By John Lohn
GILLETTE, New Jersey, April 23. 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 200 Backstroke
Reigning Champion: Kirsty Coventry (Zimbabwe).
Past Champions: Lillian Watson (1968); Melissa Belote (1972); Ulrike Richter (1976); Rica Reinisch (1980); Jolanda de Rover (1984); Krisztina Egerszegi (1988); Krisztina Egerszegi (1992); Krisztina Egerszegi (1996); Diana Mocanu (2000); Kirsty Coventry (2004); Kirsty Coventry (2008).
World Record: Kirsty Coventry (Zimbabwe) 2:04.81.
Notable: If Kirsty Coventry can win a third consecutive victory in the 200 backstroke, she would become just the third woman to three-peat in any event, but the second in this discipline. Hungarian Krisztina Egerszegi was the dominant performer in the late 1980s and first half of the 1990s.
The Headliners: One of several individuals in pursuit of an Olympic triple in a specific event, Kirsty Coventry won't have an easy time defending her Olympic crown. Not only is Coventry rebounding from injury, she'll be dealing with a tough field, one which is highlighted by Missy Franklin, the American teenage phenom.
The reigning world champion in the 200 back, Franklin nearly broke the world record in Shanghai last summer and should be the favorite entering London. However, she will have some work to do at the United States Trials, where Elizabeth Beisel and Elizabeth Pelton will be vying for Olympic berths. Both would be medal contenders if they earn a trip to London.
During the early stages of Olympic qualification, Russia's Anastasia Zueva and Australian Belinda Hocking have been the only women to break the 2:07 barrier. Hocking will be joined by her countrywoman Meagen Nay. For the home crowd, it will have its support behind Elizabeth Simmonds, who was seventh at the last World Championships. For the Dutch, it will bank on Sharon van Rouwendaal, who was the bronze medalist at the World Champs.
What Else?: It will be intriguing to see what Frenchwoman Laure Manaudou is capable of doing in this event. We all know about Manaudou's past exploits in the middle-distance freestyles and, given her prowess as a backstroker, she should be able to impress in this event, too. Manaudou is a past Olympic medalist in the 100 back.
Event: Men's 200 Backstroke
Reigning Champion: Ryan Lochte (United States).
Past Champions: Ernst Hoppenberg (1900); Jed Graef (1964); Roland Matthes (1968); Roland Matthes (1972); John Naber (1976); Sandor Wladar (Hungary); Rick Carey (1984); Igor Polyansky (1988); Martin Zubero (1992); Brad Bridgewater (1996); Lenny Krayzelburg (2000); Aaron Peirsol (2004); Ryan Lochte (2008).
World Record: Aaron Peirsol (United States) 1:51.92.
Notable: An American victory in this event would make it five straight Olympiads in which the United States has prevailed in the men's 200 back. Conversely, the United States women have not had a 200 backstroke champion since 1972.
The Headliners: Four years ago in Beijing, there was considerable hype over this event because of the impending duel between Ryan Lochte and Aaron Peirsol. This time around, there isn't as much luster because Peirsol, perhaps the greatest backstroker in history, has retired and Lochte is considered a heavy favorite.
Of any of the events in the Lochte arsenal, this one might be the one in which he has the biggest cushion over the rest of the world, though a few might argue that fact in light of a certain Japanese standout. Lochte's best time of 1:52.96, posted en route to gold at the 2011 World Championships, is the fastest textile time ever recorded. No one has showed the ability to get anywhere near that mark.
Thanks to his flawless form, Japan's Ryosuke Irie is touted as the biggest challenger to Lochte. Irie captured the silver medal at the World Champs last summer, clocking in at 1:54.11. Irie nearly cracked 1:54 at the Japanese Trials and figures to be in a battle with the United States' Tyler Clary for the silver medal. Clary was the bronze medalist at the World Champs and gives the U.S. a potent one-two combination.
Several other athletes will be battling to be in the medal picture, but will find the going extremely difficult. Nonetheless, it's worth keeping an eye on China's Zhang Fenglin, Russian Arkady Vyatchanin, Japan's Kazuki Watanabe and France's Ben Stasiulis.
What Else?: There are certain world records from the tech-suit era which will likely stand longer than others. One of those marks is the global standard in the 200 back, which stands to Aaron Peirsol at 1:51.92. That performance is sensational and could be on the books for many years ahead.
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