By John Lohn
MELBOURNE, Australia, March 30. WE'RE getting close to the end of the 12th edition of the FINA World Championships. Just two days remain in the competition, a blazing-hot affair that has produced 12 world records over the past four days. Here's the latest installment of the World Champs Notebook, a tidbit look at the event.
**Come Sunday night, he might have eight medals around his neck. All could be of the golden variety, thus making the argument that his week was the greatest the sport has seen. No, it's not the Olympic Games, but the big guns are all here, and Michael Phelps has been backhanding his foes away with fly-swatter ease. Thwat. Thwat. Thwat.
With five championships already stashed away – three individual and two relay – Phelps is just three gold medals shy of completing an 8-for-8 run that would make Fort Knox jealous. He's set a trio of world records on his own, blasting to almost unfathomable times in the 200 free (1:43.86), 200 butterfly (1:52.09) and 200 individual medley (1:54.98). Then tonight, the Superman from Club Wolverine, via the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, jumpstarted the United States to a world record in the 800 freestyle relay, teaming with Ryan Lochte, Klete Keller and Peter Vanderkaay for a time of 7:03.24.
Now, chew on this fact. Although he did not contest the 100 freestyle, Phelps can make the argument for deserving a pseudo gold for the two-lap event. After all, his leadoff time of 48.42 from the 400 free relay is the fastest 100 free of the week, better than the 48.43 produced by Italy's Filippo Magnini and Canada's Brent Hayden in their inseparable finish.
In light of Phelps' relay effort, Team USA might have some additional thinking to do when it comes to the 400 medley relay on the final day of competition. Who swims where? After Phelps and Ian Crocker renew their rivalry in the 100 butterfly, we'll know which man deserves that leg on the relay. But, the scenarios are quite intriguing.
If Crocker wins the 100 fly, which would be his third straight world title in the event, that leg of the relay obviously would belong to the University of Texas product. Then, Team USA would have to decide between Phelps and Jason Lezak for the freestyle slot. While Phelps' time from the first night of action was faster than Lezak's 48.51 in the semifinals of the 100 free (48.52 in the final), Lezak is a proven force in relay duty and has perfected the exchange with Crocker.
If Phelps claims victory in the 100 fly, then two scenarios could unfold. On one hand, Phelps could be handed the fly leg with Lezak on the anchor. Or, if Crocker is scorching hot in a silver-medal finish, perhaps the U.S. goes with Crocker on the fly leg and Phelps on freestyle, again due to his quicker time than Lezak. The possibilities are fascinating.
**Tomorrow night's final of the women's 800 freestyle will feature the globe's middle-distance queen against the world's long-distance empress. Frenchwoman Laure Manaudou, the winner of the 200 and 400 freestyles, will square off with American Kate Ziegler, who earlier in the week defended her crown in the 1500 freestyle.
It will be interesting to see how the race unfolds, as there's no doubt that Manaudou will push a frenetic pace right from the start. That's the strategy she typically employs and a tactic that led to a world record in the 200 freestyle. As for Ziegler, she was aggressive during the early portion of the metric mile, which led to the second-fastest time in history. Whether she goes out hard again, or sits back and uses a late stalk to chase Manaudou will soon be determined.
**En route to the bronze medal in the 100 freestyle, Eamon Sullivan wowed his homeland crowd with a personal-best performance of 48.47, making him the second-fastest Aussie in history, behind Michael Klim, but ahead of the legendary Ian Thorpe. Now, the 21-year-old is searching his first world championship.
In the semifinals of the 50 freestyle, Sullivan pushed into the championship final to give himself a shot at the gold medal. He was timed in 22.19 for the fifth-quickest swim. With Thorpe's retirement and the struggles of Grant Hackett, Australia has been in need of a young male to step to the front of the line as a future star. Sullivan is proving to be that guy.
**One of the big surprises of the morning preliminaries was the inability of Libby Lenton to advance into the semifinals of the 50 butterfly. The Australian ace, who won the 100 butterfly earlier in the week, was expected to challenge for top honors in the sprint as well. But, with a time of 27.36, Lenton finished 18th and was left on the outside.
However, Lenton made up for her morning mishap by winning gold in the 100 freestyle in a championship-record tying 53.40. The time is equal with Natalie Coughlin for the second-fastest in history and not far off the world record of 53.30, held by Germany's Britta Steffen. Lenton will be among the favorites for the 50 freestyle gold as well.
**Almost certainly, the four-title run by Aussie Grant Hackett in the 1500 freestyle will come to a halt on Sunday. Hackett indicated that he'll decide whether to race his pet event just before tomorrow's preliminaries, but even if the Olympic champ opts to go, it's highly unlikely he'll be in position to claim victory.
In fact, Hackett will find it difficult to land a position the podium. With Hackett not in top shape, largely due to his attendance to personal matters and a lack of quality training, Larsen Jensen is the favorite for gold. Then again, Jensen was expected to give a full-powered Hackett a run for the gold. Also in the mix for medals will be Korea's Tae Hwan Park, Russia's Yury Prilukov, Great Britain's David Davies and Aussie Craig Stevens.