By John Lohn
CRANBURY, New Jersey, March 22. MY plane leaves late tonight and the excitement level is rising by the second. Soon, the World Championships will begin and the best athletes in the sport will make major statements they hope will set the stage for the leadup to Beijing. Here's a look at some of the storylines to watch from Melbourne.
**If he goes the maximum, Michael Phelps will race 17 times during the eight-day meet, 14 times as an individual and three times in relay duty. Once again, the American star is embracing a schedule of mind-boggling proportions: Five individual events – 200 free, 100 butterfly, 200 butterfly, 200 I.M. and 400 I.M. – and a trio of relays.
Phelps could be in the best shape of his life, having added muscle from a weightlifting regimen introduced by coach Bob Bowman. While Phelps is the heavy favorite in the 200 fly, he's staring at serious challenges in his other four individual disciplines. In the 200 free, a duel with 2000 Olympic champ Pieter van den Hoogenband (Netherlands) will likely determine the gold medal. Meanwhile, Phelps will have to get by Ian Crocker in the 100 fly, obviously not an easy chore.
As for the 200 I.M., Phelps was pushed to the brink at last summer's Pan Pacific Champs by American teammate Ryan Lochte. He can expect another push from Lochte and a world record will likely be required for gold. Finally, Phelps will see the likes of Hungary's Laszlo Cseh, Tunisia's Ous Mellouli and Lochte in the 400 I.M. With that event on the final day of the meet, it might be the toughest victory to pull out.
The stage might not be as large as the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where Phelps won eight medals, but matching his medal haul might be more difficult in Melbourne. In two years, the competition has certainly intensified. So, if Phelps can repeat his Olympic showing, this showing might be considered more impressive.
**Keep an eye on the chase for the first Triple Crown at the World Championships. Never has an athlete won the 50 through 200 distances in a stroke, but Leisel Jones and Brendan Hansen have a chance to pull off the feat in the breaststroke. Both athletes are favored in the 100 and 200 distances, and if they can find early speed in the one-lap event, history could be made.
**Much of the talk in the 50 freestyle centers around Cullen Jones, the rising U.S. star, and Roland Schoeman, the defending champ from South Africa. But, keep an eye on Aussie Eamon Sullivan as a medal contender. With a career-best time of 22.00, look for the surging youth to dip into the 21-second range. With the retirement of Ian Thorpe, the Australian men are in need of a big-time star to go alongside Grant Hackett. Sullivan could be that guy.
**Coming off sensational showings at the NCAA Championships, it will be interesting to see whether Cesar Cielo (Brazil) and Albert Subirats (Venezuela) can carry their momentum into the Southern Hemisphere and the long-course pool. As much as maintaining their physical acuity will be remaining mentally strong.
Cielo, of course, is coming off NCAA-record efforts in the 50 and 100 freestyles for Auburn. On four occasions, Cielo cracked the 19-second barrier in the 50 free, going 18.69 twice. In the 100 free, he was 41.17 and split 40-point on the 400 free relay. If he is anything like he was in Minneapolis, expect Cielo to challenge for podium positions.
As for Subirats, Arizona's NCAA champ in the 100 backstroke and 100 butterfly, he'll try hang with Crocker, Phelps & Co. in the 100 fly. Having gone sub-45 in the short-course pool, it remains to be seen how Subirats will fare in the 50-meter format. Still, don't discount a push for some hardware. Additionally, keep an eye on Northwestern's Mike Alexandrov (Bulgaria) in the 100 breast, as he's coming off an NCAA record in the yardage version of the event.
**On the female side, France's Laure Manaudou is found on the entry list for seven individual events. There's a chance she'll drop an event to make her schedule more manageable, but Manaudou has the chance to accomplish a feat as impressive as Phelps. Yet, for as busy as Manaudou will be, the spotlight will shine brightest on her efforts in the 400 free. The world-record holder, Manaudou might become the first woman in history to break the four-minute barrier.
**Here's a list of the five world records with leading chances of going down.
5. Women's 200 I.M.: Last summer, Americans Katie Hoff and Whitney Myers each posted times in the low-2:10 range. Pushing one another, we could finally see the drug-tainted 2:09.72 of China's Wu Yanyan wiped from the books
4. Men's Backstroke: Since he seems to break a record at each major competition in which he races, you have to look at Aaron Peirsol in the 100 and 200 backstrokes. Helping will be the fact that Peirsol will have competition from Germany's Helge Meeuw and Russian Arkady Vyatchanin.
3. Women's 400 Freestyle: Laure Manaudou is the queen of the distance and a time under 4:02.13 is highly likely. After all, discussion over a sub-4:00 has been regular. See above.
2. Women's 100 Freestyle: The field includes Libby Lenton and Jodie Henry of Australia. Amanda Weir and Natalie Coughlin of the USA. Britta Steffen of Germany. Enough said.
1. Men's 200 I.M.: With Phelps and Lochte going at it, this one seems like a lock.