800 Days to Rio: Looking Back at the Olympic History of the Women’s 800 Freestyle

Photo Courtesy: Swimming World

By Jeff Commings

PHOENIX, Arizona, May 28. THE Olympic Games begins in 800 days in Rio de Janeiro. It seems like a lifetime from now, but as every athlete knows, the Opening Ceremony will be here in the blink of an eye. In swimming, we still have this summer’s international meets and next year’s world championships to get through before any serious conversations about 2016 can begin.

But in the spirit of celebrating the arrival of the 800-day point on the countdown, I began thinking about the amazing women who have won gold medals in the 800 freestyle at the Olympics. Since the event was introduced in 1968, 10 women have worn the gold medal around their neck after swimming the longest pool event for women. Two of them were repeat gold medalists. Interestingly, only three of the past 12 Olympic finals in the 800 free featured a world record-setting performance.

Much has been made about the fact that the women are swimming almost half the distance as the men, and pressure has been put on FINA to convince the International Olympic Committee to replace the women’s 800 free with the 1500 distance. That won’t happen in Rio, but it remains on the table for Tokyo in 2020.

Until then, let’s take a quick walk down memory lane on this momentous day.

1968, Mexico City 800 free final
Gold:
Debbie Meyer, USA (9:24.0 — Olympic record)
Silver: Pam Kruse, USA (9:35.7)
Bronze: Maria Teresa Ramirez, Mexico (9:38.5)

With Mexico City standing at 7,350 feet above sea level, distance swimmers were at a grave disadvantage. That put Meyer’s world record of 9:10.40 out of consideration. But the eight women in the final were out for a memorable swim, marking the first time the 800 was contested at the Olympics.

But the 16-year-old sensation didn’t let the altitude bother her, as she won by 11 seconds, the largest margin of victory in the event at the Olympics. It was part of a history-making swim for Meyer, who still remains the only man or woman to win three freestyle events at one Olympic Games.

Much has been made in the history books about the gold medal won by Felipe Munoz in the 200 breast, the first swimming gold for Mexico. But Ramirez’s bronze in the 800 deserves recognition as the other medal won by the host country in the swimming pool, beating Australia’s Karen Moras by one tenth of a second.

1972, Munich 800 free final
Gold:
Keena Rothhammer, USA (8:53.68 — world record)
Silver: Shane Gould, Australia (8:56.39)
Bronze: Novella Calligaris, Italy (8:57.46)

Sadly, the major history of the 800 freestyle seems to skip over the 1972 Games, mentioning Meyer and going directly to the early 1980s. But Rothhammer was a star at the 1972 Olympics, taking down the Australian freestyle wunderkind Shane Gould. Gould had won the 200 and 400 freestyles as well as the 200 IM in Munich at just 15 years old, and was expected to win the 800 as well, since she was the world record holder. Gould had the lead after 400 meters but could not hold Rothhammer’s backhalf pace. Gould was able to hold off the final rally from Novella Calligaris.

Gould not only lost the gold but also her world record to Rothhammer, also 15 years old. As one of the many successful swimmers to come from the George Haines era at Santa Clara Swim Club, she would also win a bronze in the 200 free and was sixth in the 400 free in Munich.

1976, Montreal 800 free final
Gold:
Petra Thumer, East Germany (8:37.14 — world record)
Silver: Shirley Babashoff, USA (8:37.59)
Bronze: Wendy Weinberg, USA (8:42.60)

With all we know now about the East Germans and the systematic doping of their female athletes, should I ignore the fact that Thumer touched the wall just .45 ahead of the clean Babashoff? It makes Babashoff’s swim all the more remarkable, given that she was nearly responsible for two of the three victories by non-East German women at this meet. (Besides the much-lauded 400 free relay, the other victory went to Soviet Marina Kosheyeva in the 200 breast.)

Thumer and Babashoff were never separated by more than 44-hundredths during the race. It was a mirror of the 400 free final from a few days earlier, when the two were side-by-side throughout the entire race. Thumer’s larger frame might have cost Babashoff the gold in both cases. The 800 might have stung a bit more, as Babashoff also lost her world record despite swimming two seconds under it.

The Americans had a reason to celebrate, as Wendy Weinberg also stepped onto the podium for third place.

1980, Moscow 800 free final
Gold:
Michelle Ford, Australia (8:28.90 — Olympic record)
Silver: Ines Diers, East Germany (8:32.55)
Bronze: Heike Dahne, East Germany (8:33.48)

As was the case with many swimming events at the 1980 Olympics, the absence of Americans diluted the strength of the 800 free final. In this case, it was Cynthia Woodhead, who was the top-ranked swimmer in the world coming into the Olympics. The boycott kept her and many others away from Moscow, including Australian world record holder Tracey Wickham. Though Australia decided to break ranks and attend the Olympic Games, Wickham chose to stay home.

That gave teammate Ford the opportunity to be the only female swimmer not from an Eastern Bloc country to claim gold in Moscow. She did it convincingly, taking down the 400 free winner Diers and posting the fastest 800 freestyle at that point in the year. At the U.S. nationals a week later, Kim Linehan would surpass Ford’s time, giving East Germany one event in which they were not first and/or second in the year-end global rankings.

Ford’s win was partially a product of training with fellow Aussie Don Talbot in Nashville, the breeding ground for Tracy Caulkins.

1984, Los Angeles 800 free final
Gold:
Tiffany Cohen, USA (8:24.96 — Olympic record)
Silver: Michele Richardson, USA (8:30.73)
Bronze: Sarah Hardcastle, Great Britain (8:32.60)

Cohen’s win started a streak for the United States in the event that would last through the 2000 Olympics. Cohen’s star was just beginning to rise after the 1980 Olympics, and the 1984 Games came at the perfect time for her. Swimming in front of the home crowd, she almost gave the audience a big reason to cheer as she chased Tracey Wickham’s six-year-old world record of 8:24.62. To add insult to injury, Cohen also missed Kim Linehan’s American record of 8:24.70. Under world record pace for 700 meters, Cohen fell off in the final stretch but won the gold to match the one she claimed in the 400 free as well.

“I wanted to set a world record, but I got two gold medals,” Cohen said after the race. “I’ll always remember that.”

So will Sarah Hardcastle, who would be the only British medalist in the 800 free until the 2008 Games. Hardcastle, who was 15 at the Los Angeles Olympics, would return to the Olympic final of the 800 free 12 years later, placing eighth in Atlanta. In 1986, Hardcastle would become the third-fastest performer in the event, swimming an 8:24.77 at the Commonwealth Games.

Though the 1984 Games would be Cohen’s only Olympic experience, she was on hand to pass the torch, so to speak, to the next American distance queen. At the 1987 U.S. nationals, Cohen was second in the 800 freestyle to a short but spry teenager named Janet Evans.

1988, Seoul 800 free final
Gold:
Janet Evans, USA (8:20.20 — Olympic record)
Silver: Astrid Strauss, East Germany (8:22.09)
Bronze: Julie McDonald, Australia (8:22.93)

After an extremely exciting 400 free final, the 800 freestyle was going to be a cakewalk for Janet Evans, who took the lead early on with a blistering pace and was never challenged. The time on the scoreboard was fairly anticlimactic, as Evans was three seconds slower than the world record she set in 1987. But the swim was more of an official crowning of a distance queen than a chase for the record book, and Evans held that mantle through another Olympic Games.

Julie McDonald had been billed as Evans’ biggest challenger, since the two had battled the year before at the Pan Pacific championships. McDonald had been called the dragon slayer, having beaten Evans by 10 seconds in the 800 free the year before Seoul. McDonald employed a backhalf strategy in Seoul, falling behind Strauss by two seconds at the 400 and missing out on silver by about eight tenths at the finish.

Like McDonald, Evans used a different strategy than usual to win in Seoul. Instead of taking a blistering pace, she held off the gas and even-split the swim, 4:10.06-4:10.14.

1992, Barcelona 800 free final
Gold:
Janet Evans, USA (8:25.52)
Silver: Hayley Lewis, Australia (8:30.34)
Bronze: Jana Henke, Germany (8:30.99)

Janet Evans was probably fuming after the 400 free final, where she lost out on the chance to repeat as Olympic champion when Dagmar Hase beat her to the wall. Evans was not going to let that happen in the 800 free, where she won by nearly five seconds.

The time wasn’t spectacular. It was a full nine seconds slower than the world record of 8:16.22 that she swam in 1989, but no one gave Evans the type of challenge she needed to pursue a world record.

“I wanted to break contact with the pack, so no one would be able to catch me like in the 400″ Evans said after the race. “Today the race was slower, but a medal is a medal.”

Evans became the first female swimmer to win the 800 free in consecutive Olympics, and the gold medal made her the most decorated American female swimmer in history. That distinction of four gold medals would be matched by Amy van Dyken in the next Olympics — though two of those medals came in relay events.

Hayley Lewis was 18 years old at the Barcelona Olympics, but did not find lasting success in the pool. She failed to qualify for the 1996 Olympics, and found a career resurgence in open water at the 2001 world championships.

1996, Atlanta 800 free final
Gold:
Brooke Bennett, USA (8:27.89)
Silver: Dagmar Hase, Germany (8:29.91)
Bronze: Kirsten Vlieghuis, Holland (8:30.84)

By 1995, the torch of America’s best distance queen had been passed to Brooke Bennett. But many wondered if she had the chops to carry on the American winning streak in the 800 free in Atlanta? Evans was not considered a favorite for the event, having finished second to Bennett at the Olympic trials. Though Evans made the final, and much of the media attention was focused on what might be Evans’ last Olympic swim, Bennett took the race out hard and led from start to finish.

Unfortunately for Bennett, much of the outpouring of love from the American crowd went to Evans, who finished sixth in what would be her final international competition. Not many people understood the relevance of the world record holder swimming in the same race as the woman who would take the mantel as the new leader in the event.

“I think Janet is always going to be the queen of distance swimming,” Bennett said. “Everyone will remember Janet. I just hope some people will remember me, too.”

In four years, she would become unforgettable.

2000, Sydney 800 free final
Gold:
Brooke Bennett, USA (8:19.67 — Olympic record)
Silver: Yana Klochkova, Ukraine (8:22.66)
Bronze: Kaitlin Sandeno, USA (8:24.29)

If there was any doubt about Bennett’s ability to take Olympic gold in Atlanta, no one questioned Bennett in Sydney. A few days after winning gold in the 400 free ahead of some tough challengers, no one could match Bennett’s endurance in the 800, not even double IM champion Yana Klochkova.

In winning the gold medal, Bennett skyrocketed to the rare air of sub-8:20 in the 800 free, something only Janet Evans had done before her. The time of 8:19.67 took down the Olympic record Evans set in 1988, and made her second-fastest in history.

Sandeno had the swim of her life to take the bronze medal, dropping four seconds off her lifetime best. It began a four-year journey to the 2004 Olympics, where she would earn three more medals, though not in the 800 free.

2004, Athens 800 free final
Gold:
Ai Shibata, Japan (8:24.54)
Silver: Laure Manaudou, France (8:24.96)
Bronze: Diana Munz, USA (8:26.61)

Laure Manaudou put a scare into the 400 free world record in winning Olympic gold in Athens, and set out to chase Janet Evans’ mark in the 800, going under record pace for half the race. But the pace is way too fast for Manaudou, and Japan’s Ai Shibata is the one who senses it.

Swimming in the lane next to Manaudou, Shibata begins to eat away at Manuadou’s lead at the 500-meter mark, as does American Kalyn Keller. Shibata is at Manaudou’s hip at the 700-meter mark. With 50 meters to go, neither Manaudou nor Shibata employ a six-beat kick, preferring to stay with the two-beat kick as they scramble to the wall.

It’s Shibata who takes the win and gives Asia its first medal of any color in the event. Also making a late charge was American Diana Munz, who had been well off the pace for much of the swim but used her legs more than the leaders to outsplit them and pass Keller to grab the bronze medal. Keller was shut out of the podium by 42-hundredths of a second.

Notably, the winning time would have not won a medal at the 2000 Olympics.

2008, Beijing 800 free final
Gold:
Rebecca Adlington, Great Britain (8:14.10 — world record)
Silver: Alessia Filippi, Italy (8:20.23)
Bronze: Lotte Friis, Denmark (8:23.03)

The advent of the high-tech rubber suits brought about an onslaught on the world record books. Just about every event saw a record at the 2008 Olympics, and everyone believed the oldest world record in existence would fall. But to whom?

After winning the 400 free in a surprise finish, Rebecca Adlington cemented herself as the favorite to win the 800 free. Now, the question of how far under Evans’ record of 8:16.22 would she go had to be answered. Adlington was under record pace the entire swim, though Evans’ blistering final 200 almost caught up to the 21st century.

Camelia Potec of Romania broke 8:20 in prelims, but could not replicate that swim in finals, placing fourth with an 8:23.11. It’s interesting to note that while the suits did give a boost to performance, the times swum by Filippi and Friis did not approach Evans’ world record.

2012, London 800 free final
Gold:
Katie Ledecky, USA (8:14.62)
Silver: Mireia Belmonte Garcia, Spain (8:18.76)
Bronze: Rebecca Adlington, Great Britain (8:20.32)

Another 800 free Olympic final, another 15-year-old champion. And talk about an international racing debut. Just one month earlier, the world was in shock over Katie Ledecky’s bold win at the U.S. Olympic Trials, her first victory at the national level. It would become the stuff of legend, and the start of what is likely to be a very long reign at the top of the distance pyramid.

Unlike her competitors, Ledecky was bold in her race plan. She blasted to the lead at 100 meters and split under two minutes at the 200. Her splits hardly faltered, and it appeared that she was on pace to obliterate Adlington’s world record. But Ledecky’s date with destiny was meant for another race, and she settled for a gold medal.

Though Adlington had been a pre-race favorite, given that no one knew of Ledecky’s capabilities, she might have been too focused on Ledecky to see Belmonte Garcia executing a negative-split race to win silver.

Should the IOC start carving Ledecky’s name on the 2016 gold medal in this race? We have a little more than 800 days until the start of this race, and anything can happen.

But if I were a betting man, I’d say the odds are highly in Ledecky’s favor.

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Author: Jeff Commings

Jeff Commings is the host of several shows on SwimmingWorld.TV, including "The Morning Swim Show," which features interviews with people making headlines in aquatic sports. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism and was a nine-time NCAA All-American.

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