By Stephen J. Thomas
BRISBANE, Australia, December 2. WITH the Australian World Championships selection trials due to get underway Sunday evening U.S. time at the Chandler pool in Brisbane, it's an ideal opportunity to take stock of the Aussie strengths and weaknesses as they build for Melbourne in March.
On the women's side with just two individual places up for grabs, there are several events where getting into the team will almost be as tough as winning a medal at Worlds such is their depth right now.
In taking a look at the best of the women's events, bear in mind that most of the star players having competed at the Commonwealth Games earlier in the year chose to skip Pan Pacs in order to fully focus on their preparations for Worlds.
Olympic gold medalists Libby Lenton, Jodie Henry and Alice Mills should dominate the freestyle sprints. This year, Lenton is ranked globally first and second, respectively, in the 50-100 with Henry second and fourth and Mills fifth and sixth, a pretty impressive combo in any team roster. Look out for 20-year-old Melanie Schlanger in these events; she had a short stint at the University of Hawaii before moving back to Brisbane and now trains alongside Lenton.
In the 200 freestyle, Lenton will back again, and leads the field with her 1:57.51 from the Commonwealth Games in March. The titleholder for the past three years, Linda Mackenzie doesn't have the same raw speed as Lenton but always coming home strong in the final 25. Together with Bronte Barrett who had a strong showing for the bronze at Pan Pacs, will be the challengers. The 17-year-old Barrett is also a prospect for the 400 along with the talented 16-year-old Kylie Palmer.
Another outstanding clash will be in the fly events with Lenton to do business with reigning world champ Danni Miatke, Jessica Schipper and Mills in the 50 sprint – all four women are ranked in the top 10 this year. In the 100, it doesn't get any easier with Schipper another reigning world champ versus Lenton and Mills ranked globally 1, 3 and 5 respectively.
In the four-lap race Schipper, the world record-holder, can probably ease off a little here in preparation for her rematch with her Polish archrival Otylia Jedrzejczak in March. Athens finalist Felicity Galvez has also been swimming well with a PR 2:08.16 via her silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in March.
Lenton is attempting a massive program here, slated to swim the 50, 100 and 200 free and the 50 and 100 fly, that's 15 swims without relays folks, a tough call in anyone's book.
In the breaststroke events, there is one name that dominates the global stage right now and it would not surprise if the white-hot Leisel Jones challenges the world record of 30.31 held by Jade Edmistone in the 50 sprint, where Jones is currently ranked second-fastest all-time, .21 outside the world mark. Brooke Hanson has not done a full preparation for this meet and will just focus on the sprint.
The world mark in the two-lap race may move into 1:04 territory this week pushed by Edmistone (world ranking third), a revitalized Tarnee White (seventh) and the promising Sally Foster (15th). In the 200, Jones has posted two times under 2:21 this year over three full seconds faster than any other swimmer. She will be racing herself here.
Women's backstroke is on the up Down Under despite the retirement of Giaan Rooney earlier this year. Training partners Sophie Edington and Tay Zimmer will lead the way dueling in the dorsal 50-100 while former Brit Joanna Fargus 200 will be aiming to be the first Aussie under 2:10.
The promising Stephanie Rice and Athens finalist Lara Carroll will look to move forward in the 200 IM especially with three-time national champ Brooke Hanson skipping the event.
While there is great potential for world best performances in the women's events, the men's side is limited to just a few likely lads together with one name that stands alone, that of Grant Hackett.
Hackett took out Swimming World Magazine's title of male swimmer of the year in 2005 after winning the 400-800-1500 freestyle events at the World Championships in Montreal, highlighted by wiping Ian Thorpe's 800 freestyle world record from the books. The 26-year-old had successful shoulder surgery following that meet and has already produced some outstanding performances since his return to suggest he will be in very good form here.
His long-time coach Denis Cotterell indicated to me last week that he felt Hackett was swimming well enough to produce personal-best performances in the coming months. Hackett holds eight of the 10 fastest swims in history over the 800 and seven in the 1500. His challenge will be to encroach on the 400 freestyle territory of his recently-retired mate Ian Thorpe. Thorpe holds the nine fastest swims over eight laps, Hackett the sole interloper with the 10th-fastest performance – to date anyway.
Brenton Rickard is looking the goods in the breaststroke events; ranked second behind world record-holder Brendan Hansen this year in the two-lap race, his time in the spotlight may well be approaching. The experienced Jim Piper posted a 2:10.51 over 200 at the Nationals in January, also second best behind Hansen for the year, and it would be good to see him reproduce that form.
There will be no Thorpe in the 100 and 200 freestyle and Brett Hawke, the national record-holder in the 50 has also retired. Eamon Sullivan has had a good year and is the only highly ranked sprinter in the freestyle. Veteran performers like Michael Klim and Ashley Callus are ranked just outside the top 20 globally this year. Look out for Auburn-based Matt Targett to put in a good showing in the free and fly.
Hackett will only swim the prelims of the 200 to post a time for the relay then the gap widens to the likes of Nic Sprenger, back after serious illness, and promising youngsters Nick Ffrost and Kenrick Monk. Daylight will be second to Hackett in the distance events with Craig Stevens fighting to produce qualifying times.
Former world record-holder Michael Klim will swim the 50-100 fly along with another veteran Adam Pine both are ranked in the top ten this year but they are very unlikely to get near the times required to challenge for medal in Melbourne.
The perennial performer Matt Welsh will be back once again, and is likely to record his 50th National title this week. The 30-year-old will also be aiming to make his 5th World Champs team in the dorsal 50 and 100 and 50 fly.
Athens Olympian Travis Nederpelt will have his best shot at a world-class effort in the 200 fly where he is currently ranked 7th via his fourth placing at Pan Pacs this year.