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By John Lohn
OMAHA, Nebraska, June 27. Better training. The Phelps phenomenon. High-tech suits (temporarily). These are a few of the primary reasons why the sport has gotten significantly faster over the past decade. Some events, though, have really taken off. None, however, can match the other-worldly jumps that have been made in the women's 200 freestyle.
Was 2004 really that long ago? Not really. Most of us still remember Michael Phelps capturing eight Olympic medals in Athens — six gold and a pair of bronze. Most of us remember the epic race in the 200 free where Australian Ian Thorpe, in what turned out to be his final Olympiad, outdueled the Netherlands' Pieter van den Hoogenband and Phelps.
As far as the women's 200 freestyle is concerned, however, that event hardly matched up to the extraordinary efforts witnessed in other disciplines. Truthfully, the times we saw might as well been centuries old. For a quick reference point, here's a look at the 200 free from 2004-2006.
* In 2004, only three women managed to break 1:58. More, the Olympic title was won by Romania's Camelia Potec with a time of 1:58.06.
* In 2005, only four women managed to crack 1:58. That year, the world title was captured by France's Solenne Figues with a mark of 1:58.60.
* In 2006, there was a slight bump. While only five women managed to dip under 1:58, Germany's Annika Lurz clocked in at 1:56.73.
These days, those times are laughable. During the semifinals of the 200 free at the United States Olympic Trials, four women broke 1:58, headlined by Allison Schmitt in 1:55.59. During the preliminary heats, where athletes exerted minimal effort, there were six women who broke 1:59. So, why the meteoric rise in the event? Two words: Laure Manaudou.
The Frenchwoman changed the event for the better in 2007 when she brought an attacking style to the water, taking the four-lapper from a middle-distance event to more of a sprint. At the World Championships in Melbourne, Manaudou won the gold medal with a time of 1:55.52, and simultaneously put the crowd at Rod Laver Arena into a frenzied state.
Since that time, the event has not looked back. While Manaudou dropped off, Italian Federica Pellegrini stepped forward to carry the torch. Meanwhile, dozens of additional athletes showed what they could do, including Katie Hoff and Bronte Barratt, among others. Gone were the days of the tactical race. Enter the era of go-for-broke action.
We're not going to waste time looking at the high-tech suit times of 2008 and, especially, 2009. But the efforts from 2010-2012 tell the story of how far the event has evolved. In 2010, the top time was 1:55.45 (Federica Pellegrini), with six women under 1:57 and 20 under the 1:58 mark. A year later, 1:55.06 (Missy Franklin) was the top time, with seven women under 1:56, nine under 1:57 and 24 under 1:58.
Heading into the semifinals of the U.S. Trials, here's how the global rankings looked: The top time was 1:54.66 (Camille Muffat), with four women under 1:56, eight under 1:57 and 25 under 1:58. Remember, the Olympics are not until next month, suggesting that these speed numbers will only take off.
Who will earn the Olympic gold medal, and what time will it take? Those questions will be answered next month. From where the event stood just eight years ago, though, we're dealing with another universe.
**Make it one round apiece of Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps.
Two days after Lochte decked Phelps in the 400 individual medley, Phelps rose off the canvas and floored Lochte in the 200 freestyle. Going stroke for stroke for the duration of the four laps, Phelps and Lochte were nearly inseparable at the wall, Phelps edging his rival 1:45.70-1:45.75. It was an epic final and only adds to the hype for the London Games.
There is no doubt that Phelps and Lochte will be considerably faster at the Olympic Games. Neither man is fully tapered for the meet, as they are holding a little extra in the tank for the bigger stage. In London, it wouldn't be surprising to see Phelps and Lochte in the 1:43 range.
For these Trials, the deciding round of the Phelps-Lochte match will take place on Saturday night, when the final of the 200 individual medley is held.
**Question of the Night:As we near the midway point of Trials, how are you feeling about the makeup of the United States squad and its prospects in London?
**So much for the United States being somewhat weak in the men's 100 backstroke. Any concerns in that event were alleviated when Matt Grevers and Nick Thoman touched one-two, with Grevers producing the second-fastest time in history at 52.08. The time was just off Aaron Peirsol's world record of 51.94, set in 2009 at the height of the tech-suit era. Thoman followed in 52.86.
Thanks to Grevers' output and Brendan Hansen's showing a night earlier in the 100 breaststroke, the United States' 400 medley relay — once a question mark — is looking awfully strong. After all, Michael Phelps is expected to handle the butterfly leg, with Nathan Adrian currently the favorite to take care of the anchor duties.
**One of the beautiful parts of the Olympic Trials is the element of surprise, and Breeja Larson delivered a major shocker in the 100 breaststroke. With most people conceding victory to Rebecca Soni (including a certain reporter named at the top of this article), Larson fought all the way to the wall to hold off Soni, 1:05.92-1:05.99.
Despite being the NCAA champion in the 100 breast, almost all tout sheets heading into the Trials had Soni and Jessica Hardy pegged for London. But Larson was solid through all three rounds, and saved her best for the biggest moment. That's the way to nail down an Olympic trip and put the doubters in their place.
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