Swimming day 8 – USA end on a high note, Phelps retires with 22 medals!

London 2012 Swimming

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With two more victories in the eighth and final session of swimming at these 2012 Olympic Games, team USA completed in the best possible way its supremacy at the London Aquatics Centre, accumulating a total 30 medals, including 16 gold (exactly the half of titles at stake)! One swimmer, as it happened in Athens and Beijing, emerged from the swimming competition: superstar Michael Phelps retired after the 4x100m medley relay, walking away with a total 22 Olympic medals (18 are gold), an unprecedented (and, who knows, unbeatable) record.

The U.S. domination was overwhelming at these 2012 Olympics in the pool. They got thrice as much gold medals as their closest competitors (China, with 5) and also three times the total of medals won by the other successful teams in London (Japan with 11, China and Australia with 10). Four years ago at the "Water Cube", the North Americans had earned 31 medals, 12 of which gold. Moreover, five countries can celebrate these Games as a landmark for the development of their swimming teams: China, second in the medal table with 10 awards (including five gold), France, the best European nation with seven podiums (including four victories), Netherlands (four medals and two victories), Japan (11 awards, including three silver and eight bronze) and South Africa (three medals, including two gold).

Despite their 10 medals (and only one victory), Australia produced the worst performance since 1992 while other traditional swimming powerhouses, this time in Europe, leave London with bitter memories: Germany did not take a single medal in London (the last Games without German medals in Swimming were held 80 years ago… in 1932!), Italy also left empty-handed (worst result since 1984), and so did Sweden, Poland and Ukraine. Among the nations from the Old Continent with good reasons to celebrate are only (besides France and the Netherlands) Hungary (two medals), Spain (two silvers), Lithuania (first medal ever) and Belarus (two silvers, also a première). Host Great Britain did not fulfill all their credentials either, earning three medals, none of them being gold (one silver and two bronze). The British delegation was naturally hoping for more at their home Games after three medals in Beijing, among which two golds. The "God save the Queen" anthem never echoed in the Aquatics Centre, frustrating the many thousands of spectators cheering from the stands and waving the British flag.

The last session of swimming confirmed the trend reflected during the eight days of competition: USA won the last two relays, both the men's and women's 4x100m medley. In the men's field, Michael Phelps (butterfly), accompanied by Matt Grevers (backstroke), Brendan Hansen (breaststroke) and Nathan Adrian (free) touched home in 3:29.35. In second were team Japan (3:31.26) and third, Australia (3:31.58). It was the 16th and final gold medal for USA at these Games and the last official race in Phelps' career, his 18th Olympic gold and 22nd podium presence.

At the end of the official programme, the greatest Olympian ever received a "Lifetime Achievement Award" by FINA President Dr. Julio C. Maglione to mark the end of his brilliant career.

"I can probably sum it up in a couple of words: I have done everything I ever wanted to accomplish. I'm taking everything in, the memories I have from this week will never go away," said a satisfied Phelps. "The best part about the Olympics is that people from all over the world come all together to compete for these two weeks for gold medals in the best sporting event ever and to represent their country, go out and have fun, and that's just something you don't see every day and that I am really thankful to be a part of."

On his relation with Bob Bowman, whom he hugged at the end of his consecration tour on the pool deck: "Tonight was a very emotional night for Bob and I, to be here today with all that he's done for me, I love him to death, I'm thankful to have somebody who has cared so much for me for the last 15 years."

Born on June 30, 1985 in Baltimore, Michael Phelps was spotted at an early age as a natural talent for swimming.

And as in the Sport he loves, his career is made of records:

-   In 2000, he qualifies at 15 to the Sydney Olympic Games – youngest Olympian for USA in 68 years;

-   In 2001, he becomes the youngest male swimming World Record holder in history, with his best mark in the 200m butterfly;

-   In the same year, in Fukuoka, Japan, he starts his FINA World Championships roll of honour, which he concludes ten years later in Shanghai, China, bringing home a total 33 World Championships medals, including 26 golds. Of course a record FINA World Championships history;

-   At the Athens 2004 Games, his Olympic success story gets started with six golds and two bronze; in Beijing 2008, he collects eight golds and in London 2012, four gold and two silvers, bringing his overall Olympic medal tally to 22, of course a new record;

-   His 18 gold medals at the Games are also a record in Olympic history;

-   His eight gold medals in one single edition of the Olympics (in Beijing in 2008) are also a record;

-   He is also the first male swimmer to retain an Olympic title at three consecutive editions of the Games (in individual events): he has done that in the 200m IM and 100m butterfly;

-   He is also the record holder of World Records in Swimming: during his remarkable career, he has set 39 world standards, including 29 in individual events and 10 in relay events. Seven of these records are currently standing.

Among women, the North Americans also dominated the last relay, getting the gold in a new World Record of 3:52.05 – improving the previous best global mark set by China at the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome (ITA), 3:52.19. Australia arrived second in 3:54.02 while Japan added another bronze to their collection, touching third in 3:55.73. 

"We were so close last year in Shanghai (to WR) and to finally get it this year, it wraps up the meet for the US women's team perfectly. This meet has been amazing, definitely for the US team but also to the other teams, to see how many WR were broken. Once you put that idea in your head (to break a WR), you go for it. The facility is amazing, the crowd was wonderful, all around it was a great pool and experience," confessed Rebecca Soni (USA), after the relay success.

In the two individual finals of the day, Sun Yang (CHN) confirmed his status of favourite in the men's 1500m free, earning the gold in a new World Record of 14:31.02 (he improved his own mark, set at the 2011 Worlds, when he clocked 14:34.14). Things did not start well for Sun who, distracted by a whistle in the stands, made a false start, which was immediately exonerated by the referee. The incident did not have any negative outcomes on the Chinese star (already winner of the 400m free in London), who controlled the entirety of the race. The minor medals were won by Ryan Cochrane (CAN), silver in 14:39.63 and Oussama Mellouli (TUN, and 2008 Olympic champion), bronze in 14:40.31.

"My coach said I was in good shape and that I could break my WR so I felt relaxed and confident before the race. Right from the start, I set my mind for the win and on breaking my WR. I just focused on my own race. I was really aiming for the win, it's the gold I wanted the most," declared Sun Yang. 

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credit: Giorgio Scala 

Cochrane, third in Beijing, and silver here in London, said: "When he [Mellouli] passed me in Beijing I was not expecting it; this time I was expecting it and I was going to fight probably to death to make sure he did not put his hand on the wall first." Mellouli was also happy with the race's outcome: "What is happening to me is incredible, I was not 100% in shape before this race, and physically I was not even at 60%. It is wonderful to have this consecration, to renew the appearance on the podium four years after the gold in Beijing. A 'little-known' swimmer from 'tiny' Tunisia who climbs the podium at the world's biggest sporting event, this is historical; this medal is Tunisia's first at the London Olympics. This bronze is more important than the Beijing gold because these last two years were difficult mentally and physically. I'm not the young Mellouli that was in top shape anymore, who really wants it."

In the shortest event of the programme, the women's 50m free, Ranomi Kromowidjojo (NED) added one gold to the one obtained in the 100m free and left London as the "Queen of Sprint". The Dutch champion arrived first in a new Olympic record of 24.05 (bettering by 0.01 the time of Germany's Britta Steffen in Beijing). Steffen was also in the final, but could not offer what would have been the only medal for Germany at these Games, finishing fourth in 24.46. The silver went to Aliaksandra Herasimenia (BLR), already second in the 100m free while the bronze went to the second Dutch of the final, Marleen Veldhuis (24.39).

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credit: Giorgio Scala 

Overall, nine World Records were established at the 2012 Olympic Games, marked by Phelps' retirement on top together with USA's triumph, the emergence of new stars, the relatively weak performances of Europe and Australia as well as the difficulty to re-confirm Olympic titles from Beijing 2008 – only Phelps among men and Rebecca Soni (USA) among women were able to retain their Beijing crowns.