By John Lohn
CRANBURY, New Jersey, September 19. AMID the excellence of the Australian women and the top-notch performances of the German women during the summer, much discussion arose as to the status of the American ladies. Where do they rank on the global stage? Why have they not matched the exploits of the American men? Are they slipping?
Really, there is nothing wrong – not in the slightest – with the American women. Considering that the current male contingent might be the best in American history, it’s been easy to knock the other gender and criticize it for falling off the mark. Simply put, that is an unfair analysis, for the current squad is strong, both in experience and in rising talent.
Without question, next year’s World Championships in Melbourne will provide the perfect gauge as to where the women sit on the international scene. And, two years down the road, the Beijing Olympics will supply further proof of their standing. With the likes of Leisel Jones, Libby Lenton and Jessicah Schipper, the Aussies boast women who can claim to be the world’s best in their prime disciplines. That sort of firepower could, ultimately, hand Australia a No. 1 ranking.
Still, the United States owns tremendous depth and certainly will have something to say over being regarded as first in the world. Here’s a look at the American arsenal, and why it should not be overlooked.
Over the summer, Germany’s Britta Steffen established herself as the fastest woman in history in the 100 free. Meanwhile, Australia’s Libby Lenton has firmly distinguished herself as one of the world’s premier performers from the 50 through the 200. Yet, don’t be surprised if Amanda Weir or Natalie Coughlin make a push at gold at the World Champs in the 100 free. Meanwhile, Kara Lynn Joyce is a presence in the 50 free.
As for the longer freestyles, this is where the United States begins to separate itself. At Nationals, five women checked in with sub-1:59 outings and Katie Hoff appears on the cusp of generating a 1:57 effort. Go up in distance and the outlook is even better, thanks to the triumvirate of Hoff, Kate Ziegler and Hayley Peirsol. While France’s Laure Manaudou will be difficult to take down in the 400 free, the 800 and 1,500 freestyles could be owned by the U.S.
Of course, the 100 backstroke is the domain of Natalie Coughlin, the only woman to ever break the one-minute barrier. When Coughlin is at her peak, she’s untouchable. While she came up short at Pan Pacs, one “off” race does not suggest a dropoff. Rather, look for Coughlin to blaze to victory at the World Champs with another 59-point effort.
Outside of Coughlin, Margaret Hoelzer has been steady on the international scene in the 200 backstroke and should continue to challenge for medal positions. What the United States needs here, though, is for a handful of youngsters to vault to the next level. That scenario is a possibility due to the presence of Lauren English, Teresa Crippen and Elizabeth Beisel.
As it currently stands, no one in the world can possibly be considered a challenger to Leisel Jones, the Aussie who has rewritten the record books in the 100 and 200 breast events. But the United States is stacked in the 100 breast, thanks to the ability of Jessica Hardy, Megan Jendrick and Tara Kirk. A two-medal showing at the World Champs in the 100 breast is very much within reach.
Where the United States must find a spark is in the 200 breast. The results from this summer were hardly positive and a medal at World Champs – at least for now – looks like a long shot. But, Amanda Beard is back in the water and if she can regain the form that made her Olympic champ and a former world-record holder, the U.S. will receive a needed boost.
Again, the Aussies look strong here with Jessicah Schipper and Libby Lenton. But the United States is not too shabby, not with Natalie Coughlin and Rachel Komisarz supplying veteran leadership in the 100 distance. More, Felicia Lee is one of the hottest prospects in the nation and should figure into the mix for an Olympic berth once the Trials roll around.
As for the 200 fly, depth certainly exists for the United States. Kim Vandenberg had a breakthrough Nationals and appears ready to move up the ladder. Meanwhile, Mary DeScenza has been a long-time staple as a top 200 fly performer. Add in the fact that Courtney Kalisz is a rising star, along with Teresa Crippen, and the American crew is growing in strength.
In the 200 distance, no nation in the world can measure up to the American tandem of Katie Hoff and Whitney Meyers, who rank as the second and third-fastest performers in history. Behind them, a bevy of talent lurks, in the form of Ariana Kukors and Alicia Aemisegger, among others. As for the 400 distance, Hoff is far and away the top American, with Kukors and Aemisegger making noise. Meanwhile, look for Kaitlin Sandeno to make a move toward regaining her two-time Olympian form.
So the United States doesn’t feature a ton of No. 1 ranked athletes. But, depth is also a measurement of a nation’s power, and America isn’t lacking in that department.