Commentary

Grand medal count? U.S. swim team will need its veterans

Updated: July 7, 2008, 4:14 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Ian Crocker was still wet and breathing hard after making the U.S. Olympic swimming team in the 100-meter butterfly, but he had time to put the trials in Omaha in perspective.

"I feel like there's a lot of young wolves coming to eat the old wolves," Crocker said.

It's true that the just-concluded trials were a testament to the precocity of American swimmers, who filled every championship heat for eight energetic days with a flotilla of fast swimmers -- many of them up-and-comers. But if the United States is going to succeed on a grand scale next month in Beijing, it will do so on the Speedo-covered backs of its veteran stars.

[+] EnlargeMichael Phelps
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAt the Beijing Games, Michael Phelps and the men's swim team could approach the record of 12 gold medals set by the U.S. in Montreal in 1976.

Eight of the nine world records set in Omaha, and 15 of the 21 American records, were accomplished by swimmers with previous Olympic experience. U.S. hopes for hauling gold out of China rest primarily with the familiar faces more than the fresh: Michael Phelps, Aaron Peirsol and Ryan Lochte on the men's side, Katie Hoff and Natalie Coughlin on the women's.

And the men appear to be much better positioned than the women at this point.

"Hopefully we can come back in a month and show that the U.S. is the best swimming team in the world," said Phelps, who will obviously be key to making that happen.

On paper, the American men could approach the record of 12 gold medals set by the U.S. in Montreal in 1976. That would likely require a sweep of all three relays -- something Phelps will also need if he's going to break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in a single Olympics.

Between them, Phelps and Peirsol own or co-own the world record in six of 13 individual events: Phelps in the 200 freestyle, 200 butterfly, 200 individual medley and 400 IM; Peirsol in the 100 and 200 backstroke. Hard-luck Lochte will chase both to the wall in Beijing -- Phelps in both IMs, Peirsol in the 200 back.

Add in the Phelps-Crocker hammerlock in the 100 butterfly -- Crocker holds the world record, but Phelps has a 12-4 record against him head-to-head -- and you're looking at a likely seventh American gold. But you don't necessarily have to stop there.

Peter Vanderkaay has the fastest time in the world this year in the 1,500 freestyle, according to FINA, swimming's international governing body. Vanderkaay and fellow Athens veteran Larsen Jensen will give the U.S. two realistic chances at its first gold in the 400 freestyle in 24 years. (Jensen also will swim the 1,500 in Beijing.) And longtime American breaststroke boss Brendan Hansen will resume his top-of-the-world rivalry with Japan's Kosuke Kitajima in the 100 breast.

The only American question marks are in the sprint freestyles and the 200 breaststroke.

The Yanks will send Team Hyphen into the pool in the 50 free: Garrett Weber-Gale and Ben Wildman-Tobriner. Weber-Gale also is the leading American qualifier in the 100 free, joined by the ancient (32) Jason Lezak. Weber-Gale has the third-fastest times in the world in both events, according to FINA.

Hansen's shocking fade to fourth in the 200 breast further imperils the U.S. in an event where it has won only a single medal in the past three Olympics (Hansen's bronze in '04). Olympic rookies Scott Spann and Eric Shanteau will be pronounced underdogs.

For the women, Hoff will have to swim like she did in Omaha last week, not like she did in Athens last Olympiad. Then, as an anxiety-ridden 15-year-old, she bombed. Now, she's posted the fastest times of 2008 in the 200 and 800 freestyles and the 400 IM, in which she set the world record. Hoff also has the second-fastest times of the year in the 400 free and 200 IM.

But beyond Hoff's 400 IM, the American women own only two other world bests, both posted in Omaha by 2004 vets: Coughlin in the 100 backstroke and Margaret Hoelzer in the 200 back.

For all the attention heaped upon 41-year-old Dara Torres, she will have to find some extra speed to win an individual medal. Torres set an American record in the 50 freestyle and won the 100 as well, but has only the fifth-fastest times of '08 in each. She announced Monday that she would drop out of the 100 to solely concentrate on the 50 for Beijing.

"I have five more weeks to try to drop a couple of tenths to hope to be in competition with those girls," Torres said after the 50 on Sunday night.

American women could also be underdogs to hit the podium in the butterfly events -- but that's nothing new. The U.S. women didn't win a medal in either the 100 or 200 fly in Athens. Paging Mary T. Meagher.

If everything goes wonderfully for the women, they could approach their 2000 haul in Sydney: seven gold medals and 16 overall. If it goes sour, this could be the first time since 1988 that American women don't take home the most medals.

The outcome will depend on how well all the American wolves, young and old, come together over the next month.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.