Tuesday, July 31, 2012

London 2012: Day Four Finals, Part Two

After an historic night at the Aquatic Center, don’t forget to check out my thoughts on the four finals.

Coming into the Olympics, most considered the women’s 200 fly perhaps the weakest event for the American women. Elaine Breeden and Kathleen Hersey finished 7-8 at the Beijing Olympics, and no American finaled in the event at the 2011 Worlds. Sure, Cammile Adams put up an impressive 2:06.52 at U.S. Trials, but few anticipated a U.S. medal in the event. Kathleen Hersey, meanwhile, made the team after finishing ninth at two straight World Championships. However, Hersey has emerged today as a serious contender for the gold medal.

Hersey followed up a lifetime best time of 2:06.41 in prelims with a 2:05.90 to lead semi-finals. That time makes Hersey the third-fastest American all-time, just two one-hundredths behind the 2:05.88 that Misty Hyman swam in one of the greatest upsets in history back at the 2000 Olympics. Still, no one should consider Hersey a lock for gold, as she still has to face off with the dangerous Chinese duo of Jiao Liuyang and Liu Zige, along with British favorite Jemma Lowe in lane eight. Still, the Americans could definitely earn their first Olympic medal in this event since 2000.

After a lackluster swim in the 400 free relay which cost the favored Aussies a medal, much of the world discounted James Magnussen. The World Champion, however, responded tonight with a 47.63 swim to lead semi-finals in the 100 free, matching his winning time from Shanghai last summer. Cesar Cielo took the first semi-final out quickly, before a revived Magnussen thrashed the world record-holder the last 15 meters to re-establish his credentials. Magnussen, though, could have competition from American Nathan Adrian in the final.

Adrian joined Magnussen under 48 in the semi-final with a 47.97. Adrian, interestingly, went out in 23.00 before closing in 24.97, possibly his fastest closing split ever. Adrian has speed, though, and he will need his usual opening blast and that closing speed if he has a chance of upsetting Magnussen. Yannick Agnel and Brent Hayden also got into the final, and they could seriously threaten the middle two lanes, while Cuban Hanser Garcia blazed home to nearly clip Adrian in their semi-final heat. Garcia will swim from lane three in the final as a potential huge spoiler. Cullen Jones, meanwhile, missed the final with a 48.60, but his better medal chance comes in the 50 free coming up.

Four heralded medal contenders, Daniel Gyurta, Kosuke Kitajima, Ryo Tateishi, and Brenton Rickard, all qualified for the final of the men’s 200 breast. Surprisingly, though, the rest of the final consists of two Brits and two Americans with a combined one World Championship and no Olympic appearances. Michael Jamieson led the way with a 2:08.20, a new British record, while Willis qualified third behind Gyurta, also getting under the 2:09 barrier. Scott Weltz, the upset winner at U.S. Olympic Trials, dropped his best time with a 2:08.99 to claim the fourth seed, and he will swim next to teammate Clark Burckle. Burckle earned sixth in the semi-finals with a 2:09.11, his second best time today.

Kitajima, meanwhile, ended up fourth in his semi-final in 2:09.03 to pick up the sixth seed for the final. Doubts remain, however, if he can break the three-peat curse and win a third straight gold. With the performances in the semi-finals today, Kitajima has to come up big if he even wants to earn a medal. He always has a chance, but he has not shown the capability to come through with a clutch swim in the final here in London. Meanwhile, if the Americans want to get a medal, they both need to take the race out faster to maintain contact with the field; both came from virtually nowhere to finish top-three in their respective heats.

Swimming in London has reached its halfway point, with four of the eight days in the books. Four more individual events kick off tomorrow morning. Ryan Lochte highlights both the men’s 200 back and 200 IM, preparing to face off with Ryosuke Irie in the 200 back and Michael Phelps in the 200 IM, though Thiago Pereira could also challenge the big two after an impressive silver in the 400 IM.

On the women’s side, Rebecca Soni hopes to maintain her dominance in the 200 breast after losing her 100 breast title to Lithuanian younger Ruta Meilutyte. Meilutyte, though, won’t swim the 200 breast; instead, she has the women’s 100 free, where Ranomi Kromowidjojo enters as the huge favorite. Kromowidjojo returns to the pool tomorrow after a blazing 51.93 anchor leg on the 400 free relay, the fastest split in history. Missy Franklin, meanwhile, goes for yet another individual event in that 100 free.

London 2012: Day Four Finals

If you watched day four of swimming finals, you witnessed history. Michael Phelps came up short in his signature event, taking a stunning silver medal when he faltered at the bitter end, but he returned less than 90 minutes later to anchor the U.S. 800 free relay to gold. That makes 15 career Olympic golds for Phelps, 6 more than anyone else has ever won – and 19 total medals, surpassing Larisa Latynina for the most all-time. Sure, Phelps has every right to be disappointed after losing the 200 fly at the wall, but his final time of 1:53.01 beats anything he has swum in the past three years.

The American men stepped up on the 800 free relay. Ryan Lochte looked great on the leadoff leg before falling off slightly at the end, touching in 1:45.15. No one could have asked for more from Conor Dwyer (1:45.23) or Ricky Berens (1:45.27), and the pair built a huge lead for Phelps to hold off Yannick Agnel. Agnel outsplit Phelps, 1:43.24 to 1:44.05, but Phelps couldn’t have asked for much more on a double. After his impressive times tonight, Phelps looks strong for his next two events, the 200 IM and 100 fly. Sure, the three-peat curse has interfered in so many attempts, including tonight, but Michael Phelps has his confidence back.

Chad Le Clos, meanwhile, swam the race of his life tonight. Le Clos pushed past Takeshi Matsuda on the final lap and then touched on the right stroke to take his first Olympic medal, a gold, in 1:52.96. Having never won a gold in a men’s individual event before this week, South Africa has now won two. Le Clos splashed the water like a madman after seeing the “1” beside his name, and his eyes teared up as he accepted his award. Phelps, meanwhile, offered his full congratulations to the man who took his crown, handling the most crushing loss of his career with some serious class. Props to the greatest of all time.

In Beijing four years ago, the American women won just two gold medals, both individual. In London, three different women have already won gold. After Dana Vollmer in the 100 fly and Missy Franklin in the 100 back, Allison Schmitt absolutely dominated the women’s 200 free final with a new American and Olympic record time of 1:53.61. Camille Muffat took second, while Bronte Barratt touched out Missy Franklin by just one one-hundredth of a second for bronze. Muffat, who ranks second in the world in the 200 free at 1:54.66, could only manage a 1:55.58. Schmitt destroyed her.

Barratt, meanwhile, stunned the field to finish third, leaving Franklin shut out with a slightly-disappointing 1:55.83. Franklin, remember, led the world rankings last year with a 1:55.06. While her 200 free may not be quite where she may want to be, the Americans have established themselves as a big favorite in the women’s 800 free relay tomorrow. Schmitt and Franklin will team up with Vollmer to lead the Americans. Other than the Stars and Stripes, only Australia had two representatives in the 200 free final, with Kylie Palmer finishing eighth. Still, those Aussies will have a tough time hanging with those Americans as they hope to reclaim the gold they lost four years ago.

The women appeared in one more final tonight, and everything happened just as I predicted this morning in the women’s 200 IM. Yi Shiwen won the gold in 2:07.57, moving her to third on the all-time list. Yi came home in a blazing 29.32 freestyle split, slower than her 28.93 closing the 400 IM, but she did enough to hold off the spirited charge of Alicia Coutts. Coutts touched the wall in 2:08.15 to move to fourth all-time, while Caitlin Leverenz grabbed another medal for the U.S., touching in a lifetime best time of 2:08.95.

After finishing tied for sixth in the 400 IM, Stephanie Rice did not enter the final as a medal contender. The 2008 gold medalist in both IMs tweeted before the race, “Possibly my final night of racing!! Bring on this 200IM[;] I'm so excited.” If Rice just swam her last career race, she put up quite a fight. Rice led at the 50 and touched second at the 100, but she couldn’t quite hang with the medalists over the last 100. Impressive swim for a swimmer coming off a disappointing Olympics thus far. Meanwhile, world record-holder Ariana Kukors touched fifth in 2:09.83, a big improvement on her Trials performance of 2:11.30.

Check back later for my thoughts on tomorrow’s individual events as the second half of Olympic swimming kicks off.

London 2012: Day Four Prelims

Last night, the American team woke up; Missy Franklin’s surprising win in the women’s 100 back followed up by a 1-2 finish in the men’s 100 back appears to have galvanized the team after an impressive morning prelims, including top qualifying marks in three of the four events contested. Nathan Adrian topped a deep field in the100 free prelims, Kathleen Hersey swam a lifetime best to lead the 200 fly, and Scott Weltz and Clark Burckle both hung right in with the top contenders in the men’s 200 breast, Burckle also with a best time. All six Americans in individual events qualified for the semi-finals, and the men’s 800 free relay team took first headed into finals.

On the other side of the coin, some medal contenders found themselves right on the bubble to advance, either in or out. 200 free winner Yannick Agnel has become a favorite in the 100 free, but he narrowly made the semi-finals; his 48.93 put him into the next round with less than a tenth of a second to spare. Ellen Gandy, the British favorite who won silver at last year’s Worlds, finished 17th and out in the women’s 200 fly, while defending silver medalist Brenton Rickard barely advanced in the men’s 200 breast. Medal contender Russia then proceeded to finish tenth in the 800 free relay.

Despite some of the surprising and other disappointing performances this morning, we need to wait for semi-finals to see how much the athletes held back this morning. At this point in the meet, prelims swims mean less than they did back on the first few days. One swim, though, stood out to me this morning: after Brazil missed the final in the 400 free relay when they rested Cesar Cielo in prelims, Cielo didn’t kick off his Olympics until his prelim heat of the men’s 100 free this morning. Cielo, though, didn’t exactly kick off his meet in style, finishing fifth in his heat 48.67.

In Cielo’s heat, American Nathan Adrian did not get off to the best start, but he just destroyed the field after that, and he held off Gideon Louw to win his heat in 48.19, which turned out to be the top time after prelims. After only two swims, Adrian has gotten his Olympics off to a very good start. He beat the likes of James Magnussen leading off the 400 free relay, finally breaking the elusive 48-second barrier, and he’s carrying that momentum into the 100 free. Adrian disappointingly found himself off the podium at Worlds last year, and he obviously hopes to avoid a repeat. Expect a tough, fast field in the final, but Adrian’s star has risen.

Charlie Houchin, Matt McLean, Davis Tarwater, and Conor Dwyer swam away from the field in the prelims of the 800 free relay, securing lane four once again for the U.S. France, though, still has their ace to play; Agnel swam a 1:43.14 to win the 200 free last night, a time no one else in London can match. France swam Jeremy Stravius, Gregory Mallet, Amaury Leveaux, and Clement Lefert in prelims, and they can’t go wrong with using any three along with Agnel. That foursome will push the Americans for gold. Meanwhile, look for a Sun Yang-led Chinese squad to battle a Paul Biedermann-led German team for bronze, especially in the absence of the usually-prominent Russians.

The Americans still have yet to show what Michael Phelps can swim in his 200 free, but he looked fantastic on the 400 free relay, splitting a fast 47.15. Phelps needs to put out a fast time today if the Americans want to win a third-straight gold. Ryan Lochte will swim on the relay, and technically, Conor Dwyer and Ricky Berens should join the pair in finals. Berens finished ninth in the 200 free, while Dwyer threw down a blazing 1:45.52 split today. However, the American coaches could still go with Peter Vanderkaay, the bronze medalist in the 400 free who did not technically qualify for the relay. As always, tough decisions to make.

Did anyone see that Missy Franklin won the 100 back gold last night? Yeah, I figured you might have. After NBC spoiled the result minutes before they showed the final. Of course, the network made up by helping Franklin meet her parents for the first time in weeks after the final. Then, the Today Show highlighted Franklin this morning. Clearly, the media has placed a great deal of hype among Franklin and for good reason; America has fallen in love with this 17 year old phenom.

Everyone who watched NBC’s Olympic prime time coverage saw Franklin’s tough but perfectly-navigated double. Teens relate to the bubbly 17 year old high school senior who enjoys spending time with her friends. Adults marvel at her poise and genuine respect and appreciation. That performance last night amazed the world; the nation let out a collective “aww” when tears welled up in Franklin’s eyes in the pool and then on the podium. Her first Olympic gold meant so much; what a touching moment.

As always, time to finish up with some more predictions.

Women’s 200 Free
1. Allison Schmitt
2. Camille Muffat
3. Federica Pellegrini

Men’s 200 Fly
1. Michael Phelps
2. Takeshi Matsuda
3. Dinko Jukic

Women’s 200 IM
1. Ye Shiwen
2. Alicia Coutts
3. Caitlin Leverenz

Men’s 800 Free Relay
1. United States
2. France
3. Germany
Caitlin Leverenz tied for sixth in the 400 IM and hopes to improve on that in today's final of the 200 IM.

Monday, July 30, 2012

London 2012: Day Three Finals, Part Two

We saw huge performances from Yannick Agnel and Missy Franklin in the men’s 200 free and women’s 100 back; don’t forget to check out my thoughts on those events from earlier.

Missy Franklin got some momentum going for the American team after her win in the women’s 100 back; Matt Grevers and Nick Thoman kept the Stars and Stripes moving with a second-consecutive 1-2 finish in the men’s 100 back. Camille Lacourt took the race out in first under world record-pace, but the Frenchman who dominated this race the last two years had nothing left down the stretch. Grevers overtook Lacourt off the wall and held on for a 52.16, just off his 52.08 from Trials. Thoman, meanwhile, blew off the wall and raced past Lacourt and home favorite Liam Tancock for a silver medal in 52.92, just off his 52.86 from Trials, ahead of the always-steady Ryosuke Irie.

The finals for the night wrapped up in the women’s 100 breast, and for the last four years, women’s breaststroke has belonged to Rebecca Soni. Tonight, though, Soni had to scramble in her last-ditch attempt to take gold. She couldn’t get to the wall. Ruta Meilutyte touched out Soni, 1:05.47 to 1:05.55. Meilutyte emerged from nowhere to lead the field through all three rounds, and Soni just didn’t have the speed to take the race out with the Lithuanian youngster. Soni showed some serious class after the race, smiling and proudly accepting her silver medal. Still, don’t think Soni has nothing left; she has looked even more dominant in the 200 this year, an event she still hasn’t lost since 2009, and she remains the favorite to defend her gold.

Next up, Michael Phelps dove in for the semi-finals of the 200 fly. After Takeshi Matsuda led his heat with a 1:54.25 clocking, Phelps hung with the pack in the second before exploding down the final 50 to win the heat in 1:54.53. However, the second semi-final turned out to be slower than the first, and Phelps earned the fourth seed for the final. I don’t think that matters; Phelps should make history tomorrow, becoming the first man to win three straight Olympic titles in one event. I think he can get down to 1:53-low or even a 1:52 to take the gold.

Matsuda, meanwhile, has consistently failed to get under the 1:54-barrier, and he hasn’t improved on his semi-final times at the last two Worlds Championships. Could he put together the full package tomorrow and challenge or beat Phelps? Sure. That said, I don’t think he will. Chad Le Clos and Chen Yin also qualified ahead of Phelps, but I don’t know how much faster they can go either. Phelps pulled away from his Japanese rival on the last lap at Worlds last summer, and I think that he goes out hard and holds on for gold in the final.

Finally, we wrapped up the session with the women’s 200 IM semis. In two rounds of this event, we’ve learned nothing new. Yi Shiwen entered as the huge favorite after her world record performance in the 400 IM, and she has so much left in the tank despite a 2:08.39 in the semi-final to set a new Olympic record. She has shown nothing of her fireworks on the freestyle leg of the IM after outsplitting Ryan Lochte on the last 50 of the 400 IM. Expect those fireworks in the final.

Meanwhile, Alicia Coutts broke 2:10 in the semi-final to establish herself as the slight favorite for silver, while Americans Caitlin Leverenz and Ariana Kukors both have great shots at medals, sitting right behind the Aussie. Coutts’ teammate Stephanie Rice got into the final in sixth, but Rice would have to put together the performance of a lifetime to take a medal this time around. Kirsty Coventry finds herself in the same situation; despite getting herself into the final, Coventry has a long way to go towards repeating her silver medal from four years ago. Coventry will swim next to Rice in the final, just like four years ago, but lanes 7 and 8 don’t look the same as 4 and 5 did back in Beijing.

London 2012: Day Three Finals

Another stunning session has come to a close in London. For starters, take a look at what 200 back Olympic Trials finalist Jacob Pebley had to say about day three and the meet so far overall:
“Watching how unpredictable these Olympics are [is] going makes Michael Phelps' '08 8 golds look that much cooler.”
Oh yes, anyone trying to predict these Olympics – including me – most likely failed miserably. In tonight’s first final, Yannick Agnel put on a show and took the gold in 1:43.14, the third-fastest time ever. Before last night’s final, that performance would have stunned the swimming community. After his 46.74 split anchoring the 400 free relay, nothing Yannick Agnel does can surprise anyone. He dominated the entire race, and no one else ever had a chance at gold. Agnel enters the 100 free as a favorite for gold after entering as an outside medal chance, and he holds the key to a potential French gold in the 800 free relay.

Yes, that’s right, France enters the 800 free relay as a slight favorite over the Americans. Agnel leads a team consisting of 400 free relay stars Clement Lefert and Amaury Leveaux and 200 free semi-finalist Gregory Mallet. The U.S., meanwhile, must count on Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, who finished a very disappointing fourth in the individual 200, along with Ricky Berens and probably Conor Dwyer. That sounds like a ton of firepower, but Phelps and Lochte must put their disappointments this meet behind them for a chance at gold.

What happened to Lochte? He finished fourth in 1:45.03, just behind the pair of Sun Yang and Park Tae Hwan, who dead-heated for second in 1:44.93. Remember, Lochte won the World title last year in 1:44.44. Lochte reportedly put in more and more extra training this year in hopes of a stunning Olympic performance. A fourth place-finish doesn’t exactly contribute to that. We’ll need to see how Lochte responds, now, in the relay tomorrow and in his two more individual events.

Entering the meet and after the 200 IM, some considered Ryan Lochte “the new Michael Phelps.” After a blowout win in the 400 IM in 4:05.13, the entire world jumped onto the Lochte train. Now, though, Lochte finds himself on the outside looking in for one of the glamor events in swimming. That’s just four years after Phelps won the 200 free by almost two seconds. Phelps displayed some sort of ridiculous dominance in four individual events before squeaking out the win in another by just one one-hundredth of a second. There’s no Michael Phelps of these Olympics. The world may never see one again.

One year ago, Missy Franklin became a superstar. Tonight, Missy Franklin became the best female swimmer in the world. She opened the night in the women’s 200 free, where she cruised to the eighth-qualifying spot. Next, with just ten minutes until the 100 back final, Franklin swam a couple warm-down laps in the diving pool. Now, the Americans won their second medal in diving today, winning bronze in the men’s synchro platform. Maybe the diving pool has some friendly water in it or something because the performance that followed stunned the world.

Remember, Franklin had just one heat in between her 200 free semi-final and the 100 back final. She entered that final a heavy underdog to Emily Seebohm, who had twice earlier threatened the world record. Franklin, meanwhile, hadn’t swum within three-quarters of a second of Seebohm’s Olympic record of 58.23. Still, Franklin refused to back down. She went out fast and turned in second. Missy Franklin can finish, and finish she did. In 58.33, Franklin stunned Seebohm and the world with a new American record. That all came after the announcers claimed her decision to swim both events to be a bad one “in hindsight.”

That 200 free? Missy Franklin will swim from lane eight as a heavy underdog once again. Bronte Barratt surprisingly earned the top seed after chasing down favorites Allison Schmitt and Camille Muffat at the end of their semi-final. Olympic champ Federica Pellegrini got into the final as the fourth seed. None of those four should take their eyes off last year’s World leader out in lane eight. Franklin stunned the world with her 1:55.06 last year, and she could pull off just the same feat in the final. World, watch out; Missy Franklin has potentially three more finals left.

To be continued with my thoughts on the night’s remaining races, including the first 1-2 finish of the Games

London 2012: Day Three Finals Predictions

Four more finals loom tonight, four big finals. We have big races coming in both 100 backs and the women's 100 breast, but the men's 200 free could be one of the epic races of all time. From top to bottom, lanes two through six: Ryan Lochte, Park Tae Hwan, Sun Yang, Yannick Agnel, and Paul Biedermann. Basically, we're talking about the same field as the World Championships last year, with Sun replacing Michael Phelps. Though Phelps opted out of the race, the race still has a huge impact on him.

If Ryan Lochte wins the race today, he would be well on his way to racking up a substantial medal total at the Olympics, including as many as six golds. Suddenly, Michael Phelps' eight-for-eight from four years ago would look repeatable in the future. Two straight dominating performances would pave the way for one man to dominate swimming in all aspects. If Lochte does not win or does not even medal, more power to Phelps; Phelps completely established control of the 200 free while maintaining control of his fly and IM events. A disappointing performance from Lochte just makes Phelps' performance in Beijing seem that much more amazing and one that we can never expect to see again.

My Current Predictions:

Men's 200 Free
1. Ryan Lochte
2. Yannick Agnel
3. Sun Yang

Women's 100 Back
1. Emily Seebohm
2. Missy Franklin
3. Anastasia Zueva

Men's 100 Back
1. Matt Grevers
2. Camille Lacourt
3. Liam Tancock

Women's 100 Breast
1. Rebecca Soni
2. Ruta Meilutyte
3. Yuliya Efimova
This 400 free winner leads the way into the 200 free final, and he wants another chance to celebrate on the lane line.

London 2012: Day Three Prelims

What’s that? You didn’t wake up at 5am Eastern after staying up until 11pm waiting for NBC to air the men’s 400 free relay finals? Oh. Well, you didn’t miss that much. Just three events kicked off on this third day of prelims, half as many as each of the last two days. In the meantime, no big surprises came out of the day’s events. All of the main contenders cruised into the semi-finals, starting with the women’s 200 free, where defending champion Federica Pellegrini leading the way in 1:57.16.

What happened to Pellegrini? Just last night she lagged behind in the 400 free final, finishing fifth. That performance indicates that she has much more in the tank for the shorter 200 than she did the 400. Expect her to be in the medal chase, though Allison Schmitt and Camille Muffat still have a leg up on the competition. Missy Franklin qualified third for the semi-final tonight, setting up a huge double with her 100 back final. She will have about 15 minutes between her two races tonight, an extremely tough double without a doubt. She will need an exceptional performance to both make the final in the 200 free and win a medal in the 100 back.

Michael Phelps cruised into the fifth seed in the men’s 200 fly. Phelps grabbed third in his heat, allowing top qualifier Dinko Jukic to pass him on the final lap. Phelps knew what he had to do to get into the semis comfortably in a 1:55.53, far superior to the 1:56.71 he swam in prelims at Worlds last summer. Phelps remains comfortable in this event. Meanwhile, World Champs medalists Wu Peng and Takeshi Matsuda both cruised into the semi-finals, along with Aussie bad boy Nick D’Arcy, while American Tyler Clary debuted in the Olympics in style with a 1:54.96, improving on his Trials time of 1:55.15.

The women’s 200 IM kicked off next, and the race has become Yi Shiwen’s to lose. When she won the World title last year, Yi hung with the pack before blazing home on the free. Now, though, Yi came swim the race however she wants. Today, she took the race out fast before cruising home on free – to the identical time in which she won the World title, 2:08.90. No one swam anywhere close to Yi, and I don’t think anyone will. Her time stands a full second and a half faster than anyone else.

The second-fastest qualifier swam in Yi’s heat, and no one came within two bodylengths of Yi in that heat. Kirsty Coventry was that second qualifier, Coventry coming back into the fray after not contending in the 100 back yesterday. She came in at 2:10.53, just ahead of Caitlin Leverenz, Katinka Hosszu, and Alicia Coutts. Let’s see who else can jump into the medal mix in tonight’s semi-finals; don’t forget about world record-holder Ariana Kukors, who looms in seventh, and ninth-ranked defending champ Stephanie Rice. Rice, though, has a long way to go if she wants to contend for a medal.

Well that was quick. So let’s widen the lens a little bit; the Olympics consist of more than 32 events in the pool, after all. Essentially, the last two days have followed the same pattern for me: wake up at 5am, watch prelims, write a blog, watch other events, watch swimming finals at 2:30 online, write another blog, and watch NBC’s primetime coverage – a busy schedule, I’m sure you can tell. I’m the swim geek, of course, but I love watching other sports as a casual American fan.

Always to see American medalists in other aquatic sports, especially in diving. After twelve medal-less years, Abby Johnston and Kelci Bryant got on the podium in three-meter synchro yesterday, and the pairing of David Boudia and Nick McCrory have the chance to do the same today. I have to appreciate a sport like rowing, a low-glamor sport that requires some serious toughness. As gymnastics and track pick up over the next few days, I’m sure those sports will capture my attention on the prime time broadcast. And how can one not enjoy watching Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant on one team?

As more light swimming days pop up, I’ll keep writing some on the blog about the other sports, with some thoughts headed into the later finals events – though don’t expect me to be quite as analytical there. Despite my laser-attention on the pool, I love the Olympics as much as any fan, and I’m certainly finding time to watch the vast array of sports. Swimming may come to an end on Saturday, but we still will have a long way to go – including the open water events. The Olympics, as you know, have just begun.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

London 2012: Day Two Finals, Part Two

Three individual events opened finals tonight – check out my thoughts on those events.

The women’s 100 fly and men’s 100 breast provided thrills in world records; the men’s 400 free relay provided huge shocks. After the Americans released the slightly-surprising order of Nathan Adrian, Michael Phelps, Cullen Jones, and Ryan Lochte, I knew that Adrian had to get off to a great start. Adrian did just that;  his 47.89 broke his three-year old best time of 48.00. Next, Phelps looked so much better than in his 400 IM last night, splitting a blazing 47.15. Cullen Jones and Ryan Lochte followed that up with solid splits of 47.64 and 47.74, respectively. Though I thought Lochte could swim slightly faster, the foursome performed about like I expected them to; I expected that would get them a silver medal.

Well, they did win a silver medal, but stunningly, France won gold, not the heavily-favored Australia. Frenchmen Amaury Leveaux, Fabien Gilot, and Clement Lefert swam to fast starts, but where did Yannick Agnel come from with a shocking 46.84? Agnel ran down and swam right by Lochte. Agnel, now a huge contender in the individual 100 free, and he has as good a chance as anyone to win the men’s 200 free final tomorrow. He’ll face off with Lochte again, along with 400 free champ Sun Yang, defending silver medalist Park Tae Hwan, and world record-holder Paul Biedermann in what shapes up as one of the great races of these Olympics.

What happened with Australia? Their vaunted foursome finished fourth. What happened? They just underperformed. James Magnussen led off in 48.03, nearly a second off his best time. The middle men, Matt Targett and Eamon Sullivan, did their jobs, but world number two James Roberts didn’t even split under 48. Australia had some momentum coming into day two; that race guts the Aussies of any momentum just two days in. Props to Russia, too, for stepping up and beating the Aussies with four solid legs, especially Vlad Morozov’s 47.35.

Semi-finals today did not provide any shocks as top qualifiers from prelims remained on top headed into the finale. Emily Seebohm swam just a bit slower than her near-world record performance in the women’s 100 back, but she remains nearly a second ahead of the dangerous Missy Franklin. Matt Grevers topped the men’s 100 back again; his 52.66 well outperformed the 53.03 of Camille Lacourt. Grevers enters the final tomorrow poised to upgrade from his silver medal four years ago.

Meanwhile, Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte backed up her out-of-nowhere 100 breast from prelims with a new European record in the semi-finals, a 1:05.21. Should we consider her the favorite over Rebecca Soni? Hard to tell. Soni took out the race extremely slow in 32.13, a split upon which she can make major improvements. Soni has swum under 1:05 the past two years, and she has a lot more in the tank. However, can Soni stop the blazing Meilutyte? Certainly she does not have an easy task ahead of her.

Two Olympic stars return to the pool in prelims tomorrow morning. Women’s 400 IM gold medalist and world record-holder Yi Shiwen enters the 200 IM as the favorite to back up her World title with Olympic gold. Yi has shown some massive improvements in London; could she possibly approach Ariana Kukors’ world record, an unthinkable 2:06.15? Aussie Alicia Coutts and American Kukors finished just behind Yi at Worlds last year, and they lead the medal charge, along with Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, America’s Caitlin Leverenz, and maybe even defending champ Stephanie Rice.

Michael Phelps enters the water tomorrow for his signature event, the 200 fly. After an extremely disappointing swim in the 400 IM to open his Games, Phelps bounced back majorly with his 47.15 relay split. Phelps has the speed; does he have enough endurance for the 200 fly? I think he will come through in his best event, but he has to deal with his usual sparing mate, Takeshi Matsuda, and the likes of Wu Peng and Chad Le Clos. Good competition in the 200 fly, but who doubts Phelps in his baby? In the third attempt of these Games, Phelps could finally become the first man to win three straight Olympic golds in the same event.

London 2012: Day Two Finals

The second night of finals included some truly memorable finals, both for the return of world records to the norm in swimming and for the absolutely fantastic and shocking race in the men’s 400 free relay. While China and Australia both created some momentum for their nations on day one, neither nation came up big tonight, while France enjoyed a stellar day at the pool on the second day of action. The Americans, meanwhile, have remained solid all the way through, winning medals in each of the eight events contested so far.

The evening kicked off with the women’s 100 fly, and Dana Vollmer has earned her title as the best 100 flyer in the world, and now, Vollmer has the title of best all-time with her world record-performance tonight. When I watched Sarah Sjostrom swim 56.06 back in 2009 in a suit about to be banned, I did not expect anyone to get close for years. Then, last year, Dana Vollmer put herself within a half second. All year, Vollmer made very clear that she wanted a 55. Tonight, she swam a 55.98.

Here’s what’s scary: Vollmer could have swum faster. After controlling the first lap, something she did not do in the semi-finals, Vollmer charged home before a truly awful finish; how much faster could she have gone? No one else got close, as Lu Ying finished almost a second behind for silver. Alicia Coutts swam slower than she did in the semi-finals, but she still got a bronze medal, while Sjostrom surprisingly ended up fourth. Sjostrom entered the meet as a favorite in the 100 fly, along with the 100 and 200 free, but she does not look like she brought her best performances to London.

One year ago, Alexander Dale Oen took the world title in the men’s 100 breast in a sterling 58.71. Dale Oen would enter 2012 as the favorite for Olympic gold, but he never made it to London; Dale Oen died of a heart condition while at training camp in Arizona. Dale Oen’s death sparked an outpouring of support from the swimming community. Dale Oen and South Africa’s Cameron van der Burgh had developed a widely-known friendship in the years before Dale Oen’s death, and after his friend died, van der Burgh tweeted: “My greatest friend. My brother in breaststroke. May you rest in peace. One love."

Today, van der Burgh won gold. In an amazing swim, van der Burgh beat the world record with a 58.46, taking the title most had picked his good friend to win. What a fitting performance.

Next up, Christian Sprenger came in second. Sprenger had shown some inconsistencies at international meets, with one key exception; Sprenger set a still-standing world record at the 2009 World Championships in the 200 breast before taking a bronze. A year later, when he repeatedly failed to come anywhere close to his best time – also the world record – in the 200, he announced he would drop the 200 and focus exclusively on the 100. That decision paid off tonight; Sprenger won a silver medal in 58.93, moving him to sixth on the all-time list.

In the men’s 100 breast, Kosuke Kitajima had his sights set on a third straight Olympic gold. In 2004, Kitajima upset the favored world record-holder Brendan Hansen to earn gold. Four years later, Kitajima broke Hansen’s world record in a repeat gold medal performance, while Hansen stunningly finished off the podium. Tonight, Kitajima swam from lane seven, right next to Hansen in lane eight. Kitajima fell well short of his goal of a three-peat, finishing fifth in a disappointing 59.79, while Hansen earned a bronze in 59.49. How sweet does that bronze feel for Hansen, who decided less than 18 months ago to return from retirement. Memorable moment for an American fan.

Next up, France’s Camille Muffat held off a challenge from the U.S.’s Allison Schmitt and a crowd-fueled Rebecca Adlington to win the women’s 400 free. Muffat set an Olympic record with a 4:01.45, while Schmitt broke Katie Hoff’s American record with a 4:01.77 – also a best time by more than a second. Schmitt hung right with the favored Frenchwoman the whole way, and she has put herself in position to contend again in the 200 free. Indeed, Schmitt enters a slight favorite after Muffat swam slightly off her season-best in the 400.

As for Adlington, the crowd roared to see her finish third and make the podium. Notably, Adlington’s time of 4:03.01 beat the 4:03.23 that she swam to win gold four years ago. Meanwhile, two-time World champ Federica Pellegrini collapsed, finishing fifth in 4:04.50. With that awful performance, one must wonder if Pellegrini focused on the 200 for these Olympics or simply can’t match her form from just a year ago. The 200 free will tell more of this chapter of the Pellegrini saga.

I’ll be back later with my thoughts on the fantastic race in the men’s 400 free relay and a preview of the prelims and finals on day three.

London 2012: Day Two Prelims

The storylines of day two’s prelims couldn’t match the big surprises from day one, but a pair of swimmers with vastly different backstories both emerged as strong medal contenders while taking the top seed to finals. All the major medal contenders moved on to the next round, despite a couple of close calls in the women’s 400 free. The men’s 400 free relay, meanwhile, provides its usual controversy regarding who should swim on the finals team.

The morning kicked off with a blaze in the women’s 100 back when Australia’s Emily Seebohm blasted a 58.23, just behind Gemma Spofforth’s world record of 58.12 and the third-fastest time ever. Swimming in the first of the seeded heats, Seebohm pushed herself the entire way and finished with the fastest opening and closing laps. How much faster can she go? We’ll have to wait to find out. Missy Franklin swam a very controlled 59.37 for second, and she can swim a lot faster, but can she go fast enough to stay with Seebohm?

Australia has some serious momentum on its side after that 400 free relay win last night, and that showed when Belinda Hocking claimed the third seed in the 100 back with a 59.61. No one else swam under 59.8, and a total of 10 women broke 1:00 this morning. American Rachel Bootsma came almost as close as one can come to the barrier, checking in at 1:00.03, and if she shook off the nerves enough in her first Olympic swim, she could make a run at an Olympic final. Home favorite Spofforth also moved on in 12th, as did two-time silver medalist Kirsty Coventry.

Just like the 100 back, the first circle-seeded heat of the women’s 100 breast opened with a bang. Swimming next to defending gold medalist Leisel Jones, British-trained Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte swam a sterling 30.58 opening 50 split on her way to a world-leading 1:05.56. Two heats later,World champ Rebecca Soni answered that swim with a 1:05.75, faster than any of her swims from U.S. Trials. Soni, though, took a completely different strategy, going out in a pedestrian 30.70 and coming home in a blazing 34.03.

Despite the youngster Meilutyte recording the top time, Soni remains the favorite. She hasn’t shown that kind of speed on the second 50 since she broke 1:05 to win the World title last year. She has shown that she has speed now that she never did in Beijing four years ago, and if she can combine that opening and closing speed as she has in the past, no one can beat her. Watch, though, for Yuliya Efimova, who picked up the third-best time of 1:06.51, and U.S. Trials winner Breeja Larson looked strong in her first Olympic race with a 1:06.58, and she looked genuinely pumped with the result.

The women wrapped things up in the 400 free, where Camille Muffat ran down Allison Schmitt in the last heat for the overall top seed. Despite world record-holder Federica Pellegrini out in lane one and defending champ Rebecca Adlington on the other side in lane eight, the race could come down to the Frenchwoman and American in the final. Schmitt took the race out under world record-pace, just as she did at Olympic Trials, only for Muffat to expend a bit more energy in lunging for the finish, while Schmitt cruised on in. Muffat goes into the final as the favorite for gold.

The men opened their day in the 200 free, where none of the major contenders faced a scare aside from Switzerland’s Dominic Meichtry, who ended up 16th after going out fast and fading down the stretch. World Champ Ryan Lochte, meanwhile, took control of his heat off the final wall before turning off the gas down the stretch as Sun Yang went by him to take the top seed. Yannick Agnel and Park Tae Hwan remain in the mix, while Paul Biedermann looms in 10th. With Michael Phelps out of the event, Ricky Berens took advantage, advancing to the semi-final in the eighth spot.

With most expecting the 100 back to come down to American Matt Grevers and Frenchman Camille Lacourt, Grevers made a statement this morning that he has a clear advantage. Lacourt went out strongly before crusing into a then-second-seeded 53.51. Grevers, then, threw down a 52.92 to win the final heat. Grevers, though, didn’t appear to exert much energy either; his tempo looked significantly slower than at Olympic Trials or at other meets in the past. China’s Cheng Feiyi, meanwhile, came out of nowhere to finish second in Grevers’ heat and second overall; his 53.22 thrusted him into medal contention. The standbys in Liam Tancock, Helge Meeuw, Nick Thoman, and Ryosuke Irie all moved on comfortably.

The men’s 400 free relay wrapped things up this morning. James Magnussen pulled a Jason Lezak on Lezak himself, overtaking the 36 year old American with a swift 47.35 split on the way to securing the top seed for Australia. Individual medal contender James Roberts split 48.22 this morning, while Tomasso D’Orsogna came in at 47.78, but I expect Roberts to join Magnussen, Matt Targett, and Eamon Sullivan on the favored team in finals tonight.

The Americans came in second in prelims, led by Grevers’ 47.54. Grevers has technically earned a spot in finals tonight, but he will only have a half hour after his 100 back semi-final, which might lead the coaches to reconsider the line-up. Michael Phelps, Nathan Adrian, and Cullen Jones all figure into tonight’s relay, while Ryan Lochte could still appear in the line-up. As I’ve indicated, Lochte has some serious potential in the 100 free, as we saw in his 47.0 leg on the winning relay at the 2009 World Championships. While still the heavy underdogs, the Americans definitely have medal aspirations, although France and Russia loom as well.

How about the other events that we will see tonight? Check out last night’s blog for my thoughts on the semi-final events. Now, prediction time.

Women’s 100 Fly
1. Dana Vollmer
2. Alicia Coutts
3. Sarah Sjostrom

Men’s 100 Breast
1. Cameron van der Burgh
2. Fabio Scozolli
3. Kosuke Kitajima

Women’s 400 Free
1. Camille Muffat
2. Allison Schmitt
3. Federica Pellegrini

Men’s 400 Free Relay
1. Australia
2. United States
3. France
In case anyone forgot, Ryan Lochte dominated the 400 IM last night.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

London 2012: Day One Finals, Part Two

I already took a look back at the first night of finals, but what’s to come on day two?

In semi-final action today, Dana Vollmer remains a favorite in the women’s 100 fly, but Aussie Alicia Coutts has closed the gap. Her Olympic record-setting 56.25 from prelims this morning stands more than a half second ahead of what anyone else has swum; Coutts swam very well in the semi-finals with a 56.85, a lifetime best. Vollmer swam a slower time in the final of the 100 fly at Worlds last year, and Coutts almost touched her out. Look for a good race in the final tomorrow, but Vollmer remains the favorite, and she could take a shot at Sarah Sjostrom’s world record of 56.06.

Sjostrom, meanwhile, qualified third, winning her semi-final with a 57.27. She could have a say in the final standings in tomorrow’s final as well. World champ bronze medalist Lu Ying got into the final, as did the second American, Claire Donahue. Donahue didn’t exactly come into the Olympic Trials as a huge underdog, but she beat some big names in Natalie Coughlin and 2008 silver medalist Christine Magnuson in earning a spot on the team. Nice to see her moving onto the final.

Despite a surprising total of 12 swimmers breaking 1:00 in the prelims of the men’s 100 breast today, no one really established themselves as a gold medal favorite. Well, Cameron van der Burgh did just that tonight. He swam an Olympic record-setting 58.83, more than six tenths of a second clear of second-qualifier Fabio Scozolli. Van der Burgh moved to fourth on the all-time list in the event, but one must wonder how he would stack up against the late Alexander Dale Oen, last year’s World Champion. Tomorrow’s final will provide an opportunity to remember the young man who took silver in Beijing four years ago.

Van der Burgh must watch out for Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima. Aiming to become the first to win three golds in the same event in three straight Olympics, Kitajima still holds the second-fastest ime in the world at 58.90, so don’t count him out for the final. Interestingly, Kitajima will swim in lane seven, next to longtime rival Brendan Hansen in lane eight. The American has one final shot to go for an Olympic medal in tomorrow’s final.

Five more prelims take to the pool tomorrow. World champ Ryan Lochte hopes to hold off Frenchman Yannick Agnel and 400 free stars Sun Yang and Park Tae Hwan in the men’s 200 free. Missy Franklin starts her individual event program in the women’s 100 back, where Russia’s Anastasia Zueva, China’s Zhao Jing, and Australia’s Emily Seebohm could provide some big competition. Franklin has the opportunity to make it three-straight golds for the Americans in the event after Natalie Coughlin won gold in both 2004 and 2008.

Two big men go head-to-head in the men’s 100 back, when 6’8” Matt Grevers faces off with 6’6” Camille Lacourt. Grevers leads the world this year with his 52.08 from Olympic Trials last month, while Lacourt won the World title last summer. The pair, though, could have Japan’s Ryosuke Irie and Grevers’ countryman Nick Thoman on their heels as well. Rebecca Soni enters the women’s 100 breast as the undisputed favorite, but Breeja Larson shocked Soni at Olympic Trials to make her first Olympic team. Soni will also have to face off with the defending Olympic gold medalist, Leisel Jones, as well as Russian Yuliya Efimova. Soni should be very familiar with Efimova, her training partner in Los Angeles.

Relay action continues tomorrow with the men’s 400 free relay. The Americans won gold in Beijing, when Jason Lezak came back on eventual 100 free winner Alain Bernard to edge the French at the finish. The Americans, though, enter as heavy underdogs to Australia tomorrow; the Aussies have the top two 100 freestylers in the world this year, James Magnussen and James Roberts, along with Matt Targett and former world record-holder Eamon Sullivan. France returns with the likes of Agnel and Fabien Gilot, while Russia could also present a formidable challenge.

For the Americans, expect Michael Phelps to swim the lead-off, and Olympic Trials winner Nathan Adrian should swim the anchor leg. Cullen Jones also has a spot in the individual 100 free, and Grevers could also swim on the finals team. As for Ryan Lochte, he has shown some 100 free capabilities in the past, swimming a key leg on the American’s winning 400 free relay at the 2009 Worlds, but he has not technically qualified for the team. Lezak will swim on the prelims relay alongside Jimmy Feigen and Ricky Berens to determine who will earn spots on the finals relay and the chance to go for gold.

London 2012: Day One Finals

The Olympics are the greatest sporting event on Earth. What we saw today inside the Olympic Aquatic center proved that hypothesis without a doubt. No series of analysis articles could have predicted the amazing performances in London today and the upsets in the pool. The four finals and two semi-finals set the stage for the next seven days of swimming in the pool. Let’s take a look.

First off, the highly-anticipated men’s 400 IM thrilled. But instead of an epic duel between Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps, Lochte destroyed the field, while Phelps didn’t even get on the podium. With his impressive 4:05.18, Lochte recorded the largest margin of victory in the event ever over Thiago Pereira and Kosuke Hagino, while Phelps finished more than a second off his Olympic Trials time for fourth. That time from Omaha would have earned Phelps the silver medal we all expected. Phelps recorded a shockingly bad performance. How he responds over the next seven days could show big-time in the U.S. medal count.

Lochte, meanwhile, has firmly established himself as the best swimmer in the world. While he still faces challenges in events such as the 200 free, where he will face off with Frenchman Yannick Agnel, he will take home quite a medal haul from London. Instead of talking on now, though, let’s see what Lochte can do on his own. I expect quite a lot. Meanwhile, props to Pereira for hanging on for silver in the 400 IM. After years of struggling down the stretch of IMs and fading from medal contention, he did phenomenal tonight to hold on, and expect big things from him in the 200 IM as well.

In the next two finals, China made quite a statement. Not only did both Sun Yang and Yi Shiwen win gold, they, along with women’s 400 IM bronze medalist Li Xuanxu, closed on their last laps in extremely impressive fashion. In the men’s 400 free, Sun made defending champ Park Tae Hwan look like an amateur, destroying Park on his way to a near-world record-performance. His time of 3:40.18 came so close to Paul Biedermann’s 3:40.07. Sun, for sure, remains the heavy favorite in the 1500 in a week, an event in which he holds the world record, and he could even factor into the mix in the 200 free.

Katinka Hosszu and then Elizabeth Beisel led through the opening laps of the 400 IM, but Yi Shiwen sat only a bodylength behind Beisel with 100 meters to go. Although Beisel had the lead, Yi loomed; at Worlds last year, Yi came from nowhere to win gold in the 200 IM on the freestyle leg; this time, she just obliterated Beisel and obliterated Stephanie Rice’s world record with a stunning 4:28.43. She even beat Lochte on that last 50, 28.93 to 29.10! Li, meanwhile, came from nowhere to finish third. Keep an eye on those Chinese finishes the rest of the week; the Chinese have some serious momentum on their side after day one.

The women finished out the night in the 400 free relay. The Dutch entered as heavy favorites, but their first three legs really struggled, especially lead-off Inge Dekker, who went from first at the 50 to last at the 100. The Americans, meanwhile, led off with Missy Franklin, who touched the wall first with a swift 53.52, before Jessica Hardy, Lia Neal, and Allison Schmitt all swam very solid races, but they didn’t have enough fire power for more than a bronze. I do think the coaches made a mistake in their use of Franklin; Franklin has shown some serious capabilities on the anchor, where perhaps she could have provided more of an impact.

Now, how about those Australians! With everyone picking the Netherlands to win, the Aussies shocked the field with four very solid performances. Alicia Coutts and Cate Campbell did their jobs, Brittany Elmslie stepped up in her first Olympic final with a swift 53.41 split, and Melanie Schlanger showed the clutch gene with a 52.65 anchor split, more than a second faster than her lifetime best off a flat start of 53.74. Schlanger needed that swim, though, as Dutch sprint star Ranomi Kromowidjojo came home in 51.93, the fastest relay split in history.

Outstanding performances for the Aussies and Kromowidjojo, but Kromowidjojo will have more shots at gold in the individual sprints. The relay also injects some much-needed momentum to the previously-dominant Australian women’s team, one which failed to win a single gold in Shanghai last summer. Australia’s Libby Trickett, a prelims swimmer, added a fifth gold medal to her impressive resume, completely validating her comeback from retirement. As for Natalie Coughlin, her prelims swim earned her a record-tying 12th Olympic medal.

To be continued with a look ahead to tomorrow’s action in the pool.

London 2012: Day One Prelims

I think the Olympics have begun. Action at the Aquatic Center kicked off this morning with drama, tension, and even a few fast swims mixed in there. As expected, the landscape of almost every event contested has changed, at least slightly. For the three finals to be contested tonight, two defending champions will swim from the outside lanes, while another qualified fourth-fastest only to be disqualified for a false start. Not to mention the 12 men under 1:00 in the men’s 100 breast. Let’s dissect what we saw.

After I spent more than an hour struggling to get my live online video to work – only to find all the fast heats shown live on NBC – I noticed one key problem with the pool. The lanes are numbered backwards. From behind the blocks, usually lane one is to the right and lane eight to the left. Of course, the wrong-side driving Brits numbered the lanes with one at the left and eight at the right, which they also did at the World Short Course Championships in Manchester four years ago.

Fireworks went down instantly in the men’s 400 IM, the very first event, when Kosuke Hagano set an Asian record of 4:10.01. Hagano had earned the third seed in the event headed into the Olympics, but no one expected to see him in lane four for the final. In the next heat, Michael Phelps did just what he needed to do to win his heat – but almost not enough to make the final. Phelps touched 0.07 ahead of Laszlo Cseh for the third and fourth-best times at that point. No one expected, though, that five men would beat Phelps’ 4:13.33 in the final heat.

Ryan Lochte led the majority of his heat until he let up at the very end, and Chad Le Clos took the win and the overall second seed behind Hagano. Lochte ended up third overall, while Thomas Fraser-Holmes, Luca Marin, and Yuya Horihata all ended up getting under Phelps’ time. Phelps, then, ended up eighth, and Cseh found himself shockingly locked out. America, evidently, found that result shocking too, when four of the top ten trends on Twitter included “Michael Phelps,” “Ryan Lochte,” “400m IM,” and “Cseh.”

Lochte and Phelps both made the final; nothing has changed in my predictions, aside from Cseh. With the reversed lanes, Phelps will have a clear view of Lochte and the rest of the field as he churns for home tonight, and I expect a big swim from the outside. I don’t know how much faster anyone than the two Americans can swim, but Hagano has certainly done enough to prove that he can win a bronze medal and most likely swim under 4:10 tonight.

In my blog yesterday, I said that prelims could be telling in the women’s 100 fly. Dana Vollmer broke the American record with a 56.25, beating the entire field by a full second. She looks unstoppable, even with Sarah Sjostrom and Alicia Coutts looming in the background. Vollmer showed at Trials that she has the speed that no one can match, and she proved this morning that she can hold that pace as well. Look for more fireworks tonight; world record in the cards maybe?

Up next we saw the men’s 400 free, an event that turned out… wacky. Each heat got much faster than the previous, starting with Ryan Cochrane winning the first seeded heat in 3:47.26. Next, four swimmers beat that time with defending World and Olympic champ Park Tae-Hwan leading the way before he was shockingly DQ’ed for a false start. Finally, the last heat saw four of the top five times in the morning, with world-leader Sun Yang and American Peter Vanderkaay getting under 3:46.

Without Park in the field, Sun goes into the final as a heavy favorite for gold, and Vanderkaay’s medal chances have improved drastically with Park and world record-holder Paul Biedermann out of the field. Really, though, any of the eight swimmers could win a medal. Watch for Brit David Carry in the final as he looks to energize a packed home crowd tonight and use that energy to chase a medal.

Park and the South Korean swimming federation have reportedly appealed the DQ, and the FINA bureau will meet later today to decide Park’s fate. If Park makes the final, Cochrane finishes ninth for the second-straight Olympics, and Park has a real shot at gold. After all, he did beat Sun Yang at Worlds last year from lane one. Basically, we won’t know anything about this race until we have a final word on Park.

The women’s 400 IM saw two textile best times and one rousing wake-up call. First, Yi Shiwen took one one-hundredth off Elizabeth Beisel’s top time from Trials with a 4:31.73, but then Beisel came right back in the final heat with a 4:31.68. Beisel clearly looked less fatigued than Yi this morning after the race and came home much stronger. She remains my pick for gold.

Between those swims, though, Hannah Miley battled Caitlin Leverenz and Stephanie Rice in what turned out to be the slowest of the seeded heats. The crowd went nuts for Miley; even over my computer’s video feed, I could hear the huge roars from a not-full crowd for the Scottish contender. Miley will swim from lane seven tonight, but that crowd could propel her to a top-three finish or even gold. Outside smoke could be a theme, actually, as defending Olympic champ Stephanie Rice will swim from lane one. Remember, Kirsty Coventry won silver from lane one four years ago.

12 men broke 1:00 in the men’s 100 breast. 14 men all finished within a half second in prelims this morning. Australia bookends that pack, as Christian Sprenger led the way in 59.68, while world record-holder Brenton Rickard took 14th in 1:00.07. Remember how I said medal contenders needed to make a statement in prelims? Well so much for that. Everyone in the semi-finals, even the trailing Brazilians who took 15th and 16th, have a shot at the final.

All 16 need to swim their own race focus on the little details like turns and finishes; that will decide who makes the final. Cameron van der Burgh, for example, may not want to go out in 27.29 like he did in prelims. Yes, that ranks third in the world for the 50 breast. More than a bodylength in front of Brendan Hansen at halfway, van der Burgh ended up finishing sixth at 59.79. That time probably won’t make the final.

Finally, we’ve got the women’s 400 free relay. None of the big three – U.S., Australia, and the Netherlands – showed all their cards this morning. The Dutch have just Ranomi Kromowidjojo to add to their finals line-up, but Femke Heemskerk and Marleen Veldhuis took it easy this morning. For the Aussies, Brittany Elmslie put up a blazing 53.41, while 2008 silver medalist Libby Trickett anchored in 54.06. Elmslie will join Cate Campbell, Melanie Schlanger, and either Trickett or Alicia Coutts tonight.

The Americans started off fast with Lia Neal’s impressive 54.15. Amanda Weir split 54.37, followed by Natalie Coughlin’s 53.93 and Allison Schmitt’s 54.08. Who will swim tonight with Jessica Hardy and Missy Franklin? No idea! Dana Vollmer could be in the mix as well after her 100 fly exploits earlier. Whoever the U.S. coaches decide to swim, I think any of the big three could win. The Dutch remain the favorites, but an off swim here or there throws the U.S. back into it. As for Franklin, she will anchor the relay, and I think we’ll see something really good.

Updated Predictions:

Men’s 400 IM
1. Ryan Lochte
2. Michael Phelps
3. Kosuke Hagano

Men’s 400 Free
1. Sun Yang
2. Peter Vanderkaay
3. Gergo Kis

Women’s 400 IM
1. Elizabeth Beisel
2. Yi Shiwen
3. Hannah Miley

Women’s 400 Free Relay
1. Netherlands
2. United States
3. Australia 

Friday, July 27, 2012

London 2012: Day Zero

London 2012 has begun, and just hours remain before the swimming gets underway. A moment four years in the waiting will finally arrive at 5am Eastern time tomorrow. After each session, I expect to post a blog detailing my thoughts on the races and a quick look ahead to the next one, including updated predictions before each finals race. For now, though, I want to set the stage one final time. Athletes stress each and every meet the importance of putting down a good race in their very first one. The first session of prelims will set up the entire meet.

For the third straight Olympics, the men’s 400 IM kicks off the swimming, and Michael Phelps has his sights set on becoming the first man ever to win three straight Olympic titles in one event. While I don’t believe he will (see my predictions), let’s take a look at some history in the event. When Phelps has won the event in both Athens and Beijing, he has qualified first for the final quite comfortably. He made it very clear in Beijing that he wanted lane four, and he got it with a then-Olympic record of 4:07.82.

Of course, Phelps ended up swimming four seconds faster in the final, and the swimmers tomorrow will chase that world record he set, 4:03.84. In prelims, though, Phelps and two-time World champ Ryan Lochte would both love to take lane four to set themselves up well for the final, but both men know that any of the middle four lanes would suit them just fine for the final.

I expect an American 1-2 finish in the event, the fourth in the past five Olympics, but if anyone wants to challenge Phelps and Lochte, they need to make a statement in the prelims. In Beijing, Laszlo Cseh broke 4:10 in prelims to put himself alongside Phelps for the final, and he ended up with the silver medal. Cseh has struggled the last year or so, missing the final at Worlds in the 400 IM, so he, too, would love to see an excellent swim in the morning.

Next, we move onto the women’s 100 fly, an event where prelims have proved critical in the last four years. At the Worlds in 2009 in Rome, Sarah Sjostrom led the way through prelims and semis on her way to a win in the final. Dana Vollmer did the same last year in Shanghai. Both made statements early on that someone else would have to put up a remarkable swim to take the gold medal. I expect that whoever ends up winning the 100 fly will make a statement in their first swim.

The men’s 400 free comes next, the same event in which Park Tae Hwan won the World title from lane one. Sun Yang set himself up as the event favorite last summer when he cruised to lane four in prelims, but Park destroyed the field from outside of everyone’s view. Other than Park, though, prelims told a lot about the event in Shanghai last summer. After disappointing swims the previous year in the 400 free, both Paul Biedermann and Peter Vanderkaay moved into medal contention with strong swims in the prelims on their way to a 3-4 finish in the final. Lackluster prelim swims from Yannick Agnel and Ous Mellouli, meanwhile, indicated that neither would factor into the medal chase.

Elizabeth Beisel won the women’s 400 IM at Worlds last year after qualifying first, but she qualified first in Beijing, too, and she ended up finishing fourth there. Kirsty Coventry, meanwhile, took the silver in both Beijing and Rome from out in lane one, and Stephanie Rice won the bronze last summer from lane two. For the women’s 400 IM, unlike the men, where two men dominate the event, the top threats just need to get into the final. Too often do swimmers exert too much energy in the prelims of an event like that and have nothing left to go for the final. For example, only swims well under 4:40 got into the final in Beijing, but at least two did not break the mark in the final. Don’t judge too much based on the prelims.

In Rome three years ago, Brenton Rickard swam a 58.98 Championships record in the prelims of the men’s 100 breast, then the second-fastest time ever. Rickard got into the final that night, and he took the gold with a new world record, 58.58. Two years later in Shanghai, the late Alexander Dale Oen qualified first in both prelims and semis on the way to an impressive win in the final. Though favorite Kosuke Kitajima often conserves energy through the early rounds, anyone who wants to beat him needs to swim a big race in prelims. That includes World Championship medalists Fabio Scozolli and Cameron van der Burgh, 2004 silver medalist Brendan Hansen, and even Rickard.

At the same time, some athletes always break out in prelims of this event – Glenn Snyders finished near the top of the pile in prelims in Shanghai – before missing out of the final altogether. We saw the same thing at Olympic Trials, where prelims top qualifier John Criste couldn’t swim nearly as fast at night and couldn’t even slip into the final. A fast swim in prelims will set up any medal contender, but even the top qualifier must get the job done in the semi-finals before eight men swim for the medals on Sunday night.

Finally, I wanted to explain my logic behind one particular Olympic prediction. While usually I feel no need to share my thinking on picks, the men’s 200 IM presents an extremely interesting situation next week. Lochte holds the world record, and I think he remains the best 200 IM swimmer in the world. I picked Phelps, though, because Lochte will swim the 200 IM final minutes after the 200 back final. Lochte might not have to give 100% effort to win the 200 back, but I think the first race takes the edge off of him to give the advantage to the greatest of all time.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

London 2012: Predictions

London 2012 has arrived. On Saturday, Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, and Laszlo Cseh will step onto the blocks for the men’s 400 IM to kick off the swimming competition, and right here, I have predicted the finishes of every event in the pool. No other predictions influenced my thoughts here; I decided on most events in the week after the U.S. Olympic Trials wrapped up, though I struggled picking some of the medalists. For example, I made tough decisions to leave Brent Hayden out of the top three in the men’s 100 free and Caitlin Leverenz out of the medals in the women’s 200 IM. The days and weeks of speculation have ended. Who will take home the hardware?

Swimming World will host a prediction contest for the Olympics, led by user Aquanaut. Aquanaut has included a winning time prediction in his contest. I know, been a few years since I’ve been brave enough to call times, but I’ll give that a shot. Don’t laugh at me if I’m off!

Men:
50 Free
1. Cesar Cielo, Brazil – 21.21
2. Anthony Ervin, USA
3. James Magnussen, Australia

100 Free
1. James Magnussen, Australia – 47.15
2. Cesar Cielo, Brazil
3. Nathan Adrian, USA

200 Free
1. Ryan Lochte, USA – 1:43.67
2. Yannick Agnel, France
3. Park Tae Hwan, South Korea

400 Free
1. Sun Yang, China – 3:40.70
2. Park Tae Hwan, South Korea
3. Paul Biedermann, Germany

1500 Free
1. Sun Yang, China – 14:33.25 WR
2. Ryan Cochrane, Canada
3. Ous Mellouli, Tunisia

100 Back
1. Matt Grevers, USA – 51.88 WR
2. Camille Lacourt, France
3. Ryosuke Irie, Japan

200 Back
1. Ryan Lochte, USA – 1:52.88
2. Ryosuke Irie, Japan
3. Tyler Clary, USA

100 Breast
1. Kosuke Kitajima, Japan – 58.69
2. Fabio Scozolli, Italy
3. Brendan Hansen, USA

200 Breast
1. Daniel Gyurta, Hungary – 2:07.72
2. Kosuke Kitajima, Japan
3. Marco Koch, Germany

100 Fly
1. Michael Phelps, USA – 50.33
2. Milorad Cavic, Serbia
3. Konrad Czerniak, Poland

200 Fly
1. Michael Phelps, USA – 1:52.09
2. Takeshi Matsuda, Japan
3. Chad Le Clos, South Africa

200 IM
1. Michael Phelps, USA – 1:53.67 WR
2. Ryan Lochte, USA
3. Laszlo Cseh, Hungary

400 IM
1. Ryan Lochte, USA – 4:05.12
2. Michael Phelps, USA
3. Laszlo Cseh, Hungary

400 Free Relay
1. Australia – 3:09.93
2. USA
3. France

800 Free Relay
1. USA – 6:59.45
2. France
3. Russia

400 Medley Relay
1. USA – 3:29.88
2. Australia
3. France

Women:
50 Free
1. Ranomi Kromowidjojo, Netherlands – 23.94
2. Therese Alshammar, Sweden
3. Britta Steffen, Germany

100 Free
1. Ranomi Kromowidjojo, Netherlands – 52.70
2. Fran Halsall, Great Britain
3. Sarah Sjostrom, Sweden

200 Free
1. Allison Schmitt, USA – 1:54.17
2. Camille Muffat, France
3. Federica Pellegrini, Italy

400 Free
1. Camille Muffat, France – 4:01.35
2. Federica Pellegrini, Italy
3. Rebecca Adlington, Great Britain

800 Free
1. Rebecca Adlington, Great Britain – 8:15.97
2. Lotte Friis, Denmark
3. Katie Ledecky, USA

100 Back
1. Missy Franklin, USA – 58.66
2. Anastasia Zueva, Russia
3. Zhao Jing, China

200 Back
1. Missy Franklin, USA – 2:04.63 WR
2. Belinda Hocking, Australia
3. Elizabeth Beisel, USA

100 Breast
1. Rebecca Soni, USA – 1:04.76
2. Yuliya Efimova, Russia
3. Leisel Jones, Australia

200 Breast
1. Rebecca Soni, USA – 2:19.81 WR
2. Yuliya Efimova, Russia
3. Satomi Suzuki, Japan

100 Fly
1. Dana Vollmer, USA – 56.12
2. Sarah Sjostrom, Sweden
3. Alicia Coutts, Australia

200 Fly
1. Jiao Liuyang, China – 2:04.24
2. Ellen Gandy, Great Britain
3. Natsumi Hoshi, Japan

200 IM
1. Yi Siwen, China – 2:08.73
2. Stephanie Rice, Australia
3. Alicia Coutts, Australia

400 IM
1. Elizabeth Beisel, USA – 4:30.21
2. Hannah Miley, Great Britain
3. Stephanie Rice, Australia

400 Free Relay
1. Netherlands – 3:33.26
2. USA
3. Australia

800 Free Relay
1. USA – 7:42.45
2. Australia
3. China

400 Medley Relay
1. USA – 3:51.67 WR
2. Australia
3. China
I pick Elizabeth Beisel to win gold in the 400 IM and set a new American record.