By John Lohn
PHILADELPHIA, Penn., May 6. LAST week, we started a weekly series that will take a look at a major storyline expected to unfold at this summer’s World Championships in Montreal. For the second installment of the package, we present a glance at relay action.
Can South Africa Maintain Hold of the 400 Freestyle Relay
Not long ago, the United States men were the undisputed kings of the 400 freestyle relay, having dominated the event in international competition. But in 2000, Australia dealt the American contingent its first defeat in Olympic competition. That loss was followed by a setback to Russia at the 2003 World Championships. Then, at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, South Africa moved to the forefront, grabbing gold.
When the Athens Games began, South Africa was certainly touted as a medal contender, perhaps even quick enough to make a push for gold. Still, few expected the South Africans to uncork a world-record time of 3:13.17, good for a victory of 1.19 seconds over the Netherlands. The United States placed third in 3:14.62.
Behind a Roland Schoeman leadoff leg of 48.17, the South Africans jumped to the front of the field and never looked back, riding the efforts of Lyndon Ferns (48.13), Darian Townsend (48.96) and Ryk Neethling (47.91) to their magical win. Can the Springboks carry that success over to Montreal? Absolutely.
During the World Cup season, Schoeman and Neethling were nothing short of sensational. Meanwhile, Ferns (Arizona) and Townsend (Florida) had first-rate collegiate campaigns. Consequently, there’s no reason to believe that South Africa is incapable of lowering its world-record time, perhaps below the 3:13 mark.
If the United States plans to contend with the South Africans, the U.S. must put together a near-flawless performance. While the Americans boast Jason Lezak and Michael Phelps, it’s uncertain how the remainder of the lineup will unfold.
During the World Championship Trials, relay berths were earned by Ben Wildman-Tobriner, Garrett Weber-Gale, Neil Walker and Nate Dusing. Still, the coaches have the right to juggle the relay. Will Ian Crocker be used in relay duty? What about Nick Brunelli? There are questions that need to be answered. One answer that is obvious, however, is this: South Africa remains the favorite.
NEXT WEEK: Can Leisel Jones Secure an International Breakthrough?