By M. Duncan Scott
ATHENS, Greece, August 14. WHAT do you think was the most impressive story, positive or negative, from the opening session of 2004 Olympic swimming?
Was it Michael Phelps’ comfortable swim into the lead qualifying position in the 400 IM? Could it have been the second place position of Phelps’ primary foe, Hungary’s Lazslo Cseh, despite reports of a broken foot with surgical insertion of metal support pins just a few short weeks ago?
Was it the obvious disappointment of American teenager Katie Hoff, 2004 world 400 IM leader, who finished 17th out of 24, 10 seconds off her U.S. Trials winning swim? Even with a 1:10.5 (1:04.13 at Trials) freestyle she still only missed the final by 2.33. And as terrible as it sounded, she was actually faster than her prelim swim at the trials by 1.67. Her coach Paul Yetter says there is nothing physically wrong with her. How can one predict teenagers? She could turn right around and win a medal at the 200 distance.
For the most part, things went tightly according to form. Klochkova on top of the 400 IM. Thorpe and Hackett 1-2 – excuse me Grant, 2-1 – in the 400 Free. Likewise, Kitajima (Olympic record 1:00.03) and Hansen in the lead spots of the 100 breaststroke going into the semifinal. And it wasn’t exactly out of line for the top three names in the women’s 100 fly to include lead seed Petria Thomas and the world record-holders for the 200 and 100 distances, respectively, Jedrzejczak and De Bruijn. Even with several evening substitutions expected from each team the expected Australians and Americans were on top of the women’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay qualifiers.
No, you’d have to ignore the international media and the crush of “Phelps qualifies” stories to find it, but the most impressive story of Session One was … THE GREEKS!! Now, of course, the session did not carry “medal” importance, but don’t tell that to the locals.
Greece has waited since the last time the Games were in Athens – 1896 – to have a swimming finalist, according to reports from Athens organizers. National Coach Ionnis Orfanidis is pleased with the progress of Greek swimming. “I am convinced that we will have at least one finalist,” he exuded before the meet. He was hopeful it might be his own athlete, Ioannis Drymonakos, in his 200 butterfly specialty. Others held hopes that Spyridon Giannoitis (7th in the 2001 World Championships 400 freestyle) might make the breakthrough.
But it always seems like there is “something in the water” for the host team at the Olympics, and it is no different for the Greeks. After going 108 years with no finalist the Greeks came up with THREE in the first session, and an alternate to boot!
First, Ionnis Kokkodis broke the Greek record in the 400 IM (4:16.56) and stands, 5th. Drymonakos didn’t wait for the butterfly to shine, finishing 9th, just .06 out of the final at 4:16.83.
The Greek train was rolling. Eirini Kavarnou followed with a PB 1:00.43 in the women’s 100 butterfly to finish only two spots out of the semi-final (after Franziska Van Almsick’s scratch).
Next Giannotis, probably the home hero with the most realistic hope of a final, carried the pressure to seventh in the 400 free in a PB 3:48.77. That’s two.
Then, in the 400 IM, Vasiliki Angelopoulou improved over one-and-a-half seconds and dropped from 22nd seed to qualify seventh at 4:44.90, becoming the first female Greek swimming finalist ever.
Even their 13th seeded women’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay stood just .08 out of 8th before the excitement of the moment overtook their third swimmer who jumped early.
What a day! It may not translate into medals – what a thrill that would be for the home crowd – but at least for this session, it wasn’t the Grecian weather that was hot …it was the Greeks themselves!