By John Lohn
GILLETTE, New Jersey, May 10. 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 800 Freestyle Relay
Reigning Champion: Australia.
Past Champions: United States (1996); United States (2000); United States (2004); Australia (2008).
World Record: China (Yang Yu, Zhu Qianwei, Liu Jing, Pang Jiaying) 7:42.08.
Notable: It would have been nice if this event had been added to the Olympic schedule prior to 1996, thus giving the likes of Australia's Dawn Fraser the chance at another medal to add to her storied legacy.
The Headliners: Heading into London, the United States will be the favorite for the gold medal in an event which routinely offers shifts in momentum. Coming off a victory at the World Championships last summer in Shanghai, the USA will benefit from a spectacular one-two combination: Missy Franklin and Allison Schmitt. Both women will be in the mix for individual medals in the 200 free and will be asked to unload in relay duty as well.
How the American team will be filled out won't be known until after the Olympic Trials, but Katie Hoff and Dagny Knutson did their parts on the squad that won the world title. Of course, they'll find themselves chased feverishly for those coveted relay slots. As for other nations, Australia will have a dangerous unit, paced by Kylie Palmer and Bronte Barratt. Melanie Schlanger is expected to handle another leg while Stephanie Rice did enough at the Aussie Trials in the semifinal round to warrant a position in London.
Regardless of the team it fields for the Olympic Games, China will have a foursome capable of securing a medal and, potentially, pushing for gold. Tang Yi and Pang Jiaying have been consistent performers for the Chinese. With Camille Muffat on the roster, France has a loaded gun to power its chances and Hungary has several capable women of coming together to threaten a minor medal.
On its home soil, Great Britain should be able to put together a quartet which is solid. Caitlin McClatchey and Rebecca Turner provide an immediate spark. For Canada, it will rely on the likes of Barbara Jardin.
What Else?: It will be interesting to see if the Netherlands can piece together a team capable of making a little noise in the 800 free relay. While Femke Heemskerk is an established performer in the 200 free, she's going to need significant help for the Dutch to do anything noteworthy.
Event: Men's 800 Freestyle Relay
Reigning Champion: United States.
Past Champions: Great Britain (1908); Australasia (1912); United States (1920); United States (1924); United States (1928); Japan (1932); Japan (1936); United States (1948); United States (1952); Australia (1956); United States (1960); United States (1964); United States (1968); United States (1972); United States (1976); Soviet Union (1980); United States (1984); United States (1988); Unified Team (1992); United States (1996); Australia (2000); United States (2004); United States (2008).
World Record: United States (Michael Phelps, Ricky Berens, Dave Walters, Ryan Lochte) 6:58.55.
Notable: The only two times Japan has won an Olympic relay title was in this event. The Japanese prevailed in 1932 and repeated in 1936, although Masanori Yusa was the only athlete to compete on both relays.
The Headliners: While the rest of the world has demonstrated the ability to package much-improved relays, the United States is the favorite to win a third consecutive Olympic gold medal in the 800 free relay. Why? It starts with the duo of Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Phelps, of course, is the reigning Olympic champion and the fastest 200 freestyler ever in a textile suit. Meanwhile, Lochte has soared up the charts in this event and is the reigning world champion.
Whoever occupies the other two slots will certainly be fast enough, given the United States' depth. Peter Vanderkaay, a longtime staple on this relay, will undoubtedly be in the mix, along with Ricky Berens, the man who took Klete Keller's place following his retirement. The Olympic Trials will clear up a lot of questions in a little more than a month.
Keeping an eye on China and Russia will be a must. While Sun Yang is a hammer for the Chinese, questions abound about its team, especially with Zhang Lin swimming poorly at his Olympic Trials. It's uncertain at this time which team will step to the blocks, but a loaded and peaking Chinese team will be difficult to handle. After all, China won bronze in the 800 free relay at the last World Championships. For Russia, it has plenty of power in Danila Izotov, Nikita Lobintsev and Evgeny Lagunov.
Coming of a silver medal at the World Champs, France will again be a factor in the medal hunt. With Yannick Agnel and Amaury Leveaux, the French look good. However, they possess depth as well, thanks to the presence of Gregory Mallet and Clement Leffert. Other pushes for the final will come from Germany, fueled by Paul Biedermann, and Australia, which will need improvement across the board to contend due to its lack of a star 200 freestyler.
What Else?: The leadoff legs of this relay could make the event partly resemble the 200 free. The likes of Michael Phelps, Yannick Agnel and Paul Biedermann were leadoff swimmers at the World Champs, adding intrigue to the race from the start.
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