Australia, U.S. Swimmers Face Varied Rivals At Games

Australia’s swimmers aren’t overly preoccupied with their traditional American rivals. It’s the rest of the world that’s got their attention.

A remarkably strong field of swimmers from countries in Europe and Asia will likely produce a wider distribution of medals and a reduced haul for the sport’s traditional heavyweights, Australia coach Alan Thompson said Tuesday.

“I’m sure this will be the most spread of medals that we’ve ever seen at an Olympic Games,” Thompson said.

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Team captain Grant Hackett backed up those remarks, but said Australia’s six world record holders would be competitive.

“Traditionally, a lot of time at world championship level, it’s been between Australia and America, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case this time. We’re going to see a lot of other counties step up,” said Hackett, who will be seeking his third straight 1,500-meter title.

“We’ve got to remember that there are so many other countries. There’s Japan, we’re here in China—they have a strong contingent—and certainly Europe, that are going to eat into that medal tally,” he said.

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Australia will be looking to stop the United States from besting its top showing at Athens, where the team won 12 golds and 28 medals overall in 2004. The sport offers 34 golds in all.

Others to watch in Beijing include breaststroke world record holder Kosuke Kitajima of Japan, while France brings a strong men’s team featuring sprinters Amaury Leveaux and Alain Bernard and breaststroker Hugues Duboscq. The French could give Michael Phelps and his American teammates a tough time in the 400 freestyle relay.

Besides the Americans, Aussies and French, the Japanese, Germans, Russians and Italians are medal contenders.

Australia’s women hope to continue dominating the 400 free and 400 medley relays that they won in Athens, while Libby Trickett, who previously competed under her maiden name of Lenton, will be a gold-medal favorite to sweep the sprint races.

Trickett’s teammate, Leisel Jones, who hopes to rule the women’s breaststroke events, said the women’s strength grew from a mix of veterans and newcomers, such as 20-year-old Olympic rookie Stephanie Rice.

“I think we had a really, really strong team this year,” Jones said.

Hackett, the 1,500 freestyle world record holder, said he wasn’t fazed by the special treatment dished out to Phelps, who slipped out a side door on arrival at Beijing airport while other swimmers had to forge their way through the mob in the concourse.

“We’re focusing on ourselves and what we need to do as a team and make sure that individually we get the performances,” Hackett said. “What any other team may be doing and what treatment they get is not a worry nor a focus for us.”

Eamon Sullivan said he believed his 50 freestyle world record could be under threat at the games, and expected a hard slog from the first race.

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