By John Lohn
GILLETTE, New Jersey, April 20. 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 Individual Medley
Reigning Champion: Stephanie Rice (Australia).
Past Champions: Donna de Varona (1964); Claudia Kolb (1968); Gail Neall (1972); Ulrike Tauber (1976); Petra Schneider (1980); Tracy Caulkins (1984); Janet Evans (1988); Krisztina Egerszegi (1992); Michelle Smith (1996); Yana Klochkova (2000); Yana Klochkova (2004); Stephanie Rice (2008).
World Record: Stephanie Rice (Australia) 4:29.45.
Notable: If Stephanie Rice can repeat her title from Beijing, she'll join Yana Klochkova as the only women to defend a gold medal in the 400 IM. Klochkova doubled up in 2000 and 2004 while also repeating in the 200 IM, a feat Rice also has the opportunity to pull off.
The Headliners: This event could be one of the most-hotly-contested disciplines, thanks to an incredibly deep and tightly packed fields. If there is a favorite, that distinction currently goes to the United States' Elizabeth Beisel, who won the world title last summer by more than two seconds with a clocking of 4:31.78. En route to that triumph, Beisel had to fend off challenges from Australia's Stephanie Rice and Great Britain's Hannah Miley.
Rice prevailed four years ago, dueling with Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry all the way to the wall. Although injuries have plagued Rice in recent years, she is peaking at the perfect time, evidenced by her time of 4:33.45 from the Australian Trials. Meanwhile, Miley was the victor at the British Trials, delivering a mark of 4:32.67. Rice was the bronze medalist behind Beisel at the World Champs in 2011, with Miley claiming the silver medal.
Hungarian Katinka Hosszu, who has been 4:32.83 this year, will be in contention for gold. Hosszu has benefited from her career at the University of Southern California and training under the watch of Dave Salo. Another European, Spain's Mireia Belmonte has already been in the 4:33 range this season and China's Li Xuanxu and Ye Shiwen warrant attention.
Caitlin Leverenz is currently the favorite for the second American slot while Coventry is a wildcard, with uncertainty surrounding her ability to excel at her past levels. Blair Evans earned the second position on the Australian squad, but she will need to get considerably faster than the 4:36 she managed to earn a trip to London.
What Else?: Only Stephanie Rice and Kirsty Coventry have managed to crack the 4:30 barrier, and that was during the high-tech suit era. But, it might require a sub-4:30 clocking in order to secure gold or a minor medal in London. The preliminary battle to land one of the eight bids to the championship final will be intriguing as there will be limited opportunities to ease off the pace and conserve energy.
Event: Men's 400 Individual Medley
Reigning Champion: Michael Phelps (United States).
Past Champions: Richard Roth (1964); Charles Hickcox (1968); Gunnar Larsson (1972); Rod Strachan (1976); Aleksandr Sidorenko (1980); Alex Baumann (1984); Tamas Darnyi (1988); Tamas Darnyi (1992); Tom Dolan (1996); Tom Dolan (2000); Michael Phelps (2004); Michael Phelps (2008).
World Record: Michael Phelps (United States) 4:03.84.
Notable: Of the 12 times the event has been contested, the United States has captured the gold medal on seven occasions. On nine occasions, an American has collected the silver medal. More impressive, the United States has posted a gold-silver sweep six times.
The Headliners: How this event will play out depends entirely on Michael Phelps' involvement. While the 400 IM was once deemed by Phelps as being off the radar, it has reappeared. Until the psych sheets are released for the United States Trials, we probably won't know for certain whether Phelps will contest the event.
If Phelps decides to contest this event, he'll have the chance to become the first man to win gold in a single event at three consecutive Olympics. Only Dawn Fraser (100 freestyle) and Krisztina Egerszegi (200 backstroke) have accomplished the feat. Phelps also has the chance to three-peat in the 100 butterfly and 200 butterfly, the event that put him on the swimming map.
Even if Phelps decided to contest the 400 IM, he'll have his hands full with Ryan Lochte, the bronze medalist at the Beijing Games. Lochte was the best in the world in 2010 and 2011 and he and Phelps are expected to have some epic duels in London, with the 200 freestyle and 200 IM being the main attractions. A battle in the 400 IM would only add a layer to the drama.
Someone quite interested in Phelps' decision to race the 400 IM is Tyler Clary, who was the runnerup behind Lochte at last summer's World Championships. Even without Phelps, the United States has a strong chance to take the top two steps on the podium, thanks to Lochte and Clary. Obviously, it's a stacked event for the American squad.
Although off his game at the World Champs, Laszlo Cseh will factor into the medal picture. After winning bronze in the 400 IM in 2004, he was the silver medalist in 2008. Kosuke Hagino and Yuya Horihata, the bronze medalist at the World Champs, both went 4:10 at the Japanese Trials and will be expected to advance to the final. Thomas Fraser-Holmes is fast-improving in the event and will be Australia's top challenger.
What Else?: If Michael Phelps does not race the 400 IM or fails to win the event, that scenario will open the door for Kosuke Kitajima to become the first man to win gold in an event in three straight Olympiads. Kitajima is the two-time defending champion in the 100 and 200 breaststrokes and his chance at a trifecta will arrive on the second day of competition, when the 100 breast final is held.
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