Swimming World Male Breakout Performer of the Year: Bobby Finke

Aug 1, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Robert Finke (USA) celebrates after winning the men's 1500m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

Swimming World Male Breakout Performer of the Year: Bobby Finke

The final 50 of Bobby Finke from the 800 freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics is still something talked about with wide eyes.

Putting together a sprinter’s final 50, he surged ahead of the field and made history. With a time of 7:41.87, the U.S. swimmer became the first man ever to win Olympic gold in the 800 meter freestyle, an event added this year at the Tokyo Olympic Games. It was a stunning turn of events in the final 50 of the distance race.

Even more stunning was what he did a few days later. Finke put together another strong turn heading into the final 50 of the 1500 and passed three swimmers during the final length of the race to claim his second Olympic gold. It had been a long time since a U.S. men’s swimmer has won a distance race in the Olympics—not since Mike O’Brien won the 1500 in 1984.

By claiming gold in the 800 and 1500—and highlighted by his fast finishes—Finke earned himself the distinction as the breakout performer of the Olympic Games and Swimming World‘s Male Breakout Performer of the Year. While some predicted Finke to medal, most did not predict gold, especially in both events. But he put the exclamation point on his— and the USA’s—performance in Tokyo on the final day of the meet with a quick 25.78 split to win that epic mile in 14:39.65.

“I saw all three of us (Ukraine’s Mykhailo Romanchuk, Germany’s Florian Wellbrock and Finke) were kind of neck-and-neck,” Finke said. “I knew from my 800 I had the ability to switch gears for the final 50. So I was trying to keep it clean as possible in the last 300 to hold on and just build off it at the end.”

Italian Gregorio Paltrinieri, the reigning gold medalist and only holdover finalist from the Rio Olympics, took the edge through the first 300. He eventually faded to fourth. Wellbrock took the lead at 400 meters, with Romanchuk just behind. Meanwhile, Finke waited for the time to make his move. As Finke did in the 800, the 21-year-old University of Florida senior cranked out a stunning final 50 split in the mile that was more than a second faster than the field and 61-hundredths faster than his 26.39 final split in the 800. Romanchuk earned the silver medal (14:40.66), while Wellbrock, who led for more than 1,000 meters, took bronze (14:40.91).

Finke swam so fast, he even surprised himself.

“For myself, I didn’t know I had these swims in me,”  Finke said. “So I’ve just gained a lot of confidence with Coach (Anthony) Nesty being here. Even during the training trip, I was having some of the best practices of my life, so it gave me a huge confidence boost coming here.”

Finke was aware that it had been a long time since an American male had won an Olympic gold medal in the 1500: “It was something I was aware of,” he said. “Going into Trials, I didn’t really know how long it was, but we’ve got a lot of silver medals and bronze medals, so I’m glad to be able to pull it off with gold.”

U.S. men’s coach Dave Durden has been around for a lot of swimmers who aimed for gold, but didn’t quite get there. Meanwhile, Katie Ledecky has dominated the distance events on the women’s side. That has been something the men have tried to replicate, and now they finally have.

“Hell yeah, absolutely that is a tremendous amount of pride that we have—not only in winning the 800, but coming back and winning the mile,” Durden said. “We’re trying to keep up with the Katie Ledeckys of the world, so it’s nice to have Bobby Finke step up and do that in the 800 and the mile.”