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Column by John Lohn, Swimming World senior writer
SHANGHAI, China, July 31. AS we leave this last all-encompassing international competition before the 2012 Olympics, it's normal for a handful of questions to surface. Among them: How good can James Magnussen become? Is China developing into a force? Will some of the underperformers of this meet, such as Laszlo Cseh, regain their swagger?
The answers will reveal themselves in the months ahead. But for this farewell column from the Oriental Sports Center's Indoor Stadium, we're going to focus on the state of United States Swimming. How does the sport's powerhouse country, reaffirmed with its 29 medals at the World Championships, look just under a year from London? And, what gaps need to be addressed?
From the obvious department, the American arsenal no longer possesses just one all-timer. Piggybacking on what he accomplished at last summer's Pan Pacific Championships, Ryan Lochte has given the United States a pair of bona fide greats. Lochte, for the time being, is the best swimmer in the world, having transformed Michael Phelps from the chased to the pursuer. Still, Phelps looked good at this meet, especially for a guy who hasn't focused entirely on his training. That will change.
By the time these men arrive in London, their storylines will be well known, having been splashed across every magazine cover imaginable. They'll duel one another – in all likelihood – in two individual events and attempt to keep the United States at the top of the sport. In that pursuit, they'll have help from Missy Franklin, the teen phenom who entered Shanghai with vast potential and leaves with the loftiest expectations thrust on her shoulders.
"I have never been this happy," Franklin said. "It took me three hours to get to sleep last night. I never expected this, so to walk out of here with five medals is ridiculous. All the hard work has been worth it. I'll never forget this."
In Natalie Coughlin, on the move toward London, the American roster has a veteran that can be relied on. Her steady influence, as was the case on the 400 medley relay, is complemented by the excellence of teammates Rebecca Soni and Dana Vollmer, dominant in the breaststroke and butterfly, respectively.
Now, what have we learned from the past eight days? No, Nick Thoman and David Plummer are not Aaron Peirsol. Nobody is. But the men who have taken the backstroke duties from the retired legend have proven themselves quite capable. We've learned that Tyler Clary can be counted on to grab podium positions in the 200 backstroke and 400 IM. We found that Kate Ziegler is returning to the form that once made her the premier distance freestyler on the female side. We saw Tyler McGill stamp himself as a medalist in the 100 fly.
One weakness that needs to be rectified is the lack of depth in the men's breaststroke. Although Eric Shanteau delivered a strong performance in the final of the 200 breast, taking fourth place, the American men didn't win a medal in the breaststroke events. Between the men and women, it was the only stroke in which the Red, White and Blue came up empty. Perhaps it's a good sign, then, that Brendan Hansen is in the middle of a comeback and feeling good about his return. We'll get a better gauge on Hansen's progress when he races at the United States Nationals next week at Stanford University.
Earning a bronze medal on the opening night of competition, the 400 freestyle relay has some sorting out to do before London. Having regained the Olympic title in dramatic fashion in Beijing, the last thing the United States wants to do is yield control in the event in the early stages of the 30th Olympiad.
Phelps, of course, is a given on the relay and Nathan Adrian is likely to be there as well. Adrian didn't excel like many thought he would here, but he's the American future of the sprint freestyles, so don't fret. Filling the other two legs will be the key, with Lochte in the mix along with Garrett Weber-Gale. Will Jason Lezak, 36 years old by London, bounce back from a poor showing here? That's a tough one to predict.
Returning to the positives, it seems that Peter Vanderkaay is progressing well with his new training home at Gator Swim Club. Vanderkaay dipped below 3:45 in the 400 free and while that didn't earn the former Michigan star a medal, it was a positive step for the veteran freestyler.
Bottom line: The United States ruled the medal count at this latest version of the World Champs. Sure, attention is needed in a few places, but there is reason to feel good about the state of the Stars and Stripes.
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn