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.

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