Column by John Lohn, Swimming World senior writer
GILLETTE, New Jersey, April 16. 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 50 Freestyle
Reigning Champion: Britta Steffen (Germany).
Past Champions: Kristin Otto (1988); Yang Wenyi (1992); Amy Van Dyken (1996); Inge de Bruijn (2000); Inge de Bruijn (2004); Britta Steffen (2008).
World Record: Britta Steffen (Germany) 23.73.
Notable: Of the six times the 50 free has been an Olympic event, the winner has also doubled in the 100 free. Kristin Otto pulled off the sprint double in 1988 while Inge de Bruijn (2000) and Britta Steffen (2008) also completed the sweep. Otto's performances from the 1988 Games in Seoul are tainted from suspected doping violations by East Germany's systematic program.
The Headliners: Whether there will be a title defense by Germany's Britta Steffen remains to be seen, as the sprint sensation has yet to reveal what is in the arsenal for 2012. What isn't a mystery is how quick and deep this event has become. For evidence, all one must do is look at the statements made by the Netherlands' Ranomi Kromowidjojo and Great Britain's Fran Halsall.
Kromowidjojo put herself in the driver's seat with a 24.10 clocking at the Eindhoven Cup, a performance which is the fastest ever in a textile suit. The Dutchwoman was the silver medalist in the 50 free at last year's World Championships and seems to be rising higher and higher. As for Halsall, she'll be the undisputed favorite of the crowd in London and boasts a personal-best mark of 24.13, registered at the British Trials. Halsall just missed out on a medal at the World Champs, placing fourth.
Sweden boasts an impressive duo of Therese Alshammar and Sarah Sjostrom, with Alshammar rating as the reigning world champ. Alshammar owns a best of 24.14 and is defying age while Sjostrom, with a full program for London, has been 24-mid. Sjostrom is better suited for the 100 and 200 freestyles, along with the 100 butterfly, where she was world champion in 2009.
The Netherlands' Marleen Veldhuis will be another factor, along with the Australian sister tandem of Cate Campbell and Bronte Campbell. It will also be necessary to keep an eye on Belarus' Aliaksandra Herasimenia and Denmark's Jeanette Ottesen. A longshot for a medal will be Auburn standout Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace.
What Else?: Can Dara Torres continue to amaze and sneer at the fact that 40-something women shouldn't be competitive? Time will ultimately tell. However, Torres has proven — over and over again — that she should not be doubted, thanks to her God-given ability and ability to rise to the occasion when needed. She was the silver medalist at the Beijing Games, falling a hundredth of a second behind Steffen.
Event: Men's 50 Freestyle
Reigning Champion: Cesar Cielo (Brazil).
Past Champions: Matt Biondi (1988); Alexander Popov (1992); Alexander Popov (1996); Anthony Ervin/Gary Hall Jr. (2000); Gary Hall Jr. (2004); Cesar Cielo (2008).
World Record: Cesar Cielo (Brazil) 20.91.
Notable: One of the best medal ceremonies from the Beijing Games was the one held for Cesar Cielo. As the Brazilian National Anthem played, Cielo could not contain his tears and broke into clear sobbing while on the top step of the podium. It was a beautiful moment in which an athlete showed how much it meant to not only excel on the biggest stage, but to also appreciate what his victory meant to his country.
The Headliners: Well, it would be ridiculous to suggest anyone for favorite status other than Cesar Cielo, who has dominated this event for several years. Not only is he the reigning Olympic champion and world-record holder, Cielo has won back-to-back world titles in the sprint. At last summer's World Champs, Cielo took the crown by almost four tenths of a second, a huge margin for a one-lap event.
Since Frenchman Fred Bousquet surprisingly failed to qualify for this event, Australian youngster James Magnussen and American Nathan Adrian figure to be the biggest opposition for Cielo. While Magnussen is the heavy favorite in the 100 freestyle, he is still developing in the 50 free and the question will be whether he has the raw speed to remain with the Brazilian. As for Adrian, who beat Cielo in the 50 free at the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships, he'll be trying to improve on a disappointing World Champs, where he was fourth in the 50 free.
Bruno Fratus, a countryman of Cielo, has been making more and more noise on the global scene and will be expected to be in the medal picture. For the French, which saw Bousquet and Alain Bernard knocked off, Amaury Leveaux and Florent Manaudou will hold the hopes of their country. Leveaux is also slated to contest the 200 free, a testament to his range, similar to that of former Dutch star Pieter van den Hoogenband.
Other contenders figure to be Aussie Eamon Sullivan, George Bovell of Trinidad & Tobago and Canadian Brent Hayden. All three have interesting storylines, as Sullivan has been battling numerous injuries in recent years and Bovell long ago shifted from being a medley standout to a sprint specialist. As for Hayden, he is easily the headliner for Canada.
What Else?: It's been 12 years since Anthony Ervin shared the gold medal in the event with Gary Hall Jr. While Ervin will have his hands full even qualifying for London, he's going to be in the mix at the United States Trials in Omaha. If he can advance, it will mean he's a factor for a medal more than a decade since touching in first place in Sydney.
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn