Are the swimmers that good? Yes.
But their suits may be even better.
Last summer at the Beijing Olympics, the Speedo LZR Racer gave an unprecedented boost to the athletes in the pool, resulting in an avalanche of broken records.
Many of those marks could fall again at the 2009 world championships in Rome, where further advancements in suit design could make the swimmers even faster.
Speedo's LZR Racer was a breakthrough because it incorporated polyurethane panels. In simplistic terms, polyurethane is like rubber — it floats. As floating higher without any extra effort means less resistance and better leverage in a swimmers' pull, the outfit supplied a huge advantage. Indeed, not since the advent of Lycra over nylon in the early 1970s had there been such a momentous change in suit technology. The result was a wholesale rewrite of the record book.
Turning back the clock
The reasons to expect broken records in Rome go beyond the new suit technology.
Recall that in Beijing, television executives persuaded organizers to hold the medal rounds in the morning local time so U.S. viewers could see Michael Phelps go for his record eight gold medals in prime time in the States. That made for an awkward schedule that forced swimmers to go through their preliminary rounds in the evening local time, with the finals going early the next day.
Overall, it wasn't as big a deal as expected — the best simply had to be the best in the morning — but a return to the "normal" setup of prelims in the morning and finals at night could contribute to faster times in Rome.
This winter, some manufacturers went one step further and made an entire suit out of polyurethane. FINA, swimming's world governing body, responded by banning such equipment. While Speedo bet that the decision would survive an appeal in June, thus keeping the suit banned for the worlds and possibly beyond, other companies went full-steam ahead with the polyurethane models in hopes of a reversal by FINA.
Sure enough, the governing body did the unexpected and overturned the ban. Speedo was caught flat-footed, and will likely be on the sidelines for many of the races in Rome.
While Speedo already has a comparable suit ready to launch, the company will have to wait for the next approval date, which isn't until after the worlds. So the name you'll hear in Rome is Jaked — a new Italian suit company that makes the polyurethane skins and, interestingly, is one of the main sponsors of the world championships.
Americans will dominate
As far as country trends, the Americans will dominate. While their men don't look quite as good as they've been recently, the women's squad was a disaster in Beijing, so anything will be an improvement.
Australia, swimming's second-best country, appears to be rocked by troubles as one of its world record holders chose not to compete, another pulled out due to illness, and another medallist resigned his spot due to injury. Plus, one of the coaches recently announced he was leaving to take over the new high performance swim centre at the University of Toronto.
To top it off, the Aussies chose to stage their training camp in Manchester, England — supposedly upsetting many of the coaches and swimmers. Training indoors in coolish England to prepare for an outdoor, very hot venue seems a bit odd.
The Aussies will still garner their share of medals to finish as the No. 2 country, but they wont be as dominant as earlier this decade.
I think the Europeans will respond to having the meet in their backyard with breakthrough swims on a large scale. Particularly on the men's side, France's stable of sprinters will provide fireworks.
French team to test Phelps
Phelps can't win eight gold medals — or set seven world records — like he did in Beijing because he's only entered in six events. But expect the world's most famous swimmer to challenge for the title every time he hits the water.
As he did after the 2004 Athens Olympics, Phelps has changed his program. Back then, it was more of an experiment in event selection and a way to supply motivation and change. This time, it's more of a definite shift to the shorter events. He has dropped the 400 individual medley (for good) and the 200 IM (temporarily).
Phelps will be tested early, as the French 4x100 freestyle relay team will be out to avenge the breathtaking loss they suffered in Beijing. I think the French will win, depriving Phelps of a gold medal on the opening day of the meet.
Phelps's teammate Ryan Lochte could be the second-most decorated guy in Rome as he will likely be the main beneficiary of Phelps's shift out of the two IM races. Along with medals in both those events — gold if Hungarian Lazlo Cseh does not beat him — Lochte could also win the 200 backstroke and will be on the American 4x200 freestyle relay that should win gold.
"Mr Consistency" Aaron Peirsol will be in the hunt for yet another pair of medals in the backstroke — as he has been at every major swim meet for the past decade. Having just broken the world record in both the 100 and 200 backstrokes at the U.S. trials in early July, he has to be favoured to win both events in Rome. Throw him on the American 4x100 medley relay and you have three gold medals.
By the way, Peirsol is just a couple world records short of beating the man that I feel, as do many of the top people in swimming, was the greatest backstroker of all time: East Germany's Roland Matthes, who set 27 world records during his career in the 1960s & 70s.
On the women's side, Aussie Stephanie Rice — three golds in Beijing, all in world-record time — might get her wings clipped by Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry. Coventry left Beijing with one gold and three silvers — two of those coming in IM races won by Rice. So the battle for the starring role in Role will likely be played out head-to-head in the IMs.
Italy's Frederica Pellegrini will be a big story swimming in front of the home crowd. She could win two titles, in the 200 & 400 freestyle, to add to her gold in Beijing in the 200 free.
We'll have to wait until near the end of the championships to see the Ageless Wonder, Dara Torres. Coming out of retirement at age 40 was unheard of until the American did it for Beijing and missed the gold medal in the 50 free by just one hundredth of a second.
The 2005 worlds in Montreal were a giant breakthrough for Canada. The meet helped bring the team back from the despair of the 2001-2004 quadrennial, during which the Canadians were shut out of the medals at the 2001 and 2003 worlds and the 2004 Athens Olympics. The latter marked the first time in 40 years that a Canadian swim team failed to earn a medal at an Olympic Games.
The momentum established at the 2005 worlds culminated with Ryan Cochrane winning the bronze medal in the 1500 free on the final day of swimming in Beijing. Cochrane will be the star once again in Rome.
While the Canucks might not match the national record for medals at a worlds (five in both 1986 and 2005), the good news is that there are bona fide medal prospects. Canada has two world record holders, a defending world champion, and an Olympic medallist in tow.
Cochrane will certainly challenge for gold in the 1500 free. And he will tell you so. He is not afraid to say that his sole goal is to win the gold medal in Rome — and in London at the next Olympics. It takes a tremendous amount of confidence and belief to be able to make a statement like that.
Cochrane's main threat will come from the man that won gold in Beijing — Oussama Mellouili of Tunisia. Mellouli, who trains in Los Angeles, has looked invincible in meets since Beijing, so Cochrane will have his hands full trying to beat him in Rome. But Cochrane, who's also entered in the 400 free, is a tiger when he can smell the podium, so it should be a great race.
Brent Hayden will try to defend his co-world title in the 100 free. While he has the tools to take on the big boys, the world is a much faster place than it was even last year in Beijing when Hayden recorded the third-fastest time in history but still missed out on a medal.
Best in the breast
Annamay Pierse set a world record this winter in the 200 breaststroke in the short-course 25-metre pool. While the Rome worlds take place in the 50-metre pool, there is every reason to believe that Annamay can break that world record too. She just missed it at the Canadian trials in early July.
Standing in Pierse's way is world-record holder Rebecca Soni of the U.S., who also just missed breaking the mark at her national trials. Swimming in different cities about 24 hours apart, the two women recorded times that were only one tenth apart and just tenths off the world record. The question is, which one left too much at her trials and won't have enough left for Rome?
Another Canadian to watch is 15-year old Amanda Reason, who broke the world record in the 50 breaststroke at the Canadian trials.