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.

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