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.

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