Lochte defeats Phelps, France makes history

Shanghai 2011 - Swimming

altOver the years, the men’s 200m free has become one of the most awaited races of the swimming programme at both the FINA World Championships and Olympic Games. Two emblematic examples: the Athens 2004 Olympic duel between Ian Thorpe, Michael Phelps and Pieter van den Hoogenband (Thorpe was then the fastest), or the 2009 world championship battle between Paul Biedermann and Michael Phelps (the North American, winner in 2005 and 2007, had then lost to the German star). In Shanghai, the first final of the third day of the swimming programme was also outstanding, and included the following “attractions”: Yannick Agnel, the new rising star in France and fastest qualifier of the semis; Michael Phelps, the man of the 14 Olympic gold medals and best swimmer in history; Ryan Lochte, Phelps’ teammate with 14 world medals; Paul Biedermann (GER), the defending 2009 world champion and world record holder (1:42.00); Tae Hwan Park (KOR), Olympic silver medallist in this event and already winner of the 400m free in Shanghai.

Phelps started very well his race – he was faster than Biedermann leaving the starting block, and was first at the 100m mark -, but Lochte’s progress was ever better. With 50m to go, he touched first in 1:17.49, and continued on cruising his way to the gold medal, concluding in 1:44.44. It was Lochte’s eighth gold medal at FINA World Championships, and first in this distance (he has been first in the 4x200m free relay in 2005, 2007, 2009). Always reticent to speak about the comparison with Phelps, Lochte has inevitably gained another dimension with this win, one year before the Olympic celebration in London. For Phelps, it was his second “no-gold” (silver in 1:44.79) medal of the championships, after being third in the 4x100m free relay. The “machine” became “human”…

“Michael and I have been battling head to head for about eight years. We definitely build a good rivalry; he’s a great competitor and I am just privileged to swim on the same team, even in the same event as him. Today, at this level we’re at, we both want to win, we don’t like to lose and no matter what the outcome is, we’re still going to be friends and we’re definitely going to be pushing each other for 2012,” said Lochte, after his race.

Michael Phelps underlined the quality of the contenders and the performances achieved: “That was probably one of the best 200 freestyle fields and that was a close field; five guys in the 1.45, that’s pretty good. I would have wanted to win but this is something that is going to help me a lot for the next year. I let Ryan get away too much in the first 50m and that’s something I wish I wouldn’t have done. I knew that whoever would flop at the one-fifty first was going to win that race.”  

Then, came a more reflected explanation on his present shape: “The reason why I haven’t been able to swim as fast as I wanted to in the last couple of years, it’s all my fault. If I would have trained like I was supposed to for as long as I am supposed to, on a consistent level, I would be swimming where I want to swim. But now, I am sort of coming back to my old self: I’m excited to go in the water and train, to do the work-out, we have a great environment at the pool,” confessed Phelps.

In this context, the bronze medal (1:44.88) of Biedermann was certainly very “tasty” – he was also third in Shanghai in the 400m free.  Park was fourth, while Agnel finished fifth. “It was a tough race; this race could be a potential Olympic final. I lost a lot in the turns and starts so I look forward to work on that. In 2009, I was the underdog, nobody knew me and I was going into the race with no pressure, just doing my thing. Now it’s a little more difficult for me so I’m looking forward to the Olympics. The race was the best test and it’s not going to be much easier at the Olympics,” revealed Paul Biedermann following his effort.

Shortly after this close race, the many spectators at the pool had the opportunity to cheer their local star Jing Zhao for a thrilling victory in the women’s 100m backstroke. Fifth at the 50m turn, Zhao made a spectacular recovery in the last lap, overcoming all her main opponents. Among them, Anastasia Zueva (RUS), silver medallist in Rome 2009, and Natalie Coughlin (USA), the Olympic champion in this race. Two years ago in the Eternal City, Zueva had been advanced by Gemma Spofforth (GBR) by a mere 0.06 – the Brit did not qualify for the semi-finals, due to sickness -, and in Shanghai the same fate was reserved for the 21-year-old Russian. This time, it was even worse: on an impressive last effort, Zhao touched home in 59.05, while Zueva was again second by the minimal possible difference (59.06). Coughlin (11 Olympic medals), first at half race, got the bronze in 59.15 (her second award of the competition, after the silver in the 4x100m free relay). For Zhao, this was her third gold medal at FINA World Championships, after being first in Rome 2009 in the 50m backstroke and 4x100m medley relay. The bronze medallist two years ago, Emily Seebohm (AUS), stayed at the podium’s door this time, finishing fourth in 59.21.

Credit: Giorgio Scala
Credit: Giorgio Scala

In the men’s 100m backstroke, history was made when France’s Camille Lacourt and Jeremy Stravius shared the gold in a time of 52.76. It is the first time at the FINA World Championships that two swimmers of the same country share a medal! The feat is still more extraordinary taking into account that never France had medalled in this event in the past 13 editions of this competition! Finally, it is also France’s first male title in the history of the FINA World Championships. In fact, Lacourt and Stravius were meant to finish together: at the 2010 European championships, Lacourt has been first, followed by Stravius, and they both had the fastest times of the season before this final. In Rome 2009, Lacourt was fifth in this event, but at the 10th FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) last December in Dubai (UAE) he got the silver.

“The start of the competition was not ideal; I knew I was not in my best shape. I really gave my all to get this medal,” confessed Lacourt. His teammate Stravius was even more honest: “This race was very surprising; I was not expecting to win it. I knew I had two big rivals by my side, but I tried not to think about this and focus on myself. When I saw that Camille and I had won, this was a great moment of happiness. France never got a gold medal in men’s events so this is fantastic!” On being the first shared medal for athletes of the same country: “We’re very honoured to be the first ones to do this, we didn’t know that. All this at the same time, it’s pretty overwhelming so we need some time to savour this,” concluded Stravius.

The bronze went to Japan’s Ryosuke Irie (52.98), who had been fourth in Rome 2009 and winner in 2010 of this event at the Asian Games. It was the first podium finish for the Asian nation in these championships.

Also somehow predictable was the women’s 100m breaststroke final, with Rebecca Soni (USA), 2009 world champion and 2008 Olympic silver medallist, and Leisel Jones (AUS), the current Olympic champion starting the decisive race with the fastest times of the semis (Soni clocked 1:04.91, while Jones qualified with 1:06.66). The North American controlled the operations during the entire race and got the 2011 title in 1:05.05, leaving Jones with the silver (1:06.25). It was Jones’ 12th medal at FINA World Championships (since 2001, with the exception of 2009, when she skipped the competition in Rome). “I’m happy with the time and I think we just had a great race out there. It’s always hard being the defending champion from 2009 and to be racing the gold medallist from 2008 (Leisel) but I never try to think of it as putting pressure on myself. I take every race as just a race, not worrying about the outcome and times too much, but just have fun,” considered Soni. Ji Liping (CHN) got a surprising bronze medal (1:06.52), narrowly beating the 2010 European champion Yulia Efimova (RUS, 1:06.56).

In the women’s 1500m free, Lotte Friis (DEN) upgraded her Rome 2009 silver in this event, triumphing in the longest race of the swimming programme in a comfortable 15:49.59. Behind her, the winner in 2005 and 2007, Kate Ziegler (USA) got this time the silver in 15:55.60 (the 23-year-old American is the current world record in this event, in a time of 15:42.54). The bronze went to China’s Li Xuanxu (first participation at FINA World Championships), in a new Asian record of 15:58.02 – she had clocked her personal best of 16:05.82 in the heats of the event! Like in Rome 2009, Chilean Kristel Kobrich lost the chance of giving the first ever world championship medal to her country, by finishing once more fourth (16:05.11). Australia’s confirmed open water swimmer Melissa Gorman touched fifth in 16:05.98.