Beijing-Seven countries have now won gold here in the Water Cube, and 15 have won medals. This morning it was Federica Pellegrini who made history, winning the first gold medal for an Italian woman swimmer. In the same event, Sara Isakovic won the first medal for Slovenia. But it is Michael Phelps and his personal medal tally that is the big story. He is now the greatest Olympian in history, a title he calls, "pretty cool."
World Records are a different story. Six more this morning and the excitement hasn't stopped. There is certainly a growing feeling on deck that we are witnessing a magical moment in swimming. Kirsty Coventry said she is honored to be swimming at such a remarkable time in history. Aussie coach Alan Thompson stressed that many factors are going into it. "We have some innovative coaches today who are always looking for the edge. Don’t be surprised that at the next competition if there are more teams under 7 minutes [in the men's 4x200]. People want to point their finger at 1 thing and it's not. These are very athletic young men here. We have innovative coaches and success comes from a lot of factors coming together, it is not just one thing. The bar will be continued to be lifted and we will continue to be there."
Men's 100 Free Semi-Finals
Alain Bernard (FRA) took back his World Record with conviction this morning, dominating from 25 metres onwards. His time of 47.20 lowered that set by Eamon Sullivan (AUS) leading off the 4x100 free of 47.24, and was under his best set in March of 47.50. Unfortunately, his rule was short lived.
In the second semi, Sullivan attacked off the start and was in clear water for the whole back lap. He touched in 47.05. His strategy and speed must have thrown off the field because the reigning co-World Champs, Brent Hayden (CAN) and Filippo Magnini (ITA) both missed the final and were well off their bests. Magnini sits 9th with a 48.11, while Hayden is 11th with a 48.20. "Look, there's a whole bunch of reasons why it happened," said Hayden. "But basically, it came down to the fact that I wasn't fast enough." It took a 48.07 to qualify for the final.
"It felt good," said Sullivan. "When I came off the turn it felt like I hadn't spent my energy, and I had some more on the way out. I knew this morning that I had to be on my game to get in the final. I didn't watch the first semi on purpose, but when you hear the crown, you know what has happened."
Defending Champ, Pieter van den Hoogenband (NED) swam his best time in a 47.68, something he hasn't done in this event since the 2000 Olympic Games where he also won gold. If he can win tomorrow, he will be the first man in Olympic history to win 3 titles in a row in the same event. Grant Hackett (AUS) is the only other man who has the chance to do that this year. He will try in the 1500 free on the final day of swimming. "It was my dream to make my 4th final at the Olympics," said Pieter. "Matt Biondi (USA) also made the final 4 times, so it was my dream."
Jason Lezak (USA) also stepped up to the final with his 47.98 swim. After stunning the world with his 46.06 anchor leg take-down in the 4x100, Lezak has finally turned relay success into individual results. He finished 21st in this event in 2004.
Matt Targett (AUS) swam a 47.88 to qualify for the final as well. "That's a massive PB for me," said Targett. "I don't think I'm in an outside lane for tomorrow's final so that makes me very happy. Even in the heats yesterday it was strong. I knew I would have to do a personal best and maybe that's what it takes to get a medal."
Women's 200 Free Finals
Redemption is hers! After losing the 400 free, Federica Pellegrini (ITA) showed the heart of a champion this morning when she fought her way to Olympic gold in World Record time. The first woman under 1:55, Pellegrini swam a 1:54.84 to out-touch Sara Isakovic (SLO) in 1:54.97. Bronze went to Jiaying Pang (CHN) in 1:55.05, also under the old World Record.
Pellegrini won silver in this event in 2004 and she could not hold back her tears in the pool. Her unguarded emotions brought tears to my eyes as well. Later, as the Italian National anthem played for the first time ever for a women's swimming event, the entire crowd began to clap in unison along with the anthem, once again, I couldn't hold back.
Also making history was Isakovic, who won the first medal in the pool for Slovenia. "It's amazing," said Isakovic. "It's the first medal for Slovenia swimming, so it's great for my country. It's a fantastic time, and I never expected it in my wildest dreams. I'm going to celebrate with my family and the rest of the team."
Men's 200 Fly Finals
Michael Phelps might seem unbeatable here in Beijing, but he looked exhausted as he stared up at the clock to see his new World Record of 1:52.03. Unlike the domination in the 200 free, the Phelps armor looked fragile on the last 50 as Laszlo Cseh (HUN) and Takeshi Matsuda (JPN) chased him down touching in 1:52.70 and 1:52.97 for silver and bronze.
As he pressed his fingers into his eyes, Phelps looked almost ill, but later he acknowledged that his googles had filled up with water. "I couldn't see anything for the last 100…it just kept getting worse and worse through the race and I was having trouble seeing the walls to be honest. But it's fine. I wanted to break the World Record. I wanted to go a 1:51 or better, but for the circumstances, I guess it's not too bad."
Women's 200 Fly Semi-Finals
It was Liuyang Jiao (CHN) in 2:06.42 in the first semi, which was the 3rd fastest time of the morning. The top time goes to her countrywoman, Zige Liu (CNH) in 2:06.25. Splitting the 2 is World Record holder Jessicah Schipper (AUS) in 2:06.34.
"I don't have any expectations," said Liu. "I have no pressure, and the leaders didn't give me any specific arrangements as a new swimmer…The goal for me is to have my personal best time, I have been consistently improving in the past year. Today I have increased my personal best for about more than 1 second. That's beyond my expectation."
It took a 2:07.73 to make the final, that spot went to Elaine Breeden (USA). In 2004 it took a 2:10.47, but the winner, Otylia Jedrzejczk (POL), swam a 2:06.05, which is much more in touch with what the women will probably go tomorrow. More women are getting faster, but the top women, not necessarily so. Schipper's World Record is from '05 and the Olympic Record from '00.
Men's 200 Breast Semi-Finals
Kosuke Kitajima (JPN) made it look easy with his first semi-final win of 2:08.61, which is a new Olympic Record. However, it was Mike Brown (CAN) with a 2:08.84 win in the second semi who is moving in the right direction. Daniel Gyurta (HUN), who broke the Olympic Record in the heats, was slower at 2:09.73, but qualified for the final.
Brown had been off his game for the past 2 years after his breakout silver-winning swim in this event at the 2005 World Champs, which he followed up with Commonwealth gold in 2006. However, a best time at the Canadian Olympic Trials gave him the positive boost he needed heading into Beijing. A finalist in 2004, Brown could bring home a medal if he maintains his downward trajectory. "I've had the best preparation in my career," said Brown. "Everything has been focused on these Games since Athens. And I'm also getting the best times of my career. Going in to this whole year I've had a smile on my face as much as possible."
Eric Shanteau (USA), who was diagnosed with cancer 6 weeks ago finished in a new person best of 2:10.10, but finished 10th.
Women's 200IM Finals
Stephanie Rice (AUS), the darling of Australian swimming, now has legitimate hardware to back it up. She is now a double Olympic gold medallist and double World Record holder. Her time this morning of 2:08.45 lowered her own world mark set at the Aussie Trials of 2:08.92. She had to beat out Kirsty Coventry (ZIM), who she caught with 25 to go. Coventry's time of 2:08.59 was also under the old World Record. Bronze went to Natalie Coughlin (USA) in 2:10.34 and 4th to Katie Hoff (USA) in 2:10.68. Both Americans were off their best from the US Trials. With 4 of the best women swimmers in the world battling for gold, their splits tell it all:
Rice: 27.84, 32.84, 37.68, 30.09
Coventry: 28.47, 31.69, 38.11, 30.32
Coughlin: 27.29, 33.79, 38.59, 30.67
Hoff: 28.30, 32.65, 38.90, 30.83
Rice was the only woman to do a bucket turn from back to breast, and she lost half a body length on Coventry and Hoff. If she learns how to do a proper turn, a sub-2:08 is not far off. "I did try to change [my turn], but I couldn’t get enough air on the pullout and that's the turn I'm comfortable with, so that's the turn I've always done."
Coventry has swum under the World Record 3 times here in Beijing, but she has yet to win gold. In the 100 back she broke the record in semis, but could not duplicate her efforts in the final. In the IM events she was under the record, but second twice. What does she have to do to win gold? "I'm a little disappointed, I'm so close! I have one more race and hopefully I will get gold in that one. Stephanie is swimming so great. I am so proud to be swimming at this meet with the fastest women in the world. I'm so happy to be swimming here."
"A silver is something I don’t want to take away from at the Olympics," Coventry continued, "but I'm going into the 200 back with a vengeance and that gold medal is hanging over my lane the whole time. I've had a solid meet so far and I have the night off, and I need to take care of myself and come back in and fight it."
Coughlin has only just come back to this event after an 8 year hiatus, and perhaps her race strategy needs tweaking. "I didn’t even think I was going to do this event a week before trials, so a medal of any color is something I am very happy about," said Coughlin. "In some ways I feel much less pressure [than in Athens] and in other ways I feel more. In the 100 back, I felt more, but being 4 years older I feel like I can handle it better."
Hoff had a very tough double this morning, and came up with 2-4th place finishes. She has swum solidly, but when Michael Phelps is the benchmark for multi-talented swimmers, the difficulty of her program often goes unrecognized. She has the 800 free and 4x200 free relay left in her program.
Men's 4x200 Free Relay Final
The time says it all: 6:58.56 for an 800. While the race was over before it started, the time by the Americans is phenomenal. The splits:
Michael Phelps: 1:43.31
Ryan Lochte: 1:44.28
Ricky Berens: 1:46.29
Peter Vanderkaay: 1:44.68
Lochte's split (if done from a flat start) would have been good enough for silver in the 200 behind Phelps, but he scratched the final at the US Trials after solidifying his spot on this relay. "One of the first things that my coach said was we should have stuck with the 2 free at Trials," said Lochte, "but when you have Michael Phelps leading off like that, I saw his 100 split, and I knew I had to go. So to post that time, I'm happy and I can't complain."
The real race was the battle for silver and bronze. It was a 5-team race, with Australia taking an early lead with great splits from Patrick Murphy in 1:45.95 and Grant Hackett in 1:45.87. The Russians then began to move ahead with a third leg split of 1:45.85 by Danila Izotov as did the Canadians with a great split by Brent Hayden of 1:44.42 (the 4th fastest split).
The Aussies battled back, but Russia was too far ahead. They touched for silver in 7:03.70 to Australia's 7:04.98. "Grant is the cornerstone of our team and he provides us with the confidence to step up and race the he cements us as a force in world swimming." Italy came home like a train as Filippo Magnini anchored in the 2nd fastest split (behind Phelps) of 1:44.12 to pass Canada as the teams finished 4th and 5th.
"'Don’t screw up!' was what I was thinking there," said Ricky Berens (USA). "When you have a guy like Michael yelling in your ear, you just know you don't want to screw up. We'd love to be a part of history [Phelps' 8 golds] but it's for the country and for our own pride too."
Vanderkaay agreed, "It is special for us to be a part of it, but that being said there is still a lot of pressure on us to win. We want to do it for the US and for the team, so there is no more pressure than usual for us. We are a piece in the puzzle, but it's special just to win a gold medal and represent your country."
As for breaking 7 minutes? "It feels great," Vanderkaay continued. "I've been on this team for the past 4 years and it is something we have talked about getting under 7 minutes and to be able to do that here is something special to come together. It was a goal." Berens agreed, "During training camp we did this big set of 100s and Michael would be in the background saying we want to be the first team under 7 minutes, so we were talking about it at training camps."