AUSTIN, Texas, Dec. 4, POOR Simon Burnett. The guy just can't get a break.
After winning the NCAA 200 free as a freshman here two seasons ago, Burnett was upstaged at this year's championships by Auburn's George Bovell, the Olympic bronze medalist in the 200 meter Individual Medley who is also the world record-holder in the short course meters version of that race and the US Open/NCAA record-holder in the yards version.
Then just two weeks ago in Los Angeles against USC, Burnett swam what was briefly the fastest 200 free in a collegiate dual-meet (1:34.19) until Florida's Ryan Lochte went 12-hundredths faster. Still Burnett appeared to be back in championship form. And on Thursday night he swam a nation-leading and career-best 19.28 to win the 50 free, so things couldn't be looking rosier, right?
Not quite. On Friday afternoon in the 200 free qualifying he went a 1:37.78 and qualified only ninth, as the cut for eighth was 1:37.18. What's a fella to do?
How about a US Open/NCAA record at night in the consolation finals (1:32.22), breaking the old US Open/NCAA-record of 1:33.03 set by Cal's Matt Biondi 17 and-a-half long years ago here at the 1987 NCAA Championships?
Because Burnett represents Great Britain internationally — he was seventh at Athens in the 200 meter free after going a career-best/British-record 1:47.72 in the semis — he can't hold the American record, which is still Biondi's 1:33.03.
When Biondi, then a senior for the Golden Bears, went that 1:33.03 it was his second-to-last collegiate swim. The following day he would go a 41.80 to win the 100 free, still history's second-quickest century. Coupled with his 19.15 50 free victory opening night he became the first (and still only) swimmer ever to set the 50-100-200 free American/US Open/NCAA records in the same meet.
Biondi, of course, had held each of those records prior to breaking them that year at Texas. His old 200 free mark was a 1:33.22 from NCAAs (here, where else?) a few seasons earlier. That swim in turn broke former Auburn All-America (and triple Los Angeles Olympic gold-medalist) Rowdy Gaines' 1:33.91 from the '81 NCAAs, also in Austin!
So, from Gaines to Biondi, the 200 free record dropped not quite a full second (0.88) in six years, and there it stood until Master Simon came along last night.
Burnett's 2003 NCAA-winning swim was a 1:33.69, fifth and seventh on the all-time performers-performances lists and fastest since 1999 — when fellow Arizonan Ryk Neethling won the collegiate title in a then Wildcat record 1:33.59. Neethling, along with fellow South Africans Roland Schoeman (NCAA 50 free champ last year) and Lyndon Ferns plus Florida rookie Damian Townsend won the gold in the 400 free relay at Athens, the Springboks' first men's Big O's gold and first world-record.
Interestingly, Nort Thornton, head man at Cal when Biondi was tearing up the record book and still there today, was on hand for Burnett's historic swim, as he of course was for Biondi's in '87.
Burnett's 200 NR at the Olympics was a breakthrough too, inasmuch as the old British record of 1:47.95 was by now-retired Paul Palmer from Sydney. Burnett also went a pr 49.90 for the 100 meter freestyle at the British Olympic Trials earlier this year, just off the national record 49.65 by former Auburn All-America Matthew Kidd from that meet's prelims.
Burnett was on fire last night, and comparing his and Biondi's splits, it's clear the former went out harder and faster than anyone in history.
50 100 150 200
Biondi: 21.92 45.34 [23.42] 1:09.15 [23.81] 1:33.03 [23.88])
Burnett 21.29 44.69 [23.40] 1:08.48 [23.79] 1:32.22 [23.74]
While Burnett would seemingly have the inside track for a second NCAA title in three years next March at Minneapolis, he's far from a lock. Bovell is back for his junior year and would like nothing more than to defend his title. Florida's Lochte, silver-medalist at Athens in the 200 IM, swam a leg on uncle Sam's gold medal-winning 800 free relay at the Olympics and has a pr of 1:34.07. Another Gator in the mix will be 2002 NCAA champ Adam Sioul, who went a pr 1:34.58 to win his gold.
Arizona's Lyndon Ferns has had a pair of outstanding swims so far at Texas, including a pr 19.45 in the 50 free and a 46.04, nation-leading 100 fly victory. He also won the 200 free in 1:34.63 and teammate Tyler DeBerry — another fast-improving sophomore — was hot on his heels with his pr of 1:35.06. Think the 'Cats might have several high-powered and extremely fast freestyle relays, including a country fair 800?
(In the 100 free qualifying this afternoon, Texas sophomore Garrett Weber-Gale was fastest in 43.58 with Burnett a tick behind at 43.59. The American/NCAA record is 41.62 by former Cal great Anthony Ervin from NCAAs two years ago. That, in turn, broke Biondi's 41.80 standard from '87.)
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While Burnett's record swim had the crowd buzzing, perhaps the evening's most exciting race was the men's 400 IM, where USC's "Tunisian Tornado," Ousamma Mellouli and Michigan's Peter Vanderkaay staged a furious finish.
At 300 yards Mellouli, who last year became the first non-South African African swimmer to medal at a major international competition (bronze in the 400 IM at the World Championships in Barcelona), was more than two seconds ahead of his Wolverine foe, 2:53.03-2:55.30. But with a blistering kick and powerful arm action, Vanderkaay relentlessly gained ground on Mellouli until at the end just 34-hundredths separated the duo, with the Trojan winning in a seasonal pr 3:45.40 to 3:45.74 for the Michigander.– his pr by more than seven seconds.
Will Vanderkaay take a crack at the American/NCAA record of 3:38.18 by ex-Wolverine Tom Dolan from the '96 NCAAs at Indianapolis, or will he perhaps opt for the 200 free instead, where his pr is 1:35.74 from last season's NCs?
Rookie Michigan coach Bob Bowman, who guided Michael Phelps to a handful of golds last summer in Athens, just smiles.
Vanderkaay edged Mellouli and his Trojan teammate, Athens 1500-meter silver medalist Larsen Jensen, in the 500 free opening night, 4:15.32 (No. 1 nationally) to 4:15.43 (No. 2). Vanderkaay's pr is 4:15.06 from '03 but he's got a ways to go before he's threatening Dolan's Michigan record (4:08.75), which also happens to be the American/NCAA standard too and the only sub 4:11.0 on the books. Dolan also did that swim at the '96 national collegiate championships and that summer in Atlanta, won his first of two 400 IM Olympic golds. He also held the world record in that event until Phelps came along.
Keeping things "all in the family," freshman Alex Vanderkaay, Peter's younger brother, won the 400 IM consols in a pr 3:52.59.
This race had excellent depth to it with the top five finishers all going under 3:50.0. Trojan Paul Fahey (3:47.79) was third, Wisconsin's Tim Liebhold next (pr 3:48.97 and Texas' David Kahn fifth (3:49.95). Liebhold also took third in the 200 IM (pr 1:46.89) and is beginning to fulfill the promise Badger coach Eric Hansen always believed he had.
The 200 IM was taken by fellow Badger Adam Mania, a Polish Olympian who went a pr, Badger-record 1:45.74, that would have been the nation's leading swim but for the 1:45.52 prelim swim from Arizona's Dave Rollins. Mania was 0.10 ahead of Northwestern's Matt Grevers' pr 1:45.84, from the Wildcat Invitational in Evanston a few weeks back, which had been the national-leader.
Mania's old pr (and Wisconsin record) was 1:46.99 from last year's national championships. The Big Ten record is 1:45.33 by former Minnesota Golden Gopher Paul Nelsen.
Arizona's Nick Thoman, Dave Rollins and Ivan Barns were the other men's winners on Day 2, with the former taking the 100 back (48.17) and the latter two going prs 54.18 to tie for gold in the 100 breast. Thoman, an Ohio prep champ last season, went a pr 47.9 leading off the 'Cats' 400 medley relay.
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On the distaff side, Arizona sophomore Jenna Gresdal is doing a pretty good impersonation of Burnett and Ferns, winning the 50 free in a pr and nation-leading 22.52, then taking runner-up in the 100 back (53.70-53.75 to Wisconsin's Susan Johnson). In the prelims both went a tad faster, Johnson a pr 53.66 (nation-leading) and Gresdal a No.2, 53.68. Gresdal also led off Arizona's winning 200 free relay in 22.54, the season's second-quickest two-lapper.
In the 100 fly, another Ohio transplant, sophomore Whitney Myers, won in a pr and No. 1 national 52.89 over Johnson's 53.82. Third was Arizona's Lisa Pursley (pr 54.00). Pursley is the daugher of former U.S. National Team Director Dennis Pursley, who also was Australia's national head coach in the mid-'80s and was instrumental (along with Lakeside coach Bill Peak) in the development of former double world-record holder and triple Olympic butterfly champ Mary T Meagher.