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By John Lohn
LONDON, July 30. GO back many months, maybe even more than a year. Whatever the timeframe of choice, any Olympic discussion included chatter concerning the 200 freestyle. It was going to be an epic race, and everyone knew it. After all, the field was loaded with talent. Now that the event is over, it's fair to say it did not disappoint. However, it wasn't because of a bang-bang finish.
Toying with a field that seemingly couldn't be toyed with, France's Yannick Agnel picked up his second gold medal with a wire-to-wire victory of 1:43.14. That time, the fastest ever in textile, gave the 20-year-old the crown by nearly two second over Korea's Tae-Hwan Park and China's Sun Yang, who shared the silver medal with matching times of 1:44.83. American Ryan Lochte, whom many viewed as the favorite before the Olympics, was fourth in 1:45.04.
The only thing missing from the championship final was the presence of Michael Phelps, which was a scenario known by the time the United States Olympic Trials concluded. Yet, even without the reigning Olympic champion, the fans in attendance at the Stingray (the nickname for the Aquatic Centre) received a major treat — from one man.
The beautiful part of this 200 freestyle was its ingredients. The major players possessed differing styles. There was Agnel, who revealed impressive speed coming off his anchor leg on France's triumphant 400 free relay. There was Sun, the distance star who was dropping down in length. There was Lochte, specifically a four-lap guy. There was Park, the quintessential middle-distance performer.
And Agnel played with them all, turning the highly anticipated event into an age-group rout. When Agnel split sub-47 en route to leading France to the gold medal in the 400 free relay, it became clear he was on point. But battering the field the way he did in the 200 free was even more impressive and fulfilled the promise he first demonstrated a few years back.
“I wasn't expecting it,” Agnel said. “I didn't have a plan for the race. It's above all my hopes and expectations, especially the time did. I'm delighted. I've realized a childhood dream.”
By the end of this meet, Agnel could have Olympic crowns in the 100 and 200 freestyles while Sun will likely add the 1500 free gold to the one he won in the 400 free. It might be unfair to ask which is the better freestyler, given their focus on different distances, but it's still a fun query to throw out there. An argument can be made both ways.
Regardless, Agnel added another chapter to what is becoming a fantastic book from these Olympic Games. And he wrote the chapter all alone, which was never expected to happen. Not in this event.
**Faced with a gold medal on the line, I'll admit to wondering whether Ruta Meilutyte would falter in the final of the women's 100 breaststroke. Despite leading the preliminary and semifinal rounds, the Lithuanian was only 15 years old and had never been under the spotlight quite like the last few days. It was wrong to doubt her.
The British-trained teenager held on for the gold medal, clocking 1:05.47. Even more impressive than her time was Meilutyte's ability to fend off American Rebecca Soni, known for her hard-charging form. If the Lithuanian had buckled under the heat from Soni, no one could have blamed her. Instead, she's the Olympic champ.
Meilutyte's tale is the type of story that makes the Olympics, an unknown rising up and living a dream experience. It was tremendous seeing her emotions pour forward, following the race, during the medal ceremony and during the playing of her national anthem.
“I can't believe it,” she said. “It's too much for me. It was hard and difficult, and at the moment I can't say too much. It means a lot to me. I'm so proud.”
**The story of the men's 100 backstroke was perfect for the United States. As Matt Grevers and Nick Thoman went gold-silver, which the Americans did in Beijing behind Aaron Peirsol and Grevers, it completed long roads for both men. For Grevers, he gained full redemption for missing out on last year's major international competition, the World Championships. With a renewed hunger, Grevers has owned the backstroke this summer, first producing the fastest textile time ever in his prime event, then winning Olympic gold.
For Thoman, who has fought for years to be one of the United States' best backstrokers, he came through in his first Olympic final. Like Brendan Hansen the previous night and Grevers in the same race, Thoman was a definition of perserverance.
**Well, it doesn't look like Michael Phelps will have an easy time prevailing in his signature event, the one which put him on the map as a 15-year-old in 2000. Phelps qualified just fourth for the final of the 200 butterfly in 1:54.53, with Japan's Takeshi Matsuda taking the top seed for the medal round in 1:54.25.
It's been hard to get a read on Phelps through three days of competition. While he had a poor showing in the 400 individual medley, where he placed fourth, Phelps had a terrific split on the United States' silver-medal winning 400 free relay. It could be that Phelps is in fine sprinting form, but is having trouble with the longer races.
Phelps is poised tomorrow night to become the all-time leader in Olympic history. If he earns podium spots in the 200 fly and 800 free relay, his medal count will move to 19, one more than the 18 won over three Games by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina.
**Here's the latest medal count by region. The Pacific Rim, with Sun Yang and Tae-Hwan Park picking up their second medals, leads the way with 15 medals. The Americas follow with 13, to the seven medals by Europe and one for Africa.
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