Friday July 24th, 2009

Swimming events begin Sunday at the FINA World Championships in Rome. This will be more than just the Michael Phelps show, though Phelps will swim in six races (200 freestyle, 100 butterfly 200 butterfly and three relays) and will likely come away with six more medals. Here are some of the things for fans of the U.S. team to look for at the championships:

Will the 50 barrier fall?

Phelps seems primed to bust the 50-second barrier in the 100-meter butterfly, and the competition that gave him his last major defeat in the event would be the ideal field to do it against. When Phelps' teammate Ian Crocker dusted him at the 2005 Worlds, lowering the world record to 50.40 seconds, Phelps referred to it as a "real wake-up call." Phelps finished more than a full second back that day (51.65) and the spanking stuck in his gut for a while. He beat Crocker at the Beijing Olympics, out touching Serbian Milorad Cavic by a scant hundredth of a second. Still, Phelps touched the wall there in 50.58, leaving the record as unfinished business.

On July 9, he lowered the mark to 50.22 at the U.S. trials in Indianapolis. That was the 33rd world record of his career, tying him with Mark Spitz for the most all-time. Of all the races in Rome, Phelps would love to win this one, break the 50-second barrier and go one better than Spitz. Of course, Phelps will also have several accomplished flyers who could push, or even beat him, including Cavic, Spain's rapidly improving Rafael Munoz and Australia's Andrew Lauterstein, the bronze medalist in Beijing.

Gain one, lose one

Ah, yes, but don't be surprised if Phelps loses one of his world records in an event he has chosen not to swim. When Phelps set a personal best of 1:54.23 in winning the 200-meter individual medley at the Beijing Games, it marked the eighth time he lowered the world record in that event since 2003. Now Ryan Lochte, Phelps' relay teammate, is just three-tenths away from the record.

After six months of enjoying post-Olympic life as a self proclaimed late-sleeper and overeater, Lochte actually shocked himself when he won nationals in 1:54.56 earlier this month, beating the field by a second and a half. And watch the showdown between Lochte and Aaron Peirsol in the 200 back. That should be a one-two finish with both men challenging Peirsol's world record of 1:53.08.

French uprising

Remember that thrilling finish by Jason Lezak to rally the U.S. 4x100-meter freestyle relay team past Alain Bernard and the very verbal French team at the Beijing Games? Without Lezak's push, Phelps would not have won eight gold medals. This year, Lezak is out of the Worlds picture. He has been paying tribute to his Jewish heritage by competing instead at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, where he lit the torch at the opening ceremony. Without Lezak, the U.S. team is without a sub-48 second swimmer on its roster. Newcomer Nathan Adrian has hit 48-flat. The French team can send out an entire quartet of sub-48ers, Bernard among them, in the final.

Will Dara Torres ever show her age?

Not yet. Torres is back on the worlds team at age 42, swimming the 50 free and perhaps one or more relays. Granted, Torres has felt her age at times. She has arthritic knee problems and has had to adjust her training regimen repeatedly, if only for preventive maintenance. Olympic champ Britta Steffan from Germany will still be the favorite in the 50 free, with Australia's Libby Trickett and Dutchwoman Marleen Veldhuis right on her tail. Don't count Torres out though -- anything can happen in a short race.

Torres said at Nationals that she has been struggling with her start since the Beijing Games and has been waiting to pop one, getting off the blocks. Given the premium on those first few strokes in such a short race, a pop could land her on the podium in Rome. The next-oldest on the U.S. team, by the way, is Keri Hehn, at a modest 28, so Torres has lapped the field by almost a decade and a half.

Any feel-good stories on this team?

Well, how about Eric Shanteau and Hayley McGregory, to name two. Last summer, Shanteau was diagnosed with testicular cancer just a week before he qualified for the Olympic team in the 200-meter breaststroke. He went to Beijing and barely missed out on the final eight. He came back to have the cancerous testicle removed later that month.

This year he is cancer-free and swimming better than ever. Shanteau qualified for the U.S. team in the 100 and 200 breaststrokes and the 200 IM, behind Lochte. He'll be among the medal contenders in the 200 breast and could also be tapped for a relay leg.

The meet's other feel-good story, British-born, Houston-raised McGregory has been swimming's queen of narrow misses. Swimmers only get two places per country in each individual race. McGregory has placed third four times over the last two Olympic trials, including the 100-meter backstroke last year in Omaha, where she set a world record in the prelims. Last month in Indianapolis, she won the 100 back and she'll have a chance at a medal in Rome, where Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry, the Olympic champ in the 200 back, will be favored.

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