Monday, August 27, 2012

Quick Splashes: Jr. Pan Pacs, Diving, and More

Yeah, I know, the title’s cheesy. Better suggestions? Please, leave your thoughts in the comments below or tweet them to me. Much has happened in the two weeks since the Olympic Games ended, mostly in the world of junior swimming. No one has drawn more attention as of late than Japan’s Akihiro Yamaguchi. Just 18, Yamaguchi swam times of 59.56 in the 100 breast and 2:07.84 in the 200 breast earlier in the month at a high school meet. Just to prove those swims weren’t flukes, he won both events in Hawaii at Junior Pan Pacs last week in times just marginally slower.

Just how fast, you might wonder? Yamaguchi’s time in the 200 breast would have won a bronze in the 200 breast ahead of countryman Ryo Tateishi, and that’s faster than Tateishi or Kosuke Kitajima swam this year. No one in the world beat that time the last two years. The 100 time wouldn’t have medalled in London, but it would have put him into the final. At the very least, he can provide a solid replacement for the retiring Kitajima on the medley relays, and he could be a real threat to win the 200 breast world title as early as next year.

For the American men, Jack Conger and Chase Kalisz starred at Jr. Pan Pacs. Conger won both backstrokes in impressive times – 54.07 in the 100 and 1:57.20 – and he threw in a 50 free win to show off his versatility. Having already rocked the high school swimming world with an impressive time in the 500 of 4:17.51 this winter, Conger will be a blue-chip recruit coming out of high school this fall, and he could make a splash with the U.S. National team sooner rather than later.

As for Kalisz, he should be favored to make the U.S. World Championship team next summer. Yes, Kalisz hasn’t even begun his freshman year at Georgia, and no non-professional swimmer even made the Olympic team this summer. Kalisz, though, has emerged as one of the top IM prospects for the U.S. in this Olympiad. Kalisz won the 400 IM in Hawaii in 4:12.59, good for 14th in the world and fourth-best among Americans. However, with Michael Phelps retiring and Ryan Lochte stepping away from the event, Kalisz has to be a favorite alongside Tyler Clary to make the World Champs team in the 400 IM. With the incredible amounts of time Kalisz keeps dropping, don’t be surprised if he’s much faster a year from now.

For the women, 14 year old Becca Mann took three wins in the three toughest races – the 400 IM, mile, and 10k open water. After making four finals at Olympic Trials, watch for her to take the next step in 2013. Like Mann, Allie Szekely hopes her Trials notoriety leads to some international success down the road. The winner of the much-hyped swim-off for 17th place in the 200 breast in Omaha, Szekely swept the breaststroke events at Junior Nationals with a 2:26.35 in the 200. Remember, she didn’t break 2:30 in that swim-off, and a 2:26 would have made the finals at Trials.

Four years ago, Dagny Knutson used a strong performance at Olympic Trials, where she finished seventh in the 200 IM, as a springboard to a breakout fall. Knutson took off in the freestyle and IM events, including a short course yards American record in the 400 IM, and she went on to win relay medals at two straight World Championships. Knutson, however, did not swim at Olympic Trials this summer, and she recently told her story of a fight with bulimia to Swimming World. Check out all five parts, posted together here. You will find an inspiring story.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens cut kicker Billy Cundiff over the weekend. Cundiff’s name might sound familiar after he missed an easy kick in the AFC Championship Game that would have sent the game into overtime and given the Ravens a shot at the Super Bowl. The Ravens signed rookie Justin Tucker to compete with Cundiff, and Tucker ended up winning the job. What does this have to do with swimming? Tucker’s sister Samantha swims at the University of Texas and has long popped up at national meets in the sprint events.

Speaking of football, most college campuses have their eyes firmly on the start of NCAA football this weekend. Not so much here at Duke. Two Olympic medalists returned to Duke this year, divers Abby Johnston and Nick McCrory. Johnston won silver in the women’s three-meter synchro, and McCrory took bronze in the men’s synchro platform. The pair welcomed my freshman class to campus last week, and today they helped some prospective divers learn the skill. While I was swimming, I dealt with the distractions of splashes and clunks while the Olympians perfectly slipped into the water. In case anyone asked, diving isn’t easy.

UPDATE: I have learned that those "prospective divers" turned out to be minor league baseball players with the Durham Bulls. Nick and Abby threw out the first pitches at the Bulls' game against the Norfolk Tides, so the Bulls decided to visit the divers in their element. Having been at the game as well (by coincidence), let's just say that the divers had more success on land than the baseball players on the boards.

Olympic medalists Abby Johnston and Nick McCrory talked to the freshman class at Duke last week.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

London 2012: Day Thirteen, Part Two

I already took a look at today's women's 10k Open Water swim and tomorrow's men's race, as well as action at U.S. Open in Indianapolis; check out that post.

Meanwhile, we’ve got some swimming drama brewing. Some, including Swimming World’s Jeff Commings, have called for South African Cameron van der Burgh to give up his gold medal after admitting to taking extra dolphin kicks on his start. In his column, Jeff cites FINA’s use of video evidence to reinstate disqualified swimmers, including Park Tae Hwan in the 400 free at the Olympics, but I disagree with his logic and opinion. FINA has never used replay to disqualify a swimmer AFTER the fact, and the use of underwater footage in officiating remains disallowed.

Van der Burgh admitted to the extra kicks, but many of his competitors took extra kicks off the start as well. If FINA retroactively disqualifies him, half of the finalists probably deserve DQ’s. Who were the top eight swimmers that took no extra kicks? I can’t even say for sure that all made the semi-finals. At this point, FINA must admit that extra kicks have happened for years and allow the use of underwater cameras in the future to stop this bending of the rule. I don’t see any other way to rectify this situation.

In other news, members of FINA have shown interest in removing the women’s 800 free from the Olympic program and inserting the 1500, which would equalize the men’s and women’s Olympic programs for the first time in history. I agree that the men and women should swim the same events, but why not keep all the current events and insert the 800 for men and 1500 for women? I see no reason why there should be no event in swimming longer than 4 minutes and shorter than 15-16 minutes. That’s a huge gap that should remain filled with the 800.

Of course, if the extra distance events join the Olympic program, calls will reemerge for the 50s of stroke to become Olympic events as well. While I agree that these specialists definitely deserve their shot at Olympic glory, the IOC has shown no willingness to add events and certainly not eight more. With that said, equality in distance should come before the 50s, so I think FINA should focus its attention on that cause for now.

Meanwhile, the Olympics keep on going, and today one man received the crown as the world’s greatest athlete, American Ashton Eaton. While I enjoy watching the events, moreso I marvel at the competitors’ ability to perform at a top level in ten different events as dissimilar as the 100m dash and the javelin throw and the 1500 run, all within 36 hours. For sure, whoever wins deserves the title of the greatest at the moment. Meanwhile, Usain Bolt has earned his second gold medal of the Olympics in the 200m over countrymen Yohan Blake and Warren Weir. No one had ever before defended the gold in the 200m and certainly not won both the 100m and 200m in two straight Olympics.

While Bolt’s time of 19.32 missed his world record time of 19.19 and his Olympic record of 19.30 from four years ago, he has shown some serious mental and physical strength this week to defend his titles over the young Blake. Blake beat Bolt in both events in Jamaica’s Olympic Trials, and late last year, Blake posted a 19.28 in the 200, the second-fastest time ever. What a performance for Bolt to win once again. He will have one more gold medal shot at these Games in the 4x100 relay coming up later in the week, where the favored Jamaicans will need the talents of all three medalists in order to defend their title.

London 2012: Day Thirteen

Olympic swimming has returned. Four days after Nathan Adrian brought the pool swimming events to a close with a bang, the women returned for the 10k Open Water race. While Britain’s Keri-Anne Payne entered as the favorite, anything can happen in Open Water, depending on who executes their race strategy to the best of their ability. Speaking of strategy, Payne, Eva Risztov, and Melissa Gorman took the race out quickly, while American Haley Anderson surprised people when she hung right with the favorites from the start.

In only her second major international 10k, Anderson took the lead over the big names after the second of six laps of the Serpentine and held in the lead group the rest of the way. Risztov took the lead at the halfway point and held that lead the rest of the way. A lead pack consisting of Risztov, Anderson, Payne, Angela Maurer, and Martina Grimaldi pulled away with one lap to go before Risztov established a huge lead. Anderson, though, had none of that, making a furious charge at Risztov in the final meters before falling just four tenths of a second short. Grimaldi, meanwhile, out-touched Payne for the bronze.

All three earned the first Olympic medals ever for their country in Open Water and their first personal Olympic medals. Risztov had come close before, finishing fourth in the 400 IM eight years ago in Athens. For Anderson, meanwhile, that’s a fantastic performance after so little experience in international Open Water swimming and a breakthrough for the U.S. The sport still has a long way to grow in this country, but an Olympic medal should do wonders for its popularity and long-term American depth in the discipline.

Meanwhile, the men have their 10k tomorrow, and that promises another fantastic battle. The race features four past World Champions: Vladimir Dyatchin, Thomas Lurz, Valerio Cleri, and Spyridon Gianniotis. Ous Mellouli, the Beijing gold medalist in the 1500, will take a shot at the 10k, as will American Alex Meyer, Bulgaria’s Petar Stoychev, and Britain’s Daniel Fogg. I really don’t know who enters as the nominal favorite, but Lurz has done everything in Open Water besides winning Olympic gold. The bronze medalist four years ago, I pick Lurz to finish two better in London.

1. Thomas Lurz
2. Valerio Cleri
3. Alex Meyer

Meanwhile, back in the pool at the U.S. Open, Megan Romano has caught fire. After a series of extremely disappointing performances at Olympic Trials, she has already won two events in Indianapolis. She posted a 53.92 to win the 100 free, faster than Jessica Hardy’s winning time at Olympic Trials, and she came back a day later to post a 2:09.08 in the 200 back. Both performances have put her into the world top-20, and both would have given her a spot in the finals at Olympic Trials; she made neither final.

Don’t look now, but Kevin Cordes could break 1:00 in the 100 breast this week. Cordes led the entire way in the final of the 200 breast last night before BJ Johnson touched him out, 2:10.87 to 2:10.92. Cordes, who finished third in the 100 breast at Olympic Trials in 1:00.58, failed to swim faster than a 2:12.72 at Trials, so he’s showing some big improvements in just six weeks since Omaha. Before the age of 20, Cordes has already established himself as a key to the future in American men’s breaststroke.

More to come later on some of the drama in swimming this week and some of the ongoing events at the Olympics.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

London 2012: Day Eleven

After three long days without swimming, only one more remains until our favorite sport returns with the women’s 10k Open Water. 25 swimmers, most of whom did not compete in the pool events last week, and all from different countries, will race for gold on Thursday in the Serpentine. The British failed to win gold in any pool events, so Keri-Anne Payne carries the hopes of her country for swimming gold in the 10k. Payne enters her home Olympics as the two-time defending World Champion and thus the favorite for gold. Still, the entire race comes down to strategy, and whoever best executes their race plan will win gold.

Italy’s Martina Grimaldi finished second at Worlds to Payne last year, and Greece’s Marianna Lymperta took bronze, so both should be in medal contention. Australia’s Melissa Gorman should threaten for a medal, and veterans Poliana Okimoto and Angela Maruer could work their way into the mix. Meanwhile, the U.S. has Haley Anderson in the race after Anderson won the Olympic Qualifier race in Setubal, Portugal in June. Anderson, the NCAA Champion this year in the 500 free, has risen from a virtual unknown in open water to a darkhorse medal candidate after she beat out more prominent names for the one American spot in the race.

1. Keri-Anne Payne
2. Melissa Gorman
3. Poliana Okimoto

Meanwhile, the Olympics have gone on this week, and I’ve still been watching a lot of track and field, gymnastics, and diving, along with some lesser-known sports like track cycling. In diving tonight, China failed to win their sixth gold of these Olympics when Russia’s Ilya Zakharov took down China’s Qin Kai and He Chong in the men’s three-meter synchro. American Troy Dumais, meanwhile, finished fifth after an impressive final round dive. In three previous Olympic appearances, Dumais finished medal-less and sixth in this event all three times; after earlier winning a bronze in the synchro event, Dumais has to leave London happy with his performances.

Like I said, I’ve really been enjoying watching track cycling when NBC decides to air those events. Last night, Great Britain’s Jason Kenny took down France’s Gregory Bauge in two straight races of the men’s sprint. The two competitors raced head-to-head in three laps around the Velodrome, building from an extremely deliberate pace to a thrilling 10 second sprint around the track for gold. The gold medal comes down to ten seconds of utter fury and thrill, with just two competitors going for broke. Talk about a climatic finish to a gold medal chase.

Earlier today, I watched Americans April Ross and Jen Kessy play for the gold medal match in women’s beach volleyball. Already one set down and trailing 10-7 in the second, the pair clawed back to win in a deciding third set. Now, the pair takes on two-time gold medalists Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings in the final, with the Americans already assured of gold and silver. In men’s basketball, meanwhile, the Americans ended up getting by Argentina with little difficulty yesterday, but the Manu Ginobili-led squad had themselves down just one at the half. Now, the Americans prepare for a matchup with Australia tomorrow while keeping an eye on Argentina, who they could end up facing again in the semi-finals on Friday.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, the U.S. Open has kicked off in Indianapolis, where some of the just-missed from Olympic Trials have their sights set on the next four years already. I previewed the meet earlier today on Swimming World, and we’ve already seen some big swims on the first night. Megan Romano put up a fast time in the women’s 100 free in 53.92, which would have won Olympic Trials ahead of Jessica Hardy and ranks her in the world top-15. Only Missy Franklin and Hardy have swum faster among Americans this year.

Stephanie Peacock, meanwhile, put up a blistering swim in the women’s 800 free, an 8:24.36, which ranks her eighth in the world this year and third among Americans. Kelsey Floyd and Jasmine Tosky both put up 2:08s in the women’s 200 fly, while North Carolina’s Thomas Luchsinger won the men’s event in 1:57.51. All could challenge for the American World Championship team next year, but none may get the chance; this meet serves as the qualifier for next year’s World University Games, which may prevent the athletes from competing at Nationals next summer. That means that the outstanding performers here have big decisions to make.

The pool swimming just wrapped up in Beijing, but I’ve already started looking ahead to the next four years and the 2016 Olympics. I joined Jeff Commings on today’s Morning Swim Show to discuss some of the major storylines coming out of London, including who we think will take over as the dominant performers in swimming in the post-Michael Phelps era. Check out that interview below.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

London 2012: Day Nine

Swimming may have come to an end at these Olympics (pool swimming, that is), but I’ve still got quite a bit to say about the 2012 Olympics. While no other sport gets me quite as excited as swimming, a few other events today have a lot of key storylines surrounding them, and all provided or will provide some highlights for the day. Today, I had or will have my eyes on events in tennis, gymnastics, track, and back in the Aquatic Center for diving.

The day kicked off at Wimbledon with a rematch between Roger Federer and Andy Murray in the gold medal men’s tennis final. Federer beat Murray in four sets at Wimbledon last month as Murray faced huge pressure from his home country to win his first Grand Slam title. While Murray had his eyes on revenge and his first ever win in a best-of-three final, Federer sought to accomplish the Career Golden Slam – wins in all four Grand Slam tournaments and the Olympic gold. Murray, though, dominated the greatest tennis player of all time, winning 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 to the roars of his home crowd.

I predicted that Murray would take the win over Federer; when a great player gets a second chance after losing to the same opponent so recently, he will usually take advantage of that opportunity. Murray finally came through today, and I think that sets him up for a run at his first Grand Slam title at the upcoming U.S. Open. I picked Novak Djokovic to beat Juan Martin del Potro to earn his second-straight Olympic bronze, but del Potro beat the former world number one for his first Olympic medal.

American McKayla Maroney entered the women’s vault event in gymnastics as the heavy gold medal favorite. On her first attempt, Maroney put up the top vault of the day, but she shockingly fell down on her second attempt. Maroney ended up with the silver behind Romania’s Sandra Izbasa after the judges averaged the two scores. For sure, Maroney’s silver medal counts as an upset for the usually-perfect vault specialist. No one expected Maroney to finish anywhere besides the top of the podium, especially after Bela Karolyi marveled that her vault in the team final did not earn perfect marks.

No upsets came in diving today as Wu Minxia earned her sixth Olympic medal and the fifth gold medal in diving for China at these Olympics. With the win, Wu tied Guo Jingjing as the most decorated diver in history. China struck again when He Zi took silver, and Mexico’s Laura Sanchez Soto took bronze. Cassidy Krug from the U.S. stood well within medal contention before the final round, hanging right in with Sanchez Soto and Italy’s Tania Cagnotto before falling to seventh place. Still, the Americans have already won three diving medals, three more than they had in the last two Olympics combined, and they still have more medal chances coming up this week.

Finally, we’ve got a big race coming up in minutes in the men’s 100m dash. Jamaica’s Yohan Blake will start from lane five (the fastest lane), with Americans Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin on either side of him. Blake won the World title last year after countryman Usain Bolt false started. Bolt, of course, won gold in Beijing and holds the world record at 9.58. Blake beat Bolt and former world record-holder Asafa Powell at Jamaica’s Olympic Trials, but he faces a much deeper field tonight, and a medalist could come from any lane.

After Gay failed to final four years ago, Bolt and Powell entered the final as the favorites, but Powell ended up off the medal podium after Trinidad and Tobago’s Richard Thompson and the U.S.’s Walter Dix overpowered him. Thompson got into the final this time, and he could pull a surprise medal finish from lane two. American Ryan Bailey led the field through the first round, and he’s in the field, along with Powell and Dutchman Churandy Martina. He has some major challengers, but Bolt knows how to come through when the stakes reach their highest. He should take gold.

1. Usain Bolt
2. Yohan Blake
3. Justin Gatlin

I’ve been participating in ESPN’s London Pick’em with very mediocre results. For most sports, I’m guessing on my picks, and most questions involve asking if something will happen or not. For example, one asks if the American men’s basketball team will beat Lithuania by 25 points or if the game will finish in some other result. While the Americans won, Lithuania hung in until the very end and only lost by 5, so I got no credit. Still, I’m enjoying making the picks. So far today, I’m an impressive 7-for-11, though I don’t expect to come close to my record in picking swimming finals, where I finished 21-for-32 (in my original picks).

Saturday, August 4, 2012

London 2012: Day Eight Finals

After eight days of extraordinary competition, Olympic swimming wrapped up today with four more Olympic finals. Each final played out about as I had expected, with no major upsets for the first time in the eight finals. The night kicked off with the women’s splash-and-dash where Ranomi Kromowidjojo earned the sprint double that Britta Steffen picked up four years ago. Kromowidjojo had a horrible finish, but she still touched in 24.05 to break Steffen’s Olympic record of 24.06. Meanwhile, Aliaksandra Herasimenia took second, just as she did in the 100 free, while Marleen Veldhuis made it two Dutch women on the podium when she took third.

In her third individual Olympic final, Veldhuis finally picked up her long-awaited first individual medal. She held the world record briefly in 2008 before finishing off the podium in Beijing, and she left the sport for a time in 2010 to have a daughter. Tonight, after so many relay medals, the 33 year old finally got on the podium by herself. Steffen, meanwhile, finished fourth, while Jessica Hardy concluded her first Olympics with a seventh-place finish in 24.62.

Entering the men’s 1500, Sun Yang hoped to become just the second man to win multiple Olympic golds in London after Michael Phelps. Sun, the heavy favorite, faced a scare before the race, though, diving in when the starter commanded the final heat to “stand.” Sun dove in the water alone and stopped before punching the water, dejected. However, the referees let Sun swim, and he swam away. The Chinese star swam under world record-pace the whole way and blazed home in 53.49 to secure the new global mark, 14:31.02. Next stop for him could be a sub-14:30 swim, and Barcelona provides an ideal venue for that swim at Worlds next summer.

While Sun swam for gold, the other seven in the field raced for silver. 200 and 400 free runner-up Park Tae Hwan showed some early speed from lane seven, but Ryan Cochrane took over second and hung in that spot. Defending champion Ous Mellouli let Cochrane and Park swim ahead of him early on before blasting past Park and almost catching Cochrane in a fantastic last 100. Cochrane, however, hung on for second and became the fourth man ever under 14:40 with his 14:39.63, while Mellouli took third. American Connor Jaeger, meanwhile, closed well to take sixth in 14:52.99.

With the individual events in the books, the American women stepped up for the 400 medley relay. Missy Franklin took the lead, Rebecca Soni built upon that lead, and Dana Vollmer and Allison Schmitt blew the race wide open. Off a blistering 55.42 leg from Vollmer, the Americans moved under world record-pace, and Schmitt held on for a 3:52.05, the fastest swim ever. Australia took second in 3:54.01 as Leisel Jones tied Ian Thorpe for the most medals by an Australian with nine, as Jones swam most likely her final  career race. Japan, meanwhile, earned bronze after Aya Terakawa and Satomi Suzuki got their team off to a fast start.

Led by that foursome, the American women won two relay gold medals and seven total golds, a five-medal improvement over their total fur years ago. While Soni and Vollmer may take some time to decide on their futures, Franklin and Schmitt will lead this team for the next Olympiad. Franklin will leave the Olympics with four golds and one bronze, becoming the second American after Amy van Dyken to earn four golds in one Olympics. Franklin led off all three American relays, while Schmitt, the winner of five medals and two golds, anchored all three. The American team stands as the strongest it has in a very long time.

Finally, the men’s 400 medley relay ended the Olympics as always, and the relay ended the career of the great Michael Phelps. Matt Grevers, Brendan Hansen, and Phelps staked the Americans out to a slight lead over Japan, and Nathan Adrian exploded on the anchor leg, splitting a 46.85 on the way to a 3:29.35. Adrian leaves London as one of the best sprinters in the world, a title he may have earned outright had he gotten the opportunity to swim the 50 free. With Phelps and Hansen finally wrapping up their legendary careers and Grevers’ future unclear, Adrian should be a bright spot for the Americans for years to come.

Japan took silver tonight, with Kosuke Kitajima most likely swimming his final race, while Australia took third. However, all the focus surrounded Phelps for good reason. Phelps redefined the boundaries of swimming over the past 12 years and dominating the sport like no one will ever again. Certainly the greatest swimmer of all-time, Phelps makes a strong case for greatest Olympian of all-time, which FINA recognized with a statue tonight. No swimmer won more than two individual golds this week, making Phelps’ achievement of five four years ago seem all that more impressive. Thank you, Michael Phelps. Thank you for changing the sport of swimming.

London 2012: Day Eight Finals Predictions

Well, after eight days, the end has arrived. 28 Olympic swimming finals later, only four races remain at the London Aquatic Center. All four finals have big gold medal favorites, but we've seen more upsets than one can count at these Games, and knowing that, something shocking will transpire on the final night of action. Still, that's not going to stop me from predicting these four finals, just as I have the others.

One quick note: based on Jessica Hardy's tweets, I now believe Allison Schmitt will anchor the U.S. women's 400 medley relay, as she has both the 400 free and 800 free relays. Hardy will also swim the 50 free tonight, and a fresher Schmitt certainly should have more in the tank than a fatigued Hardy. Hardy, though, swam in the prelims of the relay yesterday, and so she will earn and gold medal if the Americans, as expected, take home top honors.

Women's 50 Free
1. Ranomi Kromowidjojo
2. Marleen Veldhuis
3. Britta Steffen

Men's 1500 Free
1. Sun Yang
2. Ryan Cochrane
3. Ous Mellouli

Women's 400 Medley Relay
1. United States
2. Australia
3. China

Men's 400 Medley Relay
1. United States
2. Australia
3. Japan

Friday, August 3, 2012

London 2012: Day Seven Finals

As the Olympics kicked off, the American team appeared to have lost some of its utter dominance as swimming’s powerhouse. Sure, the Stars and Stripes picked up a handful of gold medals over the first few days of the meet, but not without some surprising losses along the way. Elizabeth Beisel led the women’s 400 IM until Yi Shiwen absolutely obliterated her on the freestyle, and Ryan Lochte and the American men suffered a similar come-from-behind loss in the 400 free relay the next day. A day later, Rebecca Soni suffered a stunning loss in the 100 breast, as did Michael Phelps the next day in the 200 fly.

Over the second half of the swimming competition, though, things have picked up for the U.S. Starting with the men’s 100 free on Wednesday and lasting through the women’s 800 free today, the Americans won eight of nine gold medals awarded. First off tonight, Missy Franklin won gold in the women’s 200 back. Most expected Franklin to win gold fairly comfortably and potentially challenge Kirsty Coventry’s world record of 2:04.81. The normally-fast-finishing Franklin didn’t wait long to take over the race, touching first at the 50. Less than a tenth off world record-pace, Franklin stormed away from Coventry’s pace on her way to an unbelievable 2:04.06.

No one could come close to Franklin the whole way, and the rest of the seven competitors set their sights on silver. Anastasia Zueva, previously the second-fastest swimmer all-time, overtook Elizabeth Simmonds halfway through the race and held off Elizabeth Beisel for silver with a 2:05.92. Beisel, meanwhile, took bronze in 2:06.55; this time, when she embraced the victor Franklin, she did so with her customary smile, not the disgusted expression she featured after a disappointing finish at Worlds last summer. Meanwhile, Coventry’s distinguished career most likely came to a close with a sixth-place finish in 2:08.18.

In my blog this morning, I predicted Michael Phelps to destroy the field in the men’s 100 fly and record an outstanding time; Phelps got his gold and the second threepeat ever for a man, but he won the race in ugly fashion. Going out in seventh place, Phelps needed his patented closing finish to win in 51.21, much slower than the 50.86 he swam in the semi-finals. Chad Le Clos, meanwhile, continued his outstanding meet to tie Evgeny Korotyshkin for silver in 51.44, while Milorad Cavic’s comeback from injury ended with a fourth-place time of 51.81; he took the race out fast, as expected, but he didn’t have quite enough to hang on for a medal.

The gold medal winners in the night’s first two events shocked no one; right on schedule, Katie Ledecky reminded the world just how shockingly these Olympics have turned out. Rebecca Adlington started the race as the top qualifier and huge crowd favorite, though many expected 2009 World Champion Lotte Friis to give her a fight, just like she did at Worlds last year. Meanwhile, Ledecky, the 15 year old American had a great shot as a medal after her blazing 8:19.78 at U.S. Olympic Trials. Ledecky shocked the crowd at Trials when she took the race out with blazing speed and had enough left to hold onto that pace the whole way.

Ledecky employed the same strategy tonight, leading the way out, except for flipping second at the 100 behind Friis. When she pulled a bodylength ahead, I pulled up her results from Trials and noticed that she had obliterated those splits. After swimming her best time in the 400 along the way with a 4:04.34, Ledecky hung onto world record-pace until the last 50, but she finished up in 8:14.63, the second-fastest time ever and well under Janet Evans’ legendary American record of 8:16.22, a mark which lasted 23 years. Ledecky could have a huge future ahead of her, having dropped more than ten seconds off her best time in the last five weeks.

Adlington, meanwhile, overtook Friis and swam in second place for most of the race before Spain’s Mireia Belmonte overtook her and swam to a surprise silver medal. Belmonte touched in 8:18.76 for her second medal of the Games following her silver in the 200 fly. Adlington, meanwhile, earned bronze, her second of the Games, in 8:20.32. After facing years of pressure, Adlington fell short of the high expectations her home nation had for her, but she graciously accepted her medal and posed for pictures with Ledecky, tears in her eyes. The crowd, though, lifted her with the chant of “BECKY! BECKY!” as one of the greats of British swimming walked off the pool deck.

The men’s 50 free finished off the night. Entering that race, the U.S. had won eight of the last nine golds awarded in the pool, but Cesar Cielo entered the race as the big favorite. Americans Cullen Jones and Anthony Ervin walked out for the Olympic final in lanes five and three, respectively, with perhaps the best upset shot. With Cielo’s Brazlian teammate Bruno Fratus in lane six, the world had their eyes focused on America and Brazil. Frenchman Florent Manaudou had other thoughts though, blasting out in front from the start and comfortably winning gold in 21.34.

Manaudou shocked the world to earn the gold, but most swimming enthusiasts know the name; the brother of 2004 gold medalist Laure, Manaudou’s sister raced out onto the pool deck to embrace her brother after the swim of his life. Jones, meanwhile earned his first individual Olympic medal with a silver, matching his semi-final time of 21.54; that marks a huge improvement for Jones over the form we saw at Worlds last year, where he didn’t even get into the semi-finals. Meanwhile Cielo had to settle for third in a very disappointing time of 21.59, while Ervin’s comeback didn’t work out as he had hoped, and he settled for fifth.

One last semi-final wrapped up qualifying for these Olympic Games in the women’s 50 free. Ranomi Kromowidjojo remains the huge favorite, leading the way into the final at 24.07. Kromowidjojo qualified more than four tenths ahead of anyone else, with 100 free runner-up Aliaksandra Herasimenia picking up the second spot in 24.45. Defending gold medalist Britta Steffen got into the final, as did World Champ Therese Alshammar, who squeazed into the eighth spot. Jessica Hardy also qualified for the final in an outside lane, and she goes for a medal tomorrow after putting up a 24.68 in the semi-finals.

London 2012: Day Seven Prelims

After seven days and 32 events, prelims have concluded. Four more events kicked off on day seven, including the two meet-ending 400 medley relays. Before that, though, the women’s sprinters got their chance to kick off the 50 free, and an interesting prelims left most of the top contenders spread throughout the top-16. No one doubts who should win gold in the men’s 1500, where most expect Sun Yang to break his own world record and back up his world title with Olympic gold. Meanwhile, the Americans remain the favorite in both medley relays, but the Australian women may have something to say about that.

Ranomi Kromowidjojo has her sights set on becoming the world’s top sprinter after her win in the 100 free, and she led the way in the 50 in 24.51. She will have some familiar company at the top, though, as Dutch teammate Marleen Veldhuis qualified second ahead of Britain’s Fran Halsall and defending champion Britta Steffen. World Champion Therese Alshammar got into the semi-finals after withdrawing from the first week of action with a pinched nerve, while Auburn star Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace tied for seventh in 24.85.

Reigning Olympic bronze medalist Cate Campbell got into the semi-final in 10th, just behind sister Bronte, after she withdrew from the 100 free with illness. American Jessica Hardy qualified 12th in 24.99, but Hardy can go a lot faster, and she will need to; however, her Olympic Trials time of 24.50 should get her into the final. Kara Lynn Joyce, meanwhile, won’t get into her third straight Olympic final after she got into a three-way tie for 16th in 25.28. Joyce couldn’t overcome Brit Amy Smith in the swim-off, as the British crowd pushed Smith to a 24.82.

Sun Yang absolutely dominated the men’s 1500 at the World Championships last year, and he already has control of the event after prelims. Sun put up a 14:43.25, faster than the winning time in all but the last Olympic final. Speaking of that last Olympic final, only the defending champion hung within three seconds of Sun. Swimming in his first race of the week, Ous Mellouli put up a 14:46.23 for second overall, his fastest time since 2009. Another Olympic medalist from four years got into the final as Ryan Cochrane put up a 14:49.31 for third.

Park Tae Hwan got into his first major final of the mile with a 14:56.89, but he has already put up a 14:47.38 this year, and he could threaten as a darkhorse medal contender. Meanwhile, American 1575 free star Connor Jaeger touched out Poland’s Mateusz Sawrymowicz for the seventh seed, both in the 14:57-range, leaving Andrew Gemmell on the outside looking in. Gemmell’s 14:59.05 fell well short of the 14:52.19 he threw down for the win at Olympic Trials. As for Sawrymowicz, he won the World title in the event back in 2007, and he has made a resurgence over the last couple of years.

The U.S. women have to enter the 400 medley relay as the favorites, but Australia won’t give up their title without a fight. Swimming most of their A-team in the prelims, Emily Seebohm, Leisel Jones, Alicia Coutts, and Brittany Elmslie cruised to the top qualifying time of 3:55.42. Melanie Schlanger should come into this team in the finals, and her 52.65 split from the 400 free relay would provide some improvement over Elmslie’s 53.44. Coutts, too, has room for improvement over her 57.45 split, having broken 57 in the 100 fly final.

The Americans, meanwhile, should keep Jessica Hardy on the freestyle leg, but they have Missy Franklin, Rebecca Soni, and Dana Vollmer coming into the team. Remember, two of those three won Olympic gold in their 100 stroke event, while Soni came up just short before breaking 2:20 in the 200 breast last night; the Americans thus remain the big favorites headed into the final. Japan should get off to a fast start with Aya Terakawa and Satomi Suzuki, but they don’t have the firepower on the back end. Also watch out for China, which has World Champ Zhao Jing joining the team, and the Dutch should bring Kromowidjojo in for the final.

The American men swam Nick Thoman, Eric Shanteau, Tyler McGill, and Cullen Jones on the prelims medley relay, none of whom will swim in the final. The American men already have two Olympic champions, Matt Grevers and Nathan Adrian, and 100 breast bronze medalist Brendan Hansen. Oh, and the greatest butterflyer ever will handle the fly leg after Michael Phelps swims his 100 fly final tonight. I can’t imagine this American foursome not winning the gold medal. Much to the thrill of the crowd, the British qualified second, while the always-dangerous Japanese took third, led by Ryosuke Irie and Kosuke Kitajima.

Australia qualified fourth, and they could have three new swimmers coming in for finals. Hayden Stoeckel will swim the backstroke, while silver medalists Christian Sprenger will handle the breaststroke leg and James Magnussen the freestyle. Meanwhile, Matt Targett put up an impressive 51.30 fly split this morning, so the coaches will have to pick between Targett and Chris Wright in the final. Still, neither can match with the likes of Phelps; Hansen should step up on his breaststroke leg, as he always does on relays, and I think the Americans pull away on the following butterfly leg.

For the second-to-last time, I have my finals predictions ready to go.

Women’s 200 Back
1. Missy Franklin
2. Elizabeth Beisel
3. Meagan Nay

Men’s 100 Fly
1. Michael Phelps
2. Chad Le Clos
3. Milorad Cavic

Women’s 800 Free
1. Rebecca Adlington
2. Lotte Friis
3. Katie Ledecky

Men’s 50 Free
1. Cesar Cielo
2. Anthony Ervin
3. Cullen Jones

Thursday, August 2, 2012

London 2012: Day Six Finals, Part Two

A world record went down in tonight’s finals, and a man finally achieved the three-peat. Check out my thoughts on those amazing races.

Ranomi Kromowidjojo entered the women’s 100 free as the big favorite, and she came through tonight. While she failed to match the fireworks of a 51.93 relay split, Kromowidjojo did enough to win, touching in 53.00 for a new Olympic record. Co-World Champion Aliaksandra Herasimenia gave Kromowidjojo a run on the first lap, but she had to settle for silver in a still-impressive 53.38. China’s Tang Yi, meanwhile, earned the bronze, while Missy Franklin took fifth in 53.64. While that missed her best time of 53.52 from the 400 free relay leadoff leg, that’s still a great swim coming after her 200 back semi-final.

The New World dominated the semi-finals in the men’s 50 free, as Cullen Jones tied defending champ Cesar Cielo for the win in semi-final one in 21.54. Cielo still holds the top time in the world at 21.38, but Jones improved on his Olympic Trials best time of 21.59 and just missed his American record of 21.41. Anthony Ervin qualified third in 21.62, and he will start from “lucky lane three” in the final. Why lucky? When Ervin tied Gary Hall Jr. for the gold medal in the 50 free in 2000, he swam in lane three. Watch out for Ervin; he’s dangerous.

Another Brazilian rounded out the top four with Bruno Fratus claiming lane six in a 21.63. Trinidad’s George Bovell, meanwhile, matched his prelims time to take fifth in 21.77, while Florent Manaudou, Eamon Sullivan, and Roland Schoeman rounded out a stacked final. Cielo remains the big favorites, but the Americans have put themselves in the best-possible position for the upset. Jones and Ervin both have looked great the past month, and both could have one more stellar swim to come.

Americans Elizabeth Beisel and Missy Franklin finished 1-2 in the semi-finals of the women’s 200 back with the only sub-2:07 swims. Beisel put up a fantastic swim and best time of 2:06.18 to take the top seed, while favorite Franklin grabbed the second spot. Belinda Hocking, one of only two women under 2:07 last year, did not get into the final, so the Americans enter as big favorites to finish 1-2. I’d pick Franklin for the win, though, and she could push Kirsty Coventry’s world record of 2:04.81. Meagan Nay and Anastasia Zueva swam under 2:08 to pick up the third and fourth seeds, respectively, while Kirsty Coventry has earned lane seven for the final in her shot to match Kristina Egerszegi with three straight golds in the event.

Tomorrow kicks off with the last session of swimming prelims at these Olympic Games. Kromowidjojo enters as the favorite to earn a second gold in the women’s 50 free, but World Champ Therese Alshammar hopes to bounce back from a pinched nerve and push her Dutch rival. Alshammar took silver in the event in 2000 to another Dutchwoman, the great Inge de Brujin. Meanwhile, Sun Yang leads the field into the men’s 1500 as the huge favorite, and he has his sights set on another world record, having put up his mark of 14:34.08 at Worlds last year. Defending champion Ous Mellouli, meanwhile, makes his London debut in that event, and watch out too for defending bronze medalist Ryan Cochrane and 200 and 400 free runner-up Park Tae Hwan.

The Olympics conclude with the women’s and men’s 400 medley relays. The Americans enter both as favorites, but second-string squads first have to qualify for the finals tomorrow. Rachel Bootsma, Breeja Larson, Claire Donahue, and Jessica Hardy swim for the women, while Nick Thoman, Eric Shanteau, Tyler McGill, and most likely Cullen Jones have the reins for the men. Expect the biggest challenges in both to come from Australia, but no other country enters with four great legs for either the men or women like the U.S. does.

London 2012: Day Six Finals

History wrote itself tonight at the London Aquatic Center. Yeah, I know, I said that on Tuesday when Michael Phelps broke the record with 19 Olympic medals and all that. Tonight, though, Phelps pulled off an achievement that some of the world’s greatest swimmers have fallen short of. Kieren Perkins, Pieter van den Hoogenband, Grant Hackett, Kosuke Kitajima, and Phelps himself have all fallen short within the last four Olympics, a total of seven attempts fallen short. Tonight, though, Phelps came through; the greatest of all time won the 200 IM for the third-straight Olympics in an impressive time of 1:54.27.

A threepeat makes any night historic; the history kept piling up tonight, though, as an iconic barrier went down in the women’s 200 breast. Coming off a surprising and disappointing silver medal-performance in the 100 breast, Rebecca Soni came so close to getting under 2:20 in the semi-finals, breaking the world record with a 2:20.00. Tonight, Soni took control of the race on the second lap, but she touched at the 100 in 1:08.10, 0.28 off her pace from last night. Stil, 0.12 down on world record-pace at the 150, Soni exploded down the last lap and touched in 2:19.59.

For two straight years, Soni came close to the world record, constantly tricking pundits into predicting the mark to fall. I expressed that sentiment to Dave Salo (Soni’s coach) at Olympic Trials, telling him that I’d been waiting years for that world record. Still, I kept a sneaking suspicion that she had something special coming in London, and she did. Soni needed that performance, though, as Satomi Suzuki and Yuliya Efimova both got under 2:21 to take silver and bronze in the fastest 200 breast heat in history. Suzuki earned Japan’s first silver medal after seven previous bronzes, including one from Suzuki herself in the 100 breast.

Next up, Americans Tyler Clary and Ryan Lochte entered as the top two qualifiers in the men’s 200 back, with Ryosuke Irie alongside Lochte in lane six. Most expected Lochte, though, to take over this race from the start and hang on. Lochte took the race out fast and led the way through the 150, but he never pulled away from the field. Lochte paid the price down the final lap, as Clary and Irie swam past him. In the end, Clary won his first Olympic medal, a gold. For the first time, Clary took a title on the international stage at the expense of the man he has joined on the podium so many times.

Clary touched the wall in 1:53.41, blasting more than a second off his lifetime best of 1:54.53, a time from the high-tech suit era.  Clary continued an American tradition in the backstrokes, all of which have featured American gold medalists for five straight Olympics. Since 1996, Jeff Rouse, Brad Bridgewater, Lenny Krayzelburg, Aaron Peirsol, Lochte, Matt Grevers, and now Clary have all won gold during that ten event streak. The U.S. has even held the top time in the world in the 200 back every year this century.

Clary held off Ryosuke Irie, who gave everything he had to finally get past Lochte, but he still had to look up at an American on the podium. You might think Irie has gotten sick of the Stars Spangled Banner, having finished behind an American 1-2 earlier in the week in the 100. Irie did manage a solid time, though, finally breaking 1:54 for the first time in a textile suit. Lochte, meanwhile, matched his winning time from four years ago, but this time, 1:53.94 only could manage him a bronze.

Lochte came back less than a half hour later, but he had to settle for a minor medal again; Lochte took the silver in the 200 IM in 1:54.90, nowhere close to his world record of 1:54.00 from last year. While that’s still an amazing performance to win two medals in such a short span of time, Lochte did not perform as he had hoped to in London. Still, he has indicated that he will return for another Olympiad, obviously good news for his legions of fans. Meanwhile, Laszlo Cseh earned his fifth Olympic medal, a bronze in 1:56.22. Every single time Cseh has stood on the Olympic podium, Phelps has won gold.

Phelps put on quite a show tonight. Immediately after receiving his Olympic gold from the 200 IM, Phelps walked out in lane four for semi-final one of the men’s 100 fly, and he threw down. He put up the top time in the world with a 50.86, leading the way into the semi-final, more than a half second ahead of anyone else. Phelps has speed, and he will win gold tomorrow. I think he’ll dominate the last lap and get under Ian Crocker’s textile best time of 50.40. Just a day after Phelps earned the first threepeat in men’s Olympic swimming history, I think he’ll put up another.

Milorad Cavic got into the final in fourth, and he should lead at the 50, but he has some tough competitors to hold off. Chad Le Clos qualified second in 51.42, and he has momentum on his side after his gold medal performance in the 200 fly. That said, I don’t think Le Clos has nearly enough speed to hang with Phelps here. Both World Championship medalists also got into the final; Tyler McGill enters the final seeded third with a 51.61, and Konrad Czerniak hopes for some outside smoke in lane one.

Check back later for my thoughts on the women’s 100 free and the remaining semi-final races from day six.

London 2012: Day Six Prelims

So unless I missed something, all of the top contenders cruised through the sixth day of prelims at the London Aquatic Center with no major casualties. Certainly, the drama of prelims has died down just a little bit since the incredible first few days of prelims. Maybe we all just expect major upsets now, so expectations have vanished. With only one session of prelims left, coming up tomorrow morning, here’s what I’ve got from today.

George Bovell has swum in a lot of Olympic Games, with the highlight coming back in 2004, when he earned a bronze in the 200 IM. After reinventing himself as a 50 freestyler, Bovell made the semi-finals in Beijing four years ago before tying for eighth the next year at the Worlds in Rome. Bovell swam off with Kristian Takacs and won in 21.20, a new Championships record. Bovell, though, couldn’t match that in his seventh-place finish in the finals, despite that his swim-off time would have won a silver.

Now, though, Bovell enters the Olympic semi-final as a medal favorite, clocking 21.77 in the heats. Defending champ Cesar Cielo and Bruno Fratus finished second and third in prelims, while Americans Anthony Ervin and Cullen Jones joined 2004 bronze medalist Roland Schoeman under 22 seconds and squarely in the medal chase. Despite his disappointing sixth place-finish in the 100 free, Cielo remains the gold medal favorite, but absolutely anything can happen in the 50 free. Anthony Ervin knows that; he tied for the gold in an unbelievable finish back in 2000, and he has his sights set on a podium return.

The two Australians, meanwhile, struggled this morning. James Magnussen entered as a medal favorite, but I’m not sure he has enough swagger left to make a medal run. Magnussen has not caught a break yet this week after his relay disappointment and a narrow loss to Nathan Adrian in the 100 free. Magnussen finished tenth this morning at 22.11, while former world record-holder Eamon Sullivan squeaked into the semis in 16th at 22.27. Sulivan provided a bright spot for the Aussies on the 400 free relay with a 47.68 split, so maybe he can find his old form one more time for a medal run.

The British liked the results of the women’s 800 free, where Rebecca Adlington edged Lotte Friis for the top seed with both checking in under 8:22. That’s the race for gold in those middle two lanes. American youngster Katie Ledecky admitted to some nerves in her first Olympic race, but she sure didn’t swim like it; Ledecky put up an 8:23.84 to comfortably earn the third seed for the final and firmly in the medal chase. Beyond those three, the rest of the final finished between 8:25 and 8:27. Kate Ziegler, meanwhile, touched in 8:37.38, the flu leading to a second-straight disappointing Olympic result.

Chad Le Clos won the Olympic gold in the 200 fly on Tuesday, and he has ridden that wave of momentum into the 100 fly. Le Clos took the top seed in 51.54, but Michael Phelps looms in 51.72. In a familiar scene, Phelps touched out Milorad Cavic to win the final heat, and Phelps looks strong in this 100 fly. If he does not win gold in the 200 IM tonight, he will have just one last shot for the three-peat, and the 100 fly may be his best; Phelps’ endurance has looked shaky this week, but no one can question that he has some speed that he didn’t four years ago.

Evgeny Korotyshkin, Cavic, Konrad Czerniak, Steffen Deibler, and Tyler McGill all got under the 52 second mark, setting up a fascinating semi-final tonight. I expect that anyone who wants to get safely into the final needs to swim under 51.8, maybe even faster. Watch out for Czerniak and McGill, especially, the pair who joined Phelps on the podium in the event at Worlds last year. McGill pushed Phelps all the way at Olympic Trials last month, and he expects a faster swim in London, one in the sub-51 range.

The U.S. led the way in the morning’s final event, the women’s 200 back. Missy Franklin led the way in 2:07.54, and Elizabeth Beisel finished second in 2:07.82. Franklin won gold at Worlds last year in a new American record, but Beisel has had far more mixed success in the 200 back. Beisel took bronze at Worlds in Rome three years ago, but she ended up fifth in Shanghai last year. While Franklin celebrated her first World title, Beisel embraced her before turning away, looking angry at her swim. Of course, she responded a day later with a World title in the 400 IM, but she has her sights set on a second Olympic medal in the 200 back.

While no man has ever won three straight golds in one event, two women have done so, Dawn Fraser in the 100 free and Kristina Egerszegi in the 200 back. Kirsty Coventry has her sights set on that same feat, as she could match Egerszegi with a third straight gold tomorrow. Coventry has one final in the book in the 200 IM, and she should move onto a third after qualifying third for semis with a 2:08.14. Franklin remains the big favorite, but Coventry’s medal hopes have risen over the course of these Games. Watch, too, for Aussies Meagan Nay and Belinda Hocking, fourth and fifth into the semis.

Well, enough of that; four big finals tonight, and let’s check out my picks.

Women’s 200 Breast
1. Rebecca Soni
2. Yuliya Efimova
3. Rikke Pederson

Men’s 200 Back
1. Ryan Lochte
2. Ryosuke Irie
3. Tyler Clary

Men’s 200 IM
1. Ryan Lochte
2. Michael Phelps
3. Laszlo Cseh

Women’s 100 Free
1. Ranomi Kromwidjojo
2. Melanie Schlanger
3. Fran Halsall

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

London 2012: Day Five Finals, Part Two

Don’t forget to check out my earlier post on the four finals on day five.

In Olympic history, only two men have ever won more than two individual Olympic gold medals in swimming at the same Olympics – Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps; tomorrow, a new member could join that club. Ryan Lochte enters the finals as the favorite in the finals of both the 200 back and 200 IM. Sure, Tyler Clary took the top seed in the 200 back in a fast 1:54.71 after shutting off the gas down the stretch, and world leader Ryosuke Irie will swim on the other side of Lochte, I think Lochte has enough power on his turns to pull ahead and take the gold in a 1:53-low.

Expect an extremely interesting race in the men’s 200 IM, where Lochte faces the great Michael Phelps, along with Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh and Brazil’s Thiago Pereira. That foursome finished within the top five at the 2004 Olympics and made up the top four four years ago in Beijing. Lochte looked like he had control in the semi-finals, and Phelps didn’t bother going after his countryman after Lochte established control of their semi-final heat on the breaststroke. Expect Lochte to take this title tomorrow, and Phelps should have enough in the tank to take a silver medal.

Normally, I’d say the dynamic duo could challenge Lochte’s world record of 1:54.00, but neither has looked at their best this week. Phelps does have some hope though; Lochte will just have about 20 minutes after his 200 back final, and Phelps has the ability to take advantage. Meanwhile, Cseh and Pereira battled it out in the second semi-final, but I’m not sure if the pair can get under the 1:56 barrier. Also watch for Britain’s James Goddard, who hung with Phelps and Lochte for the first 100 of their semi-final, and 200 IM bronze medalist Kosuke Hagino.

Favorite Ranomi Kromowidjojo cruised into the final of the women’s 100 free as the top seed. Her 53.05 leaves her more than three-tenths of a second ahead of the field, and she hasn’t even approached her world-leading 52.75 or relay split of 51.93 yet. She should win gold. Australia’s Melanie Schlanger swam well tonight as well, qualifying second in 53.38 as a precursor to her blazing 1:55.62 split in the 800 free relay. Missy Franklin, meanwhile, got into another Olympic final in third, although she will have to deal with another tough double tomorrow, as the 200 back semis precede this final. But hey, her last double worked out pretty well!

Rebecca Soni claimed that she just hoped to feel good in the women’s 200 breast semi-finals tonight. Uh huh. After making the world wait through three years of anticipation, Soni broke the world record, lowering Annamay Pierse’s 2:20.12 to 2:20.00. Obviously, she took the top seed. Sure, she probably would love to break 2:20 tomorrow, but if she swims the race the way she has all summer and not overswim the first lap or two, she will win gold. Rikke Pederson looks like the best of the rest, qualifying second in 2:22.40, and watch out for Yuliya Efimova from lane three, as well as World Champs bronze medalist Martha McCabe from out in lane one.

Just eight more preliminary events remain on the schedule in London, four of which kick off tomorrow morning. Despite a sixth-place finish in the 100 free, Cesar Cielo remains the favorite to defend his gold in the 50 free, while World Champion Missy Franklin enters as the front-runner in the women’s 200 back. Watch out, though, for Aussie Belinda Hocking, who swam a lifetime best earlier in the week in the 100 back and took silver behind Franklin at Worlds last year.

Michael Phelps begins the last individual event of his career in the 100 fly, where he could face a rematch with Serbian Milorad Cavic, who at both the 2008 Olympics and 2009 Worlds suffered the wrath of the Phelps Phinish. Finally, Rebecca Adlington enters the women’s 800 free as probably the last chance for the host Brits to earn gold in the pool. Lotte Friis, though, pushed Adlington the whole way at Worlds last year before Adlington pulled out the gold, and watch out too for rapidly-improving American youngster Katie Ledecky.

London 2012: Day Five Finals

Five nights and twenty finals have finished up, and tonight, the second half of Olympic competition kicked off with a bang. Hungary’s Daniel Gyurta entered as the favorite in the men’s 200 breast, but he threw down an impressive swim of 2:07.28 to break Christian Sprenger’s world record of 2:07.31. However, the huge shock came from Brit Michael Jamieson, who demolished his British record to finish second in 2:07.43. That could provide some serious momentum for the British team, who still have only one two medals and no gold, but Rebecca Adlington enters the pool for the 800 free tomorrow as their best shot at the top of the podium.

Japan’s Ryo Tateishi outtouched countryman Kosuke Kitajima for bronze, 2:08.29 to 2:08.35. For the fourth time these Olympics, a swimmer fell shy of a third-straight Olympic gold in the same event. Kitajima no longer has a shot at this historic marker, but Michael Phelps still has two more shots, in the 200 IM and 100 fly. Meanwhile, Americans Scott Weltz and Clark Burckle finished fifth and sixth respectively; Weltz finished just short of his lifetime best from the semi-finals, while Burckle lowered his for a third-straight time with a 2:09.25. We’ve seen impressive performances from these two surprise qualifiers in the 200 breast.

Next up, Jiao Liuyang ran down Mireia Belmonte on her way to gold and an impressive Olympic record of 2:04.06 in the women’s 200 fly. Despite a World title in the event last year, Jiao needed to win gold tonight to finally emerge from the shadows of Liu Zige, the world record-holder and 2008 gold medalist. We didn’t see too much drama in the event, as the Spanish star of the 2010 Short Course World Champs took silver, and Japan’s Natsumi Hoshi took bronze.

American Kathleen Hersey entered the final as the top qualifier, but she did not have quite enough firepower to come away with the gold. Still, Hersey swam her third best time of the meet; her 2:05.78 moved past the 2:05.88 that Misty Hyman swam on her way to gold at the 2000 Olympics as the new American record. Meanwhile, Cammile Adams finished fifth for the United States in 2:06.78, off of her 2:06.52 from Trials, but the Americans have shown great improvement in the event after finishing outside of the final for two straight World Championships.

James Magnussen entered the Olympic Games expecting to win at two gold medals in his first two events. After a stunning fourth-place finish for Australia in the 400 free relay, Magnussen reclaimed some of his swagger with a 47.63 in the 100 free semi-finals to take the top seed. Nathan Adrian, meanwhile, had built up some serious confidence after three straight wins at the Olympics; he “won” the leadoff leg of the men’s 400 free relay before pacing his semi-final and final heats. On that leadoff leg, Adrian beat Magnussen, but Magnussen still expected to come through here.

Cesar Cielo went out fast, with Brent Hayden and Adrian right on his hip. Magnussen took the lead with about 15 meters left, but Adrian battled back and touched out the Aussie, 47.52 to 47.53. Adrian rides on waves of momentum at big meets; after anchoring the U.S. to a disappointing bronze medal in the 400 free relay last summer in Shanghai and losing to a charging Magnussen in his 100 free semi-final, Adrian failed to medal in both the 50 and 100 free. That came just a year after winning both the 50 and 100 free at Pan Pacs over Cielo; in fact, Adrian swam four tenths slower at Worlds than he previously had at Pan Pacs.

Adrian rode his momentum tonight to take down Magnussen. The top American 100 freestyler for four years, Adrian had the confidence down the stretch to know that no one could beat him at the wall. Adrian won’t compete in the 50, so he has to find another chance to channel the momentum and confidence he has built up. Enter the men’s 400 medley relay; Adrian has sured up an anchor leg that looks unstoppable in the race for gold.

The women’s 800 free relay finished off the night, and a balanced performance from Team USA led to another gold medal, the eighth in London for the Stars and Stripes. Missy Franklin, Dana Vollmer, and Shannon Vreeland left Allison Schmitt six tenths behind Australia’s Alicia Coutts, but Schmitt, one of the stars of women’s swimming at these Games, came through with a 1:54.09 anchor leg. Coutts, meanwhile, showed some grit to anchor in 1:56.19, but Schmitt simply overpowered her. France’s Camille Muffat, meanwhile, put her team in front at the start, and her teammates held on to earn a bronze medal.

With the win tonight, the American women broke a drought of two full Olympic cycles without a relay win. In 2004, they took gold in the 800 free along with two silvers, but the foursome fell to bronze four years ago. The situation reached an all-time low at the Worlds in Rome, when the women only won a single relay medal, silver in the 800 free relay, after finishing fourth in the 400 free relay. They almost certainly would have medaled in the 400 medley relay, but a second-string team failed to finish in the top eight. After years of Australian dominance, the Americans have returned as the premier team in women’s swimming.

I picked China to finish third tonight behind the U.S. and Australia, but they surprisingly ended up back in sixth. The Chinese brought in Yi Shiwen to swim second on their relay, but Yi, who produced a scintillating 28.93 final 50 split in the 400 IM, could only manage a 1:57.37. Do I understand that? Not at all. However, I find the doping allegations against Yi even more perplexing. Why does NBC talk nonstop about how she must be guilty? Yeah, she dropped some time. I can tell you that at age 16, I dropped a lot more time than Yi. We live in the United States, where we believe in innocent until proven guilty. Let’s respect that.

Check back later for my thoughts on tonight’s four semi-final races and a look ahead to tomorrow’s preliminary action.

London 2012: Day Five Prelims

Only two days of prelims remain after five events took to the pool this morning. These prelim sessions have become far more routine, and by this point, none of the major medal contenders will complain with sneaking into the semi-finals. However, what better opportunity than prelims for underdogs to come in and make a statement headed into the semi-finals and maybe put a bit of a scare into those top contenders. Let’s take a look at a few of the highlights.

Jumping into a deep field in the women’s 100 free, China’s Tang Yi emerged as the surprise top qualifier in 53.28. Australia’s Melanie Schlanger got into second in 53.50, a best time but not quite as impressive as her 52.65 anchor leg on Australia’s 400 free relay on Saturday night. Co-World Champs Jeanette Ottesen and Aliaksandra Herasimenia came in next, followed by favorite Ranomi Kromowidjojo. Brit Fran Halsall and Americans Jessica Hardy and Missy Franklin all cruised on in for a shot to swim for the top-eight tonight.

Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace of the Bahamas impressed the field in prelims this morning with a 53.73, her first swim under 54. While Vanderpool-Wallace might not have enough to contend for a medal in the 100 free, that could be a sign of big things to come in the 50. Defending champion Britta Steffen finished 14th in prelims, but she has not shown yet that she has enough to contend for a medal. Meanwhile, Dutchwoman Femke Heemskerk tied for 15th in 54.43; she has fallen a long way from her form a year ago, where she entered Worlds as a gold medal favorite.

The men’s 200 back featured no big surprises as the top four finishers from Worlds took the top four spots in prelims. Americans Tyler Clary and Ryan Lochte led the way, followed by China’s Zhang Fenglin and Japan’s Ryosuke Irie, while Hungary’s Galor Baglog joined the foursome under 1:56. These Olympics have seen some major upsets, and still no one has defended an individual gold medal, but I don’t expect that trend to hold true in the 200 back. Lochte enters as the heavy favorites, and Irie and Clary should still join him on the podium. Not a whole lot here in the way of darkhorse candidates.

Rebecca Soni unexpectedly found herself on the silver medal podium for the 100 breast, but she too looks like she has an inside track on a title defense in the 200 breast. Soni opened up with a blazing 2:21.40. Rikke Pederson, though, didn’t let Soni swim away from her in their heat, coming in at 2:22.69. Still, Soni has a clear gap with the rest of the field, and I think she still has a good deal more in the tank. 100 breast bronze medalist Satomi Suzuki and Olympic Trials runner-up Micah Lawrence qualified third and fourth, while Russian favorite Yuliya Efimova finished well back.

Efimova continued a disappointing Olympics after failing to medal in the 100 breast. Efimova tied for 14th in prelims today in 2:26.83; that means that she will have to unleash an outstanding swim from an outside lane in the semi-final tonight if she wants to have a chance at repeating or bettering her silver medal from last year’s World Championships. Meanwhile, 2009 World Champion Nadja Higl missed out on the semi-final with 2:28.38, as did Jamaican Alia Atkinson, who took fourth earlier in the 100 breast.

In the second-to-last heat of the men’s 400 IM, Michael Phelps outtouched Laszlo Cseh by just 0.07. Well, as I’m sure everyone remembers, that turned out to be the difference between getting into the final and not. After also missing out on the final in the 200 fly, Cseh took no chances in the 200 IM. Cseh blasted a 1:57.20, just off of his 1:56.66 winning time from the European Championships. The top four from the 400 IM finished in the next few spots: Lochte, Kosuke Hagino, Michael Phelps, and Thiago Pereira. That means that Phelps and Lochte will swim head-to-head in semi-final one tonight. Both men have had their struggles these Olympics, but they remain the class of this field.

Finally, the women’s 800 free relay heats wrapped up the morning, and the Aussies took the top seed with the only time under 7:50. Brittany Elmslie led off in 1:57.50, and Blair Evans anchored in 1:56.99 as both should remain on the finals relay with Kylie Palmer and individual bronze medalist Bronte Barratt. Still, I don’t think that team can hang with the favored Americans, who have Olympic champ Allison Schmitt and superstar Missy Franklin coming onto the team. Shannon Vreeland (1:57.04) and Alyssa Anderson (1:57.33) had the fastest splits this morning, but Dana Vollmer could still be on tonight’s finals team.

Vollmer only split 1:58.31 in the prelims, but she has indicated that she will swim in finals. On Twitter, she commented: “Felt great on the 4x200relay this morning! Nice and smooth! I can't wait for the Finals!!” Vollmer certainly has the credentials to swim on that relay, including a bronze in the 200 free at the 2009 Worlds. Canada qualified third for the final, while France (Camille Muffat) and Italy (Federica Pellegrini) both have aces that could contribute to a medal run. Don’t count out China, though, out in lane seven; the Chinese still hold the world record from the 2009 World Champs.

Alright, enough of that; time for predictions for day five finals!

Men’s 200 Breast
1. Daniel Gyurta
2. Michael Jamieson
3. Scott Weltz

Women’s 200 Fly
1. Jiao Liuyang
2. Kathleen Hersey
3. Natsumi Hoshi

Men’s 100 Free
1. James Magnussen
2. Nathan Adrian
3. Yannick Agnel

Women’s 800 Free Relay
1. United States
2. Australia
3. China