Not even the absence of Ian Thorpe nor the sudden re-emergence
of Germany's women will overshadow Michael Phelps's latest tilt at
history when swimming's world championships begin in Melbourne next
No swimmer has won seven golds at a single world championship
but few would bet against the lanky American becoming the first,
and eclipsing Thorpe's record haul of six from Fukuoka in 2001.
Already with high hopes for the Beijing Olympics - where he aims
to beat the six golds he won in Athens in 2004 - Phelps knows how
vital these world championships are in his planning.
"The world championships are very important because they set you
up for what happens next year," Phelps recently told reporters.
"It sends you into the Olympic year feeling confident. For me
this is a really big year. What happens there will hopefully set up
a good Olympics."
The 21-year-old hip-hop loving American holds the world record
for 200m and 400m individual medley and 200m butterfly, is second
fastest in history for 100m butterfly and is the reigning world
champion for 200m freestyle.
He is also expected to swim in each of the three relays giving
him a real shot at all eight events.
Thorpe's surprise retirement last year also boosted the
prospects of his fellow Australian Grant Hackett and the
Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband.
Hackett is chasing an unprecedented fifth straight world title
in the 1500m freestyle and defending the 400m and 800m world titles
he won in Montreal when Thorpe was also absent.
Hackett's ultimate aim is to win the 1500m in Beijing and become
the first male swimmer to win the same event at three Olympics
although he fears he may be underdone for Melbourne after recently
"I don't think I've got the absolute best out of myself for
these championships... but I'm putting things in place for the
bigger picture," he told reporters.
Van den Hoogenband will also be chasing a hat-trick of Olympic
titles next year, in the blue-riband 100m freestyle, but has never
won a world title and knows this could be his last chance.
The U.S. are strongly favored to win the lion's share of the
men's races but the women's events are far more open with
Australia, Germany, the U.S. and possibly China fighting for top
Australia's women dominated the last world championships with
Leisel Jones (breaststroke), Libby Lenton (freestyle), Jodie Henry
(freestyle) and Jessicah Schipper (butterfly) all winning
The American challenge will rest heavily on the performances of
the versatile Natalie Coughlin and the rapidly improving Katie Hoff
while Laure Manaudou of France and a new wave of German world
record-breakers will lead the European assault.
Manaudou won four individual titles at last year's European
championships where Britta Steffen led Germany's women on a
sensational world record spree.
Steffen claimed the 100m freestyle record from Libby Lenton and
helped her teammates break two relay world records to announce
Germany's return as a force in women's swimming.
The performances of the Chinese in Melbourne will also be
heavily scrutinised. The Chinese were at the centre of a series of
doping scandals in the 1990s but have suffered curiously poor
results in recent years, failing to win a single gold medal in the
swimming events at the 2005 world championships.
Melbourne hosts a week of diving, water polo and synchronized
swimming from March 17 before the eight day swimming program begins
on March 25.
(China Daily via Agencies March 14, 2007)