International Review: Thorpe May Be the Best Ever!

By Bill Bell

APRIL 8. WHEN Australian triple Olympic gold medalist Ian Thorpe set the world record in the 800 free during last week's Australian Nationals/World Championship Trials in Hobart, he joined a rather exclusive group — consisting of a mere two other swimmers — who have ever held world records in the 200-400-800 frees. All are men.

By adding the 800 free standard to the 400 which he held going into the meet, and then regaining the 200 global mark lost at The Big O's last September to Holland's Pieter van den Hoogenband (who in turn became his country's first male wr-setter and Olympic champ), Thorpe equals the feats of fellow Aussie John Konrads and American Tim Shaw.

Shaw is the only swimmer ever to hold the 200-400-800 and mile records simultaneously and the only swimmer ever to set the 200-400-mile wrs in the same meet — the AAUs (nee U.S. Nationals) at Concord, Calif., in August of 1974.

Konrads, who would go on to swim for now-retired USC Trojan coach Peter Daland in the early '60s (and win the NCAA 500-1650 frees in '63 in 4:50.4-17:24+), was the first to get the 200-400-800 standards.

Competing in the Australian Nationals at Sydney in January of '58 Konrads went 9:17.7 for the 800 on Jan. 11, cruised the 400 in 4:25.9 on Jan. 15, and added the 200 record with his 2:04.8 on Jan. 18 — pretty good times these days for 13-14 girls but then global standards and regarded as "quite extraordinary" by his coach, Don Talbot, now Aussie national team director.
Daland recently recalled Konrads as "a bear of a man" who had an insatiable desire to win — "very determined, very talented."

Can the coach compare Konrads to Thorpe, having seen the latter compete at Sydney? "They're two different types of swimmers," Daland notes. "Konrads was huskier than Thorpe but much shorter. Thorpe has the ideal build for a swimmer, tall and lean, and he has yet to reach his physical maturity. Konrads swam 40 years ago so you obviously can't compare times or training technques but in his day John was one of the greatest, same as another Australian we had — Murray Rose."

As for Shaw, in the mid-'70s, prior to the Montreal Olympics, the former Cal. State Long Beach All-America/NCAA Champ was performing hurculean feats still unduplicated today. When he won the 200-400-mile at Concord he twice set the world record in the 200 — prelims and finals. He also easily won his specialties a week later during a dual meet against the East Germans. In February of '75 Shaw was honored as America's finest amateur athlete when he won the Sullivan Award.

That summer he set world records in the 400-800-mile at the World Championship Trials in Long Beach, then went to Cali, Colombia and won the 200-400-1500 at the World Championships. Just prior going to South America, Shaw broke the wr in the 800 free that he had set en route to the mile standard at Belmont Plaza during an exhibition meet in Mission Viejo.

Interestingly, Shaw lost the 200 free wr to then fellow Beach Swim Club teammate, Bruce Furniss, at the Trials, but at the World Championships handily won the gold. For good measure that summer Shaw swam at the AAU Championships in Kansas City three weeks after Cali and broke his wr in the 400 free — his fifth such mark of the year.

However, illness (a bout with anemia) and a pair of bum shoulders put paid to Shaw's bid for multiple golds at the Montreal Olympics. He wound up swimming only one race there — the 400 free — where he helped push teammate Brian Goodell to the world record and gold while earning the silver medal.

Certain critics here and in Australia scoff at Thorpe's 800 wr, noting that the previous record (7:46.00) was a split off a world record-setting mile by Kieren Perkins at the Aussie Olympic Trials seven years ago. Still, Thorpe knocked over four seconds off that time in his first serious effort at the distance last week, so it's not hard to imagine what he'd to if he ever got serious about the distance.

"It was no lark, that 800," says famed Australian coach Forbes Carlile, who guided Shane Gould to fame and glory at the Munich Olympics 29 years ago. "He was going for it from the gun and he was hurting at the end, but then again that's twice as far as he usually swims."

Carlile believes Thorpe is "quite capable" of holding every freestyle record from the 100 through the 1500 before his career is done. "Look, you will see this kid do things unprecedented in the history of our sport. When he goes seriously for the 100 and the 1500 I've no doubt he can get them, just a question of time, training and how much he wants to go up [to the 1500]."

"And it's a lot harder today to be competitive all the way from the 100 to the mile than it was when [Mark] Spitz was in all his glory. Too much specialization and all the emphasis is on the shorter races. What Thorpe's done is simply unbelieveable."

Carlile's predictions may not be too far off the mark. "Thorpedo" won the Aussie 100 free title last week in a pr 49.05, ranking him 13th-fastet performer of all-time and No. 2 globally for the year. Among those to whom Thorpe showed his size 18 heels was none other than teammate Michael Klim, whose 48.18 Olympic 400 free relay leadoff is three tenths off van den Hoogenband's world record — and faster than training mate Alexander Popov's old world record of 48.21!

This isn't quite the same tune Carlile was singing after the Olympics when he suggested that Thorpe's day had come — and passed.

"That's right, a blessed miracle, a Lazarus risen from the grave," Carlile suggests of his change of heart and of Thorpe's "reincarnation." "He has so much going for him that it will be some time before a better swimmer than Thorpe appears — and there is none on the horizon now.

"What is more, he has learned how to race, only to put power to his hugely flexible leg action as the race progresses and swim close to negative splits. Bring on van den Hoogenband. You can bet your farm on the Australian boy in Fukuoka and beyond.

In any event, it looks as if Thorpedo has gotten religion," at least in terms of swimming more controlled races. When he set the world record in the 200 at last May's Olympic Trials he was out in 51.03. At Sydney, when "Hoogie" broke the wr in the semis with a 1:45.35 he split 50.85 going out to Thorpe's 52.03. Next day in the finals Thorpe was out in a blistering 50.90 compared to Hoogie's 51.12, and the latter won in a wr-tying 1:45.35 to Thorpedo's 1:45.83.

However, at the Aussie Trials last week Thorpedo was 51.90 for his first 100 and 52.79 coming home.

In the 400 at the Olympics Thorpe was out in 1:48.86 –by far and away the fastest initial 200 ever in a 400 race — and touched in 3:40.59. By contrast, when Furniss set the world record en route to the gold at Montreal he clocked 1:50.29! Last week Thorpe swam the second-fastest 400 on record (3:40.76) but was out in a more "leisurely" 1:50.12.

If Thorpedo intends to win four individual golds at the World Championships starting July 22 in Fukuoka, he'll have his work cut out for him — big time.

On opening day he'll have the heats and finals of the 400 free plus the 400 free relay (whose prelims he'd dearly like to skip but may have to swim if Australia is to qualify for the finals).

Day 2 he'll have heats of the 800 free. Day 3 brings heats and semis of the 200 free plus — PLUS finals of the 800 free, which makes swimming this race quite impractical if Thorpedo wants to make up for his Olympic 200 free loss to Hoogie.

Day 4 only has the 200 free finals on the schedule.
Then the next two days are the heats, semis and finals of the 100 free — with the finals of the 800 free relay the same night as the 100 free finals.

So whether Thorpedo swims the 100-200-400-800 or just 200-400-800 and the relays is conjectural at this point but odds are pretty good he'll likely go the latter program.

Similarly, the program works well for Hoogenband's desire to perhaps capture the 50-100-200 free titles (not yet done by any swimmer of either sex in eight previous World Championships).

The 50 free for men (heats, semis) are on Day 1, along with heats and finals of the 400 sprint relay. Day 2 only has the 50 free finals. Day 3 brings heats, semis of the 200 free; Day 4 that race's finals plus (perhaps) heats and semis of the 100 fly.

Hoogie's been 54 high for this race and has indicated he'd like to concentrate more on it in the future — but arguably he'd be crazy to tire himself out swimming two 100 fly races on the day of the 100 free finals

In any event, the stage is set for Round 2 of "Clash of the Titans." More about Hoogie's fitness state may be known at the end of this month when he competes in the French Nationals/World Championship Trials. However, if the French run their Trials the way the United States runs its Trials, Hoogie won't be swimming in any finals and to be motivated swimming only the heats or the banana finals, well…

The World Championship schedule is equally conducive for Dutch triple world record-holder/Olympic champ Inge de Bruijn if she wants to replicate her performance from Sydney where she did in fact win the 50-100 frees and 100 flys.

In Japan she'll have the first two days off although if she is so inclined could go the 50 back on Day 2.

Day 3 has the heats and semis of the 100 free, with the finals the next day. Day 4 also has heats and semis of the 50 fly which "Inky" is almost a lock to swim.

Day 5 brings the 50 fly finals — a virtual "walk in the park.

Day 6 are the heats and semis of the 100 fly — no problem there. Day 7 gets a bit sticky as "Inky" has heats and semis of the 50 free plus finals of the 100 fly. However, the 50 free semis are the day's second race and the 100 fly finals fall three races later, after the women's 100 back and men's 50 fly finals.

The final day has only the 50 free finals plus the women's 400 medley relay so, deliberately or not, the schedule is such that "Inky" can wreak even more havoc here than in Sydney.

About the same time as the Australian and American World Championship Trials were wrapping up last weekend in Hobart and Austin, respectively, South Africa was concluding its Trials meet in Johannesburg.

The results were not especially impressive save in the sprints, were Roland Schoeman went 22.34-50.27.
Teammate Ryk Neethling (who also swam with Schoeman at the University of Arizona through last year and in 1999 won the 200-500-1650 free golds at the NCAA Championships) won the 100 free in 50.04. His best is a national-record 49.71 from last year's Olympic Trials.

Breaststroker Sara Poewe showed she's in form with a 31.50 50-1:08.02 100 wins.

Neethling was among the favorites to medal in the 400-1500 at Sydney but was shut out from a podium finish –despite a Top 3 ranking in each going in. After last week's meet he commented about widespread doping accusations in swimming, and said: "The South Africans are clean and in Sydney we were like schoolchildren next to the other guys."

Neethling says he's undecided about swimming at Fukuoka as he's to begin working in a bank in Tucson in August. "I don't know if I'm going or not. I do intend to compete in the Mare Nostrom Series next month in Spain, France and Monte Carlo and my goal is to get my 100 down to the 48 range."

At rhe 91st Spanish Nationals which began Thursday in Zaragosa, Argentine sprinter, Jose M. Meolans, showed he's ready to move into sprinting's elite ranks off his 22.48-49.57 clockings. The former missed his pr and NR by .02 while the latter — done in the semis — is a pr and NR by a couple of tenths. His old Argentine standard was 49.66 from the semis at Sydney.

Hometown favorite Jorge Sanchez won the 200 back (2:01.87), off his pr of 1:59.78 from three years ago. Brenton Castillo won the 200 IM in 2:04.07.

Nina Zhivanevskaya cruised to a 1:01.57 100 back win with a 1:01.55 in the semis. Her pr is a 1:00.83 that earned her a silver at the 1994 World Championships in Rome while a mere 17 years old and still competing for Russia. Since switching her nationality to Spain a couple of years ago, her pr is 1:00.89 from Sydney, earning the bronze and a national record.

Star German backstroker Ralf Braun, NR-holder in the 200 off his 1:58.42 from the Atlanta Olympics, was involved in a traffic accident in Berlin a few days ago, injuring his left shoulder, and will be forced to take a break from training for several weeks. His trainer, Beate Ludewig, says she is concerned that the 28-year-old Braun runs the risk of missing Germany's World Championship Trials, set for mid-May.

Braun was silver medalist at the last World Championships (Perth, 1998) and the 1999 European Championships (Istanbul) in the 200 back, and plans on competing until next year's European Championships in his hometown of Berlin. Braun is one of the few remaining active swimmers who also competed for the now-defunct German Democratic Republic in the late '80s.

Great Britain's Sue Rolph, 1998 Commonwealth Games champ in the 50-100 frees as well as Commonwealth-GBR record-holder in these two events plus the 200 IM, will miss the World Championships because she's scheduled to undergo back surgery following the British WCTs starting Tuesday in Manchester.

The 23-year-old "queen" of British swimming says her target is next year's Commonwealth Games in Manchester
"It is better now than next year," Rolph said of her pending operation.  "It just means I'm taking my summer break a little earlier."

Rolph recently moved from the Newburn Club, where she began her competitive career as an 8-year-old, to Pontypridd in Wales. She said she aims to swim in Britain's short course Championships in August, a meet which will serve as GBR's trials for the European sc Championships this fall.

At the Austrian sc Championships in Innsbruck the end of March a pair of current and former Nebraska Cornhuskers, Elvira Fischer and Michael Windisch, were the stars of the show.

Fischer, a 100 breast finalist at last month's NCAA Championships in Long Island, won her specialty here and was runner-up in the 200 breast in a pr 2:26.84. Winner was 15-year-old Jukic Mima, who splashed to a national-record 2:25.04, and set another NR in the 200 IM (2:16.53).

Windisch, who was a finalist at last year's NCAAs in the 400 free and 400 IM (sixth in the former, fourth in the latter), gave a Spitzian-like performance via wins in the 200-400 frees, 200-400 IMs and 200 flys.

In the 200 free the former Nebraska All-America went a NR 1:49.11. In the 400 he won in an easy 3:53.03, rather off his pr and NR 3:45.92 from last year's NCAA prelims. In the 200 IM he went a NR 2:01.55 to break his old record of 2:02.39 from last year and in the longer medley clocked 4:20.12 — far off his career-best and NR 4:11.43 from the NCAA prelims.

In the 200 fly he lowered his pr-NR to 1:59.02 from 1:59.53 last season.

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