Olympics Day One Notebook: Americans Chase Kalisz and Emma Weyant with 400 IM Opportunity

Jul 24, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Emma Weyant (USA) reacts after competing during the women's 400m individual medley heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Network
Emma Weyant after recording the top qualifying time in the women's 400 IM in Tokyo -- Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher -- USA Today Sports

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Olympics Day 1 Notebook: American Kalisz and Weyant with 400 IM Opportunity

Prior to the Olympics, there was a clear favorite for gold in both the women’s and men’s 400 individual medley races, although the women’s favorite looked shaky off a challenging year. That favorite, Katinka Hosszu, did not impress in prelims as she qualified for the final in seventh position, almost 10 seconds off her world record, while the men’s favorite stunningly missed the final entirely, as Daiya Seto’s ninth-place mark of 4:10.52 left him three tenths outside the top eight.

Now, could swimmers from the United States step into both of those voids and make a run at Olympic gold?

The United States had dominated the men’s 400 IM for five Olympic cycles with Tom Dolan, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte before Japan’s Kosuke Hagino held off American Chase Kalisz to win Olympic gold in 2016 in Rio. Hagino chose not to defend his gold medal in the 400 IM (although he will swim the 200 IM later in the week), and Seto’s prelims miss means Japan will not be creating any sort of streak of its own.

Jul 24, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Chase Kalisz (USA) after the men's 400m individual medley heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Network

Chase Kalisz after competing in the 400 IM prelims at the Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro — USA TODAY Sports

Now, Kalisz should be considered the slight favorite in the event. He has the top time this year of any of the competitors with his 4:09.09 from Olympic Trials, and he qualified third in prelims in 4:09.65 behind lifetime bests from Australia’s Brendon Smith (4:09.27) and New Zealand’s Lewis Clareburt (4:09.49). In prelims, Kalisz looked like he went into cruise control on the first 50 of freestyle before accelerating coming home to make sure he claimed a good lane for the final. He certainly has something left in the tank, but how much?

Kalisz’s fellow American and Georgia Bulldog Jay Litherland should also be in contention after tying for fifth in 4:09.91, and if Litherland is close with 100 meters to go, watch out. Lochte and Carson Foster experienced that first-hand at trials.

Meanwhile, the United States has been in a bit of a lull in the women’s 400 IM since Maya DiRado captured the silver medal in the event at the 2016 Olympics, but an amazing four-way race at the U.S. Olympic Trials left the Americans with the top four performers in the world heading into the Olympics, including Tokyo qualifiers Emma Weyant (4:33.81) and Hali Flickinger (4:33.96). That is still the case, except Weyant improved her lifetime best to 4:33.55 in qualifying first out of prelims.

The Americans have not won Olympic gold in the 400 IM since Janet Evans touched first in 1988, but they have won medals at four straight Games from four different women: Kaitlin Sandeno in 2004, Katie Hoff in 2008, Elizabeth Beisel in 2012 (when China’s Ye Shiwen ran down Beisel on the last 100 to steal away gold) and DiRado in 2016. The American record still belongs to Hoff, who swam a 4:31.12 (at the time, a world record) at the 2008 Olympic Trials. In her silver medal-winning effort in 2012, Beisel barely missed the mark by just 0.15 (4:31.27), and then DiRado came even closer in Rio, falling just 0.03 short (4:31.15).

Now, Weyant has a huge opportunity as the top seed in her first Olympic final. Hosszu was unconvincing in prelims as she ended up fourth in her heat, but Japan’s Yui Ohashi, the third seed for finals, will be really tough to beat here. Ohashi cruised to first place in her heat, and her split after 300 meters was a half-second faster than Weyant’s before she clearly took her foot off the gas over the final two lengths. Flickinger, second to Ohashi in their heat, could be in the medal mix, too.

Germany’s Muhlleitner: Out of Nowhere to Pole Position

Jul 24, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Henning Bennet Muhlleitner (GER) after the men's 400m freestyle heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Network

Germany’s Henning Bennet Muhlleitner qualified first in the men’s 400 free at the Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher — USA Today Sports

Who would have predicted that the top seed for the Olympic final of the men’s 400 freestyle would be Germany’s Henning Bennet Muhlleitner? The German was seeded 10th in the event after recording a 3:45.36 in April, but the 24-year-old Muhlleitner did not participate at the 2019 World Championships. So he was totally off the radar before crushing a 3:43.67 Saturday evening in Tokyo, just ahead of a more familiar name but still surprising Felix Aubock of Austria.

The only two swimmers who have been faster this year are Australians Elijah Winnington and Jack McLoughlin, and those two tied for the fourth seed (just edging out Americans Kieran Smith and Jake Mitchell) in a very tight final heat of the event. It looked like that quartet was simply racing each other, so we should expect the Australians to be much quicker in the final. Can Muhlleitner and Aubock say the same after the breakthrough qualifying efforts?

If nothing else, expect a very intriguing race with the Australians in lanes two and six, Smith next to Winnington in lane seven and Gabriele Detti always dangerous in lane three. Expect someone from that bunch will push the pace and see who can catch him. We just don’t know yet who the rabbit will be.

100 Butterfly World Record in Jeopardy

Jul 24, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Emma McKeon (AUS) after the women's 100m butterfly heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Network

Emma McKeon after the 100 fly prelims at the Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher — USA Today Sports

You have to believe that Sarah Sjostrom’s world record of 55.48 will be gone by the time this event concludes at the Olympics. There are just too many swimmers so close to that mark for any other outcome. Emma McKeon and Zhang Yufei were both clocked at 55.82 in prelims to tie for the top seed, and Sjostrom’s look of amazement after recording her third-place time of 56.18 showed that she didn’t expect to be that quick so soon after recovering from a fractured elbow. That swim was Sjostrom’s quickest 100 fly effort since capturing the world title in the event in 2017, a whopping four years ago.

Torri Huske finished just behind Sjostrom in their heat in 56.29, and maybe Huske got a little overexcited in her first Olympic swim and worked too hard on the front half before tightening up at the end. Canada’s Maggie MacNeil did not show much on her way to a fifth-place time of 56.55, and she has not broken 56 since upsetting Sjostrom to win the world title in 2019, but there are still two rounds to go. Louise Hansson and Anastasiya Shkurdai were both under 56 as well, and while Claire Curzan swam a 56.20 earlier this year, it’s not looking promising for her to get back to that level and make an Olympic medal push.

Still, that’s likely five swimmers gnawing at the world record, one more than expected prior to the meet with Sjostrom showing her impressive form.

Japan’s Chances for Gold Medals in the Pool

With no Seto in the men’s 400 IM final, Ohashi appears to be one of three remaining great chances for the host nation to claim gold at these Olympics. Katsuhiro Matsumoto was the silver medalist in the men’s 200 freestyle at the 2019 World Championships, and he should push for gold in Tokyo, while Shoma Sato almost broke the world record in the men’s 200 breaststroke earlier this year. In addition to the 400 IM, Ohashi also has the 200 IM coming up later in the week, but the women do not have a chances. Young star Rikako Ikee will only compete in relays in Tokyo after a battle against leukemia, and 2016 200 breast gold medalist Rie Kaneto is retired.

Maybe Seto could bounce back in the 200 fly or 200 IM, but he was the country’s biggest swimming star after winning two gold medals. Japanese fans may not get to fill the Olympic Aquatics Centre to watch their stars compete for gold, but that miss is a big bummer for the host nation and its hopes of swimming glory.

Big Misses in Men’s 400 Freestyle

One popular medal prediction for day one was Russia’s Martin Malyutin getting on the podium in the 400 free. Malyutin was the European champion in the 400 free in May, when he swam a 3:44.18, but he faded in Saturday’s Olympics prelims and ended up swimming five seconds slower. His 3:49.49 was good for just 21st place overall. Meanwhile, Lithuania’s Danas Rapsys, fourth at the 2019 World Championships, had the quickest first 200 split of anyone in the field at 1:50.56 before falling back to 13th place overall, his final time 3:46.32.

Both of these men are also favorites in the 200 free, an event that begins with preliminary heats Sunday evening, so they will not have long to bounce back. Rapsys touched first in the 2019 World Championships final of the 200 free before being disqualified for a false start, while Malyutin ended up with a bronze medal in the event at that meet (after Rapsys’ disqualification), and he also won the European Championships in that event in 1:44.79.

We’ll see how quickly these two can get back on their game to prepare for what should be a tightly-bunched 200 free.

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