US Olympic Swimming Team: 5 Nations Sure to Challenge US Supremacy in London
When American swimming star Michael Phelps won an Olympic-record 14 gold medals at the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Games—including a record eight golds in Beijing alone—he inadvertently cast a giant bulls-eye over Team USA, defeating Australia for the second consecutive Games in the total medal count.
To be fair, Phelps cannot take full credit for the Americans' dominance. Teammates Aaron Peirsol, Ryan Lochte and Jason Lezak contributed with multiple golds of their own, while Natalie Coughlin earned six medals of all colors on the women's side.
Nonetheless, the United States has won ever swimming medal count since the 1988 Games, when a cast led by East Germany's Kristin Otto dominated the women's events to secure victory for the now-defunct eastern block.
Ever since, Hungary, Russia, Australia, the Netherlands, Japan and Great Britain have all taken turns as second-place swimming powerhouses.
Now as the 2012 London Games approach, the following are five nations sure to challenge the U.S. this summer.
No. 5: Serbia
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Talk about a one-man wrecking crew.
In 2008, Serbian swimmer Milorad Cavic threatened to unseat Michael Phelps from his perfect gold medal streak, only to wind up on the wrong side of an Olympic Games clock in the 100-meter butterfly, losing to Phelps by just one-hundredth of one second.
Ergo, the Serbian threat is not that the country will somehow overtake the United States for swimming dominance, but rather, like the 2011 Baltimore Orioles did to the Red Sox, that by unseating Phelps in just one event, Serbia will help jostle Team USA from the top spot.
No. 4: Hungary
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When Michael Phelps won his record eight gold medals during the 2008 Beijing Games, he edged just one man thrice, relegating that unlucky individual to the silver side of the podium all three times.
That man was Hungary's Laszlo Cseh, who set three European records while Phelps set three world records during the 200-meter butterfly and the 200 and 400 individual medleys. The combined margin of victory for all three races was just 5.28 seconds.
With Phelps set to once again take on an ambitious Olympic schedule, it is only a matter of time before the 26-year-old Cseh masters his craft and bumps Phelps from the top spot.
Ready or not, Hungary's one-man secret weapon is on his way.
No. 3: Japan
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While China may reign supreme on the diving board, it is Japan that has produced several Olympic swimming contenders in recent years.
The 29-year-old Kosuke Kitajima has excelled in the breaststroke, winning golds in the 100- and 200-meters at both the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Games. With personal bests of 58.90 in the 100 and 2 minutes, 7.51 seconds in the 200, Kitajime has briefly held and recaptured world records, setting up an informal rivalry with American Brendan Hansen in several breaststroke record categories.
With teammate Takeshi Matsuda ready to follow in Kitajima's footsteps—albet in the butterfly—Japan could be a hidden threat to several key medals in the upcoming Games.
No. 2: Great Britain
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In the 2008 Beijing Games, host nation China thrived on its home-field advantage, propelling a swim team that had won just two medals in 2004 to six in Beijing.
2012 is Great Britain's chance to seize upon the familiar atmosphere of the London Aquatics Centre and multiply their medal count—considering that Great Britain took home six medals in 2008, the host nation could find itself in double-digit territory by Games' end.
No. 1: Australia
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Though the United States won the overall 2008 swimming medal count by 11 discs, the Australian team had already taken over the women's side, winning six gold medals to the Americans' two. From three-gold winner Stephanie Rice to a world record set by the Aussie's 4x100-meter medley women, the takeover has clearly begun.
Earlier this month, Australian swimmer James Magnussen announced that until the Opening Ceremonies in London, he will disappear, entering a secret training camp of sorts designed to mold him into Australia's not-so-secret weapon in that country's quest for water dominance.
If Australia edges out the United States of America in London, it will mark the first time since the 1956 Melbourne Games that Australia will have dominated the competition.