By Daniel Backler
Special to The Daily News
---- — Last night in London brought anticipation for Michael Phelps, as he only needed two medals to surpass Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina as the most decorated Olympian of all time. It was fitting that Phelps was entered in two events, the 200-meter butterfly and the 4x200 freestyle relay. Since medaling in each of the last three Olympic Games (one bronze, two golds), the 200-meter butterfly has always been argued as Phelps’ strongest race. He enhanced that argument in 2009 by breaking his own world record with a ridiculous time of 1:51.51.
Coming in third during the semifinals, Phelps was seeded in lane 6 next to 20-year-old South African Chad le Clos (lane 5). Phelps looked strong in his first 100 meters, jumping out to an early half-second lead. By the 150-meter mark Phelps had over a half-second lead and with a strong underwater breakout, it looked like the race was over. However, in a miraculous showing of perseverance and heart, Chad le Clos was able to catch the 27-year-old Phelps in the last 10 meters to beat him by a slim margin of .05 seconds. Post-swim, the exhausted le Clos was brought to tears and said, “Michael’s my hero and I didn’t expect to win.”
After his crushing defeat in the butterfly, Phelps swam an impressive anchor leg of the 4x200 freestyle in a blazing 1:44.05 to help American teammates Ryan Lochte, Conor Dwyer and Ricky Berens to a dominating victory. The USA has won the men’s 4x200 freestyle relay at three consecutive Olympic Games; all three of those gold medals contribute to Phelps’ now all-time Olympic medal record of 19. Phelps is entered in two more individual events and one more relay as he looks to add to this seemingly insurmountable feat.
Last night also proved to be an exciting night on the women’s side as both American 17-year-old Missy “the missile” Franklin and 16-year-old Chinese superstar Shiwen Ye were both in action. After an unexpected semifinal, Franklin barely snuck into the final heat and gave herself a chance to win her third medal of the games in the 200-meter freestyle. In the outside lane (8), Franklin came out faster than anyone else in the first 50 meters. However, she didn’t expect her teammate and 400-meter freestyle silver medalist Allison Schmitt to have the race that she did. Schmitt used her legs and stroke turnover to split her second 50 meters a full second faster than anyone else in the pool. She never looked back and came away with the gold medal and an Olympic record with a time of 1:53.61. The rookie Franklin missed the bronze medal by .01 seconds to Australian Bronte Barratt.
In the women’s 200 IM, Shiwen Ye continued her freakish dominance over the competition by getting the gold medal and an Olympic record of 2:07.57. An interesting note is that heavy favorite and world record holder American Ariana Kukors placed a disappointing fifth place.
After a disappointing weekend of swimming in London for 27-year-old American Ryan Lochte, Monday was his chance to show the world that he is the man to follow in Michael Phelps’ footsteps in the 200-meter freestyle, an event that Phelps won and set the world record in 2008 but chose to drop from his repertoire this year. Despite not having Phelps in the event as motivation, Lochte had no short change of competition. With him in the final heat were German world record-holder Paul Biedermann as well as French anchor/hero from Sunday’s 4x100 freestyle relay Yannick Agnel.
Swimming in lane 2, Lochte was able to watch Agnel jump out to an early lead in the first 100 meters but never fell more than a stroke behind. Agnel’s third turn, however, was the edge he needed to come away with a dominating win (1:43.13). His last 50 meters were nearly 2 seconds faster than Lochte’s, whose stroke collapsed at the end of the race, causing him to finish 4th with a time of 1:45.04 (half a second slower than his personal best). Lochte, who has yet to swim a personal best time in London, was clearly tired at the end of his race. However, there is still hope for the him as the 200-meter freestyle is his weakest event. Later this week, he will defend his 2008 gold medal in the 200-meter backstroke, as well as his world record in the 200 IM.
The remainder of the American team had a phenomenal day representing their country on Monday. Matt Grevars and Nick Thoman were able to place first and second respectively in the 100-meter backstroke, USA Swimming’s first 1-2 finish of the Games. Seventeen-year old sensation Missy Franklin also won the gold in the women’s 100-meter backstroke. She had a strong underwater at the turn and a stronger finish to lower her American record by half a second with a time of: 58.33.
The medal heats tonight include the men’s 200-meter breastroke, men’s 100-meter freestyle, women’s 200-meter butterfly and women’s 4x200 freestyle relay.