Coronations & Confirmations

by Casey Barrett

Lochte confirms hype, China confirms superpower status, Phelps fades to 4th… 

It was an unfamiliar sight, the great one cast over there in no man’s land. Had he ever swum in lane eight before? Like, ever? Seriously, has Michael Phelps ever competed from lane eight in his life? Certainly never in a race that mattered. It showed. Tonight the man accustomed to inconceivable feats did something shocking yet again. He didn’t medal.

In the very first race of these Games, Michael Phelps came in 4th in the 400 IM. It was the second time in his epic Olympic career that he did not finish an Olympic race on a podium. The only other time this has happened? A dozen years ago, when the teenage Phelps came 5th in the 200 fly in Sydney. Perhaps confirming that the 400 IM does indeed take four years of grueling uncompromising work. Somewhere among Team USA’s contingent, Tyler Clary was smirking.

But why does the lead have to be about the fourth place finisher? Well, because the man has earned it. He could DQ in every race here in London and still command the most headlines. Ok, glad we have that out of the way, on to the champions.

It’s time for Ryan Lochte’s official coronation. Let’s all admit that his tsunami of pre-Games hype became a little much. Before tonight, the guy had exactly one individual Olympic gold to his name. Yet, there he was, the poster boy of London, the new Phelps, albeit with 11 fewer Olympic gold medals. Tonight, Lochte added substance to all that style and spin. His 4:05.1 was the fastest non-textile time in history. He made it look easy. He was a 4:03 if pressed. A 4:03 if he didn’t have a million more races lingering in the back of his mind.

Based on that 400 IM, these days ahead are going to be very special indeed. Right now it’s looking like four individual gold, one relay gold, and whatever the Americans can muster in that 4 x 100 free relay. Which would be the second best showing in Olympic history, easily surpassing Spitz’s seven gold run forty years ago in Munich. (Remember, back then the relays were really gimmie-golds for the Americans…) It would also get a slight nod over Phelps’s six gold campaign in 2004 in Athens, if only because Lochte has to go through Phelps himself to get there.

Speaking of coronations, it’s now time to acknowledge that China is officially a superpower in the pool. And despite the instant are-they-cheating xenophobia that ignites whenever a Chinese swimmer has an eye-popping swim, we have to assume they are now clean. Call me naive, but I think there’s just too much at stake for China’s Olympic team; they’re now too aware of how they’re perceived by the rest of the world.

So, let’s bow to Sun Yang and Ye Shiwen, the new king and queen of the men’s 400 free and the women’s 400 IM. They didn’t just win tonight, they delivered stunning, back-breaking performances over the final laps of their races. In the 400 free, Sun flipped together with Korea’s Park Tae-hwan at 300 meters, separated by just .01. He won going away by almost two seconds, in 3:40.1, missing Paul Biedermann’s suit-assisted world mark by a fingernail. He will very likely win the mile by ten seconds later this week.

As for China’s teenage medley queen, Ye Shiwen delivered perhaps the greatest final 100 meters of any IM in history, man or woman. At the end of the breaststroke leg, it appeared Elizabeth Beisel was headed for gold. Or at least she’d be in a dog fight to win it. Instead, Ye swallowed her up almost instantly, and then proceeded to pull away with astonishing acceleration. Her final 50 was faster than Lochte’s. Seriously. She came home in 28.93; Lochte’s last lap was 29.10.

For the night, Team USA came away with one gold (Lochte), one silver (Beisel), and one bronze (Peter vanderkaay). China’s tally? Two gold (Sun and Ye) and one bronze (Li Xuanxu, behind Ye and Beisel in the 400 IM). The medal count pissing match is about to begin. It won’t really be a race, as the U.S. is still far deeper across every event, yet China’s time has clearly arrived.

One night down, seven to go. So much more to come. Stay tuned…