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Column by John Lohn, Swimming World senior writer
SHANGHAI, China, July 29. LET'S try to put the sheer dominance of Rebecca Soni into some sort of perspective. As she stormed to the title in the 200 breaststroke at the World Championships, her rivals in the championship final – at one point – could see her feet. Call it fitting, because Soni has done nothing but kick her competition aside.
There isn't a woman in the world who is controlling her events the way Soni has been able to, her training under Dave Salo at Trojan Swim Club leading her to this excellence. But, does Soni get the credit she truly deserves? Truthfully, she doesn't. Sure, it's normal for the lights of the spotlight to shine on the women who embrace schedules with multiple strokes. Still, time needs to be taken to properly respect what Soni is accomplishing.
Every time she races either the 100 or 200 breast, the outcome is already decided. The other athletes are battling for second, hoping to stay within a respectable distance of the New Jersey native. That scenario will not be found in a female freestyle, backstroke or butterfly event. Although there are certain swimmers who prevail routinely, none can match the authority of Soni.
What she has done is replicate the event ownership that Australian Leisel Jones once knew in the breaststroke events. In the middle of last decade, especially 2006 and 2007, Jones was untouchable when she stepped on the blocks. Her world record in the 100 breast was more than a second clear of the competition and her 200 breast superiority was equally present.
Gradually, though, Soni emerged as a legitimate threat to Jones. Although she was unable to topple Jones in the shorter distance at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, she delivered a message in the 200 breast, capturing the gold medal by coasting by Jones. A shift in power was certainly unfolding, one that has been easily completed.
These days, it is Soni who is the unmatched force. She obliterated her foes in the 100 breast, winning that race by more than a second over Russia's Yuliya Efimova. She easily took care of matters in the 200 breast as well, again besting Efimova, who also trains with Salo at Trojan. That Soni won the 200 breast at these World Champs was a key triumph, for it allowed her to squash any lingering doubt from what happened two years ago.
Racing at the World Champs in Rome, Soni took the race out at a suicidal rate. She was significantly under world-record pace entering the final lap, but collapsed over the final 50 meters, missing the podium altogether with a fourth-place finish. Soni has admitted that the events of that race have remained – to a degree.
"I'm really excited to get the gold medal since I've prepared for it for a long time," Soni said. "It's a nice night for me. I wanted to be faster than (the semifinal). The other swimmers are really tough competition to deal with, but it also pushes me to keep going.
At the beginning of her career, Soni was best known for her prowess in the 200 breast. To her credit, she worked on developing her speed and made herself into a multi-distance threat. That's not always a doable objective.
With a pair of gold medals stashed away, Soni will embark on her trifecta quest when the preliminaries of the 50 breaststroke begin in the morning. Unlike the other two breast events, this one is where Soni is vulnerable, the speed of Jessica Hardy a true threat to Soni's designs on a sweep. Then again, this is the non-Olympic event of the breaststroke trio and, therefore, the least prestigious.
Regardless of what happens in the sprint breast, Soni's legacy is firmly established. What's also established is her status as one of the globe's greats, something she's pulled off by dominating a single stroke.
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