By John Lohn
MELBOURNE, Australia, March 31. WHEN will the record-breaking assault end? Hopefully, it won't. The wrecking ball that has been taken to the sport's record book continues to swing with force, as another global standard was wiped out tonight, courtesy of Australia in the women's 400 medley relay. With one day remaining in the competition, 13 standards have been altered. Here's the seventh edition of the World Champs Notebook.
**If Superman wasn't here, she'd be the talk of Team USA. But, because Michael Phelps decided to unfurl, arguably, the greatest meet in history, Natalie Coughlin has been overshadowed in a big way. Sure, her efforts have gone noticed, but not with the degree of attention they deserve. It's a tough-break scenario, yet such is life in Phelpsville.
Heading into the final day of competition, Coughlin owns five medals – two gold, two silver and one bronze. On her way to that haul, Coughlin has proven herself as the top force in the American arsenal. That description is not a shot at Katie Hoff, the premier medley performer in the world, but simply a credit to the way Coughlin has carried the United States ladies.
The obvious individual highlight of the week for Coughlin was the lowering of her world record in the 100 backstroke. After setting the mark in 2002 at 59.58 – the first effort under a minute by a woman – Coughlin went five years without matching that time, although she continued to dominate with three more sub-minute showings and an Olympic title. Then came the breakthrough, a sizzling 59.44 that reminded the world, not that it was necessary, that Coughlin is as good as it gets.
Two days later, the 24-year-old jumpstarted the United States' world-record 800 free relay. Leading off in an American record of 1:56.63, Coughlin joined Dana Vollmner, Lacey Nymeyer and Hoff for a time of 7:50.09. By the time Coughlin got done with her leg, there was no doubt the United States was going to grab gold. The leadoff effort, as much as it was physically impressive, demonstrated Coughlin's leadership and her willingness to put her teammates on her shoulders.
For Coughlin, her World Championships have also included an American record in the 100 butterfly (57.34), good for a bronze medal, and an American record of 53.40 in the semifinals of the 100 freestyle. For good measure, she's won silver in the 400 freestyle relay and 400 medley relay.
Yes, Coughlin has been sensational this week, even if it's been difficult for some to see due to the other-worldly efforts of Mr. Phelps.
**Because of the controversy surround Australian legend Ian Thorpe and the adverse analytical finding his doping test produced in May of 2006, some of the shine was taken off the 100 butterfly championship between Ian Crocker and Michael Phelps. Still, the race was sensational and much appreciated by the crowd at Rod Laver Arena. Phelps came from behind in the final strokes to win in 50.77, to the 50.82 of Crocker.
The leak inside FINA that revealed the test results of Thorpe, leading to the knowledge that FINA has asked the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to investigate the case, was obviously planned. With FINA aware of the results since May, there's no doubt that the leak waited until late in the World Champs to drop a bombshell that would overshadow the competition.
It's a shame that the series of events surrounding Thorpe played out the way they did, as these World Champs have been nothing short of special. In particular, it's sad that Phelps' amazing week was forced to share the newspaper and Internet headlines with a doping story. Let's just hope the swimming remains a hot topic and doesn't go entirely overlooked.
**Paltry at the beginning of the week, the attendance has picked up over the past few days, particularly during the evening session. While numerous green seats were visible during the early portion of the competition, fewer have been seen of late. One of the reasons for the surge, without a doubt, has been the high-level performances that have been routine.
With the weekend now here, and the final day just a few hours away, fans trying to grab a glimpse of the premier swimmers in the world have decided to make their way to Rod Laver Arena. It is worth noting, however, that regardless of the crowd size, the fans in attendance have been passionate, long the reputation of the Australian contingent.
**Once this edition of the World Champs wraps up, Rome will be on deck as the host of the 2009 competition. It will be the second hosting stint for the Italian city, complementing 1994. The last time Rome was the focal point of the sport, Finland's Jani Sievinen set the world record in the 200 individual medley (1:58.16) as the highlight performance on the male side. The top female effort was Franziska Van Almsick (Germany) clocking a global standard of 1:56.78 in the 200 freestyle.
**Although it has made for lengthy preliminary sessions certain, FINA's open-door policy for all nations to have representation if desired should be applauded. That decision is certainly a way to grow the sport in developing countries. However, a slight tweak should have been made. With the 1500 preliminaries covering two hours, it would have been wise to set a firm qualifying standard for the distance event.