By Phillip Whitten
INDIANAPOLIS, April 6. WHEN the Mutual of Omaha "Duel in the Pool" was first conceived, it was meant to pit the world's two greatest aquatic powers – the USA and Australia — in head-to-head competition to determine which nation was Number One.
At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, despite some amazing performances by Australia's Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett, the US dominated the competition and laid claim to being the planet's top aquatic power. But the very next year, at the World Championships in Japan, the Aussies came storming back to overwhelm the Americans, earning twice as many gold medals as their rivals. At last year's Pan Pacific Championships, the US re-established its dominance.
The Duel in the Pool was created to determine – at least for the moment – who is King of the Pool. The site for this first dual meet – similar meets are expected to be held biannually – is the famed IUPUI Natatorium in Indianapolis, reputed to be one of the "fastest" facilities in the world.
Visibility will be great: The event will be televised, including three hours of coverage on NBC in the U.S. along with similar coverage on The Nine Network in Australia. To sweeten the pot for the swimmers, a bonus of US$25,000 is being offered for world records.
But retirements, illness and injuries took some of Australia's top swimmers, including Michael Klim, out of the match, and by a month ago it was clear that the Americans would be favored heavily. In the last few weeks, the prospects for the Aussies grew even dimmer as ten key members of the Australian national team – notably four-time "World Swimmer of the Year" Ian Thorpe and superstars Petria Thomas, Geoff Huegill, Giann Rooney, Leisel Jones and Ashley Callus – dropped out, claiming injury, illness or, in one case, fear of terrorism.
The Australian team that arrived in Indianapolis two days ago still has several major stars, including Grant Hackett, the greatest distance swimmer of all time, and world champions Matt Welsh and Elka Graham, but many of the Aussies are making their first international trip.
The Americans, on the other hand, are at virtual full strength, with Michael Phelps and Ed Moses both looking to set world records. Head US women's coach, Jack Bauerle, said he has "no intention of backing off even if the US dominates the meet.
"There's no way I could tell our kids not to do their best. Besides," he said, "the Australians are a proud team. I expect them to come out fighting and to swim fast – no matter who is swimming for them. To do anything but the best we are capable of doing would be an insult to them."
Greg Hodge, Australia's High Performance Director, agreed. "We're going in with guns blazing and we expect no less from the Americans. This is a win-win situation: both teams will swim well and, hopefully, the meet will help raise the profile of swimming in the US and help it to grow at the grassroots level."
Added Scott Volkers, Australia's Head Women's Coach: "We feel we can't lose. No matter what the score turns out to be, we are prepared to do our best."
There are 26 events – 13 for women, 13 for men. Each swimmer can compete in as many as four events. The 22 individual events will be scored 5 points for first place, 3 for second, 2 for third and one for fourth; the four relay events will be scored 7-0.
Lineups will not be released to the other team or the media until 10 minutes before each event. So the following preview is based on educated speculation about which swimmers will be swimming which events.
The 400m Free Relay
The Aussie men won this event at both the 2000 Olympics and 2002 Pan Pacific Championships, but a repeat is unlikely in the absence of Ian Thorpe and Ashley Callus.
On the women's side, Australia and the U.S. were ranked second and third in the world in 2002, with the Australians holding a slight .45-second edge. Expect another close race in Indianapolis, but the visitors are hurt by the withdrawal of Jodie Henry.
The 400m Individual Medley
Australia's Justin Norris is very good, but the Americans are likely to start the two fastest men in history in this event: Michael Phelps and Erik Vendt. Phelps has hinted that he will be going for the world record.
The women's race is a toss-up, with Jen Reilly the Australians' best hope. The U.S. will o with Maggie Bowen and possibly 2000 Olympian Maddy Crippen..
In the men's dorsal events, both the US and Australia are loaded. But the US has the edge with 100-meter world record-holder Lenny Krayzelburg and 200-meter world record-holder Aaron Peirsol leading the way. In the 100, the US also boasts Randall Bal, ranked second in the world last year. Australia's Matt Welsh, 2000 Olympic silver medalist and 2001 world champion, along with Josh Watson and Ray Hass, will make both races tough.
World record-holder Natalie Coughlin is likely to swim the 100 meter backstroke, but not the 200. The USA's Coughlin and Haley Cope are looking for a one-two sweep in the 100. Australia's Melissa Morgan and Belinda Newell, both newcomers, are not in their league. The 200 is more of a tossup, with Margaret Hoelzer likely to be the top US entrant against the visitors' Zoe Tonks and Fran Adcock, both competing internationally for the first time.
The men's breaststroke events will be among the fastest and most competitive of the meet, with the US duo of Ed Moses and Brendan Hansen slight favorites over Australia's Regan Harrison and Jim Piper. Moses, who set an American record at 100 meters two days ago, has announced he will be gunning for Roman Sludnov's world record in that event. The 200 features three of the five men in history – Moses, Hansen and Piper – who have swum under 2:11.
The women's breaststroke events, though hurt by the withdrawal of Australian record-holder and Olympic silver medalist Leisel Jones, still will be both fast and very competitive. The US will field Olympians Amanda Beard and Kristy Kowal, and up-and-comer Tara Kirk. Australia has Brooke Hanson, Tarnee White and Sarah Kasoulis.
Michael Phelps will swim at least one – and possibly both – of the fly events. Whether he swims one or both, he will be taking dead aim at the world record. He already owns the 200 meter global standard and three days ago missed the world mark in the 100 meters by only 8-hundredths of a second, claiming that he swam a poor race. Behind Phelps, the US has 2000 Olympic champion Tom Malchow in the 200 and silver medalist Ian Crocker in the 100. Even in the absence of Klim and Huegill, the Aussies are strong in the fly, but Adam Pine (100) and Justin Norris and Travis Nederpelt (200) are probably overmatched.
Had she not remained in Australia for her third surgery in two years, world champion Petria Thomas would be favored in the 200 and possibly in the 100 as well. The US likely will go with Natalie Coughlin and Jenny Thompson in the 100; and Mary Descenza in the double century. Australia has newcomers Jessicah Schipper and Lisbeth Lenton in the 100; Felicia Galvez, Lara Davenport and Schipper in the 200. The US has the advantage in the shorter race but the 200 should be up for grabs.
The American men have traditionally ruled the 50m free, and 2002 was no exception, with Jason Lezak ranked No. 1 in the world. The second US swimmer was Olympic co-gold medalist Anthony Ervin. In addition to these two, the Americans likely will start Neil walker, who won the vent yesterday at the US Nationals. Australia's top sprinter is Brett Hawke, ranked sixth in the world last year. The US has the edge, but Hawke has definite gold medal potential.
The 100 meters features much the same US lineup, though Ervin my not be in condition to swim a strong 100. Thorpe and Callus were both definite threats to win, but both will be absent. Aussies Todd Pearson and Casey Flouch have only an outside chance against the Yanks.
The USA's Jenny Thompson leads the field in the women's 50m free, having swum a lifetime best in the 50 meters last night, 25.02 seconds. Australia's fast-rising Lisbeth Lenton set an Australian mark last month at 25.08. The Americans can call on several other sprinters, including 16 year-old Rhi Jeffrey, to back Thompson up, or even defeat her. Australia's Alice Mills, also 16, also has the potential to upset the field.
In the 100 meters, the US has an embarrassment of riches. Thompson may be the top entrant for the home team, unless American record-holder Natalie Coughlin swims it. Then there's teenager Jeffrey, who won the national title last week. The Aussies – including Lenton, Mills and veteran Sarah Ryan — are about a stroke behind, but any one of these women is capable of stepping up and scoring an upset.
In the absence of world record-holder Ian Thorpe, the US has a chance – just barely. All Klete Keller and Nate Dusing (or Mike Phelps, should he decide to swim it) have to do is beat Australia's Grant Hackett, the third fastest man in history and a former world record-holder. Not likely.
The women's 200 free is up for grabs. Even without Giann Rooney and Petria Thomas, the Aussies have a good shot at winning with the likes of Elka Graham and Kirsten Thomson. Lindsay Benko, the short course world record-holder in this event, will probably be the top entry for the Americans. It is also possible, though unlikely, that Natalie Coughlin will swim this event.
The USA boasts tough Erik Vendt, the first American to crack 15 minutes in the 1500 meters, and 17 year-old rising star Larsen Jensen. But the Aussies are led by the incomparable Grant Hackett, who has broken the 15-minute barrier 12 times and holds the world record at 14:34.56. The Aussies' second swimmer, Craig Stevens, has swum 15:03 and should also be contending for silver with Vendt and Jensen.
Expect American Diana Munz, Olympic silver and bronze medalist, to dominate the women's 800m free. Amanda Pascoe and Linda MacKenzie will need to drop ten seconds to challenge Munz or US newcomer Adrienne Binder.
The 400 Medley Relay
The American men set the world record in the 400m medley relay at the 2002 Pan Pacific Championships and hope to wrap up the meet with a decisive win over Australia, which finished a little more than a second behind the U.S. in '02. Without Klim, Huegill, Thorpe and Callus, the Aussies' chances are slim.
The Australian women have come out on top of the match-up ever since the 2001 World Championships, but missing Dyana Calub in the backstroke, Leisel Jones in the breast and Petria Thomas in the fly, they are unlikely to challenge the Americans.