Swimming day 1 - China shines, Phelps misses podium

London 2012 Swimming

In the much awaited duel on the first day of the Swimming competition of the 2012 Olympic Games, in the men’s 400m individual medley, Ryan Lochte (USA) clocked his best personal time to get the first gold in London and, perhaps, more importantly, to give a strong sign to Michael Phelps that things won’t be easy for the best swimmer in history during these Games. Touching home in 4:05.18, Lochte was never in difficulty during the entire race and comfortably confirmed his 2011 world title, obtained in Shanghai (CHN). The podium was completed by Brazil’s Thiago Pereira (silver, 4:08.86), who obtained his first Olympic medal, and by Japan’s Kosuke Hagino (JPN, 4:08.94), who is also a neophyte at this level. Michael Phelps, 14 gold and two bronze medals in his roll of honour, finished fourth (4:09.28), after winning the gold both in Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008.

This history of this race in London was rich. In the heats, Phelps did not managed so well his pace (he passed at the 100m mark under the WR pace, and then faded towards the end of his effort) and finished only eighth on a time of 4:13.33. The ninth ranked swimmer was Laszlo Cseh, from Hungary, the silver medallist in Beijing and recent European champion, who clocked 4:13.40. That was the first surprise of the morning. In the evening, despite swimming in lane 8, Phelps was expected to do better, having a best 2012 performance of 4:07.89. Still within the podium range at the 200m mark, his breaststroke leg was slow and he lost the opportunity of collecting his 17th Olympic award.

At the end of his race, Phelps was naturally disappointed: “I’m a bit frustrated, I’m not feeling that great. I just want to put this race behind me and move on. I was lucky to get in (to the final). The lane draw had nothing to do with me coming in fourth place, it was just a crappy race. I hope to finish better than I started”.

Different state of mind had Lochte after his successful performance: "Going in the race, I was just so excited to swim in the final that I went a little too hard in the first 50m (fly), so it probably hurt me toward the end but I was in the lead, I kept looking on the scoreboard - I guess that kind of slowed me down - it was definitely a great field. When I touched the wall, I was in shock - and still am - that I finally won". On what to expect next at these Games, he is confident: "I know and I feel it that, this is my year, just because I have put in hard work, I have trained my body off for 4 years and I just feel it inside my gut and no better way to start these Olympics with my first race being a gold. It definitely gives me a lot more energy and I'm going to carry this atmosphere that I created tonight throughout my races, throughout the Games".

credit: Giorgio Scala

On Phelps’ result, Lochte gave his analysis: "I'm really surprised he did not medal; whenever Michael swims, he is always on the medal stand. He did 110%, he gave everything he had. After the race, he came up to me, he congratulated me and said ‘way to go’. We haven't lost the men's 400m IM for USA in a long time so we have to keep it going. He was definitely proud of me and I know he was also kind of upset but it is probably more motivation for the rest of the meet. A lot of people say Michael is inhumane but he is just like all of us, he trains harder though and he knows how to win, and that's what you really have to learn, try to find ways to beat him. But he's only one person, there are other athletes out there you have to worry about so the best thing you can do is learn how to race. You cannot keep your mind always on one person, you have to think about everyone else".

For Thiago Pereira, this success arrives 28 years after a similar feat by his compatriot Ricardo Prado, at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Just as a comparison, Prado has been, at that time, almost 10 seconds slower (4:18.45) than Pereira in London. For Hagino, who will turn 18 next August 15, his best result had been a gold medal in the 200m IM at the 2011 FINA World Junior Swimming Championships in Lima (PER).

credit: Giorgio Scala

“Unlike other occasions, I made a very intelligent race tonight. I use to start very strong in the butterfly and then I lose some strength, but today I saved my energy for the end of the race. It paid off! Independently of the colour of the medal, I am happy that I did the maximum I could in this final. To be honest, I prepared even better for the 200m IM, so I will face that race on a very positive way,” confessed Pereira.

Also with a lot to tell, the second final of the day, the men’s 400m free started with a “complicated” preliminary session. After been disqualified for an alleged false start, Tae-Hwan Park (KOR), the 2008 Olympic champion, was reinstated in the final by the FINA Jury of Appeal and had the opportunity to defend his crown. In a very tight and intense race, Park led until the 300m, but a final “boost” imposed by Sang, 2011 world champion in the 1500m free (in which he established a new World Record in Shanghai) and silver medallist in the 400m, gave its fruits and allowed him to celebrate the first ever Olympic crown in Swimming for a male swimmer from China. Finishing in 3:40.14, he eclipsed the Olympic record set by Ian Thorpe (AUS) in Sydney 2000 (3:40.59) and dangerously approached the world record owned by Germany’s Paul Biedermann (3:40.07). Biedermann was precisely one of the less positive surprises of the day, by finishing 12th in the heats, missing the final.

“I am very glad to have won the gold, it means a lot to me; it is a reward for the many years of effort. Tonight, I did a good race. If I had won the gold without Park swimming in the final, maybe the Korean media would have said that it was a medal not gained well enough. To have Park in the race was a very good challenge for me,” considered Sun Yang.

Park, with solid nerves after his disqualification and reinstatement, took the silver on 3:42.06 (he had taken gold four years ago in 3:41.86) and added one more success to his rich roll of honour. In Shanghai, last July, Park had given good indications concerning the defence of his Olympic title, by winning the gold in 3:42.04. "It has been a long day, I obtained a good result, it is unfortunate that I got disqualified, but I cannot say that it had an impact on my race because I just wanted to do my best, I did not swim as fast as my record but at the end of the day the outcome was good." The bronze in London went to Peter Vanderkaay (USA), whose best individual performance at the Games was also a bronze medal in the 200m free in Beijing. "Obviously they (the Chinese) are after a great start, Sun Yang had a great race, he trained hard and certainly deserves that, hopefully we can match them as the meet continues."

The third final of the day (women’s 400m IM) also reserved good surprises. At only 16, Shiwen Ye is one of the new raising stars of the Chinese team. In Shanghai (CHN), last summer, she had been gold medallist in the 200m IM and had qualified second of the heats in London in the 400m IM, in a time of 4:31.73. In the decisive race, Ye started relatively slow, but applying a very efficient final speed, she could touch first in a new World Record of 4:28.43, bettering by more than a second the best mark established by Stephanie Rice (AUS) in Beijing 2008. Rice, who had clocked 4:29.45 in the “Water Cube” was this time very far from her fastest time and concluded in the sixth position, in a “modest” 4:35.49.

"I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn't think I'd go as slow as I did. I'm disappointed with the time. I wanted to give it everything I had, and I did that. I thought I put my race together well, better than this morning. But I can't make excuses, I'd have loved to have gone faster. I'll be down tonight, but tomorrow's a new day. I'm disappointed with the time, but not with the effort that I put in. I raced the best I could, so I'm not walking away with regret," declared Rice.

The minor medals went to Elizabeth Beisel (USA, silver in 4:31.27), her first Olympic podium, and to Ye’s compatriot Xuanxu Li, bronze medallist in 4:32.91. It was also Li’s best result at this level, after a 2011 bronze medal in the 1500m free at the FINA World Championships.

To close the first day in the pool, the Australian quartet composed by Alicia Coutts, Cate Campbell, Brittany Elmslie and Melanie Schlanger upgraded their 2008 results (where they were bronze medallists) and finished this time (as in 2004) first in a new Olympic record of 3:33.15. The best mark of the Games had been established precisely four years ago in the “Water Cube” by the team of the Netherlands, in a time of 3:33.76. This time, the Dutch squad did slightly worse (3:33.79) and got the silver, while the bronze went to USA, in 3:34.24. Before the advent of Australia in Athens, the Americans had been the traditional dominators in this event, but since then they could not recover their supremacy in the world hierarchy.

In the two semi-finals of this first day, Cameron van der Burgh (RSA) was the fastest heading to the final of the men’s 100m breaststroke (58.83, a new Olympic record), while two-time Olympic champion in this event, Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima got the sixth time (59.69). In the women’s 100m butterfly, the victory seems to be in the hands of US Dana Vollmer, the fastest both in the heats and semis. In the morning, she even established a new Olympic record in the distance, in a time of 56.25.