2012 London Olympics: Thoughts on First Day of Olympic Swimming

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Feature by David Rieder

CHARLESTON, South Carolina, July 28. THE Olympics are the greatest sporting event on Earth. What we saw today inside the Olympic Aquatic center proved that hypothesis without a doubt. No series of analysis articles could have predicted the amazing performances in London today and the upsets in the pool. The four finals and two semi-finals set the stage for the next seven days of swimming in the pool. Let’s take a look.

First off, the highly-anticipated men’s 400 IM thrilled. But instead of an epic duel between Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps, Lochte destroyed the field, while Phelps didn’t even get on the podium. With his impressive 4:05.18, Lochte recorded the largest margin of victory in the event ever over Thiago Pereira and Kosuke Hagino, while Phelps finished more than a second off his Olympic Trials time for fourth. That time from Omaha would have earned Phelps the silver medal we all expected. Phelps recorded a shockingly bad performance. How he responds over the next seven days could show big-time in the U.S. medal count.

Lochte, meanwhile, has firmly established himself as the best swimmer in the world. While he still faces challenges in events such as the 200 free, where he will face off with Frenchman Yannick Agnel, he will take home quite a medal haul from London. Instead of talking on now, though, let’s see what Lochte can do on his own. I expect quite a lot. Meanwhile, props to Pereira for hanging on for silver in the 400 IM. After years of struggling down the stretch of IMs and fading from medal contention, he did phenomenal tonight to hold on, and expect big things from him in the 200 IM as well.

In the next two finals, China made quite a statement. Not only did both Sun Yang and Yi Shiwen win gold, they, along with women’s 400 IM bronze medalist Li Xuanxu, closed on their last laps in extremely impressive fashion. In the men’s 400 free, Sun made defending champ Park Tae Hwan look like an amateur, destroying Park on his way to a near-world record-performance. His time of 3:40.18 came so close to Paul Biedermann’s 3:40.07. Sun, for sure, remains the heavy favorite in the 1500 in a week, an event in which he holds the world record, and he could even factor into the mix in the 200 free.

Katinka Hosszu and then Elizabeth Beisel led through the opening laps of the 400 IM, but Yi Shiwen sat only a bodylength behind Beisel with 100 meters to go. Although Beisel had the lead, Yi loomed; at Worlds last year, Yi came from nowhere to win gold in the 200 IM on the freestyle leg; this time, she just obliterated Beisel and obliterated Stephanie Rice’s world record with a stunning 4:28.43. She even beat Lochte on that last 50, 28.93 to 29.10! Li, meanwhile, came from nowhere to finish third. Keep an eye on those Chinese finishes the rest of the week; the Chinese have some serious momentum on their side after day one.

The women finished out the night in the 400 free relay. The Dutch entered as heavy favorites, but their first three legs really struggled, especially lead-off Inge Dekker, who went from first at the 50 to last at the 100. The Americans, meanwhile, led off with Missy Franklin, who touched the wall first with a swift 53.52, before Jessica Hardy, Lia Neal, and Allison Schmitt all swam very solid races, but they didn’t have enough fire power for more than a bronze. I do think the coaches made a mistake in their use of Franklin; Franklin has shown some serious capabilities on the anchor, where perhaps she could have provided more of an impact.

Now, how about those Australians! With everyone picking the Netherlands to win, the Aussies shocked the field with four very solid performances. Alicia Coutts and Cate Campbell did their jobs, Brittany Elmslie stepped up in her first Olympic final with a swift 53.41 split, and Melanie Schlanger showed the clutch gene with a 52.65 anchor split, more than a second faster than her lifetime best off a flat start of 53.74. Schlanger needed that swim, though, as Dutch sprint star Ranomi Kromowidjojo came home in 51.93, the fastest relay split in history.

Outstanding performances for the Aussies and Kromowidjojo, but Kromowidjojo will have more shots at gold in the individual sprints. The relay also injects some much-needed momentum to the previously-dominant Australian women’s team, one which failed to win a single gold in Shanghai last summer. Australia’s Libby Trickett, a prelims swimmer, added a fifth gold medal to her impressive resume, completely validating her comeback from retirement. As for Natalie Coughlin, her prelims swim earned her a record-tying 12th Olympic medal.

Check out David Rieder’s blog for more of his thoughts on the Olympic Games, including a look ahead to tomorrow’s finals.