Saturday, July 28, 2012

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 

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