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Column by John Lohn, Swimming World senior writer
SHANGHAI, China, July 24. The United States or France? France or the United States? Russia, perhaps? Nope. Australia fooled us all.
Through all the discussion concerning the outcome of the men's 400 freestyle relay at the World Championships in Shanghai, did anyone really believe the Aussies would collect the gold medal? If you're actually that person, the purchase of a lottery ticket might be a wise move at some point today. After all, in gambling, they always suggest playing the hot streak.
Jumpstarted by James Magnussen's textile-suit best time of 47.49, Australia snagged an unexpected relay title as the first night of the World Champs came to a close at the Oriental Sports Center. Teaming with Matt Targett, Matt Abood and Eamon Sullivan, Magnussen lifted the Dolphins to a triumphant effort of 3:11.00.
In the Aussies' wake – literally, thanks to that splendid opening leg – were France (3:11.14) and the United States (3:11.96). Oh, yes, there was some eyebrow-raising in press row. How did these guys pull this thing off? This wasn't supposed to happen. Ah, the beauty of athletics.
"This wasn't just about two countries like a lot of people thought," said American Jason Lezak, the man who rallied the United States to gold in this relay at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. "(The Australians) had some guys who really stepped up."
No one more than Magnussen, who was shelved with a bout of pneumonia over the past two weeks. Hmm, maybe he stumbled onto a new training mantra: Come down with a chest-constricting, lung-beating illness and you'll swim the fastest time of your life. But Magnussen's mark wasn't just a personal best. Rather, it was the swiftest time ever produced in a textile suit, bettering the 47.84 of Pieter van den Hoogenband from 2000.
Touted as a future star of sprint-freestyling in Australia, Magnussen certainly didn't disappoint. He used the extra rest from his sickness to put the Aussies in front by a sizable margin and his teammates never relinquished that lead. Targett and Abood followed with respective splits of 47.87 and 47.92 while Sullivan, who performed poorly in the preliminaries, bounced back with an anchor leg of 47.72.
The Australians were not supposed to be back in the gold-medal hunt in this relay until next year, when Ian Thorpe expectedly joins the team. Now, one must wonder if Thorpe will have enough firepower to dent this squad. For Leigh Nugent, it's a nice problem to have.
"I was pretty psyched," Magnussen said of his chance to race. "I haven't been in the water much, so I wanted to test my speed. I was excited to get out in front of a big crowd. We put ourselves on the map because not many people were talking about us."
While the Australians had the chance to celebrate, France and the United States could do nothing but wonder about what transpired. For France, it was another moment of shortcoming, joining the loss to the United States in Beijing and a third-place showing at the 2009 World Champs. Yes, the Frenchmen finally knocked off the Americans, but it still couldn't mine gold.
As for the United States, the finish can only be viewed as disappointing. Michael Phelps did his part with an opening mark of 48.08, his fastest textile time. But Garrett Weber-Gale (48.33) and Lezak (48.15) didn't do enough for anchor Nathan Adrian, who closed in 47.40. Said Phelps, "That's not the way we wanted to get started."
If nothing else, this relay should be fascinating at next year's Olympics in London. Aside from the podium finishers, Italy and Russia each cracked 3:13.00. Factor in the potential presence of Thorpe and there will be plenty of storylines to go around. Until then, however, Australia has placed itself in an enviable position: On top of the world.
Who would have thought? Not too many.
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn