Olympics Day 4 Notebook: Exciting, Oscillating Medley Showdown Imminent

Jul 27, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Katie Douglass (USA) after the women's 200m individual medley semifinals during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
Kate Douglass will be the top seed in the women's 200 IM Olympic final -- Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro/USA Today Sports

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Olympics Day 4 Notebook: Exciting, Oscillating Medley Showdown Imminent

Six women swam under 2:10 in the semifinals of the women’s 200 IM, and realistically, any of them could win gold in this race. For the first time at these Tokyo Olympics, a final is arriving with very little indication as to how the race will play out. And it’s especially weird to see in the 200 IM because at every major championships going back to the 2016 Olympics, Katinka Hosszu has recorded blistering times through prelims and semis – five of those six swims were 2:07s and the other a 2:08-low – but now, Hosszu qualified seventh in 2:10.22, so she will be swimming in lane one. Does Hosszu have a big drop left in her? Unlikely.

Meanwhile, none of the top four swimmers out of the semifinals have ever competed in a major international final. 19-year-old American Kate Douglass was the top seed with her time of 2:09.21 after swimming a lifetime best of 2:09.16 in prelims, and Great Britain’s Abbie Wood, 22, was second in 2:09.56. Alex Walsh, another 19-year-old American who like Douglass swims at the University of Virginia, won her semifinal heat to qualify third in 2:09.57. None of that trio has ever competed at an Olympics or World Championships before.

Fourth is China’s Yu Yiting, the veteran of the group at age 15. Yu made her major meet debut at the 2019 World Championships (as a 13-year-old) and placed 11th in the 200 IM.

Jul 25, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Yui Ohashi (JPN) celebrates after winning the women's 400m individual medley final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Network

Yui Ohashi celebrates winning gold in the 400 IM at the Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro/USA Today Sports

The experienced swimmers will swim in lanes two and seven: 400 IM gold medalist Yui Ohashi of Japan and World Championships silver medalist Sydney Pickrem of Canada.

So how does this race break down? Douglass and Walsh have basically opposite styles, with Douglass excelling on the butterfly and freestyle legs and Walsh owning the best middle 100 of backstroke and breaststroke. Yu has fantastic early speed, Pickrem is elite on the breaststroke and freestyle, and Wood will be a medal contender in the upcoming 200 breaststroke. Ohashi does not really have a weak stroke.

The crystal ball for the final suggests that Douglass and Yu are out the fastest on the opening length before Walsh takes over after backstroke. After that, it’s anyone’s guess what the margins will be and who can catch who. Expect a fun and extremely tight one.

Anyone Could Medal Behind Milak

Speaking of races that are completely up in the air, we have the men’s 200 butterfly – but only the battle for silver. Kristof Milak eased up considerably in the semifinals but still managed to post an all-time top-10 performance and lead the field by almost three seconds. Michael Phelps’ largest margin of victory in winning his three Olympic gold medals in the 200 fly was seven tenths. Milak will triple or quadruple that margin. Phelps’ largest margin in any major final was 3.04 seconds at the 2007 World Championships, and Milak should surpass that.

But behind Milak, the second through ninth qualifiers all finished between 1:54.97 and 1:55.31, separated by just a third of a second In an incredible race for the last few spots, only nine hundredths separated places six through 10, the difference between racing again in the final (for three of the men) or not (for Zach Harting and Noe Ponti).

Jul 27, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Chad le Clos (RSA) in the men's 200m butterfly semifinals during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Can South Africa’s Chad le Clos make another Olympic medal run in the 200 fly final? — Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro/USA Today Sports

Among the seven swimmers in the field besides Milak, the race could go a zillion different ways. 2012 gold medalist Chad le Clos, the oldest in the field by four years at age 29, will likely try to jump on the race from beginning, although maybe not to the tune of 52.68 or faster than Milak going out. By far the best finishing split in the semifinals belonged to Milak’s fellow Hungarian Tamas Kenderesi, who came home in 29.38.

A check of recent history shows that it’s normal for a 200 fly semifinal to see only a couple guys break 1:55 before more men pick up the pace in the final. The 2016 Olympics and the last two World Championships have each seen five men break 1:54 in the final, so expect around that number in this race. Japan’s Daiya Seto, the third-fastest performer in history at 1:52.53 and the silver medalist at the 2019 World Championships, ended up 11th and missed his second final in two events this meet. The next quickest lifetime best belongs to le Clos, but he swam his 1:52.96 nine years ago in London.

Four other swimmers in this field have broken 1:54 this year: Italy’s Federico Burdisso (1:54.28), Hungary’s Tamas Kenderesi (1:54.37), Japan’s Tomoru Honda (1:54.59) and Brazil’s Leonardo de Deus (1:54.83). All of these guys are solid bets for medals.

100 Freestyle Won’t Be Easy for Caeleb Dressel

Jul 27, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; cdre after the men's 100m freestyle heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Caeleb Dressel after his 100 free prelims swim — Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro/USA Today Sports

Caeleb Dressel officially took over the top spot in the 100 freestyle world rankings Monday morning when he led off the U.S. men’s 400 free relay in 47.26, which was still three tenths off his best time of 46.96. Historically, Dressel improves from the relay as the meet goes on and he gets into his individual program, so he will still likely take his shot at the world record (46.91), but he has some significant competition here that makes the 100 free the toughest of his individual events.

We’ve been anticipating the next Dressel vs. Kyle Chalmers 100 free showdown since Dressel barely held off Chalmers for gold at the 2019 World Championships by 0.12. Chalmers’ best time is 47.08, easily the second-quickest in the field. And he looked extremely dangerous while anchoring Australia’s 400 free relay in 46.44.

As far as threats to the decorated duo of favorites, Kliment Kolesnikov had the world’s top time for much of the spring after swimming a 47.31 in April, and Kolesnikov came through in Tuesday’s finals when he took silver in the 100 back in 52.00. Italy’s Alessandro Miressi has been as quick as 47.45 this year.

But perhaps most dangerous is 16-year-old Romanian David Popovici, who crushed his 200 free best time in the final and placed fourth in 1:44.68, missing out on a bronze medal by just 0.02. Check Popovici’s progression in the 200 free: in May, 1:48.38 at the European Championships; June, 1:46.15; earlier in July at the European Junior Championships, 1:45.26; and in Tokyo, he is under 1:44. More than 3.5 seconds in three months.

At those same European Junior Championships, Popovici swam a 47.30 in the 100 free, and given that he handled the pressure of his first Olympic final with such ease, he should be ready to go for this 100. So yes, he presents Dressel a significant challenge.

It’s hard to see anyone mounting a serious challenge to an on-form Dressel in the 50 freestyle or 100 butterfly (although Milak might have something to say in that race), but the blue-ribband event is tight, as always. In Tokyo, Dressel will aim to become just the third man to ever win individual Olympic gold in three or more different events, a feat only Mark Spitz (four in 1972) and Michael Phelps (four in 2004, five in 2008) have previously pulled off.

Banner Race for Russia… Oh Wait, the Russian Olympic Committee

Jul 27, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Evgeny Rylov (ROC) shows off his gold medal during the medals ceremony for the men's 100m backstroke during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Evgeny Rylov with his 100 backstroke gold medal — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

When Evgeny Rylov won Olympic gold in the men’s 100 back, he became the first Olympic gold medalist in men’s swimming hailing from Russia since Alexander Popov (50 and 100 free) and Denis Pankratov (100 and 200 fly) each doubled up at the 1996 Games. The Russians went 1-2 Kliment Kolesnikov claiming second, and that’s a feat only accomplished by either Russia or the Soviet Union at the boycotted 1980 Olympics.

So it’s a huge accomplishment for that country, and those medals were won for… the Russian Olympic Committee. Russia, of course, is officially-but-not-really banned from these Olympics as punishment for the country’s state-sponsored doping program. But the sheer number of Russian athletes competing and the warmup jackets that look an awful lot like the Russian flag and the Russian-composed song played instead of the country’s national anthem suggest that “ban” was toothless.

This is not to take anything away from Rylov or Kolesnikov, who would have been to young to be affected by the country’s state-sponsored doping program. Certainly, the situation creates an odd feeling for the many Russian athletes still present and competing – and evidently having success – in Tokyo. As Rylov said after the race (according to the Wall Street Journal), “Maybe deep in my heart I do feel sad that we couldn’t hear the national anthem on the podium.”