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Feature by Jeff Commings
PHOENIX, Arizona, August 2. IF you have been at a swimming venue to watch the competition at the past 20 Olympiads, and have felt the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, it's probably the aura of a hex put on swimmers that attempt to win the same individual event three times in a row.
Like the Curse of the Bambino, this jinx was strong. In the past 90 years, only two women were able to get the better of it. Australia's Dawn Fraser did it first in the 1964 Tokyo Games, winning her third gold medal in the 100 freestyle. Kristina Egerszegi of Hungary joined Fraser in that club in 1996, taking her third-straight 200 back title in Atlanta.
No man had been able to escape the jinx — until today, when Michael Phelps won his third gold medal in the 200 individual medley over longtime rival Ryan Lochte.
Winning three gold medals across three Olympics is not an easy feat, not to mention the achievement of participating in three Olympic Games. A lot can happen in the years between Olympics No. 1 and Olympics No. 3.
Seven men and one woman also tried to join the club, but were unsuccessful in overcoming the Threepeat Jinx. In all but one instance, the eight encountered younger, fresher faces that prevented their places in history. The first that could have done it was Duke Kahanaoku, having won gold in the 100 freestyle in 1912 and 1920. But destiny was not on his side in 1924, as a young future star named Johnny Weismuller got the better of him, winning the first of his five Olympic gold medals. Many pegged Kahanamoku as the favorite, but the Hawaiian had discovered the joys of surfing and had not put all of his physical energies into swimming.
Weismuller, in a way, was the second victim of the Threepeat Jinx. After winning the 100 free gold in 1924, he won again in 1928. But fate dictated that he become a star in Hollywood, and in 1929 he started down the path that would make him Tarzan, and his swimming career was forced to end. Many believe he could have easily won the gold in 1932 if a different kind of stardom had not come calling.
Not many thought Janet Evans had a legitimate chance to win a third gold in the 800 freestyle in 1996 in Atlanta. She wasn't in top form at those Games, and she would need to be in order to just get a medal. But she was in the final, which meant she had the opportunity. Evans finished the race in sixth place.
After Fraser's and Egerszegi's successes at being the first to complete the triple, swimming fans were anxious to see a male athlete join the club. A tall and lanky Russian named Alexander Popov had two chances to do so in 2000, in the 50 and 100 freestyles. His first attempt at the triple came up short in the 100 free, finishing second to Pieter van den Hoogenband by three tenths of a second. The other shot was thwarted in the 50 free as well, where he finished sixth.
Also in the Sydney Olympics, Kieren Perkins was also attempting the triple in front of his home crowd in the 1500 freestyle. But a teammate named Grant Hackett was determined to grab the headlines in the Australian newspapers the next day. Hackett defeated Perkins in the mile by five seconds. A new hero was born — but more on Hackett later.
When the 2008 Olympics rolled around, the two men who were chasing threepeat history were overshadowed by Michael Phelps' own run toward history. Van den Hoogenband was not deemed a favorite to win the 100 free in Beijing, though he had silenced critics who didn't think he could do it in 2000 and 2004. But there was a battle at the top between Alain Bernard and Eamon Sullivan, and the two were gold and silver medalists, with “Hoogie” finishing fifth.
Hackett was on pace to accomplish the threepeat in the 1500 freestyle in Beijing, but maybe karma was looking to get back at him for denying Perkins the place in history eight years earlier. After holding the lead for 1000 meters, Hackett found himself chasing Tunisia's Ous Mellouli through the final stretch. Hackett put on a violently strong kick in the final 50 meters, but lost out on the gold by .69 seconds.
When Phelps stepped up on the blocks for the final of the 400 individual medley on July 28, it was the first of four chances Phelps would have to earn membership to the club with Fraser and Egerszegi. But, unlike 2008, the stars were not aligning for Phelps, as he finished fourth in the 400 IM.
That opened the door for Japan's Kosuke Kitajima to join the club in the 100 breaststroke on Sunday. But the two-time champion could not even repeat his sub-59 second performance from the Olympic Trials, finishing fifth.
It was Phelps' turn later in the week, but his second attempt at the triple came up short on Tuesday by five-hundredths when South Africa's Chad Le Clos got to the wall first. Yesterday, Kitajima had one final chance, in the final of the 200 breast. Daniel Gyurta, who had been chasing Kitajima since the 2004 Games, finally vanquished the Japanese great, who struggled the final 50 and placed fourth.
Many wondered if Lochte would be the spoiler in the 200 IM, keeping Phelps at bay one more time. But Phelps was in control from start to finish, winning his 20th Olympic medal and getting what is likely to be the final Olympic accomplishment he had yet to attain.
Kirsty Coventry also has a shot at the triple. She's defending her title in tomorrow's 200 backstroke final, qualifying in seventh position, but she'll have a big hill to climb, as Missy Franklin is a prohibitive favorite in the event.
If Phelps has put an official end to the Threepeat Jinx, we might see two more happen in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. Rebecca Soni has a chance to make it three-for-three in the 200 breast in four years, and depending on the results of tomorrow's men's 50 free final, Cesar Cielo could be getting gold medal No. 3 in front of a home crowd. Soni has not officially claimed she will stick around for a third Olympics, but Cielo has stated many times he will end his swimming career in his native country.