World Champs Preview: How van den Hoogenband’s Absence Changes the Freestyle Landscape

By John Lohn

PHILADELPHIA, Penn., May 31. ORIGINALLY, the plan was to run these World Championship previews each Friday. But, as the event approaches and the anticipation grows, we’re going to amp it up a notch. So, here’s the latest installment, a look at how Pieter van den Hoogenband’s absence will affect the competition. Keep an eye out Friday for another preview.

The Influence of Pieter the Great’s Withdrawal

A few weeks ago, when it was announced that Pieter van den Hoogenband underwent surgery for a hernia, there was every belief that the freestyle ace would be in Montreal for the World Champs. Now, we know otherwise. Last week, the two-time Olympic champ in the 100 free indicated that he will bypass the July competition.

Without van den Hoogenband, the World Championships will lack two of the premier male swimmers in the world, as Australia’s Ian Thorpe long ago decided he would opt away from the event. The absence of the Dutch superstar only adds weakness to the free events.

For the 200 free, the highlight race of the Olympic Games in Athens, it has lost significant luster and has become the Michael Phelps Show. Finishing third in Athens, behind Thorpe and van den Hoogenband, Phelps will receive little competition in the four-lap event. Not only have the gold and silver medalists bailed out, the fourth-place (Klete Keller) and fifth-place (Grant Hackett) finishers are out as well.

Although Phelps prides himself in accepting major challenges, the fact that he won’t have to deal with Thorpe or van den Hoogenband should make his eight-event program more manageable. Scheduled to swim the 100-200-400 freestyles, 200 I.M. and 100 butterfly, along with relay duty, Phelps is pushing himself to the max. Any break, then, is beneficial.

While van den Hoogenband’s absence clarifies the 200 free, it adds intrigue to the 100 free. The dominant man in the event, VDH has opened the door for South Africa’s Roland Schoeman and Phelps to take gold. Schoeman was the silver medalist in Athens and, now, should be considered the favorite. Phelps, meanwhile, is consistently improving and could nuke up enough speed to make a gold-medal run.

More, the likes of Ryk Neethling (South Africa), Jason Lezak (USA), Duje Draganja (Croatia) and Filippo Magnini (Italy) will be in the mix for the medal slot left open by van den Hoogenband. Oh, and don’t forget Rolandas Gimbutis, the Lithuanian Giant who seems poised to enjoy an international breakthrough.

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