By David Rieder
Courtesy of: Peter H. Bick
Courtesy of: Peter H. Bick
KAZAN, Russia, July 11. WHILE the World University Games often give the world a glimpse of some of the rising young stars to keep an eye on over the next several years, this edition of the meet has foreshadowed some of the fireworks to come at next month's World Championships. The hometown Russians sent their big guns, and they have already put on a show in advance of their cross-continent trip to Barcelona.
After winning two of the three gold medals during the first session of finals on Wednesday, the Russian men's 400 free relay team walked out last as the top qualifier. While many countries sent teams featuring swimmers with little to no international experience, as did the Americans, Russia marched out Andrey Grechin, Nikita Lobintsev, Vlad Morozov, and Danila Izotov. Only 11 months ago, this same foursome walked out on the pool deck at the London Olympics and earned a bronze medal.
On that night, the foursome clocked 3:11.41, finishing well behind the winning French team and runner-up Americans. On Wednesday, however, the team swam in clear water on their way to a 3:10.88 clocking. While that time would not have moved up in the placings at the Olympics, it sent a message that the Russians won't roll over easily at the Worlds. With huge threats coming from the Australians, the French, and the Americans, I picked Russia to finish off the podium in our event preview. Grechin, Lobintsev, Morozov, and Izotov showed that they won't roll over in Barcelona.
While Grechin put up a big swim to lead off the relay - a 47.98, a vast improvement over his 48.57 from London - the relay's spark came from its rising superstar, Morozov. The young Southern California-trained sprinter split a blistering 47.14, a huge improvement from the 47.85 he posted in the Olympic final. While the Russians had some consistent depth in the years prior to Morozov's breakout, they now have the piece they have been waiting for which could push them over the top. Morozov could split in the 46-range in Barcelona, and that might help Russia to a world title.
Meanwhile, two of the other relay members showed why Russia has been a consistent force in the men's 800 free relay over the past five years. Izotov (1:47.03) and Lobintsev (1:47.20) each swam under Adam Ritter's Universiade record in the semi-finals of the men's 200 free, and the pair enters Friday's final as favorites to finish one-two in some order. These two will help Russia push the favored American and French teams in the 800 free relay at the World Championships. However, the biggest swim of the semi-finals came from third-place Michael Wynalda. The rising Michigan senior posted a time of 1:47.59, a time which would have placed him on the Worlds team, and he showed guts to swim with Lobintsev the whole race. With a big swim tomorrow, Wynalda could establish himself as a name to watch internationally.
On the women's side, the Russians matched their male counterparts with a 400 free relay win, but the 3:38.15 they posted won't threaten the Australian, American, German, or Dutch teams prepping for Barcelona. However, one split might have shifted the landscape of this relay for Worlds in favor of the Americans. With her team down by more than two seconds after 300 meters, Megan Romano dove in the water and promptly split a 52.90 to nearly catch Russia's Daria Belyakina. No one on the American relay in London split faster than a 53.5. She could be an ace in the hole for the American relay squad in Barcelona that currently lacks any big name firepower aside from Missy Franklin. They will need a boost to make a run at gold.
The World University Games don't draw the headlines that the World Championships do, but swim fans should keep an eye on this meet just the same in order to know the names and faces that will contend in the three years leading to the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Yuka Shirai could be the next big national rival to Ryosuke Irie in Japan after clocking a 53.70 100 back today, while countryman Yasuhiro Koseki posted the top domestic time of the year in the 100 breast today at 1:00.00. Yuliya Efimova and Yana Martynova have each shown why they could return to the podium at a future World Championships. Don't forget about the action in Kazan because the top swimmers here will make an impact at the next level.
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