement and Phelps unlikely to contest the 200 back, I think Lochte and Clary have the top-two U.S. spots locked up. The only guy who I see with a legitimate shot to take one of them out is Cory Chitwood. The two-time NCAA champion has dominated the yards version of this race for a couple of years now, and he will attempt to translate that to the big pool with his best shot at Olympic glory fast approaching.
James Goddard made a statement that he too will be a factor in the 200 back with his 1:55.58 win at Commonwealth Games. Like Lochte, the British swimmer competing at home could pull a double with the 200 IM that same night. Countryman Chris Walker-Hebborn also will try to make some noise at home, and European champion Stanislav Donets, more of a sprinter in the short pool, has his best shot of an Olympic final in the 200.
Interestingly, 2004 silver medalist Markus Rogan has indicated that he will not swim the 200 back in London. His focus lies on the 200 IM that same night, and he has made many indications that he is done with backstroke on the Olympic level, going as far as saying he doesn't like backstroke on a recent Morning Swim Show interview.
Prediction: 1) Lochte, 2) Clary, 3) Irie
The Lochte prediction was fairly easy, but it's a tough call for second. I went with Clary based on his recent successes and potential in this event.
Darkhorses: Gareth Kean of New Zealand won silver behind Goddard at Commonwealth Games in 1:57.33. The 19 year-old has gone from nobody to international contender in a short time, and I could see him in the final in London. Also, Frenchmen Eric Ress has a shot to make a mark, if he gets to compete at Trials. He has said that he may switch his nationality to the U.S. team because NCAAs and French Trials conflict next year. In that case, I see him as one of the only threats to the top two (along with Chitwood).
Braden Keith - David, you make a good point about a couple of guys having their best shot this year at the American team. The Americans are by no-means "weak" here, but they don't have the same depth as they do in the 100 back. That, along with Peirsol's retirement, leaves a big opening in 2012 (before the incredible group of Jack Conger, Kip Darmody, Ryan Murphy, etc. are ready to take over).
Unfortunately, as David said, it's going to be really tough to get past Clary and Lochte. The Ress story is also a really interesting situation to watch. He won French Nationals in his year off from NCAA swimming, so unfortunately he can't take a year off to focus on the Olympics without giving up a quarter of his college career. But he's going to be a good one in the long-term, wherever he's swimming. Despite the NCAA result, he's still a little better than Chitwood long course at this stage of their careers.
I think David's got the right 3 swimmers, but I've got a slightly different order. Irie hasn't been the most consistent swimmer in the world, but I think that even an inconsistent swim from him is better than anyone else besides Lochte can go. I'm not as optimistic about what they'll go, and think it'll be 1:53 very-lows.
Let's talk doubles a little...if Phelps chooses not to swim the 200 IM (which many have speculated he might not), then BOTH swimmers could have a double. Luckily for the USA, I think these two are quite capable of handling the double from a physical standpoint. Lochte will need to make sure he's able to get through the media and into the cool-down pool, which has been a challenge in the past with this double. Luckily, his coach Gregg Troy will be there to shield him a little and keep him on focus. As David mentioned, this 200 back might be Clary's better chance at a medal than the 200 IM, so the Clary camp might, in the back of their minds, be hoping that Phelps swims the 200 IM so that Clary can focus on this race.
I think that Stanislav Donets is also a scary swimmer here. As has been mentioned, this 200 is his best event long course thanks to the same thing that makes him so good at short course: his fabulous walls (simply put, there's more of them in the 200). I think he's had his supreme success in short course, and will spend the next 12-months working on nothing but improving his long course swimming. If he can learn to carry the underwater momentum into a little better closing speed going into each wall, he's definitely a medal contender.
Prediction 1) Lochte, 2) Irie, 3) Clary
Darkhorses: Benjamin Stasulius. The French probably have the 2nd-best backstroke program going in the world right now (behind the USA), and Stasulius is the best among them. Ress might have won Nationals in this race, but Stasulius blew him away at Euro's for bronze. Give him a big nod-of-the-head for being the best of the 2nd-best group. Definitely has been a late bloomer--at 24, his highest Olympic or LCM World Champs finish is 18th.
Tom Willdridge - Lochte for me remains the clear favourite, despite Irie’s huge performance at Japanese Nationals. While there might not be much of a difference between the two on the surface, Lochte still has Irie beaten on the turns. For me, these are top two guys in this event.
The battle for bronze will be an interesting one. James Goddard will have the home crowd on his side, as he did when he won 2002 Commonwealth Gold in this event. As a senior member of the team, I expect him to relish the opportunity and raise his game in London. However, he also faces the same schedule clash as Lochte (and possibly Clary). I think Goddard will have a great swim (assuming he swims the event), but unfortunately just miss out on an Olympic medal once again.
David makes a great point about this being Clary'’s most natural event. His 1:56 in heavy training has me leaning towards him for the bronze. China's Zhang Fenglin has burst onto the scene and is just 18 years old, but he still needs to convince me in Shanghai that his swim at Chinese Nationals wasn't just a flash in the pan.
After watching Russian Nationals, I am convinced that Donets will always remain a SC specialist. A spot in the final is the most the Russian can hope for.
I'’m more optimistic than both of you about the times the top guys will swim. Camille Lacourt has shown that the suit records are not out of reach on backstroke and Lochte'’s already broken a couple of short course WRs. I think Lochte will swim 1:51 and pull Irie and Clary along to 1:52s.
Prediction 1) Lochte, 2) Irie, 3) Clary (with Goddard a very close 4th)
1.) Camille Lacourt. – I have no idea if he will choose to swim this event in London, but his talent on the shorter distances makes him a big threat. He broke 2 minutes for the first time when winning silver at French Nationals this year.
2.) Marco Loughran. It will be a tough battle to make the British team with Goddard and Walker-Hebborn as competition, but Loughran is in a great training environment in Florida (with Lochte), and will have dropped off a lot of people’s radars after focusing on NCAAs the last few years. I expected more than his 6th place at Commonwealth’s last year, but there is still time to make the step up.
3.) Arkady Vyatchanin. The giant Russian has looked a shadow of himself the last year and a half, but at his best he will be a real contender. He has the credentials as the Bronze medallist from 2008.
4.) Ryan Murphy. Going with youth for my final wildcard. The ‘'next Aaron Peirsol’' is just 16, but has already broken 2 minutes this year untapered. If he can manage a 1:58 or 1:57 this year, he might just start to worry Lochte and Clary.
Men's 200m IM
For years, this race has been a battle between Lochte and Phelps. Assuming Phelps keeps swimming this race, how will the top two play out in 2012, and how fast can they go? If Phelps doesn't swim it, who benefits? And how will the 200 back/200 IM double affect the results?
Tom Willdridge - I can’t see Phelps dropping this event in London. If he does, he will be accused of ducking the challenge from Lochte, which is not something he’'ll want at his (likely) final competition. I sincerely hope I’'m right as this has the potential to be the race of the Olympic Games. Swimming’s two biggest personalities going head-to-head.
Up until March of this year I was backing Lochte all the way in this event, but Phelps'’ 1:56.88 in Indianapolis was a stunning swim. Watching that race, you were reminded of that good old fashioned feeling from previous years, that at his best, there is no-one better in world swimming. Phelps also has the benefit of a clear schedule as opposed to Lochte who has just one race and a medal presentation between the 200 Back final and the 200 IM final.
The schedule clash also affects James Goddard who may feel he has a better chance at a medal in the 200 Back than here.
The top two appear nailed down, but once again, the fight for Bronze is wide open. I like the progress Thiago Pereira is making (there might not be a better Breaststroker in the field), the consistency of Ken Takakuwa (4 swims under 1:59 last year), and the upside of Mitch Larkin. However, I have to take the proven excellence and consistency of Laszlo Cseh.
Prediction - 1) Phelps (WR), 2) Lochte (Under the old WR), 3) Cseh
Wildcard - Joe Roebuck. After a breakout year in 2010 (Bronze at Europeans) he has started 2011 strongly, after pushing Goddard close at British Nationals this year. Born in 1985, Roebuck'’s a late bloomer who is definitely trending upwards.
Braden Keith - I've had the benefit of waiting until after seeing Thiago Pereira swim down in Brazil, and he continues to improve year-after-year. Pereira likely could final in both the 200 back and 200 breast, and is none too bad in the other two strokes either. The only swimmers who have been better than him in the last two years are Phelps and Lochte, and with his year-over-year improvement accelerating at a rapid pace, I don't think that will change between now and London (where he'll be 26 and ready to make his big mark).
As I discussed during the 200 back, Phelps will have a big decision to make. I agree with Tom that, after the hit he took when scratching this event at Pan Pacs, he's not going to back down from the challenge in London.
This race, if it happens, could be the biggest story of the Olympics, and it's a win-win for swim fans. If Phelps wins, everyone goes crazy, because he's Phelps. If Lochte wins, it starts to prepare the general populace for life after Phelps, and possibly helps to grow the interest beyond every 4 years.
Really, beyond Phelps and Lochte, who nobody will touch, this race is wide-open for bronze (Pereira not excluded). Rogan is a candidate as well, as he is now putting full-focus on the IM races after dropping the backstroke events that have won him his only Olympic medals. He won silver medals at both the 2010 European Championships (long course) and World Championships (short course), which calls for so-far so-good. But Rogan's new-found focus is countered by Laszlo Cseh's experience in the event (Cseh knocked off Rogan at Euro's last year).
Interesting story-line here- the 200 IM has always been a young man's event at the Olympics. The oldest medalist ever was 1992 gold-medalist Tamas Darnyi at 25 years and about 2 months. There's a strong potential (everyone that either Tom or I have mentioned here will be at least 26) that all 3 medalists will be older than that. How's that for the changing demographic of elite swimming?
Prediction - 1) Lochte 2) Phelps 3) Pereira
Wildcard - Kenneth To (Australia). To is only 19, but this year already has a 2:00.0 to his name. His age puts him more in line with a traditional 200 IM medalists, as compared to the older contenders in 2012. He was the runner-up at the 2010 Youth Olympics in this race (behind Chad le Clos) and is also a 22.4 50 freestyler. It's intriguing for an IM'er this good to have that sort of sprint speed - a pretty rare combination.
David Rieder - It will be pretty hard for Phelps to get by Lochte. He's been putting in the work, and it's been showing in races. ie. Dubai, Irvine. Lochte's star will keep getting higher in the next year and peak in London with double gold on this night - following his world record in the 400 IM on opening night. Phelps will take it out with him, but Lochte has the superior breaststroke and last 50 speed to beat him. Won't be a blowout I don't think, but I foresee a few tenths between the two and both in the 1:53 range. Lochte could be down to 1:53-low by then. THAT is scary.
I want to talk a little bit about what would happen in the unlikely event Phelps drops the 200 IM. Clary will have all his energies focused on the 200 back an hour before, so I don't see him making a serious run at this race. He may even pull out of finals at Trials, yet to be seen. Eric Shanteau is fourth on the all-time list, but his focus and heart lies in breaststroke, so I can't tell yet what kind of a factor he will be. Who could this provide an opening for? David Nolan. This is his chance to get to London. If he drops a 1:57-low (very doable after a year in college), that might be enough without Phelps and a full-strength Clary. Would not win a medal though.
The battle for bronze should be good. Cseh has been in the mix for this medal for a long time, but I think some of the guys with more sprint capabilities will pass him in this final. Markus Rogan has really been putting emphasis on his breast and free (1:49 200 free at Michigan Grand Prix), and that will help when facing Pereira, who often fades down the stretch. Also James Goddard could be in the mix, but that 200 back/200 IM double will leave him with some important decisions to make.
Prediction - 1) Lochte, 2) Phelps, 3) Rogan
Darkhorses - Markus Deibler is a guy on the rise, especially short course, and that could translate to a finals position in London. He won European Short Course Champs in 1:53.25, the fourth-fastest time in the world. That time would have placed third (ahead of Clary) in Dubai had he not skipped the event. He did end up winning a strong silver in the 100 IM in 51.69, making him the third-fastest ever in a textile suit (behind Lochte and Ryk Neethling).
My other is Ous Mellouli. I doubt he'll swim the event - just a couple days before the mile, on which he is focused - but he has real potential in the IMs, as he showed in Michigan, where he took second to Phelps. He has one of the best back halves in the world, one in which I doubt anyone but Lochte can top. Like I said, I doubt he goes for the 200 IM, but if he does, he's a threat.