By Phillip Whitten
FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida. August 17. THE 52-member US National Swim Team left Fort Lauderdale, Florida, tonight, brimming with confidence, as it heads for a showdown with Australia at the Pan-Pacific Championships in Yokahama, Japan.
The bi-annual Pan Pacific meet, the top competitive event for the Pacific Rim nations, will be held August 24-29. At stake: the title of the world's number one swimming nation.
Last year, at the World Championships, held in Fukuoka, Japan, Australia won the most gold medals and was recognized as the planet's top aquatic talent. But at the just-concluded, six-day USA National Swimming Championships held in sweltering Fort Lauderdale, two world records and two additional US national records were set.
With 22 Sydney Olympic veterans and three additional 2001 world champions, the US team is experienced but also features a number of very promising youngsters. In addition, it features the incomparable Michael Phelps, America's answer to Ian Thorpe, and Natalie Coughlin — arguably the most versatile man and woman afloat today.
At Fort Lauderdale, 17 year-old Phelps, who at 15 was America's youngest male Olympian in 68 years in swimming, won four events with stunning performances. He set a world record in the 400 metres individual medley (4:11.09); an American record in the 200 metres individual medley with the third fastest time in history (1:58.68); an American record in the 100 metres butterfly in 51.88 seconds, just 7-hundredths of a second off the world record held by Australia's Michael klim and equalling the second fastest time in history; and won the 200 metres butterfly in 1:54.86, just missing his own world record in the event.
He ranks first in the world in all four events this year.
Coughlin was equally dominant. The 19 year-old University of California student won five events, matching an achievement reached only once before — by Tracy Caulkins in 1978 — and setting a world and two American records in the process. On the second day of the meet, Coughlin became the first woman to break the one-minute barrier for the 100 metres backstroke. She clocked 59.58 seconds, shattering the global mark of 1:00.16 set by China's He Cihong in 1994. Yesterday she eased under the oldest American record in the book, clocking 2:08.53 in the 200 metres backstroke, an event she says she "hates." Her time broke the mark of 2:08.60 set by Betsy Mitchell in 1987 and is the world's fastest time of 2000.
Coughlin also won the 100m freestyle (54.66), the 200m freestyle (1:58.20) and the 100m butterfly (58.49). She ranks fourth globally in all three of those events.
The US Nationals saw the debut of two outstanding youngsters: 15 year-old Rhiannon Jeffrey of Aqua Crest Swim Club in Florida, and 16 year-old Larsen Jensen of the famed Mission Viejo Club in california. Jeffrey placed third in the 100m freestyle in 55.39, a US age group record for girls 15-16, and fourth in the 200m freestyle (2:00.72).
Jensen, one of the most promising male distance swimmers to come along in the past 30 years in the US, was second in the 1500m freestyle (15:04.83) and fourth in the 400 metres (3:50.68).
The US team also boasts Olympic or world champions Anthony Ervin, Aaron Peirsol, Haley Cope, Megan Quann and Jenny Thompson. Three prominent stars passed on the meet: Gary Hall, Jr., Lenny Krayzelburg and Ed Moses.
The US is well-positioned in its quest to wrest the title of "world's greatest swimming nation" from Australia. Comparing best times this year, the US men are ranked higher in 8 of 13 events, the US women in 9-1/2 of 13 (they are tied in the 50m freestyle). However, in six men's events and four women's, the difference is only hundredths of a second.
On the global stage, the US men look especially strong. US men rank first in the world in seven of 13 events, versus three for Australia. American women top the global rankings in two events (both backstrokes), versus none for the Aussies.
The battle in Yokahama should be a fierce one, as both the US and Australia vie for global bragging rights. The women's contest will also feature outstanding competitors from China and host, Japan.