World Champs Preview: Can the Aussie Women Sweep the Relays in Montreal?

Story & Photos by Stephen J. Thomas

SYDNEY, Australia, June 8. IT’S a very exciting time for women’s swimming Down Under. The Aussies are rapidly developing their most powerful women’s team of any era.

Generally any talk of the possibility of a clean sweep in the three relay events in a major international meet is a pretty good indication that a nation is really at the top of its game. On the women’s side at least, it’s a feat that has only been achieved four times since all three relay events became part of the women’s program, commencing with the World Champs in 1986 and then not until 1996 in Olympic competition.

Only the American women have accomplished this feat at the Olympic Games, having taken the trifecta in ’96 at home in Atlanta and then a repeat in Sydney in 2000. At the World Champs, it was the now discredited GDR team that stole all the gold in Madrid in ’86 and a similarly dubious Chinese team in ’94 was the only other nation to take the treble in Rome.

So what makes the Aussies look the goods coming into Montreal?

Obviously collecting gold medals in world record time in both 400-meter relay events in Athens last year is a huge form guide. Amazingly the Aussies had only once previously won an Olympic gold medal in a women’s relay – way back in 1956 led by swimming legend Dawn Fraser. The Aussies have never won gold in the 400 freestyle relay at the World Champs, having previously only managed two bonze medals in ’98 and ’03. However, in the medley event they have a much better record in recent times, having taken home a medal at four of the past five meets, including gold in Fukuoka in 2001.

Over the 800 free relay, the USA has won all three gold medals at the Big O's, with the Aussies taking a bronze in ’96 and silver in 2000. At the World Champs, there was the infamous disqualification in Fukuoka after the Aussies got to the wall first. Petria Thomas’ instant decision to celebrate by jumping into the pool before the final team had finished the race cost them gold. Notwithstanding this disappointment they picked up minor medals in the intervening years so they have never been too far from the money.

The major loss for the Aussies going into this competition, and it’s a very big loss, was the retirement of that one-time offender Petria Thomas. Thomas finished her career in style, taking gold and silver in the 100-200 fly and swimming the three relay finals in Athens. She clocked the second fastest split of all finalists in her anchor leg of 800 free relay, failing by just .05 to snatch a medal from the Germans, and then there was her sensational fly leg in the medley, the fastest in history.

However, lining up in the 400 freestyle relay in Montreal, the Aussies will still have their three fastest swimmers from the sensational Athens victory. World record-holder Jodie Henry took a long break after the Olympics and was not considered fully fit at the Trials in March where she finished second in 54.18 behind a sensational 53.96 from Alice Mills. Former world record-holder Libby Lenton missed an individual swim in finishing third, yet the trio holds the leading world rankings this year. The promising Shayne Reese (55.52) and Sophie Edington (55.71) will fight it out for the final team spot.

Expect to see Alice Mills step up a notch this year. Once known as “the pocket rocket” when she made her debut on the national team in 2002, the 18-year-old is now the same weight and height as the great fly/freestyler Susie O’Neill when she was in her mid-20’s. Her coach Shannon Rollason (also the coach of Henry) pointed out that although the height/weight ratio was very similar the two women were a different build, particularly in the shoulders, waist and arm length.

In the 400 medley relay it will again be a very strong squad. Once considered the ‘weak’ leg of the Aussie team, the backstroke strength has certainly progressed in the past twelve months. Giaan Rooney has improved on her Aussie record she set in the medley final last August, clocking 1:01.14 in March (fourth globally in 2005) but this time around she will have Sophie Edington who went an impressive 1:01.26 (sixth globally) to push her for a place in the final. Covering the breaststroke leg, there is world record-holder Leisel Jones (ranked first globally this year) and Olympic silver medalist Brooke Hanson (third globally), and then in the fly the Aussies have the current top three ranked swimmers this year in Lenton, Jessica Schipper, fourth in the individual final in Athens, and Mills. The freestyle leg is obviously another standout.

Finally the 800 free relay: The only team event the Aussie women have yet to bring home gold to the Great Southern Land. There are two links with the team that was DQ’ed in Fukuoka. Linda Mackenzie, the current Aussie champ for the past two years, was also part of that team at the World Champs in 2001. Then a teenage rookie on her first major team, she suffered the disappointment of seeing gold snatched from her grasp.

Mackenzie sits third on the 200 world rankings this year (1:58.70), and has experience on her side this time around. The other link is the individual world champ from Fukuoka, Giaan Rooney. But she is less likely to contribute this time around. Rooney swam the prelims in Athens but is more likely to concentrate on the dorsal sprints. Alice Mills swam in the final in Athens and Barcelona but coach Rollason has indicated she will be focussed on the freestyle and fly sprints in Montreal.

Despite this the Aussies have five other women currently ranked in the top-20 this year. Mackenzie’s relay teammate in Athens Shayne Reese will also have an individual swim in Canada, having clocking a PR of 1:59.28 in March. Sprinter Libby Lenton has indicated her desire to be part of this team with a swift 1:59.49 last month, to match the time set by former butterfly specialist Lara Davenport in the rankings this year. There are also promising teenagers Bronte Barratt (1:59.57) and Melissa Mitchell (1:59.69), both under the two-minute mark and waiting in the wings.

The Aussie women certainly has the form in the pool to take an historic treble but it will take a superb team effort to covert to a result on the scoreboard in July.

aussie team lenton, Henry, Thomas and Mills