Commentary by Jeff Commings
PHOENIX, Arizona, July 24. I knew the times on the scoreboard at the Commonwealth Games would be fast, but I did not see a world record from the Australian women in the 400 free relay coming, nor did I believe Ryan Cochrane would post a lifetime best in the 400 freestyle to open the session.
That doesn’t count Hannah Miley’s amazing 4:31 in the 400 IM, Ross Murdoch’s blazing 200 breast or Siobhan-Marie O’Connor surpassing all expectations in the 200 free and 100 fly. For now, I’ll just focus on what happened with Cochrane and the Australian 400 free relay, because those swims could set up for something extraordinary next month at the Pan Pacific championships.
Australia and Canada, as well as New Zealand, are coming to the Gold Coast next month to race the Americans, the Brazilians and the Japanese. One would think the Americans have the upper hand because they will not have raced at a major international meet. But factor in that most of the Americans will have to put in a full taper just to make the Pan Pac team, and the scales balance out evenly. Everyone will have put in at least one long course taper meet in 2014 when Pan Pacs starts August 21.
Before today, I would have picked the United States to win the women’s 400 free relay at Pan Pacs. Team USA won the event at the world championships last year in a thrilling finish. Australia seemed to lack the depth of the Americans. This year, Simone Manuel is improving, as is Missy Franklin. But Cate Campbell, Melanie Schalnger and Bronte Campbell have improved by leaps and bounds in the past year, not to mention the meteoric rise of Emma McKeon. I don’t see a way for the United States to bridge the very wide gap that was created when Australia posted a 3:30.98 today in Glasgow. The fastest team the Americans have ever put together is 1.33 seconds slower, a tall mountain to overcome. I cannot see the United States finding four women who can average 52.7 seconds this year. Maybe by the time the Rio Olympics approaches.
But then again, did anyone believe the Americans could win at worlds last year?
Speaking of McKeon, she now has her sights set on unseating the Americans in the 200 freestyle. Missy Franklin won the world championship title last year with a 1:54.81, so she still has the upper hand in the event by seven tenths over McKeon’s winning time today. Whether it’s Allison Schmitt, Kate Ledecky or someone else racing in the individual 200 free for the United States, McKeon will have to be just a bit faster in a month.
As for that men’s 400 free, Ryan Cochrane suddenly shows that he’s in line to take Pan Pac gold this year after finishing second to Tae Hwam Park in 2010. His 3:43.46 would have won silver at last year’s world championships, ahead of Japan’s Kosuke Hagino and American Connor Jaeger. Hagino has already been 3:43.90 this year, so the battle is on between those two. I am not sure the United States has two swimmers capable of a 3:43 at this point in the Olympic quadrennial but I would be happy to be proven wrong. Jaeger and Conor Dwyer are the best prospects.
The rest of the events swum today show that the balance of power hasn’t shifted much. Elizabeth Beisel is still in command of the women’s 400 IM. Alicia Coutts still gets my vote to win at Pan Pacs in the 100 fly and the Japanese are still in command in the men’s 200 breaststroke unless Christian Sprenger can rebound from that disappointing 2:12 today.
As thrilling as the women’s 400 free relay was today, the men’s sprint relay tomorrow could also provide a chance for Australia to show that the wounds of the past two years have fully healed and a showdown with the Americans is imminent. James Magnussen will likely be firing on all cylinders, but will the rest of the team be ready?