Exclusive: Aussie Nationals Preview: The Women Will Surely Shine but What Fate for the Men?

By Stephen J. Thomas

MELBOURNE, Australia, January 28. THE 2006 Australian championships, which will also act as the Commonwealth Games selection trials, commence Monday morning (that’s Sunday evening in the USA) at the newly constructed 50-meter pool at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre. This will also be the venue for the Commonwealth Games in March, so the Aussies will get a chance to experience some quality competitive swimming in the pool before most of their rivals.

Given the close proximity to the Commonwealth Games, Aussie coaches will have been giving plenty of thought to their swimmers’ preparation, particularly those in endurance events, as to the ideal taper for the selection trials, and then to get them up again to race six weeks later. In recent years the Aussie selection trials for the major “summer” international meet has been in March. However, this year and next, the cycle will fall more along the lines of the USA. As one coach said to me this week, “it’s no point tapering for the Commonwealth Games if you fail to make the team next week.” Certainly in the highly competitive women’s’ events this will be more acute.

Let's take a look at the men’s events first where the Aussies will be looking for some new blood to step up to the plate, as save for Grant Hackett’s outstanding solo effort in Montreal, a silver medal in the 50 backstroke by veteran Matt Welsh was the only other individual medal posted by the men’s team.

The most significant aspect of the men’s program will be the return of dual Athens gold medalist Ian Thorpe to national competition. This week the Aussie press has been laden with stories detailing this unique athlete’s personal observations and his plans for a post Beijing retirement. Next week Thorpe will no doubt bring the focus of the global swimming community back to his enormous talent in the pool.

Sprint freestyle

The one-lap dash will see the swansong for 30-year-old Aussie record holder Brett Hawke who will retire after the Commonwealth Games. Hawke is also keen to make the 400 relay team after breaking 50-seconds for the first time earlier this month. This will put some added pressure on his 50 free, which will follow the three qualification races in the two-lap race. Hawke will have to look out for dual Olympian Ashley Callus and the experienced Queensland sprinter Jeff English (28). Then there are the 20-year-olds, rising star Eamon Sullivan who beat Hawke in Sydney last month and US based Matt Targett who has flown home from Auburn to compete in his hometown. Targett took out National SC title last August in impressive style from Callus and Sullivan before departing to take up his collegiate commitments. He might find these LC meters events a little tougher than the SC yards he has been swimming with the Tigers.

The return of Ian Thorpe in the 100 free will attract huge interest in swimming circles. Check into this Web site next week to see what sort of form he will produce after eighteen months away from racing. Will he get down near his PR 48.56 clocked in taking the Olympic bronze medal in Athens? Thorpe will have had the opportunity to blow away the cobwebs, having already competed the 200 freestyle, so we will see if the likes of Michael Klim, Ashley Callus, Eamon Sullivan and Andrew Mewing can stay with the Thorpedo in the second half of the race. As important to Aussie men’s swimming as the return of Thorpe, will be the ability of these other guys to cut times near the 49-second mark.

200/400 Freestyle

The main question in the 200 free will rest on what time world record-holder Ian Thorpe will post in this event as he is a class above the rest of the field, especially with both Grant Hackett and Nic Sprenger out with injury. However, it will give some established and younger swimmers a chance to shine. Patrick Murphy, Andrew Mewing, Brendon Hughes and Adam Lucas were part of the World Champs campaign last year and then look out for teenagers Nick Ffrost (19) and Kendrick Monk (18).

In the eight-lap race it will be the first time in almost a decade neither Grant Hackett or Ian Thorpe will line up to race this event. On past performances Olympic 1500 finalist Craig Stevens has easily the best time -3:47.99 – but that was almost three years ago and he took last year. However, I like the look of young AIS-based and Doug Frost coached teenagers Nick Ffrost and Ephraim Hannant (17), perhaps even Queenslander Cameron Smith (19). Doug Frost of course coached Ian Thorpe through his formative years through to gold at the Sydney Olympics in this event.

1500 Freestyle

Not looking the best for the Aussies here without Hackett on board. Hacket has won the last nine titles and all but one were swum in under 15-minutes. Craig Stevens is entered but is not committing to swim at this late stage – so it will be left to Hackett’s world champs teammates Kurtis MacGillivary and West Aussie Travis Nederpelt to step-up with youngsters Cameron Smith and Trent Grimsey needing to produce giant steps at this stage of their development to make a significant mark. Don't expect any sensational times this year.

Backstroke

Matt Welsh has dominated these events for the best part of a decade with 19 national titles to his credit. The 29-year-old won the treble last year and will be in with a good chance to repeat in 2006. Old rival Josh Watson will be about in the sprints along with Kingscliff training partners Ethan Rolff and Hayden Stoeckel. World champs rookie Andrew Lauterstein and Michael Jackson are others to watch here.

In the deuce Welsh will find it toughest, with the experienced Rolff, Jackson, Olympian Patrick Murphy and versatile teen Ephraim Hannant also in the mix.

Breaststroke

Brenton Rickard should be competitive in all three events with Mark Riley a challenger over one lap and Jim Piper, the vastly improved Christian Sprenger and Rob McDonald over the longer races.

Butterfly

Not the strongest stroke for the men right now. Dual Olympian Justin Norris is not swimming at this meet and Geoff Huegill, the reigning Commonwealth Games champion over the 50-100 is nowhere near his best form. Veterans Michael Klim and Adam Pine will be giving it their best along with the promising Andrew Lauterstein. In the sprint, former world record-holder Matt Welsh will be tough to beat with Brett Hawke, Eamon Sullivan and Jono Newton in the mix. In the four-lap race look to Travis Nederpelt to shine with Andrew Richards, Josh Krogh and teen Nick D’Arcy for minor medals.

Individual Medley

Adam Lucas posted the fastest times at nationals last year in winning the double and will be hard to beat in the 200 with his world championships teammate Leith Brodie the most likely challenger. In the 400 expect Travis Nederpelt to be putting the pressure on Lucas in the final freestyle leg. Justin Norris, the reigning Commonwealth Games title-holder will not compete.

Now let’s get into the highly competitive women’s events:

Sprint freestyle

Alice Mills, Libby Lenton and Jodie Henry were all ranked in the top five over the 50 and 100 freestyle in 2005. Lenton took the 50-meter title in Montreal while Henry added the 100-meter gold to her Olympic crown. Mills was a little out of sorts at the World Champs despite posting the fastest times globally in 2005. Add Olympic finalist Michelle Engelsman to the mix in the one-lap race and Montreal relay gold medalist Shayne Reese in the 100 and you have two hot swimming races.

Lenton and Mills have been training the house down and should produce the goods while Henry has not had her mind on the job with a change in coach in recent weeks to get her back into focus. Don’t discount the natural ability of Henry to keep her within range of her rivals. Don’t be surprised if Henry’s world record 53.52 gets wiped from the books either here or in March. Also of note University of Hawaii based Queenslander Melanie Schlanger will be hoping for a strong showing in the sprints having posted 55.81 in 2005.

200/400 Freestyle

Watch out for that name Lenton again! She powered to a 1:57.06 lead for the Aussie 800 relay in Montreal and then wiped the short course mark later in the year. Her newly discovered ‘staying power’ will be on display in Melbourne and the world record 1:56.64 held by German Franzi van Almsick must be very vulnerable. Linda Mackenzie, the 200/400 title-holder in the past two years will not give up without a fight and Shayne Reese will be looking to get under the 1:59 barrier in the shorter race. Rising stars Bronte Barrett and Haylee Reddaway will also be attempting to improve on their sterling efforts in 2005, while 24-year-old Elka Graham with five titles over these distances, will be aiming to reclaim her form, after injury kept her out of the pool last year.

800 Freestyle

Haylee Reddaway took out this title for the first time last year from lane eight and along with Sarah Paton, Melissa Gorman and the promising 16-year-old Stephanie Williams they will be working hard to be the first Aussie woman in over a decade to break 8:30.

Backstroke

Giaan Rooney, world champ over the dorsal 50, leads a strong field into the sprint events along with Sophie Edington and Tay Zimmer. Former British swimmer Jo Fargus now calls Australia home and will be at her best over four-laps to challenge title-holder Zimmer, as will Olympian Francis Adcock and teens Amy Lucas and Stephanie Williams.

Breaststroke

These three events will match the excitement of the freestyle sprints. In the one-lap race world record-holder Jade Edmistone, Brooke Hanson and Tarnee White were all ranked in the global top ten in 2005. Leisel Jones steps up as favorite in the longer events after her world championship double in Montreal. However, that was last year and competition between these women is so intense particularly in the 100 breaststroke where a world record should not be discounted.

Butterfly

In the one-lap sprint look to world champs gold medalist Danni Miatke and title-holder Alice Mills to fight this one out with the 100-meter world champ Jessica Schipper.

The two-lap race will see Libby Lenton, the silver medalist in Montreal, battle with Schipper once again. The result should produce a time under the 57-mark and possibly approach the world record held by Inky de Bruijn (56.61). AIS based pair Alice Mills and Felicity Galvez should also post fasts times and keep an eye out for 17-year-old Stephanie Rice.

The 200 fly should see Schipper hold her dominance over Galvez but the one to watch is the Queensland youngster Stephanie Rice who clocked 2:09.71 to finish third last year and just miss a trip to Montreal but still ended the year ranked 10th globally.

Individual Medley

The 200 race will be tightly contested by current world champs bronze medalist Lara Carroll, Brooke Hanson, a two-time winner of this title, and Alice Mills, a world champs silver medalist from Barcelona. In the longer race, Carroll will be the favorite but Aussie record-holder Jennifer Reilly is on the comeback trail while Queensland teens Stephanie Rice and Ashleigh McCleery have plenty of potential.

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