Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Australian Championships: Expect the Unexpected; "England Just Won Itself a Couple of Relays"

It might be a cliché, but this meet truly embodies the quote "expect the unexpected." In two full days of competition, very little has gone the way I predicted it to unfold, especially on the women's side. Swimmers in off events are destroying the specialists; rising stars Blair Evans and Yolane Kukla have come out of the woodwork to win events that aren't their best. Of my top six predictions for the women's 100 free, two of the ladies I predicted made the final eight; naturally, the others finished tied for 9th, 11th, and 13th. There is all-around craziness with swimmers who are supposed to be at the top of their game not living up to expectations, while others who didn't have such high expectations suddenly find themselves back in the limelight. Some thoughts:

Yolane Kukla: This girl is good. Similar to what we've been seeing from Missy Franklin in the U.S., Kukla has come from nowhere to beat accomplished veterans, and, like Franklin, she is proving to be quite a versatile swimmer. Beating a world champion such as Marieke Guehrer is no small feat, and Kukla sits in a tie for third heading into an open 100 free final, and fifth going into the semis of the 100 fly (not counting visitor Therese Alshammar, who cannot swim in semis). Don't forget this name anytime soon!

Who is the Iron-Woman? Last year, Stephanie Rice was the iron-woman of the Trials when she swam in at least some rounds of the 100/200 free, 100 back, 100/200 fly, and her signature 200/400 IMs. This year, she is swimming a similarly ambitious program, but she is not the only one. Emily Seebohm, once just a backstroker, already finished second to Rice in the 200 IM, third behind Kukla and Guehrer in the 50 fly, and is seeded second headed into the 100 free finals. Already with two individual spots assured (or nearly assured), she is favored to rack up more events, as she is the huge favorite in the 100 back, a near-certainty for top-two in the 50 back, and a big contender in the 100 free. There is one other lady who could be considered to have the most demanding program: Alicia Coutts. Coutts, who finished 5th behind Rice in the 200 IM in Beijing, already finished third in her specialty this week, and is top qualifier for the 100 free final and third qualifier for the 100 fly semi-final. Perhaps not as much sheer distance as Rice or Seebohm, but Coutts has developed strongly into a versatile swimmer with many more chances to make the Commonwealth Games.

Men's freestyle: In the 200 free final, I predicted the correct six swimmers to make the relay; the order was completely different, and the swimmers were all over the place. The order will probably change again at Pan Pacs, even though both Nicholas Ffrost and Thomas Fraser-Holmes are both assured individual spots in Delhi at the Commonwealth Games, while Pan Pacs will decide the third spot. In the 100 free, coming up in the next two days, less than 1.1 seconds separates places two through sixteen in prelims; the top seed is six-tenths ahead, and that would be Eamon Sullivan. Despite his coach claiming that it would be a "fluke" for Sullivan to qualify for a top-six relay berth, considering his recent hip surgery and an unsuccessful cortisone shot earlier this week, he just recorded the fastest time in the world this year. If he can hold up, even his prelim time of 49.06 should be good enough to make top six (at least). There will be a lot of big names in this one, and just to get into finals will be a dogfight: Abood, Prosser, D'Orsogna, Targett, Monk, Ffrost, Lauterstein, Richardson, and the list goes on.

Women's freestyle: Behind the upset winner Blair Evans, there was nothing out of the ordinary in the women's 200 free. The next day in the 100, well, things turned pear-shaped. The three un-retired members of last year's relay team, Felicity Galvez, Marieke Guehrer, and Shayne Reese, finished 9th, 11th, and 14th respectively. Meanwhile, Olympic and world bronze medalist in the 50 free and favorite in this race Cate Campbell finished tied with Guehrer for ninth, after recording the top 50-split but fading, while Beijing Olympian Mel Schlanger was 13th. So who's left? IMer Coutts, backstroker Seebohm, Kukla, mostly-breaststroker Sally Foster, middle distance swimmer Bronte Barratt, the veteran but inconsistent Alice Mills, Angie Bainbridge, and Kelly Stubbins. Not the deepest field we've ever seen, so much that Priyant Pratap, of the dormant Behind the Blocks, wrote that "[I] think England just won itself a couple of relays," as is the obvious weakness of the 100 free in Australia right now. However, the race will be close and competitive. It is the first women's race on the program for Thursday's finals, so all the girls will be fresh. I think Seebohm has the very slight advantage, but I could see Kukla pulling it off. Really, it's anyone's game.

Men's backstroke: The dorsal events are deep and fast. Veteran Hayden Stoeckel, returning from shoulder surgery, won a touch-out in perhaps his weakest of the three distances, the 50, over younger swimmers Daniel Arnamnart and Ben Treffers, locking out Australian record-holder Ashley Delaney. Another relatively inexperienced swimmer named Bobby Jovanovich leads Delaney in the prelims of the 200 back, with Stoeckel in fifth. Since 2008, the backstrokes have been deep and competitive Down Under, and there are no indications of any change headed into the finals of the 200 on Thursday or the 100 coming up.

Geoff Huegill: His amazing comeback is just 23 seconds away from fruition. Huegill's time of 23.60 in the semis was the top time, and it matched the time he swam as a world record in the very same pool ten years ago. (He broke that with a 23.44 a year later.) I think he can do it. Andrew Lauterstein and Matt Targett put themselves in a great position to challenge Huegill after the semis, but the experience of "Skippy" will get the job done over these relative youngsters.

Predictions of Thursday’s finals:
Men's 200 Back - Hayden Stoeckel
Women's 100 Free - Yolane Kukla
Women's 200 Breast - Leisel Jones
Men's 50 Fly - Geoff Huegill
Women's 100 Back - Emily Seebohm
Men's 100 Breast - Brenton Rickard
Men's 800 Free - Robert Hurley

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