In London Olympics swimming, U.S. faces challenges in relays

OMAHA, Neb. – If Michael Phelps was the signature name of the swimming competition in the last Olympics, then the relay was the signature moment.
You know that relay, even if you do not know swimming. Jason Lezak swam like a man possessed, storming from behind on the final leg of the 400-meter freestyle relay to preserve Phelps’ chance at a record eight gold medals.
The United States won, which is the dominant outcome in any Olympic pool. The U.S. has won almost half of the gold medals in Olympic swimming, and one-third of the total medals.
Phelps won eight swimming gold medals in Beijing in 2008, more than any country not named the United States. He has 14 gold medals in swimming in his career, a total exceeded by only seven countries in more than a century of Olympic history.
Phelps is back, so what could possibly go wrong for the U.S.?
The relay that went so right last time, for one.
Australia and France have turned in better times than the U.S. over the last couple of years. Italy, Russia and South Africa are within striking distance. Germany, Brazil and Britain could pounce if one of the favorites slips.
When Phelps withdrew from the 200 freestyle Monday – calling off his chance to repeat his eight-gold show – he did so primarily to leverage the London schedule into his best shot at winning seven events.
But it was not a coincidence that, by choosing the 200 free as the event to drop, he gave the U.S. a boost in the 400 free relay. On the second day of the Olympics, when he otherwise would have had to swim preliminaries and semifinals of the 200 free as well, he now can focus on the relay.
“It’s going to take everything we’ve got to be competitive in the relays, especially the 4×100 relay,” said Bob Bowman, Phelps’ coach.
Phelps won the 200 free in Beijing and here at the Olympic trials. Bowman said Phelps could have won in London too.
“We’re just trying to ensure that he’ll be there for the relays,” Bowman said.
The U.S. men appear stronger in the other two relays, the 800 freestyle and the 400 medley. Yet a U.S. loss in the headline relay – just as the Olympics get under way – could fuel the perception that the Americans could have a rough week in the pool.
That perception would be at odds with projections, at least ones based on the best times posted this year.
The U.S. won 31 total medals in Beijing, followed by Australia, China, France and Britain. The projections show the U.S. in line to win 32 medals in London, followed by Japan, Australia, China, France and Britain.
The U.S. men’s team starts with Phelps and Ryan Lochte, perhaps the two best swimmers in the world.
Phelps and Lochte could go 1-2 – or vice versa – in the 200 and 400 individual medley. Phelps is favored in the 100 and 200 butterfly. Lochte appears poised to win a medal – maybe not gold – in the 200 freestyle and the 200 butterfly.
Phelps and Lochte will be NBC darlings, and the hype surrounding them will be so great come London that the casual fan might assume the American men will dominate swimming.
But the U.S. women might win more gold medals than the men. Dana Vollmer is favored in the 100 butterfly, as is Missy Franklin in the 100 and 200 backstroke and Rebecca Soni in the 100 and 200 breaststroke.
“I think that our individual stroke people – our flyer, our backstroker, our breaststroker – are all No. 1 in the world right now,” U.S. women’s coach Teri McKeever said. “It doesn’t mean anything as far as the gold medal, but it’s (a good indication).”
The wild card could be Allison Schmitt, who has the world’s fastest time this year in the 200 freestyle and third-fastest in the 400 freestyle. Schmitt placed ninth in the 200 fly in Beijing, in her first Olympics, at 18. She put her career at the University of Georgia on hold for a year to move to Baltimore and train with Phelps and Bowman.
“Allison Schmitt has been swimming great in the freestyles and has taken another drop here,” McKeever said. “Her decision to work with Bob and be in that environment – there’s a coach there who knows how to get the next step out of her.”
Indeed, the major challenge to the Americans might come from within. The U.S. was the last swimming power to hold its trials _ the Australians held theirs in March – and there is little time to tweak a stroke or sustain a high training level.
The Team USA training camp opens Saturday – three weeks before the first day of Olympic competition.
“It’s a couple weeks shorter than last time, but I think it’s an appropriate amount of time,” said Ricky Berens, who will swim the 200 free and probably two relays as well.
“We’re all going to go hard, bump it up for the next two weeks and come right back down. It will be a good position for everybody.”

Leave your comments