By John Lohn
CRANBURY, New Jersey, May 13. FOR more than a decade, the women's 200-meter backstroke was the domain of Hungary's Krisztina Egerszegi. After she clocked 2:06.62 in 1991, the world record was untouchable for many years. Then came Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry, who earlier this year took the global standard to 2:06.39. Obviously, Coventry is the favorite for gold heading to Beijing, but a quality battle appears to be brewing for this summer. Here's the latest installment of SwimmingWorldMagazine.com's Olympic Preview Series.
Defending Champion: Kirsty Coventry (Zimbabwe) – 2:09.19.
World Record: Kirsty Coventry (Zimbabwe) – 2:06.39.
Most Titles: Hungary (Three) – Krisztina Egerszegi (1988; 1992; 1996).
Notable: The United States hasn't won the 200 back gold medal since 1972, when Melissa Belote took top honors. It is the longest drought for the American women.
Here's a look at the leading contenders:
The 2005 world champion in the event seems to have rocketed up a level, not that she wasn't a star before. Coventry set her world record of 2:06.39 at the University of Missouri Grand Prix in February and set a short-course world mark in April. She heads into Beijing expected to finish atop the podium and possibly dip under 2:06.
The top American in the four-lap backstroke for a few years, Hoelzer is the reigning world champion in the 200 back, thanks to her effort of 2:07.16 last year in Melbourne. Hoelzer has distanced herself from the competition in the United States and is likely to land a medal in Beijing, perhaps gold.
The Frenchwoman is best known for her freestyle talents and ability in the 100 back, but there's no doubt she has the ingredients to push for gold in the 200 back. Her endurance played a part in the 2:06.64 effort she uncorked at the French Championships in April. The time was just off Krisztina Egerszegi's European standard, the former world mark mentioned above.
A staple on the international scene for several years, the Japanese standout won the bronze medal at last year's World Champs, where she recorded a time of 2:8.54. At the recent Japanese Trials, Nakamura checked in with a time of 2:08.80. It looks like she'll have to go into the 2:07 range – at minimum – to contend for a medal.
A pair of teenagers will lead the Aussie squad in the event. Meagen Nay broke through at her Olympic Trials with a time of 2:08.55, currently the fifth-fastest mark in the world. The second slot, meanwhile, went to Belinda Hocking, who punched her ticket to the Big Show with a time of 2:08.93.
While Margaret Hoelzer appears to be a safe bet to qualify for Beijing, the race for the second slot if fairly wide open. Among some of the leading names to consider are Elizabeth Beisel, a World Champs participant last year, and Mary DeScenza, better known for her 200 fly, but also an elite distance backstroker. Also keep an eye on the Germantown Academy duo of Teresa Crippen and Katie Riefenstahl, both of which will have multiple chances to earn a trip to China. Hayley McGregory is a sub-minute performer in the 100 back and can also go the longer distance and Julia Smit, from Stanford, is a multi-event talent.
Outside of the top guns, a tightly bunched pack has emerged. Included in that group is China's Zhao Jin, who certainly would like to flourish in front of the home crowd. Zhao has been 2:08.41 this year. Great Britain's medal hopes sit with Elizabeth Simmonds (2:08.79) and Gemma Spofforth (2:09.70). Russia's Anastasia Zueva is a major force in the 100 back, but her 200 back isn't shabby, evidenced by her 2:09.59 mark this year. Frenchwoman Alexianne Castel went 2:07.94 at the French Championships and could be a factor.