By JOHN LOHN
CRANBURY, New Jersey, December 25. For the next 32 weeks, SwimmingWorldMagazine.com will take a look at one of the events on the docket for the Olympic Games in Beijing. By the time the series is complete, each discipline will have been analyzed, the 16 events on the male side and the 16 events in the female competition. The events will be covered on a random basis, with the women's 400 individual medley kicking things off.
Defending Champion: Yana Klochkova (Ukraine) – 4:34.83.
World Record: Katie Hoff (United States) – 4:32.89.
Most Titles: United States (Four) – Donna de Varona (1964); Claudia Kolb (1968); Tracy Caulkins (1984); Janet Evans (1988).
Dubious Winner: Although she captured the gold medal in 1996 in Atlanta, Ireland's Michelle Smith prevailed on the strength of performance-enhancing drugs. Smith was later banned from competition by FINA for tampering with a test sample.
Here's a look at the individuals who will be among the medal contenders in Beijing.
Katie Hoff: In Athens, Hoff got her first taste of the Olympic experience by competing in both medley events. In Beijing, she'll be the heavy favorite to walk away with gold in both disciplines, thanks to her status as the two-time defending world champ in both medley events. Of course, she first must earn a trip to China at the U.S. Trials in Omaha.
At the World Championships in Melbourne earlier this year, Hoff closed out her competition by setting the first world record of her career. Hoff obliterated the field in the 400 I.M., clocking a global standard of 4:32.89. The effort bettered the 4:33.59 former mark of two-time defending Olympic champ Yana Klochkova. So dominant was Hoff that the television cameras couldn't keep her foes in the same screen during the championship final.
A multi-dimensional talent, Hoff figures to have a full schedule in China, but the North Baltimore Aquatic Club standout will probably be most favored for gold in this event. If Hoff is on her game, there's no reason to doubt her ability to crack the 4:30 barrier. No joke. Her coach, Paul Yetter, has long stated that Hoff has big things in her future and a barrier-breaking swim could very well be in the cards.
Kirsty Coventry: Ranked second in the world this year with a time of 4:36.07, posted at the Japan International Swim Meet, Coventry was missing from the medal podium in Melbourne after a disqualification in the prelim session. Don't expect the Auburn product from Zimbabwe to be missing from the Olympic final, where she'll likely be Hoff's top challenger.
Coventry is best known for her talent in the backstroke and the chance of her breaking the 200 back world standard is certainly in the cards. But, she is superbly gifted in the medley events and has the ability to deliver a time under 4:35. Whether she can cook up that sort of effort in China will be determined in eight months.
Alessia Filippi: The Italian might have the third-fastest time of the year at 4:37.03, but seeing her turn in a strong performance on a major stage is necessary. Filippi could be a medal contender in the 400 I.M. and 800 freestyle, provided she answers the pressure of the moment. There are doubts as to that possibility and, consequently, seeing Filippi on the medal podium would be a surprise.
Yana Klochkova: Until she won the gold medal at the World University Games over the summer, not much had been heard from Yana Klochkova since she repeated as the 400 I.M. champ at the Athens Olympics. Four years earlier, she set a world record while winning the event at the Sydney Games.
By registering a time of 4:37.50 at the World University Games, Klochkova immediately established herself as a medal contender. Her time is solid, but this woman obviously rises to the occasion and anything less in Beijing would be stunning. She may not get into the 4:33 range again, but something close likely would grab a medal.
Stephanie Rice: The bronze medalist in the 400 I.M. at the World Champs, Rice is the best Australian hope for a medal. While her medal in Melbourne was a solid effort, she performed much more impressively later in the year, managing a time of 4:37.18 at the Japan International Swim Meet. That's a four-second drop and a suggestion that improvement sits ahead, a perfect scenario for 2008.
Li Xuanxu: Born in 1994, this youngster went 4:37.56 in a domestic competition in China. Really, no one has an idea as to what the Chinese will unveil on their home soil, except to know that they are determined to put together a top-flight collection of athletes that will have the native crowd thrilled. Perhaps Li is the real deal. Maybe she isn't. We could very well see two other Chinese swimmers handle this event.
Hannah Miley: The British record-holder, Miley had a strong year in 2007, but facts are facts and a big improvement over her best of 4:39.77 will be needed for medal contention. The British have surely showed development, and Miley may have entered a portion of her career where drops will come. She'll need them.
Jennifer Reilly/Yana Martynova: She was fourth in the final of the 400 I.M. at the World Championships, but that final was relatively slow outside of Hoff's world-record winning time. Reilly was actually quicker in the prelims and is likely the top contender to Rice at the Aussie Trials. As for Martynova, the silver medalist at the World Championships went a best of 4:40.14 in 2007. Finding some more speed will be imperative for the Russian to make a dent in Beijing.
The Other Americans: Ariana Kukors is probably the leading contender for the second U.S. spot behind Katie Hoff, but she has plenty of talent on her heels. Kukors was seventh in the world in 2007 at 4:39.51 and has World Champs experience. But, Kaitlin Sandeno was the silver medalist at the World University Games and is a two-time Olympian who was the silver medalist in Athens. There's no doubt Sandeno will be a major player in Omaha.
Among the other American names that will make a mark are youngsters Kathleen Hersey and Caitlin Leverenz. Hersey was the Pan-American Games champ and Leverenz is another teenager who has made waves, thanks to medley and breaststroke skill. Don't overlook Julia Smit and Alicia Aemisegger, collegians who could make a run for the second spot, and Teresa Crippen, like Aemisegger, a Germantown Academy star.