Saturday, July 30, 2011

Shanghai 2011: Day Seven

The six finals on day seven in Shanghai featured another six opportunities for exciting and fast racing. Veteran Therese Alshammar went into the women’s 50 fly as the huge favorite, only for Inge Dekker to get the better of her on the home stretch. No one caught Cesar Cielo in the men’s 50 free, as he posted the largest margin of victory in history. Missy Franklin’s continued on the fast track to superstardom with the third-fastest time ever in the women’s 200 back for the gold, while Australia’s Belinda Hocking grabbed the fourth spot on the all-time list in an impressive silver medal showing for Australia. Then Michael Phelps was back in the pool, cruising to gold in the 100 fly, before Rebecca Adlington produced on of the most impressive final two laps I’ve ever seen to track down Lotte Friis for the 800 free win and her first world title.

Over the past few years, many have talked about the potential of the British women’s team headed into the London Olympics. Adlington kicked off these talks in Beijing with a double gold medal finish, and things looked good in Rome in 2009 when Gemma Spofforth took gold in the 100 back, Joanne Jackson won three freestyle medals, Fran Halsall taking world silver in the 100 free, Hannah Miley nearly stepped up onto the medal podium in the 400 IM, and the team took an impressive relay bronze in the 800 free. However, some of the team’s performances have gradually taken a dip, including slower-than-expected championship times. The team underperformed at last year’s European and Commonwealth Games, with teams ranging from Australia to Hungary stealing the show away in key events

In Shanghai, before today, the British women had won just two medals in Shanghai, Adlington’s silver in the 400 free, Ellen Gandy’s bronze in the 200 fly. Halsall had come up short in the 100 free, while Spofforth missed the semi-final of the 100 back. Adlington’s monster final 100 split of 59.65, faster even than her opening split of 59.69, changed the momentum. After two full World Champs meets of struggle and continually coming up short, it looked like Adlington’s third trip to the global showcase would once again end in disappointment. However, today she showed heart and guts to overcome Friis’ lead and take the world title. That win will provide the springboard to a nation whose hopes and dreams in the pool rest on the performances a year from this week away. Additionally, look for that momentum to carry into tomorrow’s competition, where Liam Tancock (50 back) and Hannah Miley (400 IM) are favorites.

Another women’s team concluded a momentum shift today that saw them reclaim the title as top women’s team in the world. In 2008, the American women won just two gold medals (of the 12 total U.S. wins): Natalie Coughlin in the 100 back and Rebecca Soni in the 200 breast. They won no relays at those Olympics. In addition to that duo, only four other American women, Katie Hoff, Margaret Hoelzer, Dara Torres, and Christine Magnuson earned individual hardware after a string of disappointing performances. In Rome the next year, things did not improve much. Soni (100 breast) and Ariana Kukors (200 IM) won gold, but again no American relays did so, and of the three teams only the 800 free relay medaled. The 400 free relay took fourth, while the 400 medley team did not advance to the final.

At this meet in Shanghai, the team has shown considerable improvement. Missy Franklin emerged as a true superstar, winning gold in the 200 back and posting the top time of the meet in the 200 free. Soni won both the 100 and 200 breast, while Dana Vollmer earned top honors in the 100 fly. Meanwhile, Jessica Hardy is favored to make it one more win in tomorrow’s 50 breast. Coughlin, Kukors, and Ziegler all won medals, while Hoff, Allison Schmitt, Chloe Sutton, and Elizabeth Beisel have all been in the mix. At least one American has qualified for 15 of 16 possible finals so far.

Most importantly, however, the American women won two of the three relays. Not only did they win, they dominated both. Franklin, Dagny Knutson, Hoff, and Schmitt reclaimed the 800 free relay for the first time since 2007, while Coughlin, Soni, Vollmer, and Franklin earned the medley relay title that America last won at the Worlds back in 1998. That last fact brought tears to the eyes of Coughlin, the lead-off swimmer on this relay 10 of the last 11 years. Of the 12 golds Team USA has already won in Shanghai, the women have won half of them. Once again, for the first time in almost a decade, the American women are at the top of the world.

With one day and seven finals left at the World Championships, here are the standings in my prediction contest. The win will come down to Matt Salzberg and me. Check back later for a preview of the last session of swimming in Shanghai.

1. David Rieder 304
2. Matt Salzberg 300
3. Chris DeSantis 266
4. Melissa German 263
4. John Lohn 263
6. Braden Keith 260
7. John Liu 252
8. Jerry Shandrew 238
9. Kristine Sorenson 236
10. Tom Willdridge 235
11. Sebastian Schwenke 190

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