By John Lohn
CRANBURY, New Jersey, February 19. THE original plan was to move into the breaststroke this week. However, with Katie Hoff lighting it up at the Missouri Grand Prix over the weekend, we decided to go in another direction. As we continue our Olympic Preview Series, SwimmingWorldMagazine.com will take a look at the women's 200 freestyle. Next week, we'll shift gears to the male version of the event.
Defending Champion: Camelia Potec (Romania) – 1:58.03.
World-Record Holder: Laure Manaudou (France) – 1:55.52.
Most Titles: United States and East Germany (Three); United States: Debbie Meyer (1968); Mary Wayte (1984); Nicole Haislett (1992); East Germany: Kornelia Ender (1976); Barbara Krause (1980); Heike Friedrich (1988).
Notable: The winning time produced by Camelia Potec in 2004 would have barely advanced the Romanian to the championship final at last year's World Championships in Melbourne. Seven of the qualifiers for the most recent World Champs final dipped under 1:58.
Here's a look at the leading contenders.
She's been long established as the world's premier medley performer. Now, she's among the elite on the globe in the 200 freestyle. Fourth in the event at the 2007 World Championships, Hoff clocked 1:56.08 at the Missouri Grand Prix over the weekend, good for an American record and history's third-swiftest showing. The North Baltimore star figures to get faster and breaking into the 1:55 range isn't that far off. Consider Hoff a big-time threat for the gold medal, one of many she could earn in Beijing.
The Frenchwoman was spectacular at the World Championships, clocking her world record of 1:55.52 in the final. Manaudou, as per her typical approach, will likely take this race out at a quick pace and force the competition to play catch up. One of the great talents in the sport, Manaudou has made a handful of coaching changes in the past year, leading to questions as to whether she'll be able to duplicate her dominance of the 200 and 400 freestyles. Then again, she might not slip at all, which would mean a definite push for the gold medal.
If not for Laure Manaudou, the German would have been lauded for producing one of the premier swims of the 2007 World Championships. In the 200 free final, Lurz clocked a time of 1:55.68, the second-fastest mark in history. Obviously, it took a world record to deny her the gold medal. Lurz is a certain medal favorite and can't be discounted from the chase for the gold.
The bronze medalist at the World Champs, the Italian briefly held the world record last year, following a swim of 1:56.47 in the semifinals in Melbourne. She cracked 1:57 again in the final, proof that she's a major player on the international stage, not a one-hit wonder. Still, with the way this event has heated up, Pellegrini might have to break through the 1:56 barrier to make a run at some hardware.
There's not much indication that Coughlin will race this event at the Olympics, but her name must be mentioned, just in case. At last year's World Champs, Coughlin went 1:56.43 as the leadoff leg of the American 800 free relay, an effort that was the American record until this past weekend. If Coughlin chooses to pursue the event, she'll be an instant medal contender.
The Polish standout, who is the defending Olympic champ in the 200 butterfly, is also an elite middle-distance freestyler. She ranked sixth in the world last year at 1:57.19, but she was only eighth in the World Champs final. She's probably more of a medal possibility in the 400 free than in the four-lap freestyle.
With Libby Lenton unlikely to contest the 200 free at the Aussie Olympic Trials, Barratt is probably the top performer in the event from Down Under. She was seventh in the world in 2007 with a best of 1:57.54, registered at the Japan International Swim Meet. A big drop will be necessary for any medal hopes.
Other International Contenders:
During the 2007 season, three other international stars produced times under 1:58, consequently leading to their inclusion in this preview. Sweden's Josefin Lillhage was fifth at the World Champs and ranked eighth in the world in 1:57.78. Meanwhile, France's Alena Popchanka and Great Britain's Caitlin McClatchey tied for ninth in the world at 1:57.86.
Behind Hoff and Coughlin, the trio of Dana Vollmer, Kate Ziegler and Kara Lynn Joyce seem to be the next three American names in the event. Vollmer was sixth at the Melbourne World Champs and went a best of 1:58.26 in 2007. Ziegler has been 1:58.40 and deserves a look, in addition to her status as a major medal contender in the 400 and 800 freestyles. More, Joyce has put herself on the map with a time of 1:58.72 at the Missouri Grand Prix.