Sun Yang (CHN) improves 1500m free World Record

Shanghai 2011 - Swimming

Exactly 10 years and two days later, the oldest World Record in the charts, established by Grant Hackett (AUS) in the men’s 1500m free (14:34.56) at the 2001 edition of the FINA World Championships in Fukuoka (JPN), was improved by China’s Sun Yang in the last day of the swimming finals in Shanghai. Yang touched home in 14:34.14, bettering Hackett’s mark by 0.42 and getting the second World Record of this competition, after Lochte’s effort in the 200m individual medley. It was the fourth medal in front of his fans for Yang (19 years old), after the gold in the 800m free, the silver in the 400m free and the bronze in the 4x200m free relay. The Chinese star was already the second best performer in history in this event, after clocking 14:35.43 in November 2010. At 17, in Rome 2009, he had been the bronze medallist, behind Ryan Cochrane (CAN, again silver in 14:44.46) and Oussama Mellouli (TUN, the current Olympic champion). In China, the Tunisian finished only 15th of the heats, which opened a new possibility for Gergo Kis (HUN), third at the Oriental Sports Centre in 14:45.66. 

“I’m very happy to have won the gold and broken the World record. I didn’t think I could break the record; I just wanted to keep my pace. In a long-distance swimming event like this one, anything can happen in the middle of the process so my aim was to keep the good energy and a stable mindset to the end. This is a result of all the hard training and preparation I went through in Australia with Denis Cotterell [Grant Hackett’s coach],” commented Sun Yang on his race.

Despite Yang’s success, and arrived to the end of the 8-day competition and 40 swimming finals of these 14th FINA World Championships, the conclusion is obvious: the United States and its stars are, presently, ruling the sport and will be the nation to beat at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. From the 40 titles on offer, the North Americans got 16 gold medals (which is the equivalent to the total of gold medals of their main challengers, China, Brazil, Australia, Italy and France and the Netherlands)! Overall, they also got 29 podium presences. Individually, US strongest assets were in good shape in Shanghai: Ryan Lochte, the best male swimmer of the championships, left home with five gold medals (and the World Record in the 200m individual medley – 1:54.00); Michael Phelps also had a good harvest in China, collecting seven awards; confirmed stars Rebecca Soni (the best female swimmer of the competition) and Natalie Coughlin bagged respectively four and three medals each; and the new revelation of the team, 16-year-old Melissa (“Missy”) Franklin was the top-3 finisher on five occasions. These five champions give the exact dimension of USA’s supremacy in the pool, a status that corresponds to the general rule at FINA World Championships.

Except the leadership of the medal table, untouchable, the most interesting duel starts from the second position downwards. During the great majority of past FINA’s major event, Australia has traditionally occupied the runner-up place – in Fukuoka 2001, the Australians were even the leaders in the number of gold medals -, but since Rome 2009, their strength has decreased. Two years ago, in the Italian capital, they were still second concerning the total number of medals, but the three titles obtained then were a modest result for the historical powerhouse in the discipline. In Shanghai, Australia got 13 medals (including two gold), and both on the total number of medals and gold awards, they were this time third, behind the host China. Besides the cold statistic challenge, the Aussies do not have, as the Americans, a set of great names capable of leave their imprint on a World Championships stage: great champions like Leisel Jones, Stephanie Rice or Geoff Huegill were in Shanghai, but their overall good results were shy when compared with their North American counterparts. The winner of the men’s 100m free, James Magnussen, is on the other hand, the name to retain from a new generation of Australian talents.

For China, these championships were the privileged opportunity to show to the world that the recent good results were not only related with the organisation of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but are a long-term investment of the country in aquatic sports. Host country’s total of 14 medals – the best ever for the Asian nation in the history of FINA World Championships (in 1994, China got 19 medals in Rome, but these results must be put in brackets after the discovery of many doping cases among its best swimmers at the time). Both in the men’s and women’s field, China has now the capability of facing the other great champions in the discipline, and the Olympics in 2012 will certainly highlight this improvement (and investment). Sun Yang and his four medals is the new country’s hero and the 2012 Olympic Games in London (GBR) will certainly be the ideal platform for higher goals.
After this top-3 group (USA, China and Australia), Italy, France and Brazil also appeared in good shape. From the Italian side (five medals overall), Federica Pellegrini (ITA) remains the most influential athlete (she revalidated her 200m and 400m free titles), but new talents as Luca Dotto and Fabio Scozzoli are also ready to impose their rules in the water. For France (10 medals), waiting for a successful return of Laure Manaudou, the positive results of Camille Muffat, Jeremy Stravius, Camille Lacourt, or Melanie Henique assure a very encouraging future for the Gaul team – in a poor shape, Fred Bousquet was the exception to confirm the rule, leaving Shanghai without any medal. Finally, for Brazil, Cesar Cielo’s magic continues to operate: despite his fourth place in the men’s 100m free, the country’s most notable swimmer beat the rest of the field in the 50m free and 50m butterfly. Felipe Silva “helped” with one more gold, in the men’s 50m breaststroke.

Quite discreet were Great Britain and Germany. The Brits, hosts of the 2012 Olympics in London, “only” obtained six medals, a worse result than in Rome 2009, where the total tally was of seven podium presences. From the German side, and after the withdrawal of its main star Britta Steffen, the five bronze medals collected in Shanghai reinforce the declining evolution of the country concerning the medals’ table at FINA World Championships – as far as 10 years ago, in Fukuoka, Germany was still proud of its 15 medals… Also without any gold medal, Japan and South Africa could also have done better. Spain was even worse, leaving the pool of the Oriental Sports Centre without any medallist.

The eighth and last session of the programme reinforced the final picture of the swimming competition in Shanghai. In the first event of the evening, Jessica Hardy and Rebecca Soni gave two additional medals to USA: Hardy, the world record holder, got the gold in 30.19, while Soni obtained her fourth medal of the competition, touching for bronze in 30.58. The silver went (also) naturally to the 2009 winner in this distance, Russia’s Yulia Efimova (30.49).

Some minutes later, it was another Lochte’s festival, with his fifth gold medal of the championships, this time in the men’s 400m individual medley. On a solitary race, the North American touched home in 4:07.13, leaving his teammate Tyler Clary with the silver (4:11.17). The bronze went to Japan’s Yuya Horihata in 4:11.98. Lochte had already won this event two years go in Rome, in a slightly faster time (4:07.01). Winner in 2005 and 2008 Olympic silver medallist, Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh, was only 22nd of the heats, surprisingly missing the final.

“I’m glad this meet is over, it’s been a long eight days. For the most part, that 400 IM being on the last day was definitely really hard. I just had to get my hand on the wall. Getting five gold medals is definitely great but the times that I have gone, I know I can go faster. There are a lot of places in my races that I messed up on. I have a year to make sure I have those perfect swims,” said Ryan Lochte, commenting on his performances in Shanghai. “Gaining that World Record was the best moment of this meet; the hard work and dedication I put this year really paid off,” he added.
The third US gold medal of the session was obtained by Elizabeth Beisel in the women’s 400m individual medley. In a time of 4:31.78, the 18-year-old swimmer perfectly controlled the race, and left the “real” fight for the silver medal: in the last metres, Hannah Miley (GBR) was faster than 2008 Olympic champion Stephanie Rice (AUS), getting the silver in 4:34.22 (Rice was 0.01 slower…).

In the last event of the day, the North Americans closed their tally at 16 gold and 29 medals overall, with a thrilling victory in the men’s 4x100m medley relay, in 3:32.06. For Phelps, swimming the butterfly leg, it was the seventh medal of the championships – his complete collection included gold in the 100m butterfly, 200m butterfly, 4x200m free relay and 4x100m medley relay, the silver in the 200m free and 200m individual medley, and the bronze in the 4x100m free relay. Australia was second in a time of 3:32.26, while Germany got the bronze in 3:32.60. In the history of the 14 editions of the FINA World Championships, the victory in this event was always obtained either by USA (11 wins) or Australia (triumphs in 1998, 2001, and 2007). 

“It’s always something special for the Americans as a national team to be able to hold that run that we’ve had in this event. We were able to hold off the fight with the Australians – who are strong competitors in the field – to the finish and end the meet on a good note,” considered Phelps about the relay. On his overall performance, the best swimmer in history said: “The aim was to swim faster than I did last year. With the preparation that I have, I am fairly satisfied. Everything that went on here is going to be motivation for next year.”

On the Australian result, Geoff Huegill was also pretty satisfied: “We’re pretty excited with our performance tonight. We knew it was going to come right there at the touch. I believe we gave ourselves the biggest opportunity to challenge without doubts the best team in the world. Being part of a successful team is having a good combination of experience as well as rookies.”

Liam Tancock (GBR) “improved” the British image in Shanghai, by revalidating his 2009 title in the men’s 50m backstroke. This time, he touched home in 24.50 (in Rome, he had established a new World Record of 24.04), leaving the silver to France’s Camille Lacourt (24.57, second medal of the championships, after the gold in the 100m backstroke). The bronze went to South Africa’s Gerhard Zandberg (24.66).

Outside of these statistic considerations, 33-year-old (she will turn 34 in the end of August) Therese Alshammar continued defying age in Shanghai, obtaining two medals: the gold in the women’s 50m free and the silver in the 50m butterfly. On the freestyle event, held in the last session, the Swede champion touched in 24.14, leaving the two Dutch representatives with the minor medals: Ranomi Kromowidjojo got the silver in 24.27, while Marleen Veldhuis clinched the bronze in 24.49. For Alshammar, this brilliant outcome followed three silver medals in this event at past editions of the FINA World Championships: 2001, 2007 and 2009. Moreover, she is the oldest female World champion in history!


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Credit: Giorgio Scala