Thursday, July 26, 2012

London 2012: Pre-Day One, Part Four

Two years ago, one man stood above all else as the king of backstroke, especially the 100 distance: Aaron Peirsol. He held the world record at 51.94, and no one expected anyone to get close to that for years. Then, at the European Championships, along came Frenchman Camille Lacourt, who shocked the world with a 52.11 in the 100 back, the second-fastest time in history. Peirsol, meanwhile, could not swim within a second of that time all year.

Before he got a chance to face off with Lacourt at the World Championships the next year, Peirsol announced his retirement in January, 2011. Lacourt and countryman Jeremy Stravius ended up tying for the win in the event at the Worlds in Shanghai, but the 52.76 the two posted did not beat bronze medalist Ryosuke Irie by all that much. Additionally, Stravius did not qualify for London in the 100 back. After four straight American Olympic gold medalists, Lacourt had established himself as the event’s clear favorite.

Olympic silver medalist Matt Grevers did not qualify to swim at the World Championships, while Nick Thoman and David Plummer swam themselves to impressive fourth and fifth-place finishes, respectively. Going into Trials, I expected Grevers to face off with Thoman and Plummer for the two spots on the Olympic team. I hoped to see at least one swim under 53, but I did not have any crazy expectations. In prelims, Grevers put on a show with a fast 52.90, but we hadn’t seen much else headed into finals. What happened then shocked me.

“I had to do a double take with the clock because I thought it was wrong.” Rowdy Gaines spoke those words moments after the Olympic Trials final of the men’s 100 back. We all did, Rowdy. Grevers won the final in 52.08, surpassing Lacourt for the second-fastest time all-time. Thoman edged Plummer for second, both surpassing the 53 second-barrier, while Ben Hesen stayed in the mix until the end, posting a 53.03. While Thoman’s 52.86 ranked third in the world and could certainly challenge for a medal, Grevers’ time changed the event’s complexion.

Four years have passed since an American medaled in the 100 back – that coming when Peirsol and Grevers finished 1-2 in 2008 – but Grevers has positioned himself to reclaim American dominance in London. Sure, Lacourt won’t go down easily, but he has moved into the range of the world record, and Grevers can drop 0.14 to get to Peirsol’s 51.94. I expect a very interesting race, with Irie, Thoman, and Brit Liam Tancock all pushing hard for medals, but Grevers and Lacourt stand ahead of this field. If it comes down to the touch, remember which one is 6’8” with a nearly seven-foot wingspan.

After some in-depth analysis of some interesting events coming up, time to sit back and anticipate the first day of action in London next Saturday. The world has awoken to the sport of swimming, and our sport has generated excitement these past few weeks like never before, except for maybe around the 2008 Olympics. My predictions will be up later in the week, and be on the look-out for a post or two per day during the Games, definitely after finals and hopefully after prelims as well.

I am also excited to announce that I will be blogging during the Games for my local NBC affiliate, WCBD News 2. All finals blogs will double-post both here and on News 2’s website. My first blog has already gone up; if you want to educate your friends on the basics of Olympic swimming, have them check it out. I cover all the major medal contenders we will see in London. The build-up is nearly complete; London, here we come.

Nick Thoman has a history of excellent double tapers. He'll need one to medal in London.

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