London Preview: Women's 100 backstroke
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
The U.S. women’s 400 medley relay will feature the youngest leadoff backstroker since 1996 when 15-year-old Beth Botsford took the reins and led the Americans to gold. Can it happen again in 2012? Can another American teenager reclaim that elusive medley relay gold medal? A gold medal that we won last year at the 2011 World Championships? The American backstrokers aren’t a huge surprise – Missy Franklin and Rachel Bootsma have made headlines for years. But the lack of Natalie Coughlin makes for an interesting storyline, especially considering Coughlin -- the two-time defending Olympic champion in this event -- will be forced to watch from the stands.
Let’s dig to the bottom of this 100m backstroke.
By now, most the world knows Missy “The Missile” Franklin. Colorado native. Seventeen years old. Bright. Articulate. Poised. She reminds many of a Mini-Natalie (or technically a Not-Mini Mini Natalie, since Missy is at least a few inches taller…) The amount of media pressure on Franklin is reminiscent of Katie Hoff circa 2008, when some media labeled pre-Beijing Hoff as “The Female Michael Phelps.” So before we bestow unfair comparisons and/or hefty proclamations onto Franklin (who has yet to win an Olympic medal) let’s say her future is bright no matter what happens in London.
Many expect 17-year-old Franklin to challenge for Olympic gold. And she could. She’s currently the world’s #1 ranked backstroker. Although that ranking is always a bit of a question mark during an Olympic year, since you never know who we’ve really seen at their best. For example, we still haven’t seen what China’s 100m backstroke 2011 World Champion Zhao Jing has to offer. The Chinese superstar yet to swim fully rested and tapered in 2012, making her upcoming performance mysterious. Which is also unsettling – most swimmers like to know beforehand where their competition stands. No one knows how fast China’s Jing will swim in London. But you can bet she’ll be there, battling Franklin.
Then there’s our second swimmer in the event, 18-year-old Bootsma, currently ranked #4 in the world. The Minnesota native has been swimming lights-out for years now, though she’s not even in college (she’s Cal-bound in the fall). Minnesotians are very proud of Bootsma. (I know, because almost everyone I know from Minnesota sends me articles about her.) Bootsma has been breaking through the 1-minute barrier since 2009. You can’t count her out. Though in the media she’s overshadowed by the bigger name/storyline Franklin, Bootsma could easily challenge for a medal in London.
Then you have the international field: Besides China’s Jing, there’s Russia’s Anastasia Zueva, Japan’s Aya Terakawa, and Austrlians Emily Seebohm and Belinda Hocking. Most of these international world-ranked times came this spring, which means these swimmers have the luxury of a somewhat additional full season to train and taper. The American swimmers, on the other hand, have already exposed their poker hands. Keeping Trials close to the Olympics could prove to be advantageous, though – at least we know how fast we can swim now, in this moment, at this time. It’s a confidence thing. Without time to over-think or over-analyze the upcoming Olympics, there’s no time to mentally freak out. That’s an advantage for Team USA.
With these two new American superstars-in-the-making, Franklin and Bootsma, it’s impossible to imagine their success without acknowledging the success of those who came before. Of course I’m talking about Natalie Coughlin. Franklin and Bootsma deserve all the individual credit and praise, but Coughlin helped pave the way, like those legendary U.S. swimmers who came before her. American swimming is a cyclical thing. Like the “Circle of Life.” It’s the Circle of American Swimming. The torch gets passed. Leadership roles assigned. Reins handed off.
There is no greater leader for the American women than Natalie Coughlin. There is no greater or classier woman to assume this torch-passing responsibility than Coughlin (of course, I’d love to never hear the “R” word from her. Maybe we won’t.) Coughlin’s leadership, articulation, and poise will be needed to help guide and mentor these two Olympic newcomers now more than ever before. Even though Coughlin won't actually compete in the 100m backstroke championship final, in a way, she will.
After all, there’s no better person to ask for advice than the previous two-time Olympic champion. Fortunately for us -- and for Franklin and Bootsma -- Coughlin is on our side. Despite the two-person per-event rule, I believe we’re still sending three.