World Champs, Day 6 Evening Session: United States Stalking Gold in Men’s 800 Freestyle Relay

By John Lohn and Phil Whitten

MONTREAL, Canada, July 29. THE World Championships are winding down, as only two days of competition remain after this evening. The schedule for tonight boasts five finals, including the men’s 800 freestyle relay to cap the program. Championships will also be determined in the women’s 100 free, men’s 200 backstroke, women’s 200 breaststroke and men’s 200 breaststroke. Here’s a glance at the finals.

Women’s 100 Freestyle (PW)

She's the world record-holder and she's qualified first (54.52), so you almost have to go with Australia's Jodie Henry to win the 100 free tonight.

But it won't be easy. The irony is, even if she wins she may not be the fastest on her team. Lisbeth Lenton, who was third in the Aussie Trials in this event, has been swimming out of her head all week and may well be the fastest woman on the planet at 50, 100 and 200 meters. Last night she led off the Aussie 800 free relay in 1:57.04, a time that would easily have won the 200 here and the fastest time in several years.

Alas, she will not be swimming tonight. Even without Lenton, Henry has her hands full. Holland's Marleen Veldhuis qualified second only 2-hundredths behind Henry, but she also had the fastest split — 53.34 — in the 4×100 free relay.

Also fighting for a medal will be the U.S. pair of Amanda Weir and Natalie Coughlin, France's Malia Metella, and Henry's Aussie teammate, Alice Mills, who barely made it into the final and will be swimming in Lane 8. Don't let the lane assignment fool you: she could smoke the field from outside.

Men’s 200 Backstroke (JL)

If the results from the semifinals hold true, the distance dorsal will feature an identical finish to the outcome in Athens. But, don’t count on that scenario playing out. What is a pretty sure thing is Aaron Peirsol capturing the gold medal. The Olympic champ and world-record holder, Peirsol had the fastest time from the semifinals, an effort of 1:56.60. Peirsol is looking for a third straight world championship in the event and could challenge his global standard of 1:54.74.

Austria’s Markus Rogan, who won silver at the Athens Games, qualified second in 1:57.16 and was followed in the third position by Romania’s Razvan Florea, the bronze-medal winner at the Olympics. While Peirsol is on another level, Rogan and Florea can expect major pressure from the United States’ Ryan Lochte. Coming off a bronze medal in the 200 individual medley, Lochte is seeded fourth in 1:58.17.

It is highly unlikely that the remaining four athletes in the final will contend for a medal, but Russia’s Arkady Vyatchanin (1:58.60) and Japan’s Tomomi (1:58.70) stand the best chance of sliding in. The field is rounded out by Croatia’s Gordan Kozulj and Japan’s Takashi Nakano, who sped 1:58.74 and 1:58.91, respectively.

Women’s 200 Breaststroke (PW)

Australia's Leisel Jones finally got the monkey off her back two days ago when she came through to win the 100 breast in a blazing 1:06.25, history's second-fastest time. No longer can she be seen as a major league choke artist.

Shorn of the burden of that reputation, Jones should allow her extraordinary talent to shine tonight in the 200 breast. Look for Lethal Leisel to destroy the field and, at the very least, challenge Amanda Beard's world record.

The real scramble will be for silver and bronze, and going into the race it appears that two Europeans — Germany's Anne Poleska and Austria's Mirna Jukic — and the USA's Dana Kirk, who was third in the 100, will be the main contenders.

The USA's Kristen Caverly, a 2004 Olympian in the 200-meter backstroke, will have to drop several seconds to join the fray. The three other finalists are new on the international scene and probably won't figure in the battle.

Men’s 200 Breaststroke (JL)

More than anything, this event is a race against the clock. American Brendan Hansen is a lock for the gold medal and could break his own world record in the 200 breast, the 2:09.04 he unleashed at last summer’s United States Olympic Trials. Hansen cruised during his semifinal and still managed a quality time of 2:10.23, more than a second ahead of the field.

Hansen won the 100 breast earlier in the week with the second-fastest time in history (59.37) and is searching for his third world title of the individual variety. Hansen claimed gold in the 200 breast at the 2001 World Championships. A triple-Olympic medalist, Hansen secured four gold medals at last fall’s World Short Course Championships in Indianapolis.

The battle for silver and bronze should come down to a three-man fight between Canada’s Mike Brown, Japan’s Genki Imamura and Australia’s Jim Piper. Feeding off the Montreal crowd, Brown clocked the second-fastest time from the semifinals, going 2:11.26. Imamura was just behind in 2:11.77 and Piper checked in at 2:12.17.

Grabbing the fifth and sixth bids to the championship heat were Russia’s Grigory Falko (2:12.20) and Poland’s Slawomir Kuczko (2:12.34). The final will be filled out by Italy’s Loris Facci (2:12.43) and Kazakhstan’s Vladislav Polyakov (2:12.50). Hansen could win the event by a margin of two-plus seconds, a dizzying amount.

Men’s 800 Freestyle Relay (JL)

At last summer’s Olympics, this event featured a sensational duel to the touch between the United States and Australia. Ultimately, the Stars and Stripes emerged victorious. Look for another gold-medal showing tonight, but without Australia pressuring the Americans the entire way. The Aussies are without their hammer, Ian Thorpe, who is taking the year off.

The United States is expected to reprise its Athens lineup of Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Peter Vanderkaay and Klete Keller and should challenge the American record of 7:07.33. If Phelps remains in the leadoff slot, keep an eye on the clock. En route to gold in the 200 free, he was timed in 1:45.20. Could a sub-1:45 effort be on the horizon?

Italy only qualified in seventh, but should bolster its lineup for the evening session and contend for silver or bronze, along with Australia. The Aussies will add Grant Hackett to the mix tonight and almost assuredly will move up from their qualifying spot of fourth. Japan and Canada will also figure in the medal picture.