Sunday, July 29, 2012

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.

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