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.
Women's 100m Free
Which two Dutch women will earn the individual spots here? Might Coughlin's medal chances be better here than in her signature backstroke?
Braden Keith - I think whoever emerges as the Dutch National Champion will eventually win the Olympic gold, and at this point all signs point towards a battle of the 1990 babies in London: Hometown girl Fran Halsall and Ranomi Kromowidjojo. Kromowidjojo should be out a little bit faster, and I think she's going to carry that lead through the turn and into the final wall. She went a 53.44 last year for the top time in the world, and that was in a March meet after she missed most of the big long course meets following a summer battle with Meningitis. She'll definitely clear the textile WR of 53.30, and could have as low as a 52 in her. Halsall's second, with the UK having to rely on their backstrokers and IM'er to earn gold for the home crowd.
I think Coughlin's chances of winning a medal, if not making the team, are way better here than in the 100 back. The domestic and international backstroke competition has gotten absolutely brutal for her, whereas the freestyle is much more wide open. It should be a diverse final, with a good possibility that 7 or 8 different countries will be represented.
Belarus' Aleksandra Herasimenia is intriguing to me. She had limitless potential prior to a doping suspension back in the mid-2000's, but she's not back at the top of the world rankings. She was the runner-up at Euro's last year, only losing to Halsall. At the Olympics, she'll be able to really focus on two individual races (the 50 and 100 freestyle) without having to worry much about relays or the backstroke (at World Champs, she's a favorite in the 50 back). I think that she sneaks in for the bronze.
Prediction - 1) Kromowidjojo 2) Halsall 3) Herasimenia
Darkhorse: Yi Tang - Last year, the Chinese women had a top-8 swimmer in every Olympic event, except for the two sprint freestyles. I can't believe that's going to last very long, and at only 18, Yi Tang is already the best the country has. In 2010 alone, she won 7 medals at the Asian Games (5 gold), and went 6-for-6 at the Youth Olympic Games. She made her first Olympic appearance in front of her home crowd at 15, and her second could result in some huge fireworks.
David Rieder - It is hard to look past Kromowidjojo and Halsall. The youth, talent and experience of these two make them look almost unstoppable for the top two spots. Braden mentioned the Dutch power in this event, and I think it would be unwise to count out the second Dutch swimmer, most likely right now to be Heemskerk, who has turned some heads already this year.
In any Olympic race she is in, it is hard to stop Natalie Coughlin. Her 100 free times have been consistently impressive throughout her comeback, including a 54.19 recently in Charlotte, and I think she could have a say in the top three in London Neither of her fellow Beijing medalists, Britta Steffen and Libby Trickett, have competed long course since Rome, but they definitely have potential in their respective comebacks. Steffen, especially, I'm having trouble keeping out of my top three.
Additionally, Australia has Alicia Coutts on the fast rise, as she has already swum 53.80 this year. At her rate of improvement, she could be in the medal equation sooner than we think. Emily Seebohm and Yolane Kukla are also fast Aussies, and I think another American (Dana Vollmer, Jessica Hardy, and Missy Franklin the most likely candidates, with Amanda Weir and Kara Lynn Joyce also with shots) could get into the top-eight and push top-three.
Braden, very intriguing pick of Herasimenia. Definitely from left field, and she could be a good darkhorse. Speaking of... I have two. 1) Julia Wilkinson - other than her 2010 NCAA title, she has no experience internationally in the 100 free, but her results in the 200 free and 200 IM as well as yards 100 free indicate that she could post something really good in this event if she chooses to pursue it. 2) Federica Pellegrini - will her attempt to swim the 100/200/400/800 play out well in London? Or will she flop? She has no major experience in the 100 free, but best times in the 53-range give her a chance. As of yet, no telling how such a spread out focus will impact her, though.
Prediction: 1) Kromowidjojo, 2) Halsall, 3) Coughlin
Tom Willdridge – Kromowidjojo is the obvious choice here after last year’s dominance in this event, but I am going to go with my heart over my head and say Halsall wins this event. She has all the tools necessary to be a dominant force, a pure sprinter with enough endurance to hang on for 100m. When it comes down to talent, she is amongst the very best Britain has to offer. Maybe the best. That talent is also coupled with a fierce mental strength. According to Bill Sweetenham, the former GB performance director, Halsall is, ‘a gladiator of the pool. Confidence without arrogance. Ability without false hopes. A champion in the making. I think we might be looking back at her in several years time and view Halsall as one of the trend-setters for our generation and one of the swimmers of the decade.’ Good enough for me.
The Dutch women will undoubtedly be in the mix with Kromowidjojo and Femke Heemskerk leading the charge, however, neither is assured a spot on the team with the likes of Marleen Veldhuis and Inge Dekker hot on their heels.
Assuming a clean bill and health and full fitness, it is very hard to look past Britta Steffen for the podium. She will be 28 next year, getting on in swimming terms, but hardly over the hill. Coughlin, Vollmer, Coutts and Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom are all swimmers I expect to make the final (or get very close). The way this event is shaping up, as long as you get your ticket for the final and get your race right technically, you’ll have every chance to break into the Top 3.
Prediction 1) Halsall – By the slimmest margins over... 2) Kromowidjojo, 3 ) Steffen – Established success in major finals will prove an invaluable asset here.
Wildcard – Libby Trickett. The Australian didn’t take long enough out of the sport to seriously affect her times and I expect by next year for Trickett to be back to her best. The issue will be whether she needs to be even better than that to make the podium in London.
Women’s 200m Breast
Who can challenge Rebecca Soni? What will the world record look like after London?
Tom Willdridge – To answer the first part of the question. No-one. As it stands now, Soni dominates her event like no-one else in world swimming. She hasn’t been close to losing a race this year or last, with her average winning margin easily over two seconds. The biggest race appears to be Soni vs. the clock. The way I see it, the WR will go in Shanghai and then again in London. If we see a mid-2:19 this summer, I believe 2:19 low or even, shockingly, a 2:18 might be within Soni’s reach by London. One thing that worries me though is that alongside Soni’s incredible consistency last year, she didn’t have the same ‘peak’ as say a Ryan Lochte when tapered. Hopefully this isn’t a case of a swimmer that swims incredibly fast all year but struggles to take that taper-induced step up at major meets. Over to you Dave Salo.
After Soni it’s game on. WR-holder Annamay Pierse had a rough 2010 with injury and sickness but has started 2011 strongly, and I think she’s the only swimmer that can get within 2 seconds of Soni. I have the battle for bronze coming down to Amanda Beard, Russia’s Yulia Efimova, Japan’s new wonderkid Kanako Watanabe and China’s Ji Liping. It should be a great race, but I’m going to favour the youngster and give it to Watanabe. 15-year-old Breaststroker’s have a knack of coming up big at Olympic Games.
FYI - With Soni’s dominance in this event, I don’t believe Leisel Jones will race the 200 Breast in London.
Prediction 1) Soni, 2) Pierse, 3) Watanabe
Wildcard – Anastasia Chaun. The Russian might have been the most quickly forgotten European champion from last year. Her 2:23.5 victory came as a surprise but she then backed it up with gold at European Short Course. Overshadowed by her better known team-mate Efimova, Chaun could only manage 2nd at Russian Nationals this year. However, she will be 23 when London rolls around. I expect her to final.
Braden Keith - Watanabe is good, no doubt. For a 14-year old, she's amazing, in the same class as Beard and Kukla once were. But I think it might be a touch of an overreaction to pick her for a medalist already. Look at her drop even since Japanese Nationals, roughly 1.6 seconds. I'm not sure she's got a lot better than her 2:23.9 in her this year, and the Olympics can be a lot of pressure for a 15-year old (though she wouldn't be the first to thrive under that pressure). Beyond that, not making the World's team this year hurts, as she won't have that experience prior to the Olympics as her first major senior championship meet.
The gold begins and ends with Soni, I'm not sure that many will dispute that. As usual, I'm not as optimistic about a 2:18, but rather see something in the neighborhood of 2:19.7, because her training focus is going to lead towards the 100 where her podium standing is not quite as assured. I definitely think that the World Record goes down, though.
The other two medals become somewhat trickier. I think Jones earns one if she wants it, though it’s not clear by her World's schedule that she does. It's hard to leave Pierse out, but I'm leaning towards a very young, very fast Russian contingent to claim at least one (Efimova - 19, Novikova - 16, Chaun - 23). I think that Jones comes back to the race in London and takes silver, followed by...Efimova.
Prediction - 1) Soni, 2) Jones, 3) Efimova
Darkhorse: I don't think there's a great darkhorse to medal in this race. Watanabe is no longer a "darkhorse," maybe Novikova is a good candidate. But a swimmer I'd love to see in the final is Morrocco's Sara el Bekri. She's the greatest swimmer ever from a nation that's throwing a lot of money at developing a swimming program (and won the 2013 Junior World Championships meet). el Bekri holds 11 National Records, and could almost break the 800 free relay mark...by herself. She's currently training in France, and has come on very strong in the breaststrokes early this year, including a 2:26.1 at French Nationals.
David Rieder - So far in 2011, Soni has looked relatively unimpressive in the 200 breast. 1:05.5 100 breast but "only" 2:23.2 in the 200. My theory is that in her speed-based program, she will always have nearly the same speed year-round, but her ability to maintain easy speed really comes around when rested. We saw this last year, and I expect we'll see it again this year and next. She has said that her focus is 100% on London, and whatever happens in Shanghai this summer happens. That said, I still think she dips under the world record this summer, into the 2:19-high range. As for London, I foresee something amazing - 2:19-low or 2:18-high is possible, considering how much emphasis she is putting on that meet. We saw her huge time drop in Beijing, and I expect the same in London.
It seems to me that Jones has shown repeatedly she does NOT want the 200 Breast spot for London. Having finished runner-up to an American the past two Olympics and surely knowing she has little chance to do better this time, she has little motivation to return to the longer event. Moreover, she swam her last 200 Breast at Commonwealth Games, when she had a chance to become the first person ever to sweep the three breaststrokes at that meet (a goal in which, coincidentally, she did not succeed). She dropped the event at World Short Course in Dubai and again at Trials for Worlds. Unless she has a major change of heart or swimming style, she's out.
Pierse had a nice comeback at Canadian Trials after a tough 2010 to go 2:24-low, and that meet was just a stepping stone for her; she will be the biggest threat to Soni by London - but I still don't see her within two seconds. The Russians are solid all-around, but I like Efimova more for her chances in the 100 than 200. The Japanese currently have seven in the world top-25, and at least one will final in London; Wantanabe has established herself as the pick of the litter with her performances at Japan Open. Australian Sally Foster and Canadian Martha McCabe are both consistent performers with big final experience. Beard's 2:26 from Charlotte is her fastest in-season time in a long time as she prepares for her first Worlds since 2003 (in which she won the 200 breast).
Prediction: 1) Soni, 2) Pierse, 3) Beard
Darkhorses - 1) Suzaan van Biljon was fourth in the 200 breast at the 2007 Worlds and the 2008 World Short Course Champion. She is on South Africa's Shanghai team after only a few months of training. We'll have a good idea by Shanghai where she could be in London. 2) Sara Nordenstam won bronze in Beijing but has been relatively quiet since. She swam a 2:23.0 in 2008, and that is a time that could be in the hunt for a medal this time around. Where she can get back to after a break and with no suit remains to be seen.
Women's 4 x 200m Free Relay
Could this be a shot at a medal, possibly even gold, for host Britain? Can the Americans reclaim this gold after losing for the first time ever in Beijing, or will the Australians and Chinese be too strong again?
Braden Keith - I'd argue that the Americans have the best 1-2 in the world (Schmitt and Vollmer), but as David pointed out in the individual event, Vollmer seems to be focusing less and less on the 200, so that could change.
I think it really does come down to the Chinese and the Aussies in this race. The Chinese set the short course World Record in Dubai, but what the Australians did at Nationals was hugely impressive. If you add Stephanie Rice to that relay, who should be healthy by London, they look unstoppable. They're young, and they're lightning fast.
I'll keep this short-and-sweet. 1) Australia 2) China 3) United States
Darkhorse: Hungary - the Hungarian women are putting together the best "mid-major" middle distance group in the world. With Mutina and Verraszto bookending the race (and a whole lot of depth to fill in the middle legs), they should place pretty well.
David Rieder - The Americans should be primed for success by London in this relay. Katie Hoff is back, and she really shined when anchoring this team in Beijing. Missy Franklin has already been 1:57 in-season (at a meet where her other performances were relatively umimpressive), when she could not break 1:59 last summer. Along with Schmitt and Vollmer and the likes of Tosky, Knutson, Scroggy, Chenault, etc., I think this team really has a shot for the top. The Aussies are good, but they tend to be inconsistent in the 200 free. Will perform great on occasional years but really miss the mark others. China are World Champs in both short and long course, and they just keep getting it done in this relay.
Darkhorses - 1) France - Camille Muffat won the 200 free in Dubai, teammates Ettienne finaled in Beijing, and Balmy also has an impressive history over mid-distance races. And then there's Laure Manaudou. No idea where she's gonna be, but if she can make this team, they're in the hunt. 2) Britain - This team finished third in Rome, but they need team members Jackson and McClatchey to return to previous form in order to join Adlington, Carlin, etc. on a successful team.
Braden Keith - Speaking of schedules, Muffat has said for Shanghai that her expectations in the 100 free will dictate whether she swims this 800 relay in Shanghai.
She'll have the same conflict in London, so that's as big of a thing to watch for France's darkhorse chances as is Manaudou's return to a high level.
David Rieder - If Manaudou gets to a point where a medal is realistic for the 800 relay, she will work it into her schedule.
Tom Willdridge – This has all the makings of a classic relay. David, you make a good point about Franklin’s emergence in this event. If she continues her impressive improvement in this event she could be the difference maker for Team USA. China has a nice mix of experience and youngsters bursting onto the scene, plus they’ve now shown in back to back global competitions that they are world beaters.
I’m going to back Australia in this race though. Not only do they have the two world pace setters this year in Kylie Palmer and Bronte Barratt, they also have incredible depth in the event. This year alone they have 6 (!) swimmers at 1:57.7 or faster.
Prediction 1) Australia, 2) USA, 3) China. I think China’s WR of 7:42.08 (an average of 1:55.52 per swimmer) will also be beaten, potentially by all three teams.
Darkhorse – Great Britain. Picking the bronze medallist from Rome might seem like a bit of a cop out, but the team has looked a shadow of itself since then. Last year the 4th fastest Brit was Caitlin McClatchey on a 1:59.12. After the recent British Nationals, this future is looking much brighter. Joanne Jackson is rounding back into form and McClatchey has rediscovered some of her best form. We also saw the breakthrough of Rebecca Turnern and there are several youngsters also knocking on the door. These girls will join Rebecca Adlington and Jazmin Carlin to form a solid group. You still feel that Jackson is the key to this team. To have a chance at a medal the Brits will need to have someone that can handle the searing pace of the big three nations and Jackson remains the best hope.