Rio 2016 Olympic Preview (III): Guide to Swimming’s must-watch events

The premier sport of the Summer Olympics’ first week will once again be a fruitful field pool for outstanding storylines and unforgettable memories.  From August 6 to the 13th, the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Aquatics Stadium will receive some of the World’s shiniest sportsmen and sportswomen, including the greatest Olympian of all-time, the 18-time gold medallist Michael Phelps, whose schedule will be much lighter (three individual events  – 100,200m butterfly and 200m medley – plus up to three relays) than in previous iterations. From the USA hails also one of the major candidates to become the perpetual face of the 2016 Games, 19-year-old Katie Ledecky, along with a bunch of other stars fans that don’t follow the sport regularly will pick up on.

The Swimming calendar is composed of a total of 32 events, six of them relays (three in each genre). In comparison with the World Championships, contested every two years, the program is slightly watered down, with the 50m races in the breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly styles (the 50m freestyle races are kept) getting shelved alongside the (usually) monotonous women’s 1500m freestyle and men’s 800m freestyle, meaning both genres contest one instead of two long-distance events.

Michael Phelps will swim for the final time on the Olympic stage

The qualifying heats are scheduled for the morning sessions, starting at 13 pm local time (17 pm BST), with the finals and semi-finals occurring from 22 pm up to midnight in Rio, way later than swimmers are used to.

Besides being disputed on the wee hours of the morning (in Europe), following 32 medal events – in chunks of four or five per journey – is a tough, time consuming endeavour for most fans, thus I jumped at the opportunity to single out the most relevant in the calendar and preview what may happen (spoiler alert: I wasn’t that successful trimming the fat).

Swimming is a sport especially conducive to tight, dramatic finishes and mouth-gaping surprises, while allowing florescent talents to thrive and amass multiple victories in a single meet, maximizing their media repercussion (see Phelps, Michael at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics). The mix of these components guided my selection – by the way, blame the convergence of star power on my decision to place (almost) every women’s freestyle event as a must-watch – and I additionally decided to scribe in my own medal predictions so that you can appreciate how flawed is my understanding of this sport.

So, in (mostly) chronological order (all hours in BST, four more than in Rio):

Men’s 100m Breaststroke, 2:53 am, August 7 

One of Brazil’s best hopes of securing a medal is the men’s 100m breaststroke, with the duo of Filipe Silva and João Gomes having positioned themselves as valid podium contenders with low-59s performances earlier this season. Gomes is third in the World rankings behind the World Champion Adam Peaty and the best American in the discipline, Kevin Cordes, but there are more challengers worth respecting.

21-year-old Adam Peaty is the World’s leading breaststroke sprinter

Adam Peaty, the world record holder since last year as the only man to swim below 58s, has shown to be in fine form to target the Olympic title currently belonging to South Africa’s Cameron Van der Burgh, who he beat at the 2015 Worlds. The debutant Cordes posted the American record at the trials, but his teammate Colin Miller came right behind, positioning also as a podium hopeful. Meanwhile Peaty’s colleague, Great Britain’s Ross Murdoch, took bronze in Kazan at last year’s Worlds and can produce a surprise if he can replicate the 59.09 of that race. Lithuania’s Giedrius Titenius is a darkhorse after breaking the 59s barrier last year before succumbing in the World Championship final.

Prediction: 1. Adam Peaty (Great Britain), 2. Cameron Van der Burgh (South Africa), 3. Kevin Cordes (USA)

Women’s 400m Freestyle, 3:01 am, August 7 / Women’s 800m Freestyle, 2:20 am, August 12

Katie Ledecky’s smashing parade of otherworldly performances will peak at these two individual events, where everything but two new World Records would be a surprise. The only woman besides Federica Pellegrini (in 2009, during the high-technology suits era) to swim the 400m in less than 4 minutes, Ledecky will dominated this race and the major question is by how much can she erase her best of 3:58.37 (2014), conquering her first Olympic title in the event  to succeed the late Camille Muffat. However, after Ledecky, there’s a crowded field of candidates for the podium, with her compatriot Leah Smith, who clocked 4:00.65 in the American trials, looking as the frontrunner. Hungary’s Boglarka Kapas, Canada’s Brittany MacLellan, France’s Coralie Balmy and Australia’s Jessica Ashwood have all raced 4:03 this season, while New Zealand’s Lauren Boyle did it last year. Netherland’s Sharon von Rouwendaal (silver last year at the WC’s) may lack the finishing chops with her sights set on the 10km open water competition.

Usually when Katie Ledecky starts celebrating, her opponents are still in the finishing meters

In the 800m, the competition that put Ledecky on the spotlight after the exceptional triumph as a 15-year-old in London, there’s even less of a competition. The American’s best is over ten seconds (!!) faster than everyone else and she may continue to approach the elusive 8 minute barrier after taking almost 8 seconds from the pre-Ledecky World Record (from 8:14 to the current 8:06:68). A truly magical performance may be in the cards here, with the rest of the pack scrapping a half-pool behind. Jessica Ashwood, with 8:18 this season – the only other below 8:20 in 2016 – is a strong contender for silver alongside Lauren Boyle and Leah Smith, with Kapas and MacLellan as the up-and-coming treats. Jazz Carlin (Great Britain) and Lotte Friis (Denmark) are also in the mix.

Prediction (400m): 1. Katie Ledecky (USA)… , 2. Leah Smith (USA), 3. Brittany MacLellan (Canada)

Prediction (800m): 1. Katie Ledecky (USA)… time for quick nap…., 2. Jessica Ashwood (Australia), 3. Lauren Boyle (New Zealand)

Men’s 4 X 100m Freestyle, 3:54 am, August 7

Cameron McEvoy, “The Professor”, is Australia’s ace on their quest for the 4 X 100m free relay title

On a race that has delivered memorable moments in the past – with Jason Lezak’s unbelievable anchor split to stun France in 2008 right at the forefront  – the prospect of a thrilling three-horse finish is mouth-watering. France and the USA should once again square off, but Australia is on the pole-position due to Cameron McEvoy’s prowess, as the 22-year-old is the fastest man in history (47.04) after the suits were banned. The Aussies are deep after McEvoy and if James Magnusson (who failed to qualify for individual events) can somehow manage to close on his 2012 shape, they may even become inaccessible.

The USA’s main dog is Nathan Adrian, the second best in the 100m this season and a proven commodity as the anchor man, while Michael Phelps’s presence – he raced the event in 2008 and 2012 – would provide a moral boost. The defending World and Olympic Champions, France, have the usual balanced group, even without 2012 hero Yannick Agnel, with Jeremy Stravius,  Florent Manaudou and Clement Mignon all posting under 48:01 this season on the 100m.

However, the aforementioned trio shouldn’t sleep on the rest of the field, namely Brazil – which has medal aspirations on home soil despite missing César Cielo – Russia, whose ambitions took a blow with Vladimir Morozov’s absence; China, powered by the 100m World Champion Ning Zetao; and the always dangerous Italians, third last year after the USA and Australia strikingly fell in the preliminaries.

Prediction: 1. Australia, 2.France, 3.USA

Men’s 200m Freestyle, 2:22 am, August 8

The men’s 200m free is probably the most wide-open race of the entire swimming program at the Olympics, with a good dozen of candidates for the three podium positions. The World leader is Sun Yang (1:44:82), China’s massive 6’6’’ star which is the only man to pace in sub-1:45 this season, but he arrives in Rio as the current runner up in both Olympic and World competitions. In 2012, Sun Yang was pipped by France’s Yannick Agnel, but the 24-year-old couldn’t even qualify on his national trials this time, lucking out with a drop out to be able to be in Rio. Agnel barely threw down a sub-1:46 last year and is far from the 1:43 of London, thus wouldn’t be a surprise to see him miss the final altogether. Meanwhile, at the 2015 Worlds, Yang’s tormentor was Great Britain’s James Guy, winner in 1:45:14, which shouldn’t be enough to take gold this time but places him right after the Chinese.

China’s Sun Yang won two gold medals in London 2012 and is expected to add more silverware in Rio

World record holder Paul Biederman (1:42:00 from the suits-happy 2009 Worlds) was third last year with his best time since 2011, but he’ll be in tough to repeat at the Olympics, with 27-year-old Connor Dwyer – the best American in this race on the post Phelps and Lochte era -closing in. The Dutch Sebastiaan Verschuren and Serbia’s Velimir Stjepanovic, the two best at the European Championships, can surprise if they reach the final, while Japanese Kosuke Hagino will balance his ambitions with the medley events. South Korea’s veteran Park Tae-Hwan, who tied for 2nd with Sun Yang in 2012, is back after a doping suspension, and is a candidate to come “out of nowhere” and medal.

Prediction: 1. Sun Yang (China), 2. James Guy (Great Britain), 3. Kozuke Hagino (Japan)

Women’s 200m Freestyle, 2:19 am, August 9

A clash of giants outside of their flagship events can make this race an extremely compelling one, with a long-distance maven, Katie Ledecky, taking on a buttefly (and freestyle) sprint specialist, Sarah Sjöström. The American became World Champion in this event for the first time in Kazan and further extended her range of domination, but her mid 1:54 career-best is right in line with Sjöström’s personal best, set this season after not competing in the event at the Worlds. In the Olympics, with the race not conflicting too much with their other commitments, they’re in for a battle of styles that can push down their times, approaching the mark of Allison Schmidt in 2012 (1:53:31) and maybe the World record (1:52:98) from 2009.

Sweden’s Sarah Sjöström is the woman better equipped to stop the Ledecky train

The American-Swedish confront is enticing but the woman that swam under 1:53 seven years ago is still rolling, recently posting a career-best in the 100m and catching up with her rivals finest times in the 200m. Italy’s Federica Pellegrini may have been dethroned as swimming’s darling but her experience can put a dent on the expected duopoly.

Emma McKeon is the other participant to clear 1:54 this season and is certainly eager for a medal as Australia’s leader in this race, while Missy Franklin, third in Kazan, may not have the recent marks to be a clear podium threat but certainly possesses the talent. The reigning Olympic Champion, Allison Schimdt, didn’t qualify due to Ledecky and Franklin, while Sjöström’s compatriot, Michelle Coleman, should reach the final but her speed will be of much better use playing second-fiddle on Sweden’s relay team.

Prediction: 1. Katie Ledecky (USA),  2. Sarah Sjöström (Sweden), 3. Emma McKeon (Australia)

Men’s 200m Butterfly final, 2:28h, August 9 / Men’s 100m Butterfly, 2:12 am, August 12

Four years ago, a fresh-faced Chad Le Clos snatched the 200m title from the myth Michael Phelps and effusively celebrated one of the biggest shocks of the London Games. The most decorated Olympian of all-time would return the blow in the 100m a few days later, but one of swimming’s best rivalries was already brewing, even if Phelps tumultuous times off the pool have limited their head-to-head battles. Still, while apart, they’ve thrown smack at each other, with the South African taunting his former idol after becoming the 100m World Champion last year, only to see the absent Phelps best his blistering time (50,56s) later in the same day at the US Nationals.

Chad Le Clos and Michael Phelps, two Champions on the verge of a final battle

The next chapter is scheduled for Rio in double dose, yet neither has pinned the 2016 world-leading times both in the 100m (50,86s) and 200m (1:52,91, more than 1 second better than anyone else). This merit belongs to Hungarian László Cseh, reigning World Champion in the 200m and a man that has long been under the shade of Phelps in major competitions, even if he holds the distinction as the only swimmer to medal in seven World Championships. An epic three-way battle is thus in the cards, with the American, world-record holder in both events, looking to set into the sunset with an unprecedented fourth consecutive win in the 100m, something no swimmer has ever achieved in any race.

In the 200m, the second and third best times of the season belong to Japan’s Daiya Seto and Masato Sakai but they would need to race (well) below 1:54m to unseat any of the big three, which doesn’t appear likely (only Phelps, Le Clos and Cseh have done it since 2012). However, in the 100m there’s a bit more room for a podium intromission. Singapore’s Joseph Schooling was bronze medallist in Kazan – picking up his country’s first ever medal in the Worlds – and if he can once again clear the 51s mark anything can happen, while the likes of Poland’s Konrad Czerniak, France’s Mehdy Metella and USA’s Tom Shields have personal bests bordering 51,20s. A step forward can place them in podium territory, with the same holding true for precocious 17-year-old Li Zhuhao, already the Chinese Champion with 51.24s.

Prediction (100m): 1. Michael Phelps (USA), 2. Chad Le Clos (South Africa), 3. László Cseh (Hungary)

Prediction (200m): 1. László Cseh (Hungary), 2. Chad Le Clos (South Africa), 3. Michael Phelps (United States)

Women’s 200m Medley, 3:29 am, August 9

Katinka Hosszu has won many medals but never at the Olympics. It would shocking to see her wave goodbye to Rio without a few on the baggage

Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, the Iron Lady of Swimming for her gruelling schedules at each meet, will probably sweep the IM (individual medley) events on the women’s side, but the competition in the 200m figures to, at least, keep her in the sight. The reigning World Champion snuffed the all-time best last year in Kazan and has an excellence chance of improving it in Rio, while also exerting revenge on the 8th place obtained in London. The medley distances in 2012 were taken in sublime fashion by China’s youngster Ye Shiwen, but the now 20-year-old was significantly slowed down by injuries since then, having announced her swimming withdrawal after Rio.

She’s not expected to medal this time, which means silver and bronze are up for grabs some two seconds after Hosszu touches the wall. The American Maya DiRado gave signs of her excellent form at the US Trials by winning three events, and is one the main candidates due to her strong freestyle slip, with teammate Melanie Margalis also earning a spot in favour of 2012 bronze medallist Caitlin Leverenz. Great Britain’s Siobhan-Marie O’Connor posted the second best time of the season and would be disappointed to leave emptyhanded, while Spain’s Mireia Belmonte, another multi-race competitor in the Hosszu mold, will have slimmer chances since the final of the event is raced just a few minutes after the semi-finals of the 200m butterfly, where she (and Hosszu) will participate. Great Britain’s Hannah Miley, a regular on this event finals’, Australia’s Alicia Couts, silver medallist in 2012 but past her prime, and newcomers Viktoriya Andreeva, of Russia, and Miho Teramura, of Japan, are also expected to have a say in the outcome.

Prediction: 1. Katinka Hosszu (Hungary), 2. Maya DiRado (USA), 3. Siobhan-Marie O’Connor (Great Britain)

Women’s 4 X 200m Freestyle, 3:55 am, August 10

The 4X100m free relay can close the first day of the swimming schedule with a bang, as Australia figures to beat their own world record by way of the Campbell sisters and Emma McKeown (4th best in the World this season but left behind due to the country limit of two swimmers), but the 200m relay takes the cake because of Ledecky’s presence.

The American unit of 4 X 200m free is the favourite to take gold in Rio

The USA are the World and Olympic Champions but the world record belongs to China since 2009, a sovereignty that should end in Rio. One day after (probably) securing victory on the individual race, Ledecky should anchor the American relay that will also consist of Missy Franklin, Allison Schmidt and Leah Smith, who came close to snatching Franklin’s spot on the individual event. This is a group capable of beating the 7:42.08 mark from the suits era and that may benefit from the challenge of a Sarah Sjöström-led Sweden, a young China team, and an Australian foursome where Emma McKeown will have the chance to shine. Italy, silver in the 2015 Worlds following a huge split by Federica Pellegrini, is also in contention, and the rising Canadian team may surprise, while Hungary is too dependent on Katinka Hosszu.

Prediction: 1. USA, 2. Australia, 3. Italy

Men’s 200m Medley, 3:01 am, August 11

Going back to 2003, the winner of the 200m IM at the World Championships or the Olympic Games has been one of two men: the Americans Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Combined, they’ve set the race’s last ten world records and Rio provides the final episode for both men on their glorious careers and healthy rivalry. Phelps collected the last three gold medals on this event, also going here for an historic four-peat, but Lochte is the reigning World Champion and the world record holder (1:54,00, 2011 Worlds), with this event being the only individual discipline he’ll partake in at Rio (he should also feature on the 4X200m freestyle relay).

Team USA teammates’ Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps should share the Olympic podium one last time in the 200m IM

Phelps and Lochte are on the wrong side of the 30’s but their main challenger is a decade younger and necessarily hungry and determined to crash the vets’ farewell party. Japan’s Kosuke Hagino, the fastest man this season who missed last year’s Worlds due to a bicycle accident, has been on the verge of breaking the 1:55 barrier and his versatility allows him to keep pace with two monsters, as he’s the favourite on the 400m IM – Lochte and Phelps aren’t on the starting list -, can medal in the 200m free and displays consistent backstroke skills.

Dreaming of breaking into the podium are Brazilians Thiago Pereira and Henrique Rodrigues. Rodrigues is a recent arrival to the world’s elite on the 200m IM while Pereira, a silver medallist in Kazan behind Lochte, goes into his fourth Olympics, having long stood in the second tier of candidates on medley events behind the Americans. At age 30, grabbing a medal in front of the home crowd to add to his silver on 2012’s 400m IM would give a special shine to his list of accomplishments.

Prediction: 1. Michael Phelps (USA), 2. Ryan Lochte (USA) 3. Kosuke Hagino (Japan)

Women’s 100m Freestyle, 3:18 am, August 11 / Women’s 50m Freestyle, 2:03 am, August 13

With some of the best regarded men out of contention, the women’s sprint events figure to become some of the most exciting races in the program, with a plethora of exceptional individuals squaring off. Leading the pack are Australian sisters Cate and Bronte Campbell, with the older sibling holding the world lead in both races after being upstaged by Bronte in last year’s World Championships. Cate Campbell’s sparkling 52.06s mark in early July set a new 100m World Record and she wasn’t far from doubling the feat on the 50m in the National Championships, putting Britta Stefan’s record from the 2009 Worlds (a remnant of the now banished suits) in serious peril. Bronte, the surprising sprint queen last season, comes right after and a distinctive Aussie 1-2 double is a realistic scenario, even if the Europeans are waiting to crash the party.

Reigning Olympic Champion in the 50m and 100m free, Ranomi Kromowidjojo is up to crash the Aussie’s party

Netherland’s Ranomi Kromowidjojo, the reigning Olympic Champion in both races, is still a formidable opponent and, especially on the 50m, can come out on top, while Sweden’s Sarah Sjöström will have her hands full with both butterfly events and the 200m freestyle, but is still tremendously dangerous. Great Britain’s Francesca Halsall has the fourth best time in the 50m and has shown the ability to approach the low-24s, the probable range for medal contention, while the other Dutch, Femke Heemskerk, has an outside change in the 100m if she can swim in the mid-52s.

The 50m silver medallist in 2012, Belarus’ Aliaksandra Herasimenia, is back after a two-year doping suspension but just reaching the final should be considered a victory this time. The 200m World record holder, Italy’s Federica Pellegrini, should feature in the 100m final even if her chances of adding to her Olympic medal collection don’t look promising. Team USA’s Simone Manuel and Abbey Weitzeil, two debutants, snatched their nation’s spots on both races, but should leave the Americans emptyhanded here.

Prediction (50m): 1. Cate Campbell (Australia), 2. Ranomi Kromowidjojo (Netherlands), 3. Bronte Campbell (Australia)

Prediction (100m): 1. Cate Campbell (Australia), 2. Bronte Campbell (Australia), 3. Sarah Sjöström (Sweden),

Women’s 200m Backstroke, 2:03 am, August 12

With Missy Franklin’s stunning failure to qualify for the 100m back, where she would be defending her title, the path for Australia’s Emily Seebohm became much easier. However, in the 200m back, the bubbly American will be on the blocks to defend her crown and the world record holder won’t relish her credentials easily.

Australia’s Emily Seebohm is the female backstroker to watch in Rio

Franklin’s time of 2:04:06 from London 2012 doesn’t appear vulnerable, with Seebohm clocking a high 2:05 to triumph in the 2015 Worlds, yet the Aussie is still the major favourite despite the fact that her compatriot Belinda Hocking out-touched her in the Australian trials. Seebohm and Hocking, a silver medallist in the 2013 Worlds, hold the two best times this season, with Hungary’s Kathinka Hosszu coming next. The Iron Lady will be racing the last of her five individual events, and fatigue could factor in a race she’s been perfecting over the last years, taking bronze in Kazan at the Worlds. This trio puts Franklin in line, but the 21-year-old has another opponent lurking on his teammate Maya DiRado, who holds the 4th time of the season after winning the US trials to add the race to his 200m and 400m IM bookings. Running a much lighter schedule than usual, Franklin can focus on his specialty, but the path to get back to the top will be extremely tough.

Prediction: 1.Emily Seebohm (Australia), 2. Katinka Hosszu (Hungary), 3. Missy Franklin (USA)

Men’s 4 X 100m Medley, 3:04 am, August 13

The medley relays are some of my favourite races as they showcase almost all of swimming’s elite while rewarding the countries that enjoy more depth over the four different disciplines. Without surprise, on the men’s side, the USA have wholly dominated the race since it was first introduced, boasting every Olympic title and a horde of World Championships interrupted by occasional disqualifications. In Rio, the American unit should boast three of the men that narrowly secured the World title last year in Kazan, with Michael Phelps, on his last Olympic race, expected to fill in on buttefly. Backstroker Ryan Murphy (or David Plummer), breaststroker Kevin Cordes and freestyler Nathan Adrian are all serious medal contenders on the respective 100m individual events, and only a mishap can aid the win towards Australia, the nation better positioned for silver.

The Aussies have their star performers opening (Mitch Larkin, World Champion on the 100m backstroke) and closing (Cameron McEvoy, leading candidate on the 100m freestyle) the relay, but should accumulate significant deficit in the intermediate legs, hindering McEvoy’s ability to close down on Adrian, something he almost pulled off in Kazan.

Cameron McEvoy (Australia, right) and Nathan Adrian (USA, left) should deliver a gripping finale to the Swimming program at the 2016 Olympic Games

A cluster of teams is in contention for the final podium position, similarly to what happened in the 2015 Worlds, where 0.6s separated third and sixth. The French lead-off with Camille Lacourt is strong, but their breaststroker is a serious Achilles’ heel that can submerge the legs of Jeremy Stravius (fly), a clutch relay swimmer, and Florent Manaudou (free). The British, on the contrary, will count on Adam Peaty’s superiority in breast, which should be followed up nicely by James Guy in fly, but that may not be enough for a below-average freestyle sprinter. The Russians, without freestyler Vladimir Morozov, figure to be in contention despite lacking prominent names, while China can surprise with Ning Zetao anchoring a relay also containing backstroker Xu Jiayu and the emerging butterfly talent Li Zhuhao. The final’s eight-lane quota may also encompass some combination of South Africa (Chad Le Clos and Cameron van der Burgh), Hungary (László Cseh and Daniel Gyurta), the always unpredictable Japanese, and the hosts Brazil, which can punch above their weight if everything goes their way.

Prediction: 1. USA, 2. Australia, 3. France

Athletes to watchMarquee eventsSwimming GuideAthletics Guide

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