Olympics 2012:Swimming

The big story in the Olympics swimming was Michael Phelps becoming the most successful Olympian of all-time. The big clash of the Games was supposed to be Phelps against Ryan Lochte but the anticipated showdowns never lived-up to the anticipation before the Games.  It seemed that Lochte started the Games in great form whereas Phelps started slowly with a disappointing effort in the 400m Medley. I had to feel sorry for Lazlo Cseh in the heats of the 400 IM when he paced himself off Phelps but missed the final because Phelps only just made it. It seemed that Phelps wasn’t on top form but as the meet progressed he seemed to improve while Lochte ran out of steam after doing so many events.

The team that dominated in the pool was the Americans. They appear to have a very good younger generation coming through led by Missy Franklin with some slightly older stars such as Rebecca Soni still going strong. Add to that the retiring Phelps and the prolific Lochte and you have a great team. I also think that they got the timing of their Trials for the Games right. They were only held a month or so before the Games so that anyone in form for those should still be maintaining that for the Olympics. Contrast this with the British approach. We held our Trials way back in April. At the time I thought that would be OK as the swimmers would be able to peak again for the Games. Now I’m not so sure. The number of best times at the Games by British swimmers was few. Many swam slower than at the Trials. Was this because of the extra pressure of the Games or were they unable to peak again so much later?

The surprise in terms of medals in the British team was Rebecca Adlington in the 800m freestyle. She swam well in the 400m and I was expecting her to win the 800m.  However, that was not reckoning with Katie Ledecky. The fifteen year old Ledecky had swum well at the US Trials and was knocking chunks off her times. Her performance at the Games was another step up. She went out hard from the start in the 800m final and I think that when she was still going well at half-way it scared both Adlington and Lotte Friis who were expecting the race to themselves. They weren’t sure whether to go with the pace or hope that Ledecky would fade but decided that they would have to risk going with it. I think this was right if they wanted to win gold but in fact it cost them in the end as Belmonte who hadn’t followed the fast pace came through for silver. Adlington was disappointed with her time but if she had been able to swim her own race she would have done a good time and won the silver. Nobody could have expected Ledecky to swim the second fastest time in history. It seems that in Ledecky the Americans have someone who could take the world record to a new level which is frightening for the other distance swimmers.

Another fifteen year old prodigy was the British-based Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte, who came from nowhere to win the 100m breaststroke. At the time Britain hadn’t won a gold in any sports. I suggested to a Lithuanian friend that perhaps we could claim a part of Meilutyte’s.  She replied that they have a saying “It’s a good clay that helps a master create a masterpiece” and wondered why the British coaches could do nothing with our own swimmers.

The performances of these fifteen year-olds shows that young swimmers can still make dramatic breakthroughs and take large amounts off their best times.  That is why it is irresponsible to cast aspersions on the performance of the Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen. Much was made of her very fast last 100m in the 400m IM in comparison with Ryan Lochte in the men’s event but taking such times out of context is dangerous. We just don’t know how much Ye was saving for the last 100m, Lochte certainly hadn’t got much in reserve. It was a startling last 100m by Ye and I was surprised by it but for someone in a responsible position as head of an international coaching organisation to question it without firm evidence only brought unwelcome attention to his sport.

One feature that seems to be emerging is an increase in the number of countries winning medals and making finals. Swimming is now genuinely a worldwide sport and any medal is hard-earned. The one area of the sport that I feel was slightly weaker is the open water swimming. my feeling is that until it became an Olympic event many countries didn’t take it seriously. Now it seems that some of the top long-distance pool swimmers are trying the open water and making it harder to win there as well.

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