By John Lohn
GILLETTE, New Jersey, June 18. 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 400 Freestyle Relay
Reigning Champion: Netherlands.
Past Champions: Great Britain (1912); United States (1920); United States (1924); United States (1928); United States (1932); Netherlands (1936); United States (1948); Hungary (1952); Australia (1956); United States (1960); United States (1964); United States (1968); United States (1972); United States (1976); East Germany (1980); United States (1984); East Germany (1988); United States (1992); United States (1996); United States (2000); Australia (2004); Netherlands (2008).
World Record: Netherlands (Inge Dekker, Ranomi Kromowidjojo, Femke Heemskerk, Marleen Veldhuis) 3:31.72.
Notable: The United States has never gone three consecutive Olympiads without collecting the gold medal in this event. If the U.S. fails to win this summer in London, that streak will come to an end, as Australia and the Netherlands have prevailed at the past two Olympics.
The Headliners: The Netherlands has won the gold medal at the last three major international competitions and there is every reason to expect the Dutch will contend for the title in London. The Netherlands returns its lineup from the Beijing Games and could boast the X-factor in Ranomi Kromowidjojo, currently the premier sprinter in the world.
At last year's World Championships, the United States came with a half-second of the Dutch and will look to close that gap. Missy Franklin and Dana Vollmer figure to be the primary fuel for the American squad, with Natalie Coughlin and Jessica Hardy the handlers of the other two legs at the World Champs. The official members of the relay will be determined at the upcoming U.S. Trials.
Germany, China and Australia occupied the third through fifth slots at the World Champs, but there's good news for the Germans. Britta Steffen, the defending Olympic champ in the 50 and 100 freestyles, was off her normal form in Shanghai, but Germany still managed to get the job done. Now that Steffen is looking stronger, that's a big boost for her country.
Tang Yi will be the force behind the Chinese squad, which always seems to rise to the occasion at the big meets. As for Australia, it will look to the likes of Cate Cambell and Melanie Schlanger to be in the medal picture.
What Else?: Australian stalwart Libby Trickett qualified for relay duty, grabbing the fifth spot at her Olympic Trials. It will be interesting to see if Trickett is fast enough to earn a spot on the relay for the championship final.
Event: Men's 400 Freestyle Relay
Reigning Champion: United States.
Past Champions: United States (1964); United States (1968); United States (1972); United States (1984); United States (1988); United States (1992); United States (1996); Australia (2000); South Africa (2004); United States (2008).
World Record: United States (Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones, Jason Lezak) 3:08.24.
Notable: The United States' Jason Lezak has earned a medal of each color in the 400 freestyle relay, taking silver in 2000, bronze in 2004 and gold in 2008.
The Headliners: Chances are, this event will not bring the excitement it did at the 2008 Games, when Jason Lezak reeled in Alain Bernard in the final strokes to given the United States the gold medal over France. Nonetheless, the 400 free relay is always a spectacular affair and a great way to kick off relay action.
The Australians enter the Olympic Games as the undisputed favorite. Not only did the Aussies capture the gold medal at the World Championships last summer, James Magnussen and James Roberts are hammers that any country will have difficulty matching. In Magnussen, Australia features the heavy pick for the individual title in the 100 free.
The United States and France will give chase to the Aussies, with the American quartet buoyed by the likes of Michael Phelps and Nathan Adrian. Phelps relishes his relay opportunities and will undoubtedly be prepared to jumpstart the U.S. As for Adrian, he's the United States' top sprinter and likely will be charged with anchoring the relay.
France was the silver medalist at the World Champs and would love nothing more than to atone for coming up short in Beijing. Youngster Yannick Agnel is the go-to guy for the French, which will also rely on the talents of Amaury Leveaux and Fabien Gilot. Also keep an eye on the squads from Italy, Russia and South Africa, which were fourth through sixth at the World Championships. Russia could be the best positioned to jump into the medal scene.
What Else?: The Australians won the gold medal at the World Championships in 3:11.00, but that time is unlikely to secure the gold medal in London. In the leadup to the Games, countries have shown considerably more depth and a clocking under 3:10 would not be shocking.
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