By John Lohn
CRANBURY, New Jersey, August 5. THIS is it. The end has finally come. After 32 weeks of dissection, SwimmingWorldMagazine.com's Olympic Preview Series wraps up with a look at the men's 400 free relay. Thank you for stopping by on a weekly basis and, more important, enjoy the action in Beijing. It's going to be a phenomenal competition.
Defending Champion: South Africa – 3:13.17.
World-Record Holder: United States – 3:12.46.
Most Titles: United States (seven) – 1964, 1968, 1972, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996.
Notable: The United States won the first seven 400 freestyle relays that were contested, but have finished out of the gold position during the past two Games. In 2000, Australia secured the gold medal on its home turf. Four years ago in Athens, Roland Schoeman guided South Africa to the top spot.
Here's a look at the leading medal contenders.
United States: Heading into the U.S. Trials, there was considerable discussion concerning the Americans' ability to win the gold, what with France looking so strong. However, the events of Omaha – where three athletes went 47-point – clearly showed that the United States will be in the running to reclaim the gold.
Michael Phelps, who only raced the prelims at Trials, figures to be the choice for the leadoff slot, as was the case at last year's World Championships. He'll likely be joined by American-record holder Jason Lezak, who went 47.58 at Trials. Also holding down a spot will be Garrett Weber-Gale, who was dazzling in Omaha. The final position for the championship final will go to a pool of athletes that includes Cullen Jones, Ben Wildman-Tobriner, Nathan Adrian and Matt Grevers. Do not discount the possibility of the coaching staff looking at Ryan Lochte.
France: The French have been chattered about for months now, and for good reason. France is expected to arrive in Beijing with a loaded lineup in this event, headlined by world-record holder Alain Bernard. The fastest man in event history with a clocking of 47.50, Bernard is a threat for individual medals in both sprints.
Bernard will be joined on the French relay by Amaury Leveaux, equally impressive as a sprinter and 200 freestyler. Meanwhile, Fabien Gilot and Fred Bousquet are other top performers who will deliver splits in the 47-second range. There's a strong chance that a time of 3:10, two seconds clear of the current world mark, will be needed for the gold.
South Africa: The defending Olympic champ has been somewhat overlooked due to the hype surrounding the U.S. and France. Still, the South Africans have the talent to get the job done for a second straight Olympiad. After all, its entire squad from Athens will return to the pool at the Water Cube.
Roland Schoeman and Ryk Neethling are veteran performers who know what it takes to get the job done. The same can be said for Lyndon Ferns and Darian Townsend, the remainder of the group that trains at the University of Arizona. If South Africa can get its four guys on the same page, look for it to be battling for gold.
Australia: This event has so much depth on the international scene, but the Aussies will push for a medal behind Eamon Sullivan, the surging sprint star who will try to win the 50 and 100 freestyles. Matt Targett will also be a key contributor with other slots probably going to Andrew Lauterstein and Ashley Callus. If Australia is within striking distance of a medal when Sullivan enters the water, look out.
Other Contenders: The dropoff from the aforementioned four nations to the remainder of the field seems to be sizable. The Russian contingent will be fueled by Evgeni Lagunov, who has been 48-low this year. He'll have support from Andrey Grechin. Also factoring into the championship final should be Italy, second at last year's World Champs, and Sweden, led by Stefan Nystrand. Canada is headlined by Brent Hayden and Brazil's ace is Cesar Cielo.