By John Lohn
GILLETTE, New Jersey, May 25. 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 Medley Relay
Reigning Champion: Australia.
Past Champions: United States (1960); United States (1964); United States (1968); United States (1972); East Germany (1976); East Germany (1980); United States (1984); East Germany (1988); United States (1992); United States (1996); United States (2000); Australia (2004); Australia (2008).
World Record: China (Zhao Jing, Chen Huijia, Jiao Liuyang, Li Zhesi) 3:52.19.
Notable: Only three nations — the United States, East Germany and Australia — have won Olympic gold in this event. At the World Championships, four countries have earned the gold medal at one point or another, with China joining the aforementioned trio.
The Headliners: The United States, fueled by its dominant victory at last summer's World Championships, is the favorite to end Australia's two-Olympiad stranglehold on the gold medal. The American coaching staff will have numerous options available, including the use of Missy Franklin on either the backstroke leg or freestyle leg. If Natalie Coughlin takes care of the backstroke, then Franklin goes to the anchor position. In the middle, Rebecca Soni and Dana Vollmer are headliners in the breaststroke and butterfly.
In its quest for a third straight title, Australia will go to battle with a stout squad, which includes Emily Seebohm off the front and turning matters over to Leisel Jones. Alicia Coutts figures to handle the butterfly leg before Cate Campbell or Melanie Schlanger close out the race. The freestyle will be the key leg for the Aussies if they want to maintain their Olympic gold.
China was the silver medalist at the World Championships and should be a medal factor, even if there are a few question marks about its quartet. Among the uncertainties are who will handle the butterfly leg between Lu Ying and Jiao Liuyang. Whatever China brings to the blocks, however, will be a force worthy of medal contention.
In Russia and Japan, both countries feature extremely strong legs in certain areas, but are likely missing the complete package. Russia will rely on Anastasia Zueva and Yuliya Efimova to cruise during the opening half of the race, but holding on will be troublesome. As for Japan, Aya Terakawa, Satomi Suzuki and Yuka Kato account for 75% of a powerful relay. The question mark is the freestyle leg.
What Else?: A handful of other nations, including Great Britain and Canada, have solid pieces, but lack a complete squad even more than Japan and Russia.
Event: Men's 400 Medley Relay
Reigning Champion: United States.
Past Champions: United States (1960); United States (1964); United States (1968); United States (1972); United States (1976); Australia (1980); United States (1984); United States (1988); United States (1992); United States (1996); United States (2000); United States (2004); United States (2008).
World Record: United States (Aaron Peirsol, Eric Shanteau, Michael Phelps, Dave Walters) 3:27.28.
Notable: The only time the United States failed to win this event at the Olympic Games was in 1980. Of course, that was the Olympic in which President Jimmy Carter announced the United States was boycotting the Games.
The Headliners: Although the United States remains the favorite in this event, this will be far from a runaway. There are immediate questions as to who will handle the backstroke leg, with the likes of Nick Thoman, David Plummer and Matt Grevers all possibilities. For the breaststroke, the American squad is better off than it was a year ago, thanks to the reemergence of Brendan Hansen.
The third and fourth legs are pretty firmed up with Michael Phelps the handler of the butterfly leg and Nathan Adrian slated to work the anchor leg of freestyle. Adrian could find himself in the position of having to hold off Australia and its anchor, James Magnussen. At the World Champs last summer, Magnussen nearly rallied the Aussies for gold.
The key for the Aussies will be giving Magnussen a chance at the gold medal. Hayden Stoeckel is the likely backstroker while Brenton Rickard will take care of the breaststroke leg. Chris Wright has emerged as a reliable option on the butterfly leg, but staying with Phelps will be a huge challenge.
Germany was the bronze medalist at the World Champs and is solid with Helge Meeuw on backstroke and Paul Biedermann coming down in distance to anchor on the freestyle leg. For Japan, which has won bronze at the past two Olympics, it boasts a splendid opening trio in Ryosuke Irie, Kosuke Kitajima and Takuro Fujii. The problem, as has been the case in previous years, is having a freestyler capable of sticking with the rest of the world. A plethora of other nations also have the ability to make noise, including Russia and Brazil.
With Camille Lacourt on the front of its medley relay, France will have a surge right off the start. But a weakened breaststroke leg could be a major issue and nullify the potential impact of Yannick Agnel an an anchor.
What Else?: Brazil is an interesting player in this race. If a grouping of Thiago Pereira, Felipe Silva and Kaio Almeida can keep the race tight enough, Cesar Cielo could put his country in the mix for the bronze medal on freestyle.
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