Lafontaine Pleased with Start to Pan Pacs

By John Lohn

ASTON, Pennsylvania, August 18. THE first night of the Pan Pacific Championships went into the books Thursday night, but not before a flurry of fireworks went off at the Saanich Commonwealth Place. Of course, the evening was highlighted by back-to-back world-record swims from Jessicah Schipper (2:05.40) and Michael Phelps (1:53.80) in the 200 butterfly events.

And, the night was capped by an exquisite duel between the United States’ Kate Ziegler and Hayley Peirsol in the 1,500 freestyle. Battling side-by-side throughout the 30-lap endurance test, Ziegler and Peirsol became the second and third-fastest performers in history, trailing only world-record holder Janet Evans, who owns the world record at 15:53.20 and history’s second-fastest mark of 15:54.23.

Trailing Peirsol, albeit slightly, at the 1,300-meter mark, Ziegler turned on the burners down the stretch and prevailed in 15:55.01, slightly ahead of the 15:57.36 of Peirsol, who edged Ziegler in the 800 free at the United States Nationals earlier this month. Ziegler and Peirsol moved to third and fourth on the all-time chart for the metric mile. Evans, Ziegler and Peirsol are the only individuals to crack the 16-minute mark.

“If I had to choose the race of the night, the 200 fly records were great, but those girls went head-to-head the whole way,” said Pierre Lafontaine, the CEO and National Team Coach for Swimming Canada, during an exclusive interview with I would have to say that race is the highlight of world swimming this year.”

Lafontaine, himself, had plenty with which to be pleased. Since returning to his native land in April of 2005, after being lured away from his head job at the Australian Institute of Sport, Lafontaine has worked tirelessly to take Canada to another level. Thursday night, he saw some more progress as Andrew Hurd took top honors in the 800 freestyle with a national-record time of 7:55.88.

Not to go overlooked, 17-year-old Ryan Cochrane went 7:58.32 for the bronze medal and was also under the former national record, the 7:58.63 set in 2003 by Kurtis MacGillivary. Cochrane held the lead at the 500-meter point after attacking the first half of the race, a strategy that impressed the man rebuilding the Canadian program.

Upon returning to Canada, Lafontaine indicated a need for the nation to work together in its pursuit of excellence in the sport. Consequently, he made sure coaches across the nation were on the same page. It’s clear that the plan is working.

“That was a nice start for us,” Lafontaine said of the 800 freestyle, which was the first event of the competition. “I hope it got the team going and we’ll be able to show our quality. Everyone is working together. We’re not a big enough country to have a dog-eat-dog mentality. We need synergy and need to use the strength of each other."

Coupled with last year’s World Championships in Montreal, the Pan Pacific Champs have demonstrated Canada’s willingness to embrace the sport and Lafontaine’s positive attitude. The stands for the event were jammed with spectators, who let loose with boisterous support not just for the homeland stars, but for the superb performances they were witnessing.

Some of those standout performances were delivered by the Japanese contingent, which obviously arrived in British Columbia intent on opening eyes. In addition to Hanae Ito’s upset victory of Natalie Coughlin in the 100 backstroke, thanks to a time of 1:00.63, Yuko Nakanishi was stellar in the women’s 200 fly. Nakanishi finished behind Schipper in 2:06.52. For the men, Ryuichi Shibata was second to Phelps in the 200 fly with a mark of 1:55.82. To Shibata’s credit, he went hard in the race, leading Phelps at the 100 and 150-meter marks before fading.

“The Japanese showed great strength and character,” Lafontaine said. “They were ready to go. They’ve put in 15 years of preparation and hard work, and now they’re seeing the fruits of that pursuit.

“It was a great night. The fans were sitting on top of each other and they went nuts for the records. The meet had a real friendly atmosphere. It was exciting.”

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