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By David Rieder
BARCELONA, Spain, July 28. ON the first day of the FINA World Championships, the coaches of each of the contending teams in the 400 free relay finals faced among the toughest decisions they would face all week long: how to attack the finals relay. With races expected to be extremely tight, none of the teams had any margin for error. The coaches had to come up with the best four swimmers on the given day and assign them to swim in the best possible order to have a hope of winning a gold medal. On this Sunday, only one women’s team and one men’s team would be perfectly constituted.
All pundits pointed to the women’s relay as a battle between the Australians and the Americans. The Aussie team featured Cate Campbell, the number one-ranked swimmer in the world, and that team won the Olympic gold medal, while four Americans swam under 54 at U.S. Nationals just one year after 53.96 won the final at Olympic Trials. Campbell, however, had ideas other than a duel in the pool; she went out and crushed her leadoff leg with a 52.33, a half-second better than her previous world best and more than a second ahead of Missy Franklin. Cate’s sister Bronte swam second before Emma McKeon and Alicia Coutts finished off the relay, and all posted solid splits under 53.5 on their way to a new Commonwealth record.
Only a spectacular performance could have beaten the Aussies, and the Americans delivered just that. Franklin came up short of her lifetime best with a 53.51 leadoff split, slower than the 53.43 she swam last month. Up next, Natalie Coughlin dove in the water. After not swimming in the finals at the Olympics last year and splitting just 54.09 in prelims, the coaches decided to take a chance with her in the final. The big race swimmer that she has always been, Coughlin delivered a 52.98 leg before Shannon Vreeland chipped in a 53.22, leaving a deficit of nearly three-quarters of a second for Megan Romano.
Romano had been in a similar situation two weeks earlier, anchoring the American relay at the World University Games in a 52.90 to nearly catch the leading Russians. Tonight, she split 52.60 to reel in Coutts and touch her out at the finish, a finish that already has earned Romano comparisons to Jason Lezak’s legendary performance at the 2008 Olympics. Australia entered as the favorite on paper, but on day one, no one really knows who will be on their game with no racing in the books; the Americans, specifically Coughlin and Romano, came ready and delivered superb performances to earn the gold medal.
The men’s relay saw performances that one may expect from a day one swim, the first race of the meet: slow and sleepy swims. The leadoff swimmers for the top four teams — Nathan Adrian, James Magnussen, Andrey Grechin, and Yannick Agnel — all failed to beat their performances from previous relays, though Adrian’s reported sickness may provide an explanation for at least the American team. However, on the third leg, Fabien Gilot unleashed a 46.90 that gave France a shot, but he needed Jeremy Stravius to anchor in 47.59 to seal the deal for the win. Of the top four teams, only those two swimmers exceeded expectations, and that earned France another relay win.
For instance, Ryan Lochte (47.80) and Feigen (48.23) could not approach the impressive 47.56 split that Ricky Berens put up in the prelims. The Russians, meanwhile, would have won the race if they had matched their performance from the World University Games, but all four swam subpar swims compared to their dominating performance in Kazan. Australia missed out on a medal after James Magnussen led off in 48.00, a half second off his world-leading 47.53. None of these three teams came together as well as the French and got the clutch performances that Gilot and Stravius gave the French men or Coughlin and Romano the American women. Without a true “hot hand” on day one, coaches don’t know who will step up and swim their best at crunch time. On this day, those that stepped up won gold.
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