Olympics Day 5 Notebook: Tatjana Schoenmaker is Better in the 200 Breaststroke

Jul 27, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Tatjana Schoenmaker (RSA) shows off her silver medal during the medals ceremony for the women's 100m breaststroke during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Tatjana Schoenmaker -- Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

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Olympics Day 5 Notebook: Tatjana Schoenmaker is Better in the 200 Breaststroke

In Swimming World’s predictions for the Olympics, Tatjana Schoenmaker was not in the conversation to make the medal podium in the 100 breaststroke. Maybe she had an outside medal shot but no more. Then, of course, the 24-year-old from South Africa broke the Olympic record in the 100-meter event with a 1:04.82 in prelims (which ended up being the top time of the Olympics) before claiming the silver medal in the final.

But in the 200 breaststroke, Schoenmaker was the pick for gold from the start. She had earned the silver medal at the 2019 World Championships, her first major international meet, and she was the top swimmer in the world this year and fastest swimmer in the 200 breast since 2017. The race was still fairly wide open, particularly without two-time world champion Yuliya Efimova in the field, but Schoenmaker was as good a pick as any. And now, after prelims, Schoenmaker is just 0.05 off the world record. She swam a 2:19.16, and going into semifinals, she is ranked first by just under three seconds.

Jul 28, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Tatjana Schoenmaker (RSA) waves after the women's 200m breaststroke heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Tatjana Schoenmaker after breaking the Olympic record in the 200 breast in prelims — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

Schoenmaker broke Rebecca Soni’s Olympic record of 2:19.59 from the 2012 Games, which was the first time any swimmer had gone under 2:20 in the event. A year later, the floodgates were opened as Rikke Moeller Pedersen took down the world record at the World Championships with a 2:19.11 in the semifinal while Efimova also went under 2:20. But that record still has not been touched since – because the times simply have not improved in the event during that span. Maybe Schoenmaker is the one who can break the label and take that mark down in either Thursday’s semifinals or Friday’s final.

The event could also be a banner moment for South African swimming, which won its first medal in women’s swimming since the 2000 Olympics with Schoenmaker’s silver in the 100 breast. That’s because Kaylene Corbett qualified fourth in 2:22.48, lopping almost two seconds off her best time. So the South Africans have the gold-medal favorite and another possible medal contender in the same race… just one Olympics after no South African women competed at all in 2016.

And some of the legends of South African swimming could not be more pleased to see it.

Medal Count at Halfway

We have passed the halfway point of the Olympic swimming competition, with 17 finals complete and 18 to go. The United States leads the medal count with 16, including four gold, five silver and seven bronze medals, while Australia has nine medals and is tied with the Americans with four golds. The Australians could move ahead of the Americans in the gold count after Thursday’s finals and possibly even Friday’s, but the pendulum should shift back towards the U.S. over the last few days of the meet, simply based on the events scheduled.

Jul 27, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Kyle Chalmers (AUS) 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

Kyle Chalmers is aiming to defend his Olympic gold medal in the men’s 100 free — Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro/USA Today Sports

Australia’s four golds are as many as the country won in swimming at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics combined, and after winning 10 medals total at each of those Games, Wednesday’s finals will surely push them past that mark. Australia could win four medals, with Jack McLoughlin in the men’s 800 free, Zac Stubblety-Cook in the men’s 200 breast, Kyle Chalmers in the men’s 100 free and the heavily-favored women’s 800 free relay.

Meanwhile, while this Olympics has included some very rough moments for the U.S. team, it’s worth noting that the Americans remain on track for a very large final tally of overall medals. They won 33 medals in 2016 and 31 in 2012 in phenomenal overall efforts. Reaching the 30-medal threshold over the final four days is very achievable, although there would be a slight asterisk because of new medal-winning opportunities in the women’s 1500 free, men’s 800 free and mixed 400 medley relay.

But the gold-medal total in both 2012 and 2016 was 16, half of the 32 awarded. But at this rate, the Americans are simply hoping to reach double digits for 2021. As many great swimmers as are representing the Stars and Stripes in Tokyo, they have some really great competition. Which leads into…

Caeleb Dressel Faces Arduous Test in Blue-Ribband Event

Jul 28, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) after the men's 100m freestyle semifinals during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Can Caeleb Dressel win Olympic gold in the men’s 100 free? — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

Yes, this is a repeat item from yesterday’s notebook, but the point bears repeating. Caeleb Dressel has twice swum the world’s fastest time so far in Tokyo, 47.26 leading off the U.S. men’s relay Monday morning before a 47.23 in the first 100 free semifinal, but Kliment Kolesnikov beat that with a 47.11 in the second semifinal. Dressel looked like he eased up at the end of that race, but Kolesnikov has something left in the tank, too. And while David Popovici and Kyle Chalmers were not great in the semifinals, they also have 47-low performances in the tank – or maybe faster.

Dressel will be gunning for Cesar Cielo’s world record of 46.91, just like he has been since swimming that 46.96 at the World Championships in 2019, but so will those other three men. Kolesnikov, surely, will be out fast, maybe even first to the 50-meter mark, and there is no one in the world who can replicate what Chalmers can do on the second 50. On his way to a 46.44 split anchoring Australia’s 400 free relay, Chalmers came home in 24.21. Simply, no one does that.

This 100 free is Dressel’s toughest of his three individual events. He will need an all-time great performance to get the job done.

Medley Relay Countdown

As we get closer to the meet-concluding women’s and men’s 400 medley relays, every day brings new developments in how these relays shape up. Today’s notes concern the anchor swimmers.

Jul 28, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Emma McKeon (AUS) after the women's 100m freestyle heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports

Emma McKeon — Photo Courtesy: Grace Hollars/USA Today Sports

For the women, Emma McKeon is the favorite for gold in the women’s 100 free after recording an Olympic-record time of 52.13 in prelims. But she will not swim the anchor leg for the Australian women’s medley relay. Cate Campbell will since McKeon must handle the fly leg for Australia. McKeon’s 100 fly time in Tokyo was 55.72, almost two seconds ahead of Aussie teammate Brianna Throssell (57.59). Her advantage in the 100 free over Campbell is much less – on the 400 free relay, McKeon split 51.35, Campbell 52.24.

Meanwhile, the slightly-favored Americans are weakest on freestyle, with Abbey Weitzeil a virtual lock to handle that leg, but Australia does not gain as much on Weitzeil with Campbell on the freestyle leg instead of McKeon. On the butterfly leg, meanwhile, McKeon beat American Torri Huske by just 0.01 in the 100 fly, although McKeon does have extensive relay experience that will surely serve her well against Huske.

As for the men, the United States have that same dilemma, with Caeleb Dressel unable to swim both butterfly and freestyle. Typically, Dressel handles fly because of his massive advantage over anyone else in that stroke, and that would leave the anchor split to Zach Apple. Apple has had a meet of the highest highs – a 46.69 anchor split on the gold-medal winning 400 free relay team – and the lowest lows – barely missing the individual 100 free final and then, less than two hours later, fading hard during his leg of the U.S. men’s 800 free relay.

The Americans will desperately need the 46.6 version of Apple on the medley relay, particularly with Duncan Scott set to anchor for Great Britain. Scott brought the 800 free relay home in 1:43.45, and he pulled off a stunner in the 400 medley relay at the 2019 World Championships when he anchored in 46.14 to run down Nathan Adrian. He will not have the chance to repeat that if Apple goes 46.6 again. So even after the huge letdown Wednesday morning, Apple has more important swimming still to come in Tokyo – and a chance at redemption.