By John Lohn
CRANBURY, New Jersey, June 3. FOUR years ago, the men's 100-meter breaststroke was one of the most talked about events at the 2004 Olympics. En route to the gold medal, Kosuke Kitajima – as video revealed – used dolphin kicks (then illegal) off the start and turn to edge Brendan Hansen. Since, a single dolphin kick off the wall has been legalized. More, Kitajima and Hansen seem headed for another showdown at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. As we roll along in SwimmingWorldMagazine.com's Olympic Preview Series, here's a glance at the men's 100 breast.
Defending Champion: Kosuke Kitajima (Japan) – 1:00.08.
World-Record Holder: Brendan Hansen (United States) – 59.13.
Most Titles: United States (Four) – Don McKenzie (1968); John Hencken (1976); Steve Lundquist (1984); Nelson Diebel (1992).
Notable: Prior to this year, only three men had cracked the one-minute barrier in the event: Roman Sludnov, Kosuke Kitajima and Brendan Hansen. Now, six men are part of that elite group, as 2008 has witnessed Alexander Dale Oen, Hugues Duboscq and Chris Cook accomplish the feat.
Here's a look at the top contenders.
When Hansen is clicking, he's in his own realm in the event. The University of Texas product and two-time defending world champion is the only man in history to dip below 59.50, a feat he has pulled off on several occasions. His world record of 59.13 is nearly a half-second faster than Kitajima's best effort.
At the recent Santa Clara Grand Prix, Hansen was clocked in 1:00.01, the fastest time ever recorded in an event that was not a major international competition. Hansen is on a mission for individual gold in Beijing and, given his Santa Clara performance, could be nearing the 58-second realm, a time that is difficult to fathom.
The reigning Olympic champion had a stretch after the Athens Games in which he wasn't in top form. But, Kitajima seems to have regained his pop and is expected to vigorously defend his gold medal. At the Japanese Trials earlier this year, he was timed in 59.66, faster than what he went in 2007.
Kitajima, also the defending Olympic champ in the 200 breast, has finished second to Hansen at the last two World Championships, held in Montreal in 2005 and Melbourne in 2007. In order for Kitajima to make a run at a repeat, he's likely going to have to produce a career-best time and go in the 59-low range at minimum.
The bronze medalist at the Athens Games, Duboscq joined the sub-minute club at the European Championships in March. The Frenchman has been a staple on the international scene for the past few years and clearly has advanced a level with his 59-point performance. Still, he has some work to do to catch up to Hansen and Kitajima.
Alexander Dale Oen:
Norway isn't exactly known for producing many international stars in the pool, but Dale Oen is certainly an international standout. He won the gold medal at the European Championships earlier this year, thanks to a superb clocking of 59.76. It figures that more time will be sliced and a run for the bronze medal is very realistic.
At the British Olympic Trials, Cook registered a breakthrough performance when he touched the wall in 59.88. Cook has supplanted James Gibson as his country's premier performer in the 100 breast and should be in contention for the final step on the podium. Since this event has rapidly improved, Cook will likely need a 59-mid effort at minimum.
Although he has yet to break the minute mark, Rickard has to be considered among the elite challengers for the bronze medal. Rickard was timed in 1:00.04 at the Aussie Olympic Trials in March and he captured the bronze medal at last year's World Championships. Expect a 59-point showing from Rickard in Beijing.
The other Australian to qualify for the event in Beijing, Sprenger has elevated his status on the international scene. In February, he delivered a personal-best time of 1:00.15. However, if he plans on challenging for a medal at the Olympic Games, he'll have to drop some serious time.
For several years, Gangloff has been the second-best American performer in the event. Gangloff was timed in 1:00.24 in 2007 and will be the favorite to earn the second berth for the United States to Beijing. Gangloff has the ability to break one minute and seeing it happen at the U.S. Trials would not be surprising.