By John Lohn and Phil Whitten
MONTREAL, Canada, July 26. THE third night of swimming action at the World Championships includes five championship races. On the women’s side, medals will be distributed in the 1,500 freestyle, 100 backstroke and 100 breaststroke. For the men, titles will be awarded in the 100 backstroke and 200 freestyle. Tonight could be the finest night of swimming for the American women. The U.S. could take all three events. If that occurs, it would boost American spirits into orbit along with the space shuttle.
Women's 1,500 Freestyle (PW)
If ever there was a wide-open race, this has got to be it. Eight women will stand on the starting blocks this evening and any one of them could take the gold, any three walk away with medals.
It took under 16:30 to make it back for the finals, and some big names will find themselves watching from the stands tonight, rather than contending for the gold: France's Laure Manaudou, world record-holder in the short course version of this race, who earlier this year swam a 16:16; Sachiko Yamada of Japan, WR-holder for 800 meters short course, who had the No. 1 time in the world last year in this event, 16:06.13; and Australia's Sarah Paton, who went 16:17 at the Aussie Trials.
We see the race probably coming down to four swimmers: Britain's Rebecca Cooke, SMU-trained Flavia Rigamonti of Switzerland, Canada's Brittany Reimer, who was fourth in the 400, and the USA's Kate Ziegler, who only qualified seventh in 16:26 but is ready to bust a move.
The USA's Laura Conway dropped 25 seconds from her previous PR (16:42.34) to record the No.2 prelim time, a surprising 16:17.97. She'll probably have to slash another 10 seconds tonight to be in the medal hunt.
Men’s 100 Backstroke (JL)
For several years now, the United States’ Aaron Peirsol has had a monopoly on the event, evident in the fact that he holds the world record (53.17) and four of the five fastest times in history. Peirsol, a Longhorn Aquatics standout, is the defending world champion and reigning Olympic titlist. He moved into the final with a swim of 54.46, good for the top seed.
Peirsol appeared to be on cruise control during each of his first two swims and is the heavy favorite to capture gold. Still, the field for the championship race is strong and jam-packed. American Randall Bal and Japan’s Tomomi Morita tied for the second seed at 54.49, but were barely ahead of Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh and Russia’s Arkady Vyatchanin, who each clocked 54.52.
The Olympic silver medalist, Austria’s Markus Rogan qualified seventh. But, the Stanford product is a big-meet performer and will undoubtedly find himself in medal contention. Look for Peirsol to win the event with Bal, a quick starter, completing an American sweep of the gold and silver. We’ll take Morita for the bronze, but in an ultra-tight finish.
Women's 100 Breaststroke (PW)
In the 100-meter breaststroke, a race that includes 2004 Olympic gold medalist Luo Xuejuan of China and Olympic bronze medalist Leisel Jones of Australia, the U.S. could go one-two.
Jessica Hardy, just one month out of high school, stunned the field in the semis with a brilliant world record swim of 1:06.20, shattering Jones' global standard of 1:06.37. But while Jones tightened up in the Olympic finals and lost the race to Luo, Hardy is likely to respond with another stellar effort.
To win, Hardy — who graces the cover of the July issue of Swimming World after being named "High School Swimmer of the Year" — will have to defeat a newly confident Jones as well as her own teammate, Tara Kirk, the short course WR-holder, and, of course, Luo, who is recovering from an ankle injury and could only manage a 1:08.01 in the semis. Not to be counted out: Aussie Brooke Hanson.
Women's 100-meter Backstroke (PW)
This race should be a "gimme." Barring some unforeseen catastrophe or an out-of-this-world drop by another swimmer, Natalie Coughlin should breeze to victory in the 100 back. The world record-holder and the only woman ever to break one minute, Coughlin has about a full second over her nearest challengers.
The battle for silver and bronze, however, should be ferocious, with each of the remaining finalists having a good shot at taking home a medal. Germany's Antje Buschschulte, the No. 2 qualifier, has the most experience and should be a slight favorite for the silver. Denmark’s Louise Ornstedt, has the fastest pre-meet time, 1:00.48, but she'll have to hold off the likes of Reiko Nakamura and Hanae Ito of Japan, Hannah McLean of New Zealand, Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe and Australia's Sophie Edington, all of whom swam 1:01s in the semis.
Men’s 200 Freestyle (JL)
Back on track, Michael Phelps will try to win his first individual championship of the competition in the four-lap free, an event in which he earned bronze at last summer’s Olympic Games. The men who defeated Phelps in Athens – Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband – are absent from the World Champs. Phelps qualified first for the final in 1:46.33.
After missing the 400 free final on the opening night of action, there were questions concerning Phelps’ condition for the remainder of the week. However, Phelps appears to have rebounded and has the fastest qualifying mark by more than a second. Expect the eight-time Olympic medalist to dip under 1:46 and secure the gold medal.
Although Phelps is the favorite, he will be challenged by Australian Grant Hackett, the victor in the 400 free. Hackett did just enough during the semifinals to advance and posted the fourth-fastest qualifying time, an effort of 1:47.66. Italy’s Emiliano Brembilla (1:47.37) and Australia’s Nicholas Sprenger (1:47.57) occupy the second and third positions for the final. The one factor working against Hackett is that he swam a prelim in the 800 freestyle in the morning.
Canada’s Brent Hayden (1:48.00) and South Africa’s Ryk Neethling (1:48.05) are seeded fifth and sixth, respectively, and China’s Lin Zhang is seventh in 1:48.10. American Peter Vanderkaay will take the outside smoke approach as the eighth seed (1:48.11) and should not be discounted from the medal picture.