outside lane, out of mind

Kirsty Coventry: 100m backstroke gold from Lane 1. Photo:swimming-pictures.com

The outside smoker, a speedy swimmer in lane one or eight who takes a field by surprise to win the gold, is hardly a new phenomenon but it has been one that has appeared with unusual regularity in Montreal in these World Championships. So is there something peculiar about the pool, are swimmers getting more practiced at dealing with the qualification process or are there more rational explanations? Either way Lane 1 has been pipping Lane 8 in these championships with two golds to one so far.

The most famous of recent outside smokers have come from two greats of the pool. In 1996 Kieren Perkins struggled though the heats of the 1500m in Atlanta and just made the final in lane 8. The Australian public thought that his challenge was over, but in the final, Perkins took off from the gun like a scalded cat, leaving the field in his wake. In the middle lanes Perkins’ compatriot Daniel Kowalski and Graeme Smith were left to eyeball each other for 30 lengths of the pool, initially unaware that the title had gone with Perkins’ opening burst.

The other significant victory from lane 8 came in the 1994 world championships in Rome. Germany’s Franziska van Almsick had not even qualified for the final of the 200m freestyle, finishing ninth in the heats, until her teammate Dagmar Hase pulled out to give the then 16-year-old van Almsick a second swim. It was only later that it was revealed that Hase had been offered inducements to withdraw. The rest though is history as Van Almsick blitzed the field from lane 8, setting a new world record that lasted until 2002 when she herself bettered it.

Montreal has not seen drama on quite such a scale but the outside smokers have been prominent in the opening four days of competition. On the first night Laure Manadou took the glory or bust route from Lane 8 to win the 400m freestyle title, opening up a sizeable lead over the field in the opening stages then hanging on grimly at the death to take the gold. It’s fair to say that there wasn’t a conscious decision for the Frenchwoman to get herself into lane 8, just a mis-paced heats swim, which explains her location on the extremities of the pool.

The next in another distance race, this time the Women’s 1500m freestyle where Kate Ziegler adopted the Perkins approach and took off from the gun. The field couldn’t live with her pace and she duly took gold in the third fastest time ever over the distance. Ziegler’s location in lane 1 is perhaps the easiest to explain; with only three heats in the preliminaries a swimmer of her quality can afford to take it slightly easy and still qualify. It’s a dangerous game but one that the young American played to perfection as she took the world title.

Lane one was again successful in the ladies’ backstroke event when Kirsty Coventry created one of the biggest upsets of the championship as she toppled world record holder Natalie Coughlin. There are a number of ways of looking at this; swimming in lane 1, Coventry spent most of the race in the shadow of the grandstand and did not have to contend with the sun in her eyes to the same extent as the rest of the pool. Coughlin certainly appeared to collide with the lane rope several times in the closing 15m which may have affected her pace and could have been caused by disorientation from the sun. Of course Coventry had also swum the semi finals of the 200 IM after her backstroke semi final on the previous night and had more than likely tried to save something for her second race pushing her out of the middle lanes. In either case she produced a well paced race and a personal best time to claim the title and become Zimbabwe’s first world champion swimmer.

Whatever the reasons for the rash of outside smokers at these championships, it’s clear that the traditional spearhead formation in finals is still the most likely outcome. But the gap between first and eight is narrowing rapidly, as British Head Coach Ian Turner notes “This is a very tough meet, perhaps the top end of the swimmers not going any further up, but the people squeezing the top end is increasing and the depth has improved.” We should therefore expect to see a few more gold medals from lanes one and eight before the week is out.