All year, the swim geeks of the world have hyped the men’s 200 free as the race of the World Championships. There was the superstar and his perpetual challenger. The world record-holder and his young Russian and French rivals were in the field. And on top of that, another man started the final as the odds-on favorite; after winning the 400 free in dominating fashion on the meet’s first night, South Korea’s Tae Hwan Park had a strong chance to do one better than the silver medal he won at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Meanwhile, many questioned whether the aforementioned superstar, none other than Michael Phelps, even had a chance to medal.
The two Americans took the race out from the start, and Phelps led for the first half of the race. But off the second wall, Ryan Lochte showed his superiority, dominating that lap and holding off Phelps for the world title. Lochte posted a personal best time of 1:44.44, crushing his old mark of 1:45.30 set in winning the Pan Pacific Championships last year. In textile suits, Lochte is now the third-fastest swimmer in history, trailing just Phelps and Aussie great Ian Thorpe. Phelps, meanwhile, touched at 1:44.79, his second-fastest time ever in a textile suit behind the 1:43.86 he clocked at the 2007 World Championships to wipe Thorpe’s name from the record books.
In a tight scramble to the wall behind Lochte, Phelps barely out-touched Germany’s Paul Biedermann (1:44.88) and Park (1:44.92), with France’s Yannick Agnel finishing fifth in 1:44.99. Going into the race, China’s Sun Yang had held the world’s top time at 1:44.99, so six men have broken the 1:45 mark this year for the first time ever! Yep, even with the high tech suits, no more than five men have ever broken 1:45 in a year. In 2009, Biedermann, Phelps, Russia’s Danila Izotov, and Americans Ricky Berens and Dave Walters broke the barrier, and other than that, never more than two in one year have done so. While the top-end speed seen with the suits – such as Biedermann’s 1:42.00 world record – is gone, the hype and pressure have pushed this event to new, never-before-seen heights in depth. All of this cumulated in one of them most exciting races I’ve ever seen.
To be honest, the rest of today’s races were very predictable; in fact, I predicted all four of the remaining winners in my original predictions last week. All that I took away was more good news for the American medley relays. In the men’s 100 back, Nick Thoman and David Plummer recorded respective times of 53.01 and 53.04, not far away from Frenchmen Camille Lacourt and Jeremy Stravius, who tied for gold in 52.76. Some had predicted a French lead of a second on the backstroke lead on the medley relay on their way to a potential gold. Now, with a clear American advantage on fly and even breast and staying close enough on back, the chance of a French upset is quickly diminishing.
On a related note, France now faces a dilemma as to which backstroker to use on the lead-off for the medley relay after today’s tie. While conventional wisdom would say to use Lacourt on that leg, I believe Stravius is the best bet. On the final night of competition, Lacourt will swim the 50 back final, where he is the big favorite after posting a time of 24.07 in 2010, just 0.03 off the world record. Stravius, meanwhile, is far less likely to make the final of that event. If, as I expect, Lacourt is the only Frenchmen in that final, France would be doing a disservice to their team by using Lacourt for the second time in the session.
For the women, Rebecca Soni clocked a relatively pedestrian time of 1:05.05 for gold in the 100 breast. Many had predicted a world record (1:04.45) or at least an improvement over her semi-final time of 1:04.91, but she now holds the top-seven times recorded in the 100 breast this year. Still, it didn’t matter; Soni defeated Olympic gold medalist Leisel Jones by 1.20 seconds, as Jones came in second at 1:06.25. China’s Ji Liping hit the wall at 1:06.52 for third. Soni has established a clear lead on the Aussies and Chinese in breast, a huge boost for the U.S. medley relay. With Natalie Coughlin showing her ability to at the very least stay within a tenth or two of her competition in the 100 back and Dana Vollmer winning the 100 fly, the American women look pretty golden right now as well.
Four more finals await us tomorrow, including Michael Phelps in his best event, the 200 fly. Japan’s Takeshi Matsuda and China’s Chen Yin qualified ahead of Phelps, but Phelps noticeably turned off the gas the last lap of his semi-final swim and had a terrible finish. I think Phelps turns it on tomorrow and crush his competition from the start. Matsuda is the easy favorite for silver, but I think almost anyone in the final could grab one of the minor medals.
Dutchwoman Femke Heemskerk obliterated the field in the semi-finals of the women’s 200 free by nearly a second, but she tends to be inconsistent in her 200 swims, and I don’t know if she can improve upon the 1:55.54 she swam already. Defending champion Federica Pellegrini qualified second in 1:56.42, while defending silver medalist Allison Schmitt finished at the back of a tight seven-woman pack in 1:57.07, after clocking 1:56.66 in prelims. Look for a big improvement by both swimmers tomorrow, while 400 free bronze medalist Camille Muffat has staked her claim as a contender as well.
China’s Sun Yang led the way in the men’s 800 free prelims, while Pal Joensen of the Faroe Islands held off Canada’s Ryan Cochrane for the second seed, with all three recording 7:45 splits. Both really pushed each other down the stretch, giving the indication that these two expended more energy than some of the other competitors. Ous Mellouli has the top credentials of all the finalists, as he is the World and Olympic champion in the 1500 and defending silver medalist in the 800. Americans Peter Vanderkaay and Chad La Tourette both made the final and will swim from lanes 7 and 8, respectively. They could chase Larsen Jensen’s American record of 7:45.63 set back in 2005.
South Africa’s Cameron van der Burgh and Brazil’s Felipe Silva set themselves up as the men to beat in the 50 breast final with sub-27 performances in the semi-final. The pair finished 1-2 at both the last Worlds in Rome and also the Short Course Worlds in Dubai; van der Burgh beat Silva in Rome, while the Brazilian turned the tables in December in Dubai. The race for the medals should be tight, and I could see Italy’s Fabio Scozolli or Norway’s Alexander Dale Oen move up into the top-two. However, I will stick with my original prediction.
1. van der Burgh
Should be another great day of action in Shanghai on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the results of the prediction contest are coming in quickly, and we have a new leader after three days of competition. Still a tight race though.
1. Matt Salzberg 129
2. David Rieder 126
3. Chris DeSantis 117
4. Kristine Sorenson 115
5. Melissa German 103
6. Braden Keith 101
7. John Lohn 93
8. Jerry Shandrew 83
9. Sebastian Schwenke 78
10. Tom Willdridge 77