Saturday, June 26, 2010

Paris Open

After the first of two days of the fourth annual Paris Open, the meet already has an undisputed star, Camille Muffat. A rising star from the host nation, Muffat posted two impressive victories. On the men's side, Muffat's namesake posted another French victory of the day, as Camille Lacourt took the 100 back. The big story of the Open is Michael Phelps' visit to France to compete in four events, including the 100 free. In a strong field including both the world champion Cesar Cielo and Olympic champion Alain Bernard of France, a lesser-known Frenchman emerged with the win over the rising talent of the sprinting world.

Muffat started off her evening with a win in the 200 free, where she posted a 1:56.92, leaving her second in the world to Federica Pellegrini. The Netherlands and U.S. rounded out the places, with Femke Heemskerk moving up to third in the world with a 1:57.27, while Allison Schmitt swam an impressive 1:58.01. Schmitt did not swim well at either of her other two long course meets this season, and this is her first time under 2:00 since last summer's world championships, where she claimed silver in 1:54.96.

Muffat took to the water again for the 200 IM barely an hour later. An event she is more known for, having finalled at the world championships, clocking 2:11.18, not far off her 2:10.48 from French Nationals. She currently stands fourth in the world, behind only Australia's Stephanie Rice, China's Ye Siwen, and USA's Ariana Kukors.

Camille Lacourt, meanwhile, dominated the 100 back in an impressive time of 53.73. While off of his season-best of 53.29, it improves on his times of 53.97 and 54.00 from the Mare Nostrum tour. For perspective, the time is just off of Nick Thoman's 53.70 from the Charlotte UltraSwim and well ahead of David Plummer's winning time of 55.25 from Santa Clara last week. Another American, David Russell, finished third in the race in 54.65; Russell has made big improvements in the past year in both backstroke, which has traditionally been his strongpoint and his focus, as well as butterfly, where he has an outside shot to make the U.S. team in the 100 distance.

Roland Schoeman posted a swift 23.61 to take the 50 fly over Fred Bousquet (23.83). Also in the event was Australia's Matt Targett, the World silver medalist. Targett, who recently missed making the Australian team for Pan Pacs and Commonwealth Games, is swimming in his first meet since March, when he admitted to not being in the best form of his life. He finished ninth in the 50 fly, in a time of 24.83. He later posted a 51.12 in the 100 free. Certainly, these times are not impressive on a global stage, but they stand as solid benchmarks as he makes a return to the top level.

Another multi-eventer not advancing past prelims was American Tom Shields. Coming off winning the 100 fly NCAA title as a freshman, Shields is aiming to break out onto the national and international stage this summer. In Paris, he swam the 50 fly (tenth, 24.86), 200 fly (14th, 2:04.41), and 100 free (26th, 51.23). None of the three swims are shabby, especially with the close turnarounds. Moreover, they are solid steps in his progression from an amazing short course season to a long course display this summer. His best chances for a major team are the 100 fly and 200 free (for the relay), both events he will swim on Sunday in Paris.

Superstar Michael Phelps obliterated his competition in his signature event, the 200 fly. In fact, Phelps is so dominant in the event, his prelim time of 1:57.88 would have beaten everyone else by more than a second. Cruising in at 1:55.70, Phelps clearly is showing improvement over the 1:57.91 he clocked two weeks ago, even if it doesn't approach last year's speed at this time (1:54.37). He continues to keep his closest competition in the rearview mirror, as Laszlo Cseh has posted the second-best in-season swim this year, 1:56.88 at the Canet stop of the Mare Nostrum two weeks ago.

Phelps also swam the 100 free on the first day in Paris. In a field loaded with talent and experience, it was not surprising to see a big name on the outside looking in. Olympic champion and hometown favorite Alain Bernard finished a surprising 17th in prelims, at 50.44. Additionally, two-time world champion Filippo Magnini and French relay silver medalists Amaury Leveaux and Fred Bousquet all missed the cut. Phelps and world champion Cesar Cielo did make the final, starting from lanes one and two, respectively, as the most experienced of the event.

In the final, however, both fell to relative newcomers. Cielo ended up fifth in 49.23, before expressing major disappointment with the swim. Cielo said afterwards, "I did what? 49.23? Olalala is bad, it's bad! I am disappointed; I had a lot to prove today, me and others. Fifth in 49.23, it is not at all what I expected. But I must move on. Tomorrow? I must go faster (in the 50 free)..."

Back in the water less than an hour after the 200 fly, Phelps had a poor start and could never get into contention, finishing last in 49.70, off even his prelim swim of 49.44. According to reports from Paris, Phelps, after the race, looked "disappointed, almost annoyed." Phelps will aim to rebound in two races on Sunday, the 200 free and 200 IM.

France's Fabien Gilot ended up the victor, in a time of 48.65 (48.59 in prelims). Gilot clearly held underdog status in the field, but he beat out the best in sprinting over the last several years. Rising sprint stars Nathan Adrian and Yannick Agnel dead-heated for second in 48.83, the exact same time Adrian clocked last week in Santa Clara. Another relatively new name to emerge on the world stage, Dutchman Sebastiaan Verschuren, finished fourth in 49.01.

Times in the sprint world have fallen all over the map this year. Americans trail in the world rankings thus far, with only four men under 50 seconds: Adrian (48.83), Garrett Weber-Gale (49.31), Phelps (49.44), Matt Grevers (49.45), and Jason Lezak (49.90). Although the Americans will not meet the mighty French 4x100 free relay this year, there is clearly a Gaul advantage right now, with four swimmers under 49 seconds: Bernard (48.32), Gilot (48.52), William Meynard (48.79), and Agnel (48.83). The picture will become much clearer after U.S. Nationals in August, but much work needs to be done in hopes of continuing the American winning streak in the relay at next summer's World Championships and the London Olympics in 2012.

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