By John Lohn
CRANBURY, New Jersey, June 10. WE'VE reached the homestretch of SwimmingWorldMagazine.com's 32-week Olympic Preview Series. Just a handful of events to go as Beijing creeps closer. There are actually less than two months until the action gets under way. This week, we jump into relay action once again, taking a glance at the women's 800-meter freestyle relay.
Defending Champion: United States (Coughlin, Piper, Vollmer, Sandeno) 7:53.42.
World-Record Holder: United States (Coughlin, Vollmer, Nymeyer, Hoff) 7:50.09.
Most Titles: United States (Three) – 1996, 2000, 2004.
Notable: The 800 free relay has only been an Olympic event for the women since 1996, with the United States capturing each gold medal. In Beijing, look for the victorious nation to drop below 7:50, thus establishing a world record.
Here's a look at the leading contenders.
The Americans will head to Beijing as the defending world champion and the favorites to walk away with the gold medal. But, there are really only two clear-cut members of the relay, Katie Hoff and Natalie Coughlin. Both women have clocked in the 1:56-range during their careers and faster efforts are likely on the table.
Who will the other contributors be? Well, there certainly isn't a shortage of talent. Off the top, Dana Vollmer and Lacey Nymeyer must be considered top contenders, considering their legs on last year's world-record setting unit at the World Champs. Other possibilities include Kate Ziegler, Kaitlin Sandeno, Allison Schmitt, Kara Lynn Joyce, Kate Dwelley, Kim Vandenberg, Erin Reilly, Julia Smit and Mary DeScenza, all of whom have been under 2:00 in either 2007 or 2008.
Schmitt and Smit have been breakout performers of late, each going in the 1:57 territory. Obviously, other contenders will emerge at the U.S. Trials.
Like the United States, Australia has a plethora of options to consider for the final in Beijing. Off the top, Libby Lenton might be best known for her sprinting ability, but her 200 free talent should make her a member of the Aussie relay. Meanwhile, Bronte Barratt and Linda Mackenzie have been sub-1:57 this year and figure to land a berth.
The world-record holder in the 200 and 400 individual medley events, Stephanie Rice has clocked 1:57.31 this year, a time that certainly should put her name into the Aussie equation. Among other possibilities are Angie Bainbridge and Melanie Schlanger, each of whom have been low-1:58 this year.
Although she dropped the event from her individual Olympic program, Laure Manaudou is likely to be the go-to girl for the French. After all, she's the world-record holder and reigning world champion with a mark of 1:55.52. After Manaudou, there is a strong contingent of athletes who will undoubtedly put the French into the medal race.
The other three members of the team France will likely send to the starting blocks are Aurore Mongel, Alena Popchanka and Coralie Balmy. Each of those women have been under 1:58 this year and similar performances will have the French in the thick of things.
The Brits had a great showing at the European Championships and will be among the top nations in this event. Off the top, Rebecca Adlington has clocked in this year at 1:56.66 and will find solid support from the likes of Caitlin McClatchey, who is on the cusp of joining the 1:56 club. Look for Jo Jackson and Melanie Marshall to have hands in the medal push.
The Italians snagged the bronze medal at the European Champs and with Federica Pellegrini, they have a hammer who can compete with any individual in the world. Alessia Filippi, best known for her medley and distance free ability, will be another contributor.
The former world-record holder, Germany will go to work with the likes of Annika Liebs and Britta Steffen while The Netherlands will turn to the sprint tandem of Marleen Veldhuis and Inge Dekker. Also don't count out Japan and China, capable of going in the mid-7:50 region, though that's likely not fast enough for a medal.