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Feature by David Rieder
CHARLESTON, South Carolina, August 2. HISTORY wrote itself tonight at the London Aquatic Center. Yeah, I know, I said that on Tuesday when Michael Phelps broke the record with 19 Olympic medals and all that. Tonight, though, Phelps pulled off an achievement that some of the world's greatest swimmers have fallen short of. Kieren Perkins, Pieter van den Hoogenband, Grant Hackett, Kosuke Kitajima, and Phelps himself have all fallen short within the last four Olympics, a total of seven attempts fallen short. Tonight, though, Phelps came through; the greatest of all time won the 200 IM for the third-straight Olympics in an impressive time of 1:54.27.
A threepeat makes any night historic; the history kept piling up tonight, though, as an iconic barrier went down in the women's 200 breast. Coming off a surprising and disappointing silver medal-performance in the 100 breast, Rebecca Soni came so close to getting under 2:20 in the semi-finals, breaking the world record with a 2:20.00. Tonight, Soni took control of the race on the second lap, but she touched at the 100 in 1:08.10, 0.28 off her pace from last night. Stil, 0.12 down on world record-pace at the 150, Soni exploded down the last lap and touched in 2:19.59.
For two straight years, Soni came close to the world record, constantly tricking pundits into predicting the mark to fall. I expressed that sentiment to Dave Salo (Soni's coach) at Olympic Trials, telling him that I'd been waiting years for that world record. Still, I kept a sneaking suspicion that she had something special coming in London, and she did. Soni needed that performance, though, as Satomi Suzuki and Yuliya Efimova both got under 2:21 to take silver and bronze in the fastest 200 breast heat in history. Suzuki earned Japan's first silver medal after seven previous bronzes, including one from Suzuki herself in the 100 breast.
Next up, Americans Tyler Clary and Ryan Lochte entered as the top two qualifiers in the men's 200 back, with Ryosuke Irie alongside Lochte in lane six. Most expected Lochte, though, to take over this race from the start and hang on. Lochte took the race out fast and led the way through the 150, but he never pulled away from the field. Lochte paid the price down the final lap, as Clary and Irie swam past him. In the end, Clary won his first Olympic medal, a gold. For the first time, Clary took a title on the international stage at the expense of the man he has joined on the podium so many times.
Clary touched the wall in 1:53.41, blasting more than a second off his lifetime best of 1:54.53, a time from the high-tech suit era. Clary continued an American tradition in the backstrokes, all of which have featured American gold medalists for five straight Olympics. Since 1996, Jeff Rouse, Brad Bridgewater, Lenny Krayzelburg, Aaron Peirsol, Lochte, Matt Grevers, and now Clary have all won gold during that ten event streak. The U.S. has even held the top time in the world in the 200 back every year this century.
Clary held off Ryosuke Irie, who gave everything he had to finally get past Lochte, but he still had to look up at an American on the podium. You might think Irie has gotten sick of the Stars Spangled Banner, having finished behind an American 1-2 earlier in the week in the 100. Irie did manage a solid time, though, finally breaking 1:54 for the first time in a textile suit. Lochte, meanwhile, matched his winning time from four years ago, but this time, 1:53.94 only could manage him a bronze.
Lochte came back less than a half hour later, but he had to settle for a minor medal again; Lochte took the silver in the 200 IM in 1:54.90, nowhere close to his world record of 1:54.00 from last year. While that's still an amazing performance to win two medals in such a short span of time, Lochte did not perform as he had hoped to in London. Still, he has indicated that he will return for another Olympiad, obviously good news for his legions of fans. Meanwhile, Laszlo Cseh earned his fifth Olympic medal, a bronze in 1:56.22. Every single time Cseh has stood on the Olympic podium, Phelps has won gold.
Check out David Rieder's blog for more of his thoughts on the Olympic Games, including a look ahead to the penultimate day of swimming action in London.