By John Lohn
BEIJING, China, August 10. JUST four years ago, a performance of 4:05.34 was good enough to capture the gold medal in the women's 400 freestyle. Now, that kind of time doesn't even earn a spot in the championship final. Oh, how the sport has changed dramatically since Athens was the center of the sports universe.
The world-record holder, Italy's Federica Pellegrini set an Olympic record by winning the final heat the event in 4:02.19, slightly faster than the 4:02.24 registered by Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain. Four women went under the Olympic record of 4:03.85, which had stood since Janet Evans won the gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Games.
Katie Hoff, looking for her second medal of the meet after taking bronze in the 400 individual medley, snared the third slot for the final, thanks to a time of 4:03.71. That was the Olympic record for a handful of minutes. That effort was just ahead of the 4:03.80 by Great Britain's Jo Jackson. Hoff has been 4:02.20 and should be in the gold-medal mix with Pellegrini and Adlington during the championship final.
Australian Bronte Barratt was fifth in 4:04.16 and fifth was occupied by France's Coralie Balmy in 4:04.25. Rounding out the field for the medal round were Romania's Camelia Potec in 4:04.55 and France's Laure Manaudou, the defending Olympic champ, in 4:04.93. Whether Manaudou can rekindle her past remains to be seen.
Missing out on the final was American Kate Ziegler, who covered her prelim race in 4:09.59, nearly six seconds off of her personal best. Poland's Otylia Jedrzejczak, the silver medalist in Athens, and Aussie Linda Mackenzie also missed the final, despite swimming in the 4:05-range.