Female Breaststrokers Raise the Bar But Finals Racing Still Key to World Titles

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By David Rieder

BARCELONA, Spain, August 31. WHEN Rebecca Soni broke 2:20 in the women’s 200 breast for the first time last summer, few felt surprised. After all, Soni had dominated the event since the banning of high-tech suits three years earlier, and she had threatened the world record several times each year, often outside of typical taper meets. She finally took down the mark at the Olympics, swimming 2:20.00 in the semi-finals and then 2:19.59 in the final.

By contrast, Rikke Moeller Pederson shocked the world today when she not only joined Soni in the sub-2:20 club, but she chopped nearly a half-second off of the historic mark from one year ago. Just five minutes later, Yuliya Efmiova jumped in on the fun as well, posting a 2:19.75 in semi-final two, the third-fastest time in history but good for merely lane five in the final. After so many years where Leisel Jones and then Soni pushed the 2:20 mark, it took only one swim to open the floodgates. However, that may not even matter when the final heat steps up tomorrow.

Over the course of this week at the World Championships, athletes have posted mind-numbing times in the semi-finals. On Sunday, for instance, five men broke 23 in the 50 fly semi-finals. A day later, though, none got under the vaunted mark, as Cesar Cielo touched out Eugene Godsoe, the only man to improve upon his semi-final time in the final. On Tuesday, Damir Dugonjic swam a European record time of 26.83 in the semi-finals of the men’s 50 breast. He proceeded to swim a 27.05 a day later and miss the podium by one one-hundredth. Moeller Pederson has herself a world record, and Efimova may have joined an exclusive club, but both still have to bring it in the final, when everything counts the most.

If the breaststrokers want an example of the importance of stepping up and racing in the finals, they need to look no further than the men’s 100 free. Vlad Morozov entered with the second-best time in the world at 47.63, which he swam just a few weeks ago. In the end, that time would have won gold, but he went out in a ridiculous 21.94 and paid the price, finishing just fifth. On the other side of the coin, James Magnussen leads the world rankings with a 47.53 and swam a 47.10 last year, but he will take a 47.71 on this day, as he claimed his spot once again atop the world.

Of the race’s top finishers, only Jimmy Feigen swam his best race as he fought for a world title. Feigen swam a lifetime best time of 47.82, enough to touch out Nathan Adrian. Adrian, the Olympic gold medalist coming off an illness earlier in the week, did well to finish third in 47.84. Feigen, meanwhile, has made the most of his first World Championships experience in a hurry. After a very disappointing anchor leg in the 400 free relay on Sunday, he bounced back and cut nearly a half second off his best time to earn what few imagined he could: a World Championships individual silver medal.

The women’s equivalent 100 free final should unfold in a similar fashion to the men’s, where a mere 0.17 separated the top four finishers and just three tenths the top five. Once again, it will come down to who executes their race plan to the maximum. Sarah Sjostrom did that today, swimming a top time of 52.87. Cate Campbell did that Sunday, when she led off the 400 free relay in 52.33. Ranomi Kromowidjojo did that at the Olympics last summer, when she won gold. The athlete who swims her best in the heat of the moment will walk away World Champion, and if tonight was any indication, Missy Franklin will do just that.

Franklin put up a lifetime best time of 53.36 in the 100 free prelims before cruising to a semi-final one victory in the evening. She had a much bigger target ahead of her; Franklin had to anchor the American 800 free relay, and she knew she could face a deficit when she entered the water, as she did. Katie Ledecky’s blazing 1:56.32 leadoff leg sparked the U.S. cause, but Franklin faced a deficit of more than a second before dealing quickly with Australia and Alicia Coutts down the stretch. She handled herself with impressive poise under pressure, splitting 1:54.27. Perhaps that poise and ability to come through under pressure explain why Franklin now has four gold medals in four events this week in Barcelona.

Check out David Rieder’s Facebook page to see more of his thoughts on the FINA World Championships and his updated race predictions prior to each finals session.