By Stephen J. Thomas
SYDNEY, Australia, March 11. YOU might be forgiven for thinking that the Aussie Nationals this year will be a female-only competition, if you caught the initial burst of Sydney television advertising promoting the eight-day meet. As usual, most of the championships will be shown live here on free-to-air television. But this time around it seems that advanced ticket sales are a little slow in a post-Olympic year.
Television promotions were based around the theme of "Wonder Women" and featured most of the Aussie golden girls from Athens doing amazing things in the pool with the help of some clever digital technology. My immediate thought was that perhaps the three highest profile male swimmers competing – Grant Hackett, Michael Klim and Matt Welsh – might be a tad put out. But, the reality is that most of the world class swims at this meet will probably come from the women’s side.
I don’t believe there has ever been such a large number of leading swimmers who have chosen to skip a competitive year Down Under, but this is really just a sign of the times. Professional athletes need to give both their mind and body a break in order to maximize their career potential. Many are looking ahead to the Commonwealth Games to be held in Melbourne next year to get back in the competitive mode. The following year the World Championships will again be held on home soil in Melbourne where domestic sponsor dollars can be far better quantified than when an event is held in an unsympathetic time zone across the globe.
Obviously, the most notable absentee from the men’s side is Ian Thorpe. Also sitting in the stands for this meet that competed in Athens will be dual Olympians Geoff Huegill, Justin Norris, Josh Watson and Ashley Callus. Two other dual Olympians, Todd Pearson and Regan Harrison, have retired.
From the women’s side, triple Olympians Petria Thomas and Sarah Ryan have hung up their suits and middle distance freestyler Elka Graham is out with a hip injury. The loss of Thomas, who last weekend was voted Athlete of the Year at the Australian Sport Awards, cannot be underestimated despite the perceived strength of the women’s team. Her contributions to the Aussie relays in Athens were enormous, particularly her sensational butterfly split in the medley event.
The Men’s Events:
50/100 Freestyle: Olympic finalist and Aussie record-holder Brett Hawke, 29, is looking in good form but will battle with the experienced Michael Klim to take the one-lap sprint. There are also a number of promising young sprinters in the mix including Jono Newton, Eamon Sullivan and Matt Lenton. But they will need to clock a significant PR to get under the WC qualifying time of 22.51.
In the two-lap race the Aussies will be hoping Klim can clock a 49-low to lead the way for the youngsters. The qualifying standard is 49.66 so all will have to improve significantly to make even a relay squad. Eamon Sullivan went 50.06 at this meet last year to make the Olympic team, but he’s been out with a hip injury. However, his coach Grant Stoelwinder said he’s swimming faster than at this stage last year with four weeks preparation.
Sullivan’s West Coast club teammate, Olympian Anthony Matkovich is targeting the 100 over the 200 free this time around and is looking sharp. Expect Andrew Mewing and Casey Flouch to be improving after a good short course season. Teenager Kirk Palmer will have a chance to perform on a major stage.
200/400 Freestyle: No Thorpedo! So the 400 freestyle will be a cruise for Olympic silver medalist Grant Hackett who has already said he will not look for an individual place in the 200 free. I can’t believe how many swimmers have been quoted this week as saying they’re disappointed Thorpie is not swimming. What, disappointed they can’t trail in the wake of those size seventeen flippers and miss an individual swim at the WC’s? I think not.
Olympic relay silver medalist Nick Sprenger will be a favourite to win an individual berth in the 200 free, along with his Olympic relay prelim teammates Matkovich and Craig Stevens. There would be some balance to the swimming universe if Craig Stevens were to make the team in the 400 free behind Hackett and then actually get to swim the event, but he has had limited preparation and a few injury interruptions coming into the meet and will not swim the distance events. Sprenger should take second spot in the abscence of Stevens.
800/1500 Freestyle: Look to Grant Hackett and his training partner, the new Aussie Kurtis MacGillivary (Canadian record-holder in both events), to be first and second to the wall. Hacky says he's feeling 100 percent, so expect some classy swims.
Backstroke: Matt Welsh is still the main man in the dorsal events. The 28-year-old Victorian just keeps on going. I can’t see him being beaten in the three events. Look for Ethan Rolff to push him in the two-lap race and Olympian Patrick Murphy, Andrew Burns and Rolff to be in the mix for the second spot in the 200-meter distance.
Breaststroke: Brenton Rickard had an excellent short course season and should be the man to beat for the 50-100 double. Mark Riley continues to improve and will be close over the shorter distances while Jim Piper was in hot form during the European leg of the World Cup in January and should produce his best in the deuce.
Butterfly: Dorsal specialist Matt Welsh broke the world record in the 50 fly in Barcelona two years ago with a 23.43, so he is the standout with no Geoff Huegill in the event. Of the others, only Michael Klim has gone under the 23.86 qualifying time.
Klim has also entered the 100 fly, the event in which he won the silver medal at the Sydney Olympics. So, too, his Athens teammate in this event Adam Pine. Look to Jason Cohen and teenager Andrew Lauterstein to challenge their very experienced rivals. Olympian Travis Nederpelt will be the favorite for the 200 fly in the absence of Aussie record-holder Justin Norris, with Andrew Richards and Josh Krogh also in the hunt.
Individual Medley: Justin Norris is out of the picture so this leaves the young guns from Athens, Adam Lucas and Travis Nederpelt, to shoot for their first national long course title. Lucas might have the edge over Queensland teenager Leith Brodie in the 200 but he is also ranked seventh globally in the short course 400 IM and hopes to be in front of Nederpelt going into the freestyle leg. Nederpelt is also entered in the 1500 freestyle and the final clashes with the IM on the last night.
The Women’s Events:
50/100 Freestyle: In contrast with the men’s field, four swimmers – Libby Lenton, Michelle Engelsman, Jodie Henry and Alice Mills – went under the 25-second mark last year in the 50. Mills went 25.03 in full training at the AIS Meet recently so it will be hard to call. The 50 free final is on the final night so the pure sprinter Engelsman might be fresher than Lenton and Mills, both of whom have a full program.
In the 100 free, Henry is playing down her Olympic champion status, having taken her time to return to the pool after Athens. In contrast, Lenton is fired up to regain the world record she lost to Henry in Athens after setting it at this meet last year. Then there’s Mills, who also went a 54.68 at the AIS meet. Expect some hot times!
200/400 Freestyle: Petria Thomas was the premier Aussie over 200 last year, but she will be watching from the stands. Elka Graham won’t be there either due to injury. Linda MacKenzie swam the 200/400/800 in Athens and she will be back for more. Relay teammates Alice Mills and Shayne Reese will be in the frame at the finish, as will Libby Lenton who will step up to the longer race. Melissa Mitchell looks in good form, having clocked a PR 2:00.40 just last month in this pool. The 17-year-old Sydney-sider will have something to prove as the only member of the Athens team to miss out on a swim. Linda MacKenzie would be the clear favorite for the 400 with her 4:08 from Athens but doesn’t look in quite the same form as last year. Look out for teenagers Sarah Paton, Haylee Reddaway and Brodie Murphy who are on the upward curve.
800/1500 Freestyle: Both Olympic reps in the 800 free – MacKenzie and Paton – will be on the blocks but again it will be the teen challenge coming from Stephanie Williams, Reddaway, Murphy and Melissa Gorman. We could see the winner dip under the 8:30 mark for the first time in a decade. In the 1500, Stephanie Williams comes into this competition with a 16:18.12 from the Junior Pan Pacs in Hawaii in January – which would have ranked her 2nd globally in 2004. Hopefully Williams will manage her full program, which also includes the 200 backstroke.
Backstroke: Finally the Aussie women look to have uncovered some exciting prospects in the dorsal events. Olympic gold medalist Giaan Rooney (medley relay) is in excellent form but she will be pushed all the way by club mates Tay Zimmer and Sophie Edington in the 50-100 events. The 200 is a wide-open event. Zimmer clocked a 2:14.72 in January and Athens Olympians Melissa Morgan and Fran Adcock are off the pace to date. Meanwhile, 15-year-olds Stephanie Williams and Amy Lucas (younger sister of IM’er Adam) continue to improve. Zoe Tonks, who represented Australia at the World Champs in Barcelona as a 15-year-old, is getting back into form.
Breaststroke: Much like the freestyle events, the Aussie overflow with talent. Across the three events we will see the continuing battle between Leisel Jones and Brooke Hanson. In the 50-100 events add Jade Edmistone – world-record holder over 50m short course – who also clocked 1:08.39 for the two-laps last month. There’s also Athens Olympian Sarah Katsoulis over the 100-200 distances. Expect some very fast times.
Butterfly: Petria Thomas won’t be there but Olympic finalist Jessica Schipper will, together with Libby Lenton, Alice Mills and teens Danni Miatke and Stephanie Rice over the shorter races. In the deuce, Felicity Galvez and Schipper look solid to qualify for Montreal.
Individual medley: The 200 IM should be between Lara Carroll, an Olympic finalist in this event, and the world short course champion Brooke Hanson. Both should qualify, given that Alice Mills will concentrate on fly and free events. Eighteen-year-old Carroll should be too strong in the 400 IM.