By Stephen J. Thomas
SYdNEY, Australia, July 26. THERE is considerable expectation building Down Under that the Aussie women’s swim team has the potential to produce their best ever result at an Olympic Games.
Four years ago in Sydney, it was the men’s team that dominated, taking the two freestyle relays (the 4x100m for the first time in Olympic history) and a silver medal in the medley relay behind the USA. Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett, Michael Klim, Geoff Huegill and Matt Welsh were all gold medalists in their home pool. By contrast, the now-retired Susie O’Neill was the sole gold medalist in the women’s events — and even then, not in her favored 200m fly, instead taking out the 200m free the previous night.
The best-ever individual gold medal tally for an Aussie women’s team was five in Munich in 1972 where Shane Gould (3), Bev Whitfield and Gail Neall made their mark in the record books. Perhaps back in 1956 at the Melbourne Games if there had been a few more events in women’s freestyle (there were no 50m and 200m events in those days) it is likely that Dawn Frazer and Lorraine Crapp would have done even better. In fact, it was in Melbourne that the Aussie women recorded their only 4x100m freestyle relay win to date.
Olympic Prospects, Women:
The Aussie women look to have a real chance to win up to six individual gold medals in Athens. In the 50m and 100m free there’s a standout in the two-lap world record-holder Libby Lenton (pictured) and strong chances in Michelle Engelsman (50m) and Jodie Henry (100m). Lenton clocked a 52.80 for the 100m short course at a Brisbane meet on the weekend and according to her coach Stephan Widmar, was still not rested. Only Lenton’s 52.64 in Melbourne has been faster this past year. However, the lightly-raced Inge de Bruijn – the reigning Olympic champion in both events – will not make it easy for her much younger rivals.
In the fly events, Petria Thomas is the world leader this year. She comes into her third Olympics full of confidence and a real hunger to end her career with gold after taking bronze in 2000 and silver in ’96 in the 200m fly. Thomas will skip the individual 200m free, perhaps learning from Susie O’Neill’s experience, to focus on the fly events while Pole Otylia Jedrzejczak, the world record-holder in the 200 fly, will probably also swim the 200 free where she is ranked second globally in 2004. Little fanfare has been made of the quietly-spoken Thomas in the Aussie press but the 28-year-old conceivably could leave Athens with five gold medals (both fly events and three relays).
The Aussie women will also be well represented in breaststroke. Leisel Jones has been on fire in recent weeks, clocking world-leading times in both breaststroke events whilst still in full work. Of course, Amanda Beard then came out with a brilliant world record 2:22.44 at the US Olympic Trials in the four-lap race, but I’m sure both women know they will have to go under 2:22 to take gold. I’ve never seen Jones looking quite as fit and strong, so if she masters her ‘big-meet’ nerves she will be tough. Brooke Hanson, the oldest rookie on the team, will also be a threat — particularly in the two-lap race where she beat Jones at the Aussie trials.
Alice Mills the World Champs silver medalist in the 200m individual medley might surprise in a relatively open race. Another to impress in the IM events in recent months since making the team, is 17-year-old Lara Carroll. She will have two other rookies — German Teresa Rohmann and America Katie Hoff — to contend with.
In the relays, I really think the Aussie women are an excellent chance to take gold in the two freestyle races with a very good chance in the medley. The success of the medley team will, to some extent, rest on the experienced shoulders of backstroker and former 200 freestyle World Champ Giaan Rooney. Rooney’s backstroke leg up against Natalie Coughlin will set the stage for the rest of the race. Rooney has been swimming just adrift of her PR 1:01.63 set at the Australian Trials in March and, in current form, she is capable of dropping under the 1:01 mark in Athens.
Olympic Prospects, Men:
As was the case in Sydney, Grant Hackett and Ian Thorpe are the only Aussie men likely to win individual gold in Athens.
This time around I am more enthusiastic about Hackett’s form. He has not done too much wrong in recent months. For those who might forget, Hackett was a sick man going into the Sydney Olympics – he was at the tail of the field in the 400m free final, did not make the final team for the gold medal-winning 800m freestyle relay team, and considered pulling out of the 1500m free before he went on to win in style over former distance champ Kieren Perkins.
In contrast, Thorpe is not riding the wave of success he had leading into Sydney where he rewrote the world record in the 200m and 400m freestyle almost every time he competed. However, the world record-holder in these two events looks to be well back on track, after the drama associated with his big ‘DQ’ in the 400m at Trials, having posted some good swims at the Janet Evans Invitational in June and the GP Meets in Brisbane this month. For all that, Hackett looks to be closing the gap this year and I might stick my neck out and go for an upset over Thorpe in the 400m.
The obvious gold chances for the Aussie men are in just three out of the 13 individual events. Bear in mind, however, that they had only two individual winners in Sydney:
200m freestyle: Ian Thorpe
400m freestyle: Grant Hackett
1500m freestyle: Grant Hackett
In the remaining events there are some good minor medal chances in this order:
Thorpe (100m and 400m freestyle), Hackett (200m freestyle), Jim Piper (200m breaststroke), Matt Welsh (100m backstroke) and Justin Norris (200m butterfly and 400m IM).
In the relays: I don’t see the Aussies staging a repeat of their 4x100m freestyle gold medal performance in Sydney and will battle for a minor medal. Michael Klim has been showing some promising signs in his comeback from injury but is unlikely to return to the form that saw him swim a new world record in the first leg of the race in 2000. A second member of the Sydney team, Ashley Callus, has been struggling with illness for some time and will also need to be at his best for the team to make a podium appearance. USA, Russia, South Africa and Italy will be tough to beat.
However, in the 4x200m free the Aussies are better placed with the two big guns Thorpe and Hackett going full throttle. Again they will rely on good support from the experienced Klim and Todd Pearson – both gold medalists in 2000 in this event – and/or Craig Stevens and young gun Nic Sprenger to edge out USA and Italy.
In the medley relay, the Yanks will be unbeatable … unless they DQ – something the Aussies managed in the heats at the World Champs last year. The Aussies don’t look as strong as in Sydney where they took silver, they will struggle to have a finalist in the fly and breaststroke also looks to be a little behind the leaders.