The first session of the finals couldn’t have offered any more stunning outcome: Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui won the men’s 400m free from lane 8. The 400m IM finals brought the first gold for the US, courtesy of Chase Kalisz, and Yui Ohashi delivered the first title for host Japan. As expected, the Aussie female 4x100m free relay not only won by a mile but set the first world record here in Tokyo.
MEN'S 400 FREE
Last evening two underdogs surprised the field as Henning Muhlleitner and Felix Aubock finished 1-2 in the heats respectively, the only ones clocking 4:43s in the evening. If that was a surprise, then how we should describe Ahmed Hafnaoui’s swim in the final? The Tunisian barely made the cut, he was just 0.14sec ahead of the 9th seeded. Then, swimming on lane 8 this morning, he just kept going.
Everyone waited the Aussies’ breakaway – Elijah Winnington and Jack McLoughlin had ousted Olympic title-holder Mack Horton at the trials in June so the expectations were high but… Only McLoughlin reached the necessary gear and for a while he seemed to have it. Italy’s Gabrielle Detti, bronze medallist at the last three majors, also struggled, just like the Saturday evening heroes, Muhlleitner and Auboeck. Hafnaoui? He just did not fade away. Many expected that this miracle would not last after 200m. Or 250m. No, he should fall back for the last 300m.
But Hafnaoui didn’t slow down. On the contrary, McLoughlin could not hold on while the Tunisian managed to pull one last gear and reached the wall 0.16sec ahead of the field, giving his country the second Olympic gold in the pool after Oussama Mellouli’s 1500m free win in Beijing 2008. McLoughlin finished second and US’ Kieran Smith earned the bronze next to Hafnaoui, on lane 7. These were the only three with times of 3:43. Muhlleitner and Aubock finished tied 4th, Detti came 6th and world rank leader Winnington dropped to 7th. He still tops that chart with 3:42.65 from the Aussie trials. But that was then – this is the Olympics, where only racing counts. And in that Hafnaoui was simply outstanding.
"I just can't accept that – it is too incredible”
that was his initial reaction. Later, at the press conference he added: “In the second 200m I felt great in the water, I could go fast. It was a great fight at the end. Of course, I surprised myself… When I touched the wall and saw that I was first… Amazing! I was in tears on the podium, seeing the flag of my country and the anthem… It was great…”
"I normally wear glasses so I was pretty far out of it. When I saw what I came in the heats I was, like, this is perfect, because that was going to be my race plan. I knew those boys had real big back ends (latter part of the race) so I was trying to get out in front and just say, 'chase me' and it almost paid off” McLoughlin said.
"I couldn't really see all the way over (to lane eight). I could see some splashes and I could see the middle of the pool moving at me (during) the last 100m, but I was just trying to hold on. I didn't really breathe the last 10m and I was kind of sinking at the end, so got there in the end."
"I am super stoked for second, a little annoyed I didn't get the win. It was my first international medal. Last year I was pretty close to quitting, so to be here now is pretty surreal and I'm very happy." the Aussie runner-up concluded.
WOMEN'S 4X100 FREESTYLE
Watching the Australian meets in the spring, it was inevitable that this relay title would land Down Under as Cate Campbell and Emma McKeon offered one speedy swim after the other. Here in the final it was close till the halfway mark, then came McKeon and had a 51.35 blast (5th fastest split ever) – over this third leg she gained full two seconds on everyone else in the field as she simply left everyone behind. With Cate Campbell swimming the anchor leg, it was not even a question if they could beat their old world record from 2018 – they not only did that but for the first time ever, completed the course under 3:30 minutes (3:29.69), to set the first WR here in Tokyo.
"Depth and high standards” replied Cate Campbell to the question of Australia’s secret of lowering the world record pretty constantly. "We've all really had to step up year in and year out, but also supporting each other. We come together at least once a year and train together for a full week. We push each other and challenge each other but we do that in a really supportive way. There is no malice and no animosity towards one another, and I think that has just spoken volumes.