Monday, July 23, 2012

London 2012: Pre-Day One

We are less than a week away from the opening of the Games of the Thirtieth Olympiad in London, and mere hours after the Opening Ceremony, action gets underway across the street at the Aquatic Center. After years of buildup, the Games have arrived. I won’t post any formal preview blog, mostly because I’d be repeating much of my content from U.S. Olympic Trials a few weeks ago. If you venture over here to read my thoughts, you know who the contenders to win medals are as you scoff at the predictions of the mainstream media who hasn’t followed swimming nearly as much as you – even if their picks happen to come true. I do, though, want to share a few thoughts headed into the first few days of Olympic action.

As the swimming finals kick off on Saturday night, July 28, we will see the first relay event in the women’s 400 free. Most have picked the Dutch foursome of Ranomi Kromowidjojo, Femke Heemskerk, Inge Dekker, and Marleen Veldhuis to repeat their Olympic gold after adding world titles in the event the past two years. The Americans, who failed to medal at the 2009 World Championships, have put together a deep bunch led by Trials winner Jessica Hardy, while Australia, which did not medal at Worlds last year, has surged behind the efforts of Cate Campbell, Melanie Schlanger, and Olympic silver medalist Libby Trickett.

Australia could have major lineup decisions in this event after Commonwealth champion Alicia Coutts asked to remove herself from contention for the relay prelims. That leaves Yolane Kukla and Brittany Elmslie as the others qualified for preliminary action along with Trickett, while backstroker Emily Seebohm could see action here as well. Australia needs big performances from its leaders, no sure thing after disappointing Beijing swims from Campbell. Trickett failed to break 54 at Trials, but she won a world title in the 100 free back in 2007 in 53.40; such form would provide a major boost for the Aussies, and we could see her on the leadoff or anchor if coaches think she can approach her old form.

The Americans, though, have some more options. Hardy and Missy Franklin will represent the U.S. in the individual event, probably assuring them byes from the prelims. Allison Schmitt, meanwhile, starts off her tough program in this relay. An under-aggressive first 50 at Trials left her in last place playing catch-up, but she did manage a third-place finish. Just three weeks earlier, though, Schmitt had posted a 53.94, faster than Hardy’s winning time of 53.96. I expect Schmitt to swim on the finals relay.

Natalie Coughlin and Dana Vollmer tied for seventh at Worlds last year, each posting swims of 54.05, but they only managed sixth and seventh-place finishes at Trials, respectively. After looking at the meet’s results a bit more closely, you can see overall disappointing performances from the Cal-trained women. Coughlin, Vollmer, and Caitlin Leverenz all swam slower than I expected going into the meet, especially after the first day. I think we will see better in London. Despite Vollmer not technically qualifying for this relay, Teri McKeever knows she can swim far better, and Vollmer could replace Schmitt on the prelims lineup.

All this considered, I can’t tell how the U.S. women will approach this relay. I expect to see Hardy swim either first or second, and I am fairly confident Franklin will anchor this relay. Remember, she anchored the medley relay last year in 52.7 less than an hour after setting an American record in the 200 back. Schmitt looks like a good option for the third leg, since her back half can set up Franklin really well, and one of Coughlin, Vollmer, Amanda Weir, and Lia Neal will swim first or second in the spot opposite Hardy. I expect a very tight race, and I will pick the Dutch to win, but none of the three favorites has margin for error, with Germany looming as well.

Who from this tight field at Olympic Trials will find their way onto the finals relay in London?
More to come on the preview front over the next couple days with some individual action. I'll write about a handful of events in which what transpired at U.S. Trials really had bearing on the set-up of this race headed into London.

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