by Tito Morales
ATHENS, August 17. THE 100-meter freestyle.
This is one of those races where it all collides — the past and the future, the champions and the unknowns, East versus West, North versus South, youth against experience, big against small, strength versus style, and yesterdays versus tomorrows…
This, really, epitomizes what the Olympic Games are all about.
Each of the events during the biggest of all swim meets is filled with drama and subtext. But every four years, somehow this one race usually contains the most.
First, there’s something to be said about the purity of the event.
The 100 free is something to which anyone who has ever slipped on a racing suit can relate. Age groupers first tackle the distance when they’re 10 & under. Centenarians have raced it on the Masters level.
"Race ya' to the end and back!" becomes: Get down and back the pool as quickly as you can. It’s as simple as that.
It’s called “free style” for a reason. The rules are more liberal than in any other stroke. Think you can cover the distance faster on your back with a frog kick? Go for it. Want to give it a go feet first? By all means, help yourself…
The 50-meter freestyle, the 100’s younger sibling, has only been contested a handful of times in Olympic history. The 100, though, has been there since the very beginning. In 186, an ocean version of this race was the very first Olympic swimming race ever staged.
The 50 free is more of a slugfest — a battle royal consumed with white water and splashes. The 100 is more of a swimming race.
Athletes can muscle their way through a 50. Athletes become swimmers, though, when they’re faced with double the distance.
There is also something to be said about the inclusiveness of the event. So many, it seems, have the ability to swim the 100 free.
Even on the elite level this is perhaps the most egalitarian of swimming events. At last summer’s world championships in Barcelona, for example, athletes from seven different nations took to the blocks for the women’s final. Ditto for the men’s final.
France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Sweden, China, South Africa, Belarus, and even Equatorial Guinea, as evidenced by Eric “The Eel” Moussambani’s controversial appearance in the Sydney Games … 100-meter freestylers hail from all corners of the globe.
Then, too, there’s tradition to consider.
Not only was the 100 free the first swimming race of the modern Games, but when women were finally allowed to compete in the Olympics, in 1912, it was the only individual race on their entire program.
It’s long been regarded as the sport’s glamour event.
Offer a name recognition quiz to a cross-section of the general populace, and it’s inevitable that among the first swimmers they’ll throw out will be 100 freestyle champions.
Kahanamoku, Weissmuller, Schollander, Spitz, Biondi… They were all Olympic champions in this race.
It was the 100 free, in fact, that was the one single race that sealed Spitz’s fame as the greatest swimmer of all-time.
In an oft-told tale, he was prepared to walk away from the 100 free, his final individual event in Munich, in order to preserve his blemish-free gold medal string at six. But then wiser heads prevailed — as his coaches carefully explained to him that the 100 meter freestyle was different from all the other events. It meant more. Persuaded, Spitz took to the blocks and blew away any lingering doubts about his place in history.
Tradition in the 100 free on the women’s side is no less prestigious.
Helene Madison, the amazing Dawn Fraser — who won an unprecedented three consecutive gold medals in this race and probably would have won more but for the action of an overly zealous Australian official — Sandy Neilson, Kristin Otto, Inge de Bruijn… They all took home top honors in the century freestyle race.
The 2004 Edition of the 100-meter freestyle events includes a list of possible champions that is again rich with intrigue.
For the men, defending Olympic gold medalist Pieter van den Hoogenband from the Netherlands just ripped off the second fastest relay split in history in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay. (He also owns the first and third-fastest splits.)
Roland Shoeman has recorded a pair of the fastest times of the year so far, and teammate Ryk Neethling, who anchored the victorious South African relay, is also high on the 2004 list.
Ian Crocker, short course meters world record-holder, and Jason Lezak, American record-holder, are each aiming to become the first U.S. male since Matt Biondi in 1988 to capture the gold — and a victory here by either would surely take some of the sting off the recent sprint relay disappointment.
Russia’s Alexander Popov, two-time Olympic champion and silver medalist in Sydney, would like nothing more than to win his crown back in this event, which would make him the only male in history to win the 100 free three times.
And then, of course, there’s a little known Australian guy named Ian Thorpe who, it seems, if he ever got off the blocks fast enough, could also have a legitimate shot at the gold.
For the women, American record-holder Natalie Coughlin and Kara Lynn Joyce, who recorded the fastest opening leg of the 4 x 100 free relay on Day One, are also on a collision course with a collection of the most talented 100-meter freestyle athletes ever assembled.
Australian Libby Lenton is the current world record-holder.
Inge de Bruijn from the Netherlands is the defending Olympic champion in this event, and would like nothing better than to atone for her performance in the 100 meter butterfly.
Hanna-Marie Seppala from Finland is the defending world champion.
Therese Alshammar from Sweden is the world record-holder in the short course version of the distance.
And then there’s the Australian Jodie Henry, newly-annointed relay legend, who just split the fastest ever 100-meter freestyle leg.
These talented swimmers, and many others, have each come to Athens from all points on the compass to lay it all on the line in the historic two lap race.
Can it get much better than this?
When galaxies collide, special things happen.
The male and female athletes who ultimately emerge on top in the 100-meter freestyle in the days to come can take pride in the fact that they’ve become champion in a race whose folklore is second to none.