Bobby Finke Magic Strikes Again in Silver-Medal Mile

Bobby Finke (front) embraces Ahmed Hafnaoui after their 1500 freestyle duel in Fukuoka -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

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Bobby Finke Magic Strikes Again in Silver-Medal Mile

He might as well be two completely different swimmers in one body. The first version of Bobby Finke is the one undefeated in 800 and 1500-meter races held within the United States over the past three years. This Finke rarely gets pressure from his domestic rivals while posting times on the fringes of international contention but rarely approaching times posted in Europe by the likes of Florian WellbrockMykhailo RomanchukGregorio Paltrinieri, Lukas Martens and more recently Dan Wiffen.

The second version has become the most feared closer in the world. At his first Olympics in 2021, a pair of magical finishes shocked the best distance swimmers in Europe as Finke stormed to American gold in both events. Since then, every competitor with a lead on Finke makes sure they remember to watch him on the last 50. When Finke races internationally, times become irrelevant, and he can surprise even himself with his speedy results when racing for gold.

Don’t put Finke in a time trial. Put him next to a seemingly-superior competitor, and watch sparks fly. As we saw this week at the World Championships, Finke may not win every time, but whoever does win gold must earn it.

From the 2021 Olympics to the 2022 World Championships to this year’s global meet, Finke’s placements have fallen off. After winning a pair of Olympic golds in his breakout meet, he got an 800 free gold and 1500 free silver one year later, and this time, the result was 1500 silver and 800 bronze. But in all six of those major finals, Finke has recorded a personal-best time. He is overachieving at each opportunity, even when Paltrinieri jumped out ahead of world record pace and broke contact with Finke and even when Australia’s Sam Short and Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui posted enormous drops to vault to the forefront of international distance swimming in Fukuoka.

In the 800 free, Finke split 26.79 on the last 50 to blast ahead of Martens into bronze-medal position, breaking his own American record with a time of 7:38.67, but Short and Hafnaoui were too far ahead and too quick on their own final lengths for Finke to have a chance at catching them. After the race, Finke marveled as he considered what Hafnaoui must have split on the final length to pull away from Short and win gold. Turns out, the Indiana University-trained Tunisian was even faster than Finke at 26.24.

Bobby Finke of the United States of America shows the silver medal after competing in the 1500m Freestyle Men Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 30th, 2023.

Bobby Finke with his 1500 free silver medal — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Three days later, Finke entered the 1500 final as top seed but with competitors younger than his usual rivals awaiting him, with Paltrinieri having withdrawn from the meet and Wellbrock missing the final. Instead, it was Hafnaoui and Short trying to extend their range into the 1500 and Dan Wiffen, who had jumped into the all-time top-five earlier in the year.

That field presented an electric pace, with Short blasting out well ahead of world-record pace and turning in 3:49.77 at the 400-meter mark, which would have placed 21st in the individual 400, just ahead of 10K bronze medalist Oliver Klemet. That left Finke and Hafnaoui almost stroke for stroke as they tried to run down the Aussie teenager, and they did around the 1000-meter mark. After that, neither Finke nor Hafnaoui would yield, with Hafnaoui flipping first at almost every turn but Finke merely tenths behind.

“I didn’t know it was going to be between us until maybe the 750,” Finke said. “Sam was still right next to us, so I thought at that point it was going to be the three of us in a bit of a dogfight. But we were able to get past Sam, and [I could] focus on Ahmed because he’s a great distance swimmer. He goes 14:10 in short-course meters, so he has the endurance. I know he has the finishing speed. So I knew at that point it could be really close.”

Would Finke be able to unleash his patented finishing burst to come over the top again? Or had Hafnaoui become even better than Finke at the American’s own game? Split by three tenths with 100 meters remaining, Finke had the margin down to nine hundredths at the 1450-meter mark. So Finke blasted, moving his arms and legs as fast as he could — and so did Hafnaoui. Stroke for stroke down the stretch, the men gave every ounce of energy as they sought the finish. Both men were under world-record pace, and while Sun Yang’s finishing speed had overtaken so many would-be record challengers, Hafnaoui and Finke remained in contact.

With five meters remaining, it appeared Finke might have a slight edge, but the Tunisian got his arm over just quickly enough to reach the wall first. Hafnaoui’s time was 14:31.54, compared to Finke’s 14:31.59. After 30 laps of racing, merely five hundredths separated the duo, a margin of 0.0057%.

The men posted the second and third-fastest times in history, respectively, a half-second behind Sun’s world record. In the process, Finke had lobbed five seconds off his American record, a time faster than he ever imagined achieving this year. As the two men congratulated each other, they exchanged swim caps in a sign of respect after their intense duel.

“I think we pushed each other, and that’s always a good thing for ourselves and for our team and for the sport,” Finke said. “Just push each other as much as we can to go the best times that we can.”

Never doubt Finke, whoever he’s racing and whatever his season-best times are. Against the fastest field in history, Finke will always bring the fastest and toughest race possible to give himself whatever chance possible. In Fukuoka, that was sufficient for one bronze, one silver and a pair of national records. Finke’s initial undefeated record in major finals ended one year ago, but it was clear this week that Finke magic lives.

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8 months ago

Love the article. The times in the 800/1500 have been much faster since Tokyo, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Finke changed the game. All these guys are strategizing to neutralize Finke, and that results in the races getting faster and more exciting. It also means despite improving his times exponentially he doesn’t always win. As an American swimming fan I’m very glad to have Finke out there doing his thing

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