With jabs in the media and close races in the pool, Australia and the U.S. worked each other over at the world championships
NATALIE COUGHLIN pawed at the silver medal she had just been awarded for helping the U.S. to a runner-up finish in the 4 √ó 100-meter freestyle relay at the world championships on Sunday, but her eyes were on the gold medal hanging from Jodie Henry's neck. It was a fitting reward for Henry, the 23-year-old Australian whose brilliant anchor leg had rallied her team past the U.S. in front of a home crowd in Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena. Still staring at the gold medal, Coughlin said to Henry, with envy, "It has a lot of bling in it."
At the last major swim meet before the Beijing Olympics in August 2008, the often contentious rivalry between pool superpowers Australia and the U.S. was bubbling over after the first week—as much sting was being traded between the teams as bling. Coughlin, the leadoff swimmer on the U.S. relay, had said earlier in the week that she could think of nothing sweeter than putting the Americans in front and then watching her teammates finish off the Aussies. Instead, she saw Henry overcome a deficit of .62 of a second to nip Kara Lynn Joyce of the U.S. by .2. "I did the same thing at the Olympics," said Henry, who twice anchored the Australian women past U.S. teams at the Athens Games. "This is old news for me."
It wasn't only the women who were trash-talking. A day before the meet started, Australia's Eamon Sullivan said he hoped his 4 √ó 100-free relay team would spank the Americans' "arses," a remark the dailies Down Under ate up. (The Age ran the headline SPRINTER SULLO CALLS FOR YANKEE SPANKEE.) Privately, one U.S. coach predicted that Sullivan was a shrimp about to be skewered for the barbie.
In the race on Sunday, Sullivan took the lead—but only for 50 meters before Michael Phelps passed him and handed a .46 of a second advantage to U.S. teammate Neil Walker. Walker pulled away from the pack as Aussie veteran Ashley Callus faded. Cullen Jones kept the U.S. in front through the third leg, and Jason Lezak turned in a swift 47.32-second anchor to bring the Americans home in 3:12.72, the second-fastest time in U.S. history. Australia finished fifth, and as Lezak left the arena on Sunday, he said, "You know, my arse feels pretty good right now."
The two countries kept at it on Monday night, when Australia's Libby Lenton won the 100-meter butterfly (Coughlin was third); the U.S.'s Katie Hoff took the gold in the 200-meter individual medley (Aussie Stephanie Rice was third); and the U.S.'s Brendan Hansen repeated as world champ in the 100-meter breaststroke in 59.80 seconds. Aussie Brenton Rickard, who won the bronze in the 100 breast, said in November that he felt Hansen had "shown he can be quite vulnerable at times." Said Hansen after Monday's race, "You can spend as much time on mind games as you want. I just race."
But razzing and racing are often complementary for these squads. The men's 1,500-meter freestyle next weekend will feature Australia's Grant Hackett, a five-time Olympic medalist, and U.S. heir apparent Larsen Jensen, 21, who recently described Hackett's run of illnesses as excuses. "His comments are quite laughable," Hackett responded. "I hope he competes as well as he talks." With the Olympics 16 months away, the world's best swim teams seem primed to go lip for lap.
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More Olympics news and notes from Brian Cazeneuve.
Brian Cazeneuve's Medal Stand
1 France's Laure Manaudou is the next Janet Evans. Manaudou (right), 20, broke Evans's world record in the 400-meter freestyle last summer and won the event by nearly two seconds on Sunday.
2 Pencil in Guo Jingjing of China to repeat as Olympic gold medalist in the three-meter springboard in 2008. She became the first diver to win the same event at four straight world championships.
3 Aussie Grant Hackett's reign as distance king might be ending. Korea's Park Tae Hwan, 17, rallied from fourth in the last lap of the 400 free to win in 3:44.30, passing Hackett with 30 meters to go.