Dubai, Day 1: China sets first WR of the year and Spain gets first gold ever

FINA World Swimming Championships (25m)

China - credit: gettyimagesAs FINA President Dr. Julio C. Maglione predicted in his opening Press Conference of the 10th FINA World Swimming Championships, memorable performances will highlight this competition in Dubai (UAE). After the first day of action in the Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Sports Complex, the first World Record of the year was established in the women’s 4x200m free relay and no less than 12 Championships records were established.

Following the five finals on the programme, a variety of countries is also represented in the medal chart, with swimmers from 10 countries (153 nations, a new record, are represented in Dubai) getting at least one award. The gold medal count is led by Spain, with two victories in this first day (the championships are held until December 19).

In the most interesting race of the day, curiously the first final of the session, Ryan Lochte (USA) collected the 16th medal (and ninth gold) of his career in the FINA World Swimming Championships (25m), winning the men’s 200m free in a new championships record of 1:41.08. Lochte, already the fastest of the morning (in which all the eight qualified swimmers for the final improved the 1999 Championships record of 1:43.28 set by Ian Thorpe (AUS) in Hong Kong), was better than the recent European champion Danila Izotov (RUS), who got the silver in 1:41.70 (in Eindhoven, in the beginning of December, he had won in 1:41.84, the best time of the season until the final in Dubai). It was Izotov’s first medal in these championships. Bronze medal went to 1500m Olympic champion Oussama Mellouli, who touched home in 1:42.02 – it was the Tunisian’s third medal in this competition, after two awards in 2004 (gold in the 400m IM and bronze in the 200m IM).

“Despite the victory, I feel disappointed with the time. It was like I wasn’t in the race, despite being a very fast pool,” said Lochte. “I’ll take each race and each day at a time,” he considered, when asked to comment his programme for the remaining four days of the competition. On a more general note, Lochte expressed his satisfaction for being in Dubai: “I love travel and going around the world. It’s fun!”

On the side of the deceptions, the fifth place for the current World Record holder (1:39.37) in this event, Germany’s Paul Biedermann, who finished in 1:42.19. In the morning, the major surprise of the heats came with the non-qualification (ninth fastest time) of France’s Yannick Agnel, the second best performer of the season before the start of the championships in Dubai (1:41.96 during the French Short Course Championships in the beginning of December – which would have been enough in Dubai for the bronze medal).  

Mireia Belmonte Garcia (ESP) - credit: gettyimages

In a perfect demonstration of fine tactics, Spain’s Mireia Belmonte Garcia won the gold in the women’s 200m butterfly final, in a new championships record of 2:03.59 (the previous best mark of this competition had been set by US Mary Descenza in Manchester 2008, in a time of 2:04.27). It was also the best time of the current season, and Spain’s first gold medal ever (including men and women) in the history of these championships. For Garcia, it was her third medal of this competition, after one silver (200m IM) and one bronze (400m IM) in 2008.

The remaining medals went to Jemma Lowe (GBR, silver in 2:03.94) and Petra Granlund (SWE, third in 2:04.38). Lowe had been third in this event in 2008, while Granlund had finished in sixth (she has nevertheless a bronze medal, from 2004, in the 4x200m free relay). Zige Liu (CHN), the current WR holder in this distance (2:00.78) and Olympic champion of the event, led for most of the race, but her initial effort had disastrous consequences: she finished fifth, in a “slow” 2:04.78. Katinka Hosszu (HUN), the fastest of the heats (2:04.56) and one of the revelations at the 2009 FINA World Championships (where she won three medals, including the gold in the 400m IM) was fourth in the final, touching in 2:04.68.

Belmonte Garcia was in the second women’s final of the day, the 400m IM, and despite a weak backstroke leg, won her second gold medal in the competition, in a championships record of 4:24.21 (Kirsty Coventry, from Zimbabwe, had clocked 4:26.52 in Manchester 2008). Born in 1990, this is undoubtedly Garcia’s best world appearance, after being on the highest march of the podium at European level. Closely behind the Spaniard, Shiwen Ye (CHN, 14 years old) got the silver (4:24.55) in her first international final, while her teammate Xuanxu Li (born in 1994) also made a promising debut at this level (bronze, with the time of 4:29.05). After Hosszu, Hungary had definitively a day to forget, with the fifth place of Zsuzsanna Jakabos (recent European champion in this event), in 4:30.44 (she had clocked 4:29.78 in Eindhoven).

“I’m tired and confused, it’s a lot of feelings together, and it’s magic! Now, I’m part of the Spanish history,” confessed Belmonte Garcia, visibly happy. “I wasn’t waiting for this!” she added.
Another landmark in the history of these championships was the absence, for the first time, of both USA and Australia from the podium of the men’s 4x100m free relay. If Russia led the operations for most of the race, Yannick Agnel “rectified” his weak 200m free appearance with a great last leg of the relay, giving the gold to France in a new championships record of 3:04.78 – first presence ever for the French in the podium of this event, with a “luxury” quartet formed by Alain Bernard, Fred Bousquet, Fabien Gilot and Yannick Agnel. Russia got the silver in 3:04.82 (best position ever in this event, after two bronze medals in 1993 and 2002), while Brazil got the bronze in 3:05.74. USA and Australia finished respectively in fourth (3:06.10) and fifth (3:06.18).

Then, came the last final of the day, the women’s 4x200m free relay, and the outstanding victory of China in a new World Record time of 7:35.94 (the previous best world mark had been set by the Netherlands, two years ago in Manchester, in 7:38.90). Qian Chen, Yi Tang, Jing Liu and Qianwei Zhu did the perfect race, dominating her main challengers, namely Australia (second, in 7:37.57) and France (third, in 7:38.33). Like in the men’s event, USA missed the medals, touching fourth in 7:38.42. This victorious performance constitutes the first World Record in 2010.

Qian Chen, Yi Tang, Jing Liu and Qianwei Zhu (CHN) - credit: gettyimages

“We were expecting to beat the World Record. We are young swimmers and very pleased to feel the atmosphere of such a high-level competition. The only challenge we had was ourselves. We are from Shanghai, so next year for the FINA World Championships, we will really race at home – and try to win the gold!” Asked about the keys for success in China, the four swimmers pointed out two main factors: “the quality of our venues and the fact that we are young and constantly competing again each other”.

The remaining highlights of the day were the championships record in the following semi-finals: men’s 100m backstroke by Russia’s Stanislav Donets (49.62, faster than the 49.99 established by Ryan Lochte in 2006, but slower than his own time of 49.35 when he got the European title in early December); men’s 100m breaststroke (by US Mihail Alexandrov, in 57.18); and women’s 100m backstroke by Chang Gao (CHN, 56.58). In the morning, the remaining Championships records were established in the men’s 200m free (Oussama Mellouli, in 1:42.41), in the men’s 100m breaststroke (Italy’s Fabio Scozzoli clocked 57.60), and in the men’s 4x100m free relay (where the Russian team touched the wall in 3:07.78).

Still worth of note was the non- qualification for the final of the men’s 100m butterfly of Germany’s Steffen Deibler (21st in Dubai, after being European champion in early December), and of veterans Lars Frolander (SWE, 13th in the semis) and Geoff Huegill (AUS, 15th). Finally, a curious and perhaps historical detail: in the morning heats of the men’s 4x100m free relay, UAE presented a team – this fact could be already news, but the additional point to underline is that the four members of the quartet are brothers (the family Al Jasmi, formed by Obaid, Saeed, Bakheet and Faisal, all born on different dates).

MEDAL TABLE (after Day 1)

         G    S    B
ESP    2    -    -
CHN   1    1    1
FRA    1    -    1
USA    1    -    -
RUS    -    2    -
AUS    -    1    -
GBR    -    1    -
BRA    -    -    1
SWE   -    -    1
TUN    -    -    1