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Feature by David Rieder
CHARLESTON, South Carolina, July 29. THE storylines of day two's prelims couldn't match the big surprises from day one, but a pair of swimmers with vastly different backstories both emerged as strong medal contenders while taking the top seed to finals. All the major medal contenders moved on to the next round, despite a couple of close calls in the women's 400 free. The men's 400 free relay, meanwhile, provides its usual controversy regarding who should swim on the finals team.
The morning kicked off with a blaze in the women's 100 back when Australia's Emily Seebohm blasted a 58.23, just behind Gemma Spofforth's world record of 58.12 and the third-fastest time ever. Swimming in the first of the seeded heats, Seebohm pushed herself the entire way and finished with the fastest opening and closing laps. How much faster can she go? We'll have to wait to find out. Missy Franklin swam a very controlled 59.37 for second, and she can swim a lot faster, but can she go fast enough to stay with Seebohm?
Australia has some serious momentum on its side after that 400 free relay win last night, and that showed when Belinda Hocking claimed the third seed in the 100 back with a 59.61. No one else swam under 59.8, and a total of 10 women broke 1:00 this morning. American Rachel Bootsma came almost as close as one can come to the barrier, checking in at 1:00.03, and if she shook off the nerves enough in her first Olympic swim, she could make a run at an Olympic final. Home favorite Spofforth also moved on in 12th, as did two-time silver medalist Kirsty Coventry.
Just like the 100 back, the first circle-seeded heat of the women's 100 breast opened with a bang. Swimming next to defending gold medalist Leisel Jones, British-trained Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte swam a sterling 30.58 opening 50 split on her way to a world-leading 1:05.56. Two heats later,World champ Rebecca Soni answered that swim with a 1:05.75, faster than any of her swims from U.S. Trials. Soni, though, took a completely different strategy, going out in a pedestrian 30.70 and coming home in a blazing 34.03.
Despite the youngster Meilutyte recording the top time, Soni remains the favorite. She hasn't shown that kind of speed on the second 50 since she broke 1:05 to win the World title last year. She has shown that she has speed now that she never did in Beijing four years ago, and if she can combine that opening and closing speed as she has in the past, no one can beat her. Watch, though, for Yuliya Efimova, who picked up the third-best time of 1:06.51, and U.S. Trials winner Breeja Larson looked strong in her first Olympic race with a 1:06.58, and she looked genuinely pumped with the result.
The women wrapped things up in the 400 free, where Camille Muffat ran down Allison Schmitt in the last heat for the overall top seed. Despite world record-holder Federica Pellegrini out in lane one and defending champ Rebecca Adlington on the other side in lane eight, the race could come down to the Frenchwoman and American in the final. Schmitt took the race out under world record-pace, just as she did at Olympic Trials, only for Muffat to expend a bit more energy in lunging for the finish, while Schmitt cruised on in. Muffat goes into the final as the favorite for gold.
The men opened their day in the 200 free, where none of the major contenders faced a scare aside from Switzerland's Dominic Meichtry, who ended up 16th after going out fast and fading down the stretch. World Champ Ryan Lochte, meanwhile, took control of his heat off the final wall before turning off the gas down the stretch as Sun Yang went by him to take the top seed. Yannick Agnel and Park Tae Hwan remain in the mix, while Paul Biedermann looms in 10th. With Michael Phelps out of the event, Ricky Berens took advantage, advancing to the semi-final in the eighth spot.
With most expecting the 100 back to come down to American Matt Grevers and Frenchman Camille Lacourt, Grevers made a statement this morning that he has a clear advantage. Lacourt went out strongly before crusing into a then-second-seeded 53.51. Grevers, then, threw down a 52.92 to win the final heat. Grevers, though, didn't appear to exert much energy either; his tempo looked significantly slower than at Olympic Trials or at other meets in the past. China's Cheng Feiyi, meanwhile, came out of nowhere to finish second in Grevers' heat and second overall; his 53.22 thrusted him into medal contention. The standbys in Liam Tancock, Helge Meeuw, Nick Thoman, and Ryosuke Irie all moved on comfortably.
The men's 400 free relay wrapped things up this morning. James Magnussen pulled a Jason Lezak on Lezak himself, overtaking the 36 year old American with a swift 47.35 split on the way to securing the top seed for Australia. Individual medal contender James Roberts split 48.22 this morning, while Tomasso D'Orsogna came in at 47.78, but I expect Roberts to join Magnussen, Matt Targett, and Eamon Sullivan on the favored team in finals tonight.
The Americans came in second in prelims, led by Grevers' 47.54. Grevers has technically earned a spot in finals tonight, but he will only have a half hour after his 100 back semi-final, which might lead the coaches to reconsider the line-up. Michael Phelps, Nathan Adrian, and Cullen Jones all figure into tonight's relay, while Ryan Lochte could still appear in the line-up. As I've indicated, Lochte has some serious potential in the 100 free, as we saw in his 47.0 leg on the winning relay at the 2009 World Championships. While still the heavy underdogs, the Americans definitely have medal aspirations, although France and Russia loom as well.
Check out David Rieder's blog for more of his thoughts on the Olympic Games, including his predictions for tonight's final events.