Wednesday, June 27, 2012

U.S. Olympic Trials: Day Three Finals

In my blog after the second session of finals, I declared the theme of the night to be emotion. Tonight, Tom Willdridge explained on Twitter that "The drama in the last 3 races at US Trials has surpassed the entire first 2 days of trials. Shock after shock after shock." Indeed, I don't think anyone could have predicted the way these finals would work out. Some of the performances we saw were surprisingly fast and others shockingly slow. Indeed, the swims fell perfectly into the two categories with the big favorites falling short of expectations while the less-experienced swimmers blasted the doors off. Let's start with the vets.

Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte went head-to-head once again in the 200 free, with Phelps getting the win and getting the sport a 19-second spot on SportsCenter. But 1:45.70 and 1:45.75? Those times are far short of where they were at last year's Worlds, where Lochte won with a 1:44.44. A year of training has gone to waste? I don't think so. Lochte and Phelps want to peak at the Olympics. Swimming off minimal taper, they just clinched their spots to go up against Park Tae Hwan, Paul Biedermann, and Yannick Agnel in London. Agnel, remember, still has the top time in the world at 1:44.42. But we are talking about Phelps and Lochte. All that matters is swimming well in London, when gold medals and legacies are on the line. They will be there. They will be gold medal favorites. Expect nothing less from the two greatest swimmers in the world.

Some thought Breeja Larson could sneak ahead of Jessica Hardy into the second spot for the 100 breast. Sure. But did anyone think she could beat Rebecca Soni? No way. Larson put together an incredible swim to take the win in 1:05.92, with Soni second in 1:05.99. Soni has swum more than a second faster each of the last two years. She still has the top time in the world from the semi-finals at 1:05.82. And Soni is still the best breaststroker in the world. Tonight's swim contained a myriad of mistakes for Soni, like a truly terrible finish, and in her postrace interview with NBC, Soni seemed genuinely shocked with the time. Like Phelps and Lochte, though, Soni is an Olympic record. She has a track record of going faster at the big ones. Soni will still go into the Olympics as the favorite for gold, and expect something big out of her in London.

Meanwhile, Breeja Larson! Where did that come from? Larson did not swim at Long Course Nationals last summer after a health scare, and she's gone from second at NCAAs as a freshman to a victory and American record as a sophomore to a shocking Olympic berth. Breeja Larson is a medal contender now! Again, Soni is still the huge favorite for gold, Leisel Jones is still around, and Yuliya Efimova will be in the mix. But she has come from nowhere, and you never know what this young lady could pull off in a month's time. At the same time, though, you have to feel bad for Jessica Hardy after all she has been through the past four years. She will be back, though, in the sprint freestyles.

The women's 100 back was a coming-out party. Missy Franklin is now an Olympian. In a changing-of-the-guard, she broke Natalie Coughlin's American record to establish herself as the top swimmer in the world and favorite for gold in London. She never backs down from expectations, and she never backs down from a challenge, such as sitting out just one heat between the second semi-final of the 200 free and the 100 back final. I didn't think Rachel Bootsma would go any faster than her 59.10 in the semi-finals, but she has a spot on the team. And props to Natalie Coughlin. Coughlin went out for it and died hard, but she showed some the heart of a champion and immediately went to congratulate the pair that dethroned her in the 100 back. What a performance after the race. Here's to hoping Coughlin gets on the team down the line in the 100 frece.

"I had to do a double-take with the clock, because I thought it was wrong." You may understand why Rowdy Gaines used this quote. Matt Grevers just swam the second-fastest time ever! Where did that come from! Now, Grevers is the favorite to win gold in London, and he could be a big factor in the 200 back and 100 free later on this week. After an American sprint backstroke slump following the retirement of Aaron Peirsol, Nick Thoman also put up a top-three time in the world this year after his 52.86 to become a first-time Olympian. Hard not to feel bad, though, for David Plummer (52.98) and Ben Hesen (53.03), both of whom put up spectacular swims to just miss out. But after Brendan Hansen's 100 breast time of 59.68 from yesterday, any American question marks regarding the first half of the 400 medley relay are gone.

In semi-final action, Missy Franklin just made sure she got second in the 200 free in preparation for that 100 back. Allison Schmitt threw down a 1:55.58, but it will be quite a duel between those two tomorrow. We still haven't seen anything too impressive behind those two in search of relay depth, but just wait for the final to see what Dana Vollmer can put on the board and who else will make a statement in hopes of getting on a finals relay in London. In another women's final tomorrow, world record-holder Ariana Kukors should remain the on-paper favorite, but she has not been swimming fast yet at these Trials. Caitlin Leverenz has laid down a 2:10.51, and after a string of impressive performances in the 200 IM, she now has become the true favorite. Elizabeth Pelton pulled out of the 100 back final to focus on the 200 IM, and she will be out fast without question. Expect a great strategic race here, and I think Leverenz will take the win.

Michael Phelps returned to the pool for the semi-finals of the 200 fly, and he looked sluggish until the last 15 meters, when he turned on the gas and almost caught up to heat leaders Bobby Bollier and Davis Tarwater. The race might be a bit ugly, but Phelps will win tomorrow night. I expect a time in the 1:54-low range. The battle for second could be interesting. Tarwater missed out again in his quest for an Olympic spot after finishing seventh in the 200 free, and he will be out fast in the final. Bollier and Tyler Clary are good, consistent 200 flyers, and I'm not sure anyone on the outside of the middle four can get in on this mix.

What a night in Omaha! How much better of a swim meet can you watch on television? But it would be a bit better life from the CenturyLink Center. I have just one more day here at home before I am off on my trip to the Cornhusker state. The drama and storylines are building up, and I can't wait to be a witness.

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