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Column by John Lohn, Swimming World senior writer
SHANGHAI, China, July 27. WE won't see Ian Thorpe, Australia's legendary freestyle ace, until November. That's when he becomes eligible to race again under FINA doping rules. In the meantime, his comeback to the sport is in full effect in Switzerland, under the watch of Gennadi Touretski, the man who shaped the career of Alexander Popov.
In all likelihood, Thorpe has been keeping tabs on the results from the World Championships in Shanghai, gauging his future competition. And based on the way a few events have unfolded at the Oriental Sports Center's Indoor Stadium, one has to wonder if Thorpe is capable of making this comeback into a storybook tale.
When word of Thorpe's return first surfaced, his presence was deemed as a major boon for Australian swimming. Many thoughts shot to the 400 free relay, with the notion that Thorpe could help the Aussies return to prominence in that event. Well, his mates have zoomed to the top of the world without him, evidenced by the gold medal collected by the foursome of James Magnussen, Matt Targett, Matt Abood and Eamon Sullivan on the first night of the World Champs.
With the Olympics beginning a year from today in London, even Thorpe admits that it will be extremely difficult to crack that relay squad for the 2012 Games. After all, each of the members of the Australian quartet broke the 48-second barrier, highlighted by Magnussen's textile-best swim of 47.49 on the leadoff leg.
"It will be really, really tough to make this relay," Thorpe told the Daily Telegraph. "That was a fantastic swim by the guys and the good thing is their capacity to go even faster with a year to go to the Olympics. It's a relief because victory in that relay has been more than a decade in the making."
The relay situation, however, is just part of the problem for Thorpe. It's not out of line to doubt Thorpe's ability to return to his former prowess, especially with seven years having passed since the 2004 Olympics in Athens. In the 200 freestyle, there were five guys under 1:45 in the final at the World Champs, won by Ryan Lochte in 1:44.44. Sure, Thorpe has a career-best of 1:44.06, but – again – returning to that state is not likely.
As for the 100 freestyle, which Thorpe is targeting over a return to the 400 free, the speed of that event is probably too much for the Thorpedo to handle. His best time in the two-lap sprint is 48.56, achieved en route to the bronze medal at the Athens Games. In the prelims of the World Championships, five men went faster in the preliminary round. Yes, Thorpe is training with a genius in the sprint-freestyle events, but there are limits to what Touretski will be able to produce in his newest charge.
Maybe Ian Thorpe will surprise during this comeback and rekindle the greatness of his past. It just doesn't seem to be truly possible.
**Question of the Morning: After analyzing the preliminaries of the 100 freestyle, how many men will we see break the 48-second barrier?
**Great point made this morning by veteran coach Alex Braunfeld. In my Morning Swim Show discussion with Jeff Commings following the Day Three Finals, we quickly chatted about the makeup of the United States' 800 freestyle relay. We mentioned Dana Vollmer, Allison Schmitt and Dagny Knutson as three of the legs on the relay, but speculated as to who would be the fourth member.
Braunfeld pointed out that Missy Franklin fits the bill for relay duty, and he couldn't be more accurate. Franklin looked terrific in the 400 free relay and has proven herself as a future star of the sport. Apologies for the oversight.
**An argument can be made that the women's 200 butterfly was one of the most affected events of the high-tech suit era. As the preliminaries of the grueling discipline unfolded, the struggles of the competitors to reach the wall were on full display. The top time of the morning was registered by Japan's Natsumi Hoshi in 2:07.34. That's nearly six seconds off the ridiculous world record of Liu Zige, which stands at 2:01.81.
**Brazilian Thiago Pereira looked really good in his prelim of the 200 individual medley, touching the wall in 1:57.82. However, Hungarian Laszlo Cseh is struggling. After failing to make the final in the 200 butterfly, Cseh managed just the 13th-quickest time in the prelims of the 200 IM, going 1:59.80.
**After a three-day break, relay action returns to the schedule tomorrow with the women's 800 freestyle relay and will carry through the end of the meet.
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn