By John Lohn
MELBOURNE, Australia, March 24. THE 12th edition of the FINA World Championships kicked off today with a jam-packed schedule of eight events. Each day during the competition, we'll produce a World Championships Notebook that takes a look at some of the happenings from Rod Laver Arena. Here's the first installment.
**Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the failure of the United States' Klete Keller to qualify for the final of the 400 freestyle. The American-record holder, Keller was in the 10th and final heat of the eight-lap freestyle, grouped with the likes of Australian Grant Hackett and Italian Massi Rosolino. Stunningly, it was only Hackett who advanced, and by the narrowest of margins.
The reigning champion in the 400 free, Hackett collected the eighth and final bid to the championship heat, barely holding off Poland's Przemyslaw Stanczyk, 3:48.72 to 3:48.81. Keller, meanwhile, finished in 10th place with a time of 3:49.03. Long known for his ability to close on the field in the latter stages of races, Keller appeared to pick up the pace for the final lap, but not in enough time to ensure a trip to the championship race. Hackett was the bronze medalist in the final.
That Keller missed the final made for a mixed-emotion day for the family. In the 25K open-water race that was continued a day later after being disrupted by high winds and overly rough waters, Kalyn Keller earned the silver medal and furthered her reputation in the sport's newest discipline. As for the elder Keller, he'll have a chance at redemption in the 200 free.
**As the swimming portion of these World Champs got rolling, FINA announced that Shanghai, China will be the host to the 14th version of the event. Shanghai, which held the 2006 World Short Course Championships, got the nod over Doha, Qatar. The 2009 World Championships will be held in Rome, which also hosted the competition in 1994.
**Early kudos to the organizing committee for putting on a stellar show, and to the crowd for generating a sensational atmosphere. Prior to the start of the finals, spurts of fire and a waterfall by the starting blocks were part of the pregame festivities at Rod Laver Arena. Those extras were accompanied by a highlight reel of the five disciplines contested at the World Champs – swimming, diving, water polo, open-water swimming and synchronized swimming – and highlights of past World Champs.
**One of the most steadfast rules of the preliminary session is to avoid an early takeoff in relay action, particularly by a squad that is a lock to qualify for the championship final. That memo, obviously, never found its way to Russia. On its way to the top time in the prelims, Evgeny Lagunov was nailed for an early jump of .10. That error cost the country a clocking of 3:15.79 and a chance to chase a medal. Prior to Lagunov leaving early, Andrey Grechin (49.30), Andrey Kapralov (48.45) and Sergey Fesikov (49.12) had turned in solid performances.
**Of all the athletes racing on the opening night of action, it's unlikely that any were as taxed as the United States' Katie Hoff. While France's Laure Manaudou chose to skip the 200 individual medley in favor of the 400 freestyle, Hoff tackled both disciplines. In between the semifinals of the medley and the final of the middle-distance free, the teenager only had about 35 minutes of recovery time.
In the morning, where she qualified first for the I.M. and eighth for the 400 free, Hoff had roughly an hour to refuel. However, it isn't the first time she's embraced such a rigorous schedule, as Hoff took on the task at last summer's United States Nationals. While the medley is familiar to Hoff, she's still getting a grip on the tactics for the 400 free. Still, she placed fourth at night.
"There are always a bit of nerves, but I did this schedule at our Nationals so I knew I could do it," said Hoff, trained by Paul Yetter at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. "I've been training hard and I think my body can hold up."
**The top semifinal of the night turned out to be the men's 100 breaststroke, where American Brendan Hansen and Japan's Kosuke Kitajima renewed their rivalry. Swimming side-by-side in the second semifinal, Kitajima narrowly held off Hansen. The two will go after the gold tomorrow, as was the case at the 2004 Olympics and the 2005 World Champs.
**Italy's Filippo Magnini was dazzling in anchor duty on the 400 free relay, posting a split of 47.18 to give his country the silver medal. Expect the Italian to make a run at cracking 48 seconds in the 100 free, something accomplished only by the Netherlands' Pieter van den Hoogenband, the world-record holder at 47.84. Magnini is the defending world champion.