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Column by John Lohn, Swimming World senior writer
SHANGHAI, China, July 30. THIS 14th edition of the World Championships will come to a close tomorrow night with seven finals. None, however, will be as anticipated by the home crowd as the men's 1500 freestyle, featuring China's Sun Yang. Every time he enters the water, the fans at the Oriental Sports Center's Indoor Stadium go into a frenzied state.
Only 19 years old, Sun has emerged as one of the elite distance freestylers in the world. Already at these championships, he has won the gold medal in the 800 free and earned the silver medal in the 400 free, behind South Korea's Tae Hwan Park. For good measure, Sun anchored China to the bronze medal in the 800 free relay. So loud was the venue for Sun's finish, one would have thought the Chinese earned gold.
When the 2012 Olympics in London roll around in just under a year, it is hard to imagine anyone other than Sun being the favorite in the 1500 freestyle, the event formerly under the ownership of Australia and the likes of Kieren Perkins and Grant Hackett. If Sun does what some believe him capable of on the final night of action, he'll become the heavy favorite for gold.
In the prelims of the metric mile, Sun cruised to a time of 14:48.13 and the top seed for the championship final. Next up is the push for another title and the historic world record of Grant Hackett, who clocked 14:34.56 for the global standard at the 2001 World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan. That standard is the only men's record to survive the high-tech suits that were banned from the sport at the beginning of 2010.
Unless Missy Franklin continues her meteoric rise and breaks the world mark in the 200 backstroke, Sun is probably the last chance for a second world record at this meet, complementing the standard set by Ryan Lochte in the 200 individual medley. Sun has been close to Hackett's record before, going 14:35.43 to win gold at the Asian Games in 2010. Making the storyline even better for the final is the fact that Sun is coached by Hackett's former mentor, Australian Denis Cotterell.
Featuring a perfect build and the deadly combination of endurance and speed, Sun has a chance to become an iconic performer in his events. What better place to establish that identity than in front of the home crowd.
**Try this on for size: Dave Salo, the man in charge of the talent at Trojan Swim Club, could put three athletes on the podium in the 50 breaststroke. After the preliminaries, Salo's trio of Jessica Hardy, Rebecca Soni and Yuliya Efimova occupy the top-three positions in qualifying. And, they will be favored to walk away with the hardware.
Speaking of Hardy, she pulled off an impressive double during the morning session. Racing the 50 freestyle to start the day, Hardy tied Sweden's Therese Alshammar for the top seed, thanks to a time of 24.82. Eleven minutes later, she was on the blocks for the 50 breast, where she checked in with a time of 30.20, a half-second clear of the 30.72 efforts supplied by Soni and Efimova.
Soni is looking for a sweep of the breaststroke events, having already blistered the opposition in the 100 and 200 distances. This will easily be the most difficult event for Soni to win due to Hardy's sheer sprint speed.
**Question of the Morning: In the final of the 200 backstroke, will 16-year-old Missy Franklin treat the crowd to a world record, breaking the mark of 2:04.81 held by Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry?
**The United States has some options for its makeup of the women's 400 medley relay for the championship final. While Rebecca Soni and Dana Vollmer are locked into the middle legs, the coaching staff could go with Missy Franklin on the backstroke and Natalie Coughlin on the freestyle anchor leg. Or, the American squad could have Coughlin leading off, as she has in international competition for a decade, with Franklin bringing the squad home.
**Today is the only day of the competition in which Ryan Lochte is idle, his schedule free of any individual events or relays. The man who has already won four gold medals – three individually – will return to the water on the final day for the preliminaries of the 400 individual medley. Lochte is the defending world champion in the event.
**Defending Olympic champion Ous Mellouli, who was fourth in the 800 freestyle, failed to qualify for the final of the 1500 free. Mellouli had an exceptional performance at the World Short Course Championships at the end of last year, but has struggled in Shanghai. He was also seventh in the 400 free.
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn