By Oene Rusticus
AMSTERDAM, August 13. IN Sydney 2000, the Dutch swimmers Pieter van den Hoogenband and Inge de Bruijn ruled the Olympics. They won five individual events and were elected as Swimming World’s "World Swimmers of the Year 2000."
After the Olympics, they enjoyed their status in swimming in different ways. De Bruijn hasn’t swum that many meets since, but she hasn’t lost a race in six years. Van den Hoogenband on the other hand, collected six silver and one bronze medal at the World Championships in Fukuoka and Barcelona, but couldn’t make waves like he did in Australia.
As the swimming competition begins tomorrow in Athens, they will share the same goal: defending their Olympic titles. Both stars will lead the 17-swimmer-strong Dutch Olympic team. The preparation for Athens has been thorough, with several training camps since the team was formed after the Dutch Nationals in April.
The European Championships in Madrid were not a great championship for The Netherlands if you look only at the medals, but in trying new things, analysing races and for the positioning for the swimmers on the relays, it has proven to be valuable.
The only negative aspect in the Dutch Olympic preparation was that the Dutch National Coach, André Cats, who has build the Dutch swimming program the last few years, decided not to go to Athens with the team, for the benefit of the swimmers. After disagreements with members of the Philips/PSV team from Eindhoven, he gave up his own Olympic dream in favor of the dreams of the swimmers. René Dekker, manager of the team and former Olympic coach, has taken over the tasks of Cats.
Meanwhile, Inge de Bruijn was on the other side of the world, to focus completely on training with her coach Paul Bergen. Since October 2003 she has trained again under the guidance of the coach who made her the superstar of Sydney. Bergen will also be in Athens to coach her, unlike her previous Championships. She did win the 50 freestyle and 50 butterfly in Barcelona, but the Olympic 100’s are more difficult to swim. Also the competition has grown a lot since 2000.
Lisbeth Lenton and Jody Henry set great times in the 100 freestyle during the Australian Trials in April. Other strong competitors in this event will be the girls from the US, and especially Barcelona’s champion Hanna-Maria Seppala from Finland and Malia Metella from France.
But De Bruijn hasn’t got to face her competitors alone in this final. Dutch teammate Marleen Veldhuis may also be there. She is also capable of swimming sub 54. But that won’t be enough for gold. We may even see a 52 on the clock for the winner of this event. Coach Bergen says Inge is capable of swimming 52.6. My guess is that this should be enough to hold off Seppala and Lenton from grabbing gold.
The 50 freestyle will be a lottery, with many swimmers who have a shot at gold. Jenny Thompson is one of the most experienced swimmers of the field, but De Bruijn is the current World and Olympic Champion. Also never underestimate Alshammar and Kammerling from Sweden. But the girls from Australia had the toughest competition to make it to Athens, Libby Lenton (bronze medalist in Barcelona (25.08), Michelle Engelsman, Jodie Henry and Alice Mills (silver medallist in Barcelona: 25.07) all swam sub 25 on the Trials, but only the first two made it in this event. Will experience win the event over bravery in this poker game in Athens?
The 100 butterfly will be a completely different story. The world mark of Inge de Bruijn is unchallenged the last four years. Only Martina Moravcova and Petria Thomas have come within a second of Inky’s record. The Dutch swimmer hasn’t swum this event at an international competition since Sydney, but since it is her pet event, she’ll go for it in Athens. Chantal Groot is the other Dutch competitor in this event. It would be great if she could make it to the semifinals, but it takes place in the same afternoon as her major event, the 4×100 freestyle relay.
In this relay, the Dutch team has a chance to medal in Athens, with Inge de Bruijn and Marleen Veldhuis on the squad. Chantal Groot, Annabel Kosten and Inge Dekker have proven their quality winning silver at this event during the recent Europeans in Madrid. But Australia is the favorite in Athens and will be very tough to beat. No doubt, the US will have a decent team; Germany will be an outsider for this event.
The longest relay will see the same countries battling for gold. The USA will have strong competition from Australia and China, but what can Great Britain do in Athens? Since Sweetenham took over the country, they have made a spectacular comeback, which may lead to a surprise in this event. The Dutch relay with Chantal Groot, Haike van Stralen, Celina Lemmen and Marleen Veldhuis can smash their Dutch record from Barcelona (8:05.82), but to medal in this event, the team has to go at least a few seconds under the 8 minute barrier.
World Champion in the medley relay, China, will be the team to beat. With a fit Coughlin this shouldn’t be too much trouble for the United States. Germany, Japan and Australia are also contenders to medal. If the Dutch team makes it to the finals, it would be great. Backstroker Stefanie Luiken will swim her first Olympics, but together with breaststroker Madelon Baans, flyer Chantal Groot and Marleen Veldhuis they’ll have to challenge the National record of 4.06.32 to make it to the finals and bring in the ace De Bruijn.
Madelon Baans will also swim the individual 100 breaststroke, but to make it to the final, she’ll need more than her Dutch record of 1.09. Leisel Jones and Amanda Beard will make this event, with 2003 World Champion Luo Xuejuan as an outsider.
Men’s preview: The Thorpe and Phelps story?
The main event in swimming is still the 100 meter freestyle, although some people say the focus has shifted to the 200 freestyle this year, the event in which Ian Thorpe and Michael Phelps will battle.
Only Thorpe will swim the 100, but he will have tough competition from the Olympic Champion Pieter van den Hoogenband. The flying Dutchman hasn’t won this event at the recent World Championships in Barcelona and Fukuoka, but holds the fastest relay splits (47.02 in Fukuoka and 46.70 in Barcelona). If he is the great Hoogie again from Sydney, he will be unbeatable and finish somewhere low in the 47 seconds.
Alex Popov is the current World Champion, but it is unimaginable that he will win the 100 freestyle for the third time in four Games. The Olympics start oday for Popov, when he is likely to be flag bearer for Russia in the opening ceremony. Other potential medal winners are Jason Lezak and Roland Schoeman, the current leaders in the world ranking. Outsider is Fred Bousquet from France, who also holds an extremely fast relay split set in Barcelona (47.03).
The 200 freestyle will be a showdown between World Champion Thorpe, Olympic Champion Van den Hoogenband, Grant Hackett and Michael Phelps, in what will easily be the fastest field in history. My guess is that the battle for gold will be one between Thorpe and Van den Hoogenband again, like in Sydney. Swimming 1 minute 44 is possible for several competitors. Or is Thorpe capable of making progress again to finish somewhere in the 1:43s? No doubt this will be an historic race again, like the upset Van den Hoogenband pulled off four years ago.
A great competition has forced Gary Hall Jr and Jason Lezak to set fast times during the US Trials. Roland Schoeman had to do it all by himself at his trials, but he accomplished it also under 22 seconds. If the competition can push him to an even faster time, he could become the next Olympic Champion. But there is still Alex Popov, who is the master in this event. The numbers three and four from the recent World Championships, Pieter van den Hoogenband and Johan Kenkhuis from The Netherlands, will also be ready to score in this lottery.
The Dutch team has two more individual competitors in Athens: Joris Keizer swims the 100 butterfly and Thijs van Valkengoed the 100 and 200 breaststroke. The international developments in these strokes have been significant the last years, so it would great if they could make finals.
Since his fifth place at the World Championships in Perth, Joris Keizer finally is making progress again, but his Dutch record of 52.64 only brought him to the semifinals in Barcelona. He will be aiming for his record again, but he has to leave the quest for the gold medal to the Americans Ian Crocker and Michael Phelps. Andriy Serdinov (UKR) and Igor Marchenko (RUS) have set the best European performances this year, but it’s unlikely they can dip under 51 seconds to win gold.
Thijs van Valkengoed is one of the great revelations of Dutch swimming in the last few years. At the junior level, he was the best of Europe in the breaststroke, but after a few years of slowing development, he’s on the move again, winning the 100 and 200 breaststroke at last year’s US Open. But the gap with the world record holder is still there. Brendan Hansen has the best shot in the 100, but let’s not forget World Champion Kosuke Kitajima who has also dipped the one minute barrier. The British breaststroke aces, Darren Mew and James Gibson, are the outsiders in the field but are certainly capable of winning the 100.
The final in the 200 will be a world class one, with Kitajima (Japan), Hansen (USA), Ian Edmond (Great Britain), Jim Piper (Australia) and Dimitri Komornikov (Russia) all capable of breaking the world record to win this event. Van Valkengoed is not yet in this short list of favorites, but will be there in Bejing 2008.
The 4×100 freestyle relay has been one of the targets in the last years, The Netherlands potentially has a world class sprint team. With Van den Hoogenband, the team has the best anchor swimmer of the world, but also Johan Kenkhuis is capable of splitting 47.89 (Fukuoka 2001). With Mark Veens, Mitja Zastrow and Klaas Erik Zwering, they should join the battle for a medal in this event, although this hasn’t happened often in the last few years. Yes, they did win silver in Fukuoka, but couldn’t make it to the final last year in Barcelona. The United States and Russia have the best cards to win this relay, but let us not forget France (Bousquet!) and the Olympic Champion Australia.