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.