By John Lohn
CRANBURY, New Jersey, January 15. THIS week's installment of SwimmingWorldMagazine.com's Olympic Preview Series will take a look at the men's 100-meter backstroke, an event that should be owned by the Americans in Beijing. The question, though, is which two United States men will get the chance to race for gold, such is the depth of the event among the Red, White and Blue.
Defending Champion: Aaron Peirsol (United States) – 54.06
World-Record Holder: Aaron Peirsol (United States) – 52.98
Most Titles: United States (12) – Harry Hebner (1912); Warren Kealoha (1920/1924); George Kojac (1928); Adolph Kiefer (1936); Allen Stack (1948); Yoshi Oyakawa (1952); John Naber (1976); Rick Carey (1984); Jeff Rouse (1996); Lenny Krayzelburg (2000); Aaron Peirsol (2004).
Noteworthy: The gold medal in the 100 backstroke has been won by a North American each year since 1992. While the United States has captured the last three titles, top honors in 1992 went to Canada's Mark Tewksbury, who prevailed in 53.98.
Here's a look at the event:
We're going to start with a look at the American contenders, simply because there are five men who can be considered medal worthy, led by reigning champion Aaron Peirsol. If there's an event where the American arsenal is most hindered by the two-per-country rule, it's probably this discipline. Last year, five of the 10-fastest times in the world were produced by Americans.
The man has been the undisputed king of the event for the better part of this decade and will be considered the favorite – deservingly so – until someone comes along and hands out a defeat. Aside from being the reigning world champ, Peirsol is the three-time defending world champ, his latest title arriving in Melbourne last year with a world-record time of 52.98.
Peirsol undoubtedly knows how to perform on the big stage and nothing less is expected from the Southern California native in this Olympic year. Peirsol enjoyed a strong run in 2007, also turning in quality performances while dabbling, here and there, in the 200 butterfly, 200 freestyle and 200 individual medley.
Obviously, the eight-time Olympic medalist from the 2004 Olympics in Athens has some choices to make when it comes to his schedule for the United States Trials in Omaha. And, if the 100 back is not part of the equation, it will hardly be stunning. But, considering what Phelps did last year, he has to be included in this piece.
At the United States Nationals in Indianapolis, Phelps nearly took down the world record in the 100 back, thanks to a clocking of 53.01. The time is the second-fastest in history and scared the global standard of Peirsol. If Phelps decides to give the 100 back a go, he must instantly be considered a gold-medal challenger. After all, he's the best all-around performer the sport has ever seen.
The world-record holder in the 200 backstroke, where he won gold at last year's World Championships, Lochte earned silver in Melbourne in the 100 distance. En route to that silver medal, Lochte checked in with a time of 53.50, an effort that ended up fourth-fastest for 2007. The University of Florida product is the world-record holder in the short-course version of the event.
Lochte, like Phelps, is expected to tackle an ambitious schedule at the U.S. Trials in Omaha and could earn Olympic berths in the eight-event territory (including relays). When the final of the 100 backstroke is called to the blocks, count on Lochte being a major player in the outcome. And, if he makes the U.S. squad in the event, consider an Olympic medal a likelihood.
The Stanford University graduate trains in Italy, but his efforts in Omaha will have a factor on the makeup of the American Team for Beijing. Bal recently had a superb run through the World Cup series, going undefeated in the 50, 100 and 200 backstroke events. Known for his speed, Bal ranked fifth in the world in the 100 distance in 2007, thanks to a time of 53.66. He also topped the world charts in the 50 back with a time of 24.84.
You have to hand it to Cromwell, whose 2007 season was sensational, to the point where he might have been the biggest breakthrough performer on the American male scene. The Harvard product, now training with Longhorn Aquatics, is consistently getting faster and ranked eighth in the world last year with a time of 53.82. While some of his rivals might be more hyped, it wouldn't be surprising if Cromwell dropped more time off his personal bests and made a run for an Olympic slot.
In the Mix:
Although they'll have some work to do in this loaded event, Ben Hesen and Peter Marshall warrant a mention among the Americans. Hesen is a rising star from Indiana University who clocked a best of 54.27 last year while Marshall, with a best of 54.64 in 2007, is a former world-record holder in the short course 100 back. Also keep an eye on Nick Thoman, who went 54.41 in 2007.
Now to the international contenders, though it very well could be that this crop is fighting for only one medal in Beijing, the bronze. That statement might sound American biased, but the depth of the American contingent makes it difficult to not see a gold-silver finish from the Stars & Stripes.
The silver medalist in the 100 and 200 backstrokes from the Athens Games, look for Rogan to be a medal contender again in 2008. The Austrian ranked seventh in the world in 2007, with a time of 53.78, and that mark was third best among Europeans. But considering Rogan's history, we'll tab him as the top medal hope from his continent.
From Great Britain, Tancock emerged as a player on the international stage last year when he took bronze in the 100 back at the World Champs and later clocked 53.46, good for a European record, at the Japan International Swim Meet. Tancock relies on his speed and a strong opening 50. Whether that approach leads to an Olympic medal will be determined in Beijing.
The Russian has been a top performer in the 100 and 200 backstrokes for the past few years and finished 2007 ranked sixth in the world over the shorter distance. He just missed a medal at the World Champs, where he placed fourth. Vyatchanin has a career best of 53.50, tying him with Lochte as the fifth-quickest racer in history.
The German is co-owner of the European record at 53.46, but Meeuw slipped a bit in 2007, managing a best time of 53.85. He didn't qualify for the final at the World Championships and his big-meet efforts have been suspect. Really, it would be a surprise if Meeuw finds his way to the medal podium in China.
In Athens, Morita grabbed the bronze medal behind Peirsol and Rogan, a highlight for the Japanese swimmer. In 2007, he rated 10th in the world with a mark of 54.00 and he was eighth at the World Championships. Expect Morita to find it difficult to repeat his medal showing from 2004.
The Australian veteran was at his best during the early portion of the decade, when he won silver at the Sydney Olympics and gold at the 2001 World Championships. Welsh ranked 16th globally in 2007 with a time of 54.65 and might find it tough to qualify for the Aussie Olympic Team. He'll have competition in his homeland from Ashley Delaney, whose time of 54.34 was 12th in the world last year.
The South African won the world championship in the 50 backstroke last year and was sixth in the 100 back in Melbourne. His best time in the two-lap event was 54.54, good for 14th in the world. However, if Zandberg plans on challenging for a medal in Beijing, he'll need big-time improvement.