By John Lohn and Phil Whitten
MONTREAL, Canada, JULY 28. RELAY action returns to the World Championships tonight with the championship heat of the women’s 800 freestyle relay. Additionally, titles will be determined in the women’s 50 backstroke, men’s 100 freestyle, women’s 200 butterfly and men’s 200 individual medley. Here’s a look at those events.
Women's 50 backstroke (PW)
China's Gao Chang has clearly been the class of the women's 50-meter backstroke field through the two preliminary rounds. In the semis, her 28.31 was almost a half second ahead of the No. 2 qualifier, Giann Rooney of Australia. Only 21-hundredths separate Rooney from New Zealand's Hannah McLean, the eighth qualifier at 28.99.
Despite the fact that Germany's Janine Pietsch, the WR-holder (28.19) is in this final, having qualified sixth, Gao appears to be on track for gold. The remaining seven swimmers will vie for the silver and bronze medals, with Rooney, Japan's Mai Nakamura and Germany's Antje Buschschulte most likely to take them.
Men’s 100 Freestyle (JL)
Under world-record pace at the 50-meter mark during the semifinals, South Africa’s Roland Schoeman shut it down heading into the wall, but still finished with the top seed, behind a swim of 48.45. In the final, look for Schoeman to erase the world record of the Netherlands’ Pieter van den Hoogenband (47.84). Hoogie, out of this competition due to hernia surgery, is the only man in history break the 48-second barrier.
While Schoeman appears to have a firm grip on the gold medal, the battle for silver and bronze is intriguing, particularly with Michael Phelps in the mix. Qualified fifth in 48.93, Phelps can’t be discounted from the medal picture. Yet, he must get out quicker in the opening 50 if he’s to swim a time in the 48-mid range, what it will take to stand on the medal podium.
South Africa’s Ryk Neethling is the second seed, after touching the wall in 48.54 during the semifinals. He’s followed by Italy’s Filippo Magnini (48.73) and Croatia’s Duje Draganja (48.88). The United States’ Jason Lezak sits sixth in 49.03, but it is unclear how much he has held back and whether he can approach his American record of 48.17.
While the top six men are all capable of earning some hardware, the seventh and eighth qualifiers are unlikely to challenge for a medal. Canada’s Brent Hayden, enjoying a meet filled with personal-best times, qualified in 49.05 and France’s Amaury Leveaux nailed down the final berth to the final with a mark of 49.19.
Women’s 200 Butterfly (PW)
Despite the fact that four women swam 2:08s in the semifinals, this race will be a two-woman battle for the gold between Polish WR-holder Otylia Jedrzejczak (2:08.30) and Australia's Jessicah Schipper (2:08.38), with Schipper — the winner of the 100 fly — likely to take the race out hard, then try to hang on. It should take a 2:06 to win. The Pole clearly is the favorite to win, but Schipper has been particularly tough here.
The battle for the bronze probably will be between the two Japanese finalists: 17 year-old Yuri Yano (2:08.63) and 24-year-old Yuko Nakanishi (2:08.90). The U.S. has Mary DeScenza in the final, and she is fully capable of challenging for the bronze, as is Australia's Felicity Galvez. The second U.S. entrant, Emily Mason — our diarist for this meet — just missed making the final with a strong 2:11.13 effort.
Men’s 200 Individual Medley (JL)
Although the United States’ Ryan Lochte collected the top seed with a 1:58.06 performance, 10th all-time, he’ll find it difficult to raise any higher than silver, the medal he won at last summer’s Olympic Games in Athens. Simply, this event belongs to Michael Phelps. The world-record holder owns the nine-fastest times in history and is the only man to break the 1:56 mark.
To put Phelps’ dominance in perspective, he has been under the 1:57 mark on four occasions while no other individual has cracked 1:58. Tonight, though, Lochte should slip into the 1:57-range, as he looked strong during his semifinal. Lochte is also contesting the 200 backstroke semifinals this evening and stands a strong chance at winning a medal in that event.
Lithuania’s Vytautas Janusaitis qualified third in 1:59.72, but Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh is the man who should win the bronze medal. Cseh is the European record-holder in the 400 I.M. and the favorite to win that event later in the meet. In the prelims of the 200 I.M. on Wednesday, he checked in with a time of 1:59.56. Cseh was fourth in the event at the Olympics.
The remainder of the field is doubtful to contend for medals. The fifth and sixth slots for the final are occupied by Japan’s Hidemasa Sano (2:00.45) and Italy’s Alessio Boggiatto (2:00.52). Meanwhile, Russia’s Igor Berezutsky (2:01.11) and New Zealand’s Dean Kent (2:01.55) hold the seventh and eighth positions, respectively.
Women’s 800 Freestyle Relay (PW)
The women's 800 free relay is shaping up as another USA v. Australia duel. In Athens last year, the U.S. set the world record in this event, erasing the last mark held by the doped East Germans, and the U.S., sparked by Kaitlin Sandeno's 1:58.88 anchor, qualified first this morning in 7:59.64.
Australia, which featured a 1:58.72 leadoff by Lisbeth Lenton was second, only 13-hundredths behind, and China was third. Japan, Britain, New Zealand, France and Canada followed, with a sub-8:08 needed to qualify for the final.
The fight for gold will be tight between the world's two swimming giants. I give Australia a very slight edge. China, barring a DQ, should be a lock for third.