Sunday, June 27, 2010

Paris Open Part Deux

The Paris Open finished up today with two swimmers recording the best time of the year in their respective events. Cesar Cielo jumped ahead of the pack in the 50 free, taking down a decade-old benchmark in the process, while Yannick Agnel improved upon his own world-leading standard in the 200 free, taking down American superstar Michael Phelps in the process. In addition to Phelps, who took gold in the 200 IM, three other Americans scored victories on the second night of the meet, all in impressive form. Meanwhile, the top swimmer of day one, Camille Muffat, could not add to her winning total on the second evening, ending up second to French teammate Coralie Balmy in the 400 free.

The swim of the night came from Cielo, who posted a 21.55 to win the men's splash-and-dash. In the process, he became the first man without a non-textile suit to swim faster than Alexander Popov's 21.64 from 2000. After sweeping the sprints at the 2009 World Championships, the Brazilian continues to lead the sprinting world into a new era. Frenchmen Fabien Gilot (21.83) and Fred Bousquet (21.95) both impressed with sub-22 swims, while Nathan Adrian of the USA also improved on his 22.38 from the Santa Clara Grand Prix last week, clocking 22.01, as Adrian continues to make his case as America's next sprint star.

Agnel, meanwhile, crushed 2008 Olympic champion Michael Phelps in the 200 free. The Frenchman produced a front-half split of 52.07, to Phelps' 52.90, and he extended his advantage down the stretch. Coming in at 1:46.30, Agnel cut time from his previous world best of 1:46.35, while Phelps faded to third at 1:47.54, which tied for the seventh-best time in the world. The Netherland's Sebastien Verschuren overtook Phelps on the back-half and claimed second at 1:46.97. Both Agnel and Verschuren are sure to be tough competition for Germany's Paul Biedermann and Russia's Danila Izotov at this summer's European championships.

Phelps' time is an improvement over the Charlotte UltraSwim, where he clocked 1:47.73, but it still leaves him well short of times clocked by many of his biggest rivals. Notably, Biedermann, who beat Phelps at the World Championships, has swum 1:46.82, while Beijing silver medalist Park Tae-Hwan has put up a 1:46.98, which could lead to challenging Phelps at this summer's Pan Pacific championships.

Less than an hour after the 200 free, Phelps returned for the 200 IM, which he took with ease. His time of 1:58.95 is slower than the 1:58.35 he posted in Charlotte, but it is very respectable under the circumstances. Phelps' training partner Todd Patrick came in second at 2:00.81, the 16th best performance in the world, as Patrick positions himself to be a contender in multiple events at Nationals this summer. He is currently the third-ranked American, behind Phelps and Eric Shanteau (1:59.75). Patrick also clocked a swift 4:19.44 on Saturday in the 400 IM, leaving him just outside the world top-25.

France's Coralie Balmy touched-out countrywoman Camille Muffat in the 400 free, 4:05.40 to 4:05.49. Both move ahead of Rebecca Adlington and Bronte Barratt as the second and third-best times in the world, trailing only Federica Pellegrini. While Balmy made a move in positioning herself as a medal threat at the European championships with the race today, Muffat's swim is more impressive. With her versatility and world top-five times in the 200 free, 400 free, and 200 IM, Muffat is one of the most underrated swimmers in the world. A rising force on the international stage, she has positioned herself for an impressive summer. Of note, USA's Allison Schmitt finished third in the race today, clocking 4:08.30, another mass improvement over any previous time she had posted this year.

Another poised for a break-out in due time is American teenager Liz Pelton. In Saturday's 200 back, Pelton faced off against Great Britain's Lizzie Simmonds. Many expected a close race, as the two swimmers have been the most impressive in the event so far this year. Simmonds got the better of Pelton, 2:08.29 to 2:08.57, despite Pelton's even-split race in which she nearly caught Simmonds at the end. Pelton dropped a tenth from her previous season best from April (2:08.67), moving to seventh in the world, but she saved the big fireworks for her 100 back today.

In the race, Pelton threw down a personal-best time of 59.99, cutting more than a half-second from her season-best of 1:00.64 that she posted at the Charlotte UltraSwim, as well as nearly that amount from her personal-best time of 1:00.47 from the World Championships last year. Moreover, she beat Simmonds convincingly, as the British swimmer checked in at 1:00.65. The time tied her at sixth in the world this year, and she became just the tenth swimmer to break 1:00 without the use of a non-textile suit. Her potential in both backstroke events for this summer is nearly unlimited. American records in either race would not be shocking.

The two other American victories during the final session in Paris came from Mark Gangloff in the men's 100 breast and Kim Vandenberg in the women's 200 fly. Both swam season-best times and became the fastest American for 2010. Vandenberg's time of 2:08.53 clipped Elaine Breeden's 2:08.73 posted a month ago, and the two swimmers stand ninth and tenth in the world. Like Breeden, Vandenberg failed to make the World Champs team last summer, withdrawing from the Trials after a disappointing 200 free. Now training in Marseilles in France, she has a strong chance to make a return to the U.S. team after claiming the silver in the 200 fly at the 2007 World Championships and a gold in the 4x200 free relay at the Beijing Olympics.

Gangloff, meanwhile, won the men's 100 breast in 1:00.73, the eighth-fastest time in the world. Gangloff dropped more than a second from his previous season-best of 1:01.84 from the Austin Grand Prix in March, while leap-frogging Marcus Titus, Eric Shanteau, and Mike Alexandrov to become the top American this year. At a time when, according to his wife Ashley's blog, Gangloff "has actually been getting his butt kicked by his coaches lately," the swim is extremely impressive and puts him back into the mix as one of the top breaststrokers in the world. Based on lackluster swims so far this year, I began to believe Gangloff was starting to slip from the best of the world's breaststrokers, but the swim changes a lot. In the race, he beat out Olympic silver medalist Alexander Dale Oen (1:00.84), Italy's Fabio Scozolli (1:00.95), and World Champs silver medalist Hugues Duboscq (1:01.34). Gangloff has potential to challenge the likes of Kosuke Kitajima and Brenton Rickard at this summer's Pan Pacific championships. Since consistency has been a problem for Gangloff over the years (such as at the Worlds in Rome), he must use this time as a starting base in order to get to the level of the best of the best.

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