Monday, July 25, 2011

Shanghai 2011: Days One and Two

We are one-fourth of the way through the pool events at the World Championships in Shanghai, and we have seen exciting races and surprising finishes already. From Dana Vollmer’s fireworks in the 100 fly and the surprisingly slow and back-and-forth men’s 400 free to the myriad of reactions upon the conclusion of the men’s 50 fly and Alexander Dale Oen’s emotional win in the men’s 100 breast, the meet has been unpredictable, exciting, and fast. Today, I will take a look at some of my favorite races thus far and preview tomorrow’s finals action in Shanghai.

The first final of the meet was the men’s 400 free. In the lead-up, swim blogs had been bursting with predictions of Sun Yang breaking Paul Biedermann’s suit-aided world record of 3:40.07 set back in 2009. Meanwhile, Olympic champion Tae Hwan Park had gone from a co-favorite to probable bridesmaid over the last few months. The event’s prelims did not change the scene; only Sun broke 3:45, while Park snuck into the final in seventh. From there, Park set the pace, only to be caught at the 200 mark. At the 250, France’s Yannick Agnel had the lead, followed by Tunisia’s Ous Mellouli and Canada’s Ryan Cochrane. However, at that point, things changed.

On the sixth of eight laps, Park stormed ahead once again and moved into a position where no one could touch him. Meanwhile, Sun and Biedermann raced past the three leaders at the 250 to earn the minor spoils, respectively, while American Peter Vanderkaay put on an impressive show to finish in fourth place. In the end, all of the finalists recorded slower times than I had expected with the exceptions of Biedermann and Vanderkaay.

What did we learn in this crazy, surprisingly slow final? The veterans will come through when they need to. Many had counted out Park for the gold after Sun’s impressive performances in the lead-up, but once again, the Olympic champ and 2007 World Champ came through. After disappointing performances in 2010, many people expected very little from Biedermann and Vanderkaay – no one in my prediction contest picked either to finish on the medal stand, while choosing Mellouli and Agnel instead – but both veterans came through on the major stage as they have before.

While the women’s 400 free relay held to form as a duel between the U.S. and the Netherlands, with the favored Dutch coming out on top, the men’s relay went convoluted. Everyone talked about America and France, France and the United States. A few people said that Australia, led by rising star James Magnussen, could make a dent, but these predictions quieted when Magnussen revealed he had pneumonia. Apparently, though, pneumonia is the best way to taper. The Aussie busted out a 47.49 lead-off leg, the fastest time ever recorded in a textile suit, to make him history’s eighth-fastest performer. Matt Targett, Matt Abood, and Eamon Sullivan did the job on the back, holding off France and the U.S. for the gold.

So what does this mean? First off, Magnussen is the real deal. Hyped after clocking 48.29 back in March, he now has a legitimate shot to knock off the likes of Cesar Cielo, Brent Hayden, and Nathan Adrian in the 100 free to become the next great in the event. While Magnussen is not as sharp in races shorter than 100, he won Australia’s Short Course Nationals in the 200 free in 1:44.12, so at the very least he could add a punch to the Aussies’ ever-improving 800 free relay. More importantly, with the likes of Ian Thorpe on the comeback trail with the goal of making this 400 free relay team, the competition Down Under is fierce, and this relay has upwards potential. If they want to have a chance of defending their Olympic title next year, the American team will need to rely on the same kind of competition to get on this relay to push them back over the top.

Cesar Cielo won the men’s 50 fly today, followed by Australians Matt Targett and Geoff Huegill. Cielo, whose participation in this meet was up in the air as recently as last Friday, displayed his typical reaction full of tears, while former Auburn teammate Targett looked not totally satisfied after winning his second straight silver in the event. Huegill, meanwhile, looked simply thrilled. His comeback story has been well publicized, and this meet is just another stepping stone to his final goal of next year’s London Olympics. Huegill won the first 50 butterfly title at the World Championships back in 2001, but standing on the podium once more brings things full circle for him. He knows and appreciates the sport more than anyone else out there; hence the reaction to what wasn’t even a great time for him. Hence the reason that Geoff Huegill is one of my favorite swimmers in the world.

Going into the final of the men’s 100 breast, most foresaw a duel between Japan’s double defending Olympic champion Kosuke Kitajima and Norway’s two-time European champion Alexander Dale Oen. Many also thought defending world champion Brenton Rickard was a favorite for a medal. In the 50 breast, however, most predicted a completely different slate of medal contenders, including South Africa’s Cameron van der Burgh, Brazil’s Felipe Silva, Germany’s Hendrik Feldwehr, and Italy’s Fabio Scozolli. No one picked any of these four in the 100 breast.

Dale Oen won the 100 breast in 58.71, but neither Kitajima nor Rickard got under the 1:00 barrier; instead Scozolli and van der Burgh won the other medals with respective times of 59.42 and 59.49. Moreover, Dale Oen’s clocked a 27.20 split at the halfway point, the top time in the world this year in the 50 breast. Now, it looks more and more likely that the same three could medal in the 50 breast. While swimmers medaling in the 50 and 100 breast events have been very common, the landscape of the events has suddenly changed to where the meet could end with more double medalists than anticipated.

American Mark Gangloff posted a swift time of 1:00.19 in the semi-final of the 100 breast to make the final, where he finished eighth. The American men’s medley relay has been viewed a vulnerable to the French as of late, in part due to America’s weakness in the breast. However, with Gangloff beating Frenchman Hughes Duboscq (who did not make the final) and Eric Shanteau reportedly swimming a fast 100 breast time trial, that leg appears to be taken care of. Meanwhile, the other 100-meter final contested today, the women’s 100 fly, showed much more how the women’s medley relay will play out. Dana Vollmer clocked 56.47 in the semi-final, while Australian Alicia Coutts and China’s Lu Ying never approached that time. Moreover, Coutts might end up swimming freestyle on that relay, and fellow Aussie Jessicah Schipper finished even further back in the pack. American strength seems assured on fly.

More to come today, including my preview of the finals to be contested on Tuesday in Shanghai and some updated predictions, along with the results of my prediction contest after two days of action.

Genuine joy from Geoff Huegill upon returning to the medal podium in the 50 fly in Shanghai after a decade-long hiatus.
Picture: Michael Sohn Source: AP

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