By John Lohn
GILLETTE, New Jersey, May 17. AS we creep closer to the Olympic Games in London this summer, Swimming World will produce event-by-event previews of the action set to unfold. As part of this series, we'll not only look at the leading contenders in each event, we'll also provide a historical perspective on each discipline. This approach was successful in the leadup to the Beijing Games and we hope our readership enjoys the coverage for this Olympiad.
Event: Women's 100 Backstroke
Reigning Champion: Natalie Coughlin (United States).
Past Champions: Sybil Bauer (1924); Zus Braun (1928); Eleanor Holm (1932); Nida Senff (1936); Karen Harup (1948); Joan Harrison (1952); Judy Grinham (1956); Lynn Burke (1960); Cathy Ferguson (1964); Kaye Hall (1968); Melissa Belote (1972); Ulrike Richter (1976); Rica Reinisch (1980); Theresa Andrews (1984); Kristin Otto (1988); Krisztina Egerszegi (1992); Beth Botsford (1996); Diana Mocanu (2000); Natalie Coughlin (2004); Natalie Coughlin (2008).
World Record: Gemma Spofforth (Great Britain) 58.12.
Notable: If Natalie Coughlin can prevail in her prime event, she'll become the third woman in history to win an Olympic title in the same event at three consecutive Olympic Games. Only Dawn Fraser (100 freestyle) and Krisztina Egerszegi (200 backstroke) have pulled off the trifecta.
The Headliners: This event has shaped up to be one of the most tightly contested disciplines of the London Games. While Natalie Coughlin is chasing a third consecutive gold medal in the event, she'll have her hands full just qualifying for the United States squad. Aside from Coughlin, the American arsenal boasts Missy Franklin, Rachel Bootsma and Elizabeth Pelton, among others.
Whichever Americans advance to London, they will instantly be a medal contender and in the mix for the gold medal. That scenario includes Franklin, who didn't get the chance to race this event at last summer's World Championships, but is poised for a huge performance. Coughlin, though, has always performed under pressure and will face those circumstances this summer.
Russia's Anastasia Zueva has been sub-59 this season and was the silver medalist at the past World Champs, placing behind China's Zhao Jing. Australia offers a stellar tandem in Emily Seebohm and Belinda Hocking, although Hocking is better geared toward the 200 distance. Like Coughlin, Japan's Aya Terakawa is a veteran who checked in at 59.10 earlier this year.
A host of additional athletes could find their way into the championship final, such as Denmark's Mie Nielsen and world-record holder Gemma Spofforth of Great Britain. Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry, who took silver behind Coughlin at the Beijing Games, is also to be watched.
What Else?: An interesting storyline will be the performance of France's Laure Manaudou, who was the bronze medalist in the 100 backstroke at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Manaudou put her emphasis on the backstroke events during French qualifying, a decision which paid dividends. The question is whether she can drop enough time to become a player in the medal hunt.
Event: Men's 100 Backstroke
Reigning Champion: Aaron Peirsol (United States).
Past Champions: Arno Bieberstein (1908); Harry Hebner (1912); Warren Kealoha (1920); Warren Kealoha (1924); George Kojac (1928); Masaji Kiyokawa (1932); Adolph Kiefer (1936); Allen Stack (1948); Yoshinobu Oyakawa (1952); David Theile (1956); David Theile (1960); Roland Matthes (1968); Roland Matthes (1972); John Naber (1976); Bengt Baron (1980); Rick Carey (1984); Daichi Suzuki (1988); Mark Tewksbury (1992); Jeff Rouse (1996); Lenny Krayzelburg (2000); Aaron Peirsol (2004); Aaron Peirsol (2008).
World Record: Aaron Peirsol (United States) 51.94.
Notable: There will be a new champion in this event due to the retirement of Aaron Peirsol, which ended his quest for a third straight Olympic crown. Aside from winning a pair of gold medals in the 100 back, Peirsol was the Olympic champion in the 200 back in 2004 and earned silver medals in that event in 2000 and 2008.
The Headliners: With Aaron Peirsol exiting the sport and not around to defend his gold medals from the past two Olympiads, a door has been flung wide open. If there is a favorite, however, it would be France's Camille Lacourt. The top-ranked 100 backstroker the past couple of years, Lacourt share the gold medal at the World Championships with countryman Jeremy Stravius, but Stravius failed to make the Olympic team in his best event. Lacourt is pure speed and will try to set the pace from the get-go.
Japan's Ryosuke Irie was the bronze medalist at the World Champs and will be in medal contention, but Irie is better suited for the 200 back, where he's expected to duel with Ryan Lochte. Look for another speedster, Great Britain's Liam Tancock, to also be in contention. Tancock was sixth at Worlds in the 100 back and has been 53.16 this year.
Who will the United States send to London? That is a big question mark right now, but Nick Thoman and David Plummer have to get an immediate mention. They finished fourth and fifth at the World Championships and have looked solid in 2012. Meanwhile, Matt Grevers is lurking. The silver medalist in the 100 back at the Beijing Games, Grevers has redemption on his mind after missing out on a World Champs berth in 2011.
Whether Ryan Lochte pursues an Olympic invitation remains to be seen, but Lochte has the potential to be a huge factor if he chooses to go after this event. While he has been a dominant 200 backstroker, Lochte hasn't quite unloaded a huge 100 back during his career. It could be coming. Also keep an eye on Australia's Hayden Stoeckel and Russian Arkady Vyatchanin, who shared bronze in Beijing. New Zealand's Gareth Kean and the German duo of Jan-Philip Glania and Helge Meeuw also will battle for championship final berths.
What Else?: It will be interesting to see how far Russia's Vladimir Morozov can advance. Although he is best known for his prowess in the 50 and 100 freestyles, Morozov's individual qualification came in the backstroke. Morozov, who attends USC, could one day represent the United States in international competition.
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn