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By John Lohn
LONDON, August 1. The year: 1988. The name: Matt Biondi. That was the last time the United States had captured the gold medal in the premier event of the Olympic Games. Well, until Nathan Adrian stashed the gold medal into his pocket on Wednesday night. In a matter of 47-plus seconds, and in the narrowest of ways, Adrian ended a 24-year drought.
The way Australian James Magnussen looked in the first half of the year, especially with a 47.10 effort at the Olympic Trials, anything but a gold medal seemed unlikely. Meanwhile, Adrian didn't look overly sharp at the American Trials, unable to break the 48-secon barrier and leaving doubt as to whether he could contend for the gold.
At the Olympics, however, the dominoes started to fall in Adrian's favor. Magnussen had a poor performance leading off the Aussie 400 free relay, and that showing partially cost his squad a medal. As for Adrian, he enjoyed a strong relay performance and gained momentum in the early rounds of the 100 free, even as Magnussen started to get in order in the semifinal round.
Ultimately, Adrian found a way to do what was deemed doubtful, and he did it with a 47.52-47.53 triumph over the man nicknamed the Missile. Yep, a hundredth of a second. Adrian took care of the race exactly how it needed to be handled. He pushed the pace on the opening lap, then dug deep to hold on against a guy known for his closing skills. At the wall, Adrian had slipped a fingertip in ahead of Magnussen.
Adrian's win is among the more satisfying for the United States, though isn't any Olympic medal considered satisfying? Anyway, to erase more than two decades of futility provides a boost to American sprinting, and a promising 50 free is still to come with Anthony Ervin, the comeback kid. For years, Adrian has shown considerable promise, most notably at the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships, where he won the 50 and 100 freestyles.
This Olympic crown fulfills the expectations.
**Never one to ease off the pedal in the semifinals, Rebecca Soni set herself up for the final of the 200 breaststroke in one of the most-impressive ways possible. The reigning Olympic champ in the event clocked 2:20.00, a world record. Next is slicing off another hundredth of a second to become the first woman under 2:20 in the discipline.
Soni simply owns this event, her only hiccup of memory being the final of the 2009 World Championships in Rome, when she faded on the last lap. Like Allison Schmitt did in the 200 freestyle, Soni could win this event by more than two seconds. That's an outrageous amount of time for this level.
**Concern over a lack of a medal wasn't the case in many events for the United States entering the Olympics, but the women's 200 butterfly definitely threw up red flags. It's not that Kathleen Hersey and Cammile Adams had poor showings at the Olympic Trials. They didn't. Otherwise, they wouldn't be at the London Games.
The concern arose from the track record of American swimming in the event since 2003. Only once in the last seven major international competitions (defined as the Olympics or World Championships) had the United States earned a medal. The feat was accomplished by Kim Vandenberg in 2007, when she won silver at the World Champs in Melbourne.
Otherwise, the results had been subpar, with fourth, sixth, seventh and eighth-place finishes dotting the ledger. And that only accounted for the athletes who qualified for the championship final, not those who failed to advance that far. Last summer was especially weak, with the United States placing no one in the final of the 200 fly at the World Championships in Shanghai.
Once again, the United States didn't win a medal in the distance fly, but it took a big step forward to regaining traction. Hersey just missed out on reaching the podium, her time of 2:05.78 not far off the 2:05.48 of bronze medalist Natsumi Hoshi of Japan. Meanhile, Adams was fifth. The race was won by China's Jiao Liuyang, who was the silver medalist at the Beijing Games, in 2:04.06.
Hersey, who trains under Eddie Reese, led the way through the preliminaries and semifinals and had her best time of the competition in the final. It just happened that she needed a little more. If nothing else, Hersey has to be pleased with the steps she has made, turning herself into a legitimate medal contender in international action. And with Adams, the event looks better for the United States.
**Another attempt, but nothing doing. The tally went to 0-for-4 in the chase for a male three-peat, Japan's Kosuke Kitajima coming up short for the second time in a breaststroke event. This time, the back-to-back Olympic champ was fourth in the 200 breast, won by Hungarian Daniel Gyurta in a world record of 2:07.28.
Only Australian Dawn Fraser (100 freestyle) and Hungarian Krisztina Egerszegi (200 backstroke) have won the same event at three straight Olympiads. While Kitajima has come up empty in the 100 and 200 breast events, Michael Phelps was unable to turn the trick in the 400 individual medley and 200 butterfly.
**With more than twice as much rest than he'll get tomorrow night, Ryan Lochte handled his double in the 200 backstroke and 200 individual medley in cruising form. Lochte had just less than an hour between his events, which is a huge span compared to the 20 minutes for the gap between the championship finals.
A key to Lochte's double during finals will be how much energy he expends in the 200 back. If Lochte can hold something in reserve and still defeat teammate Tyler Clary and Japan's Ryosuke Irie, he'll be in much better position for his duel in the shorter medley with Michael Phelps.
The latest regional medal count still has the Pacific Rim on top with 25 medals, with the Americas next at 20. The Europeans moved up to 13 while Africa remained at two. The Americas can make a move tomorrow night with the men's 200 back and men's 200 individual medley figuring to yielded two medals each.
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