Saturday saw a few key races, including the finals of the men’s and women’s 400m individual medley, men’s 400m freestyle, and women’s 4×100 free relay. Final heats were determined in the men’s 100m breast and women’s 100m fly.
To start, the men’s 400m IM is a race associated with American swimming royalty: Michael Phelps’s world record has stood for nearly a decade, with only Ryan Lochte coming anywhere close. The extremely demanding race has recently been bested by the Japanese swimmers Kosuke Hagino and Daiya Seto who have the fastest times since the 2012 London Olympics. American Chase Kalisz entered the meet with a newly-achieved best time three seconds slower than them. After the morning semi-finals both Hagino and Seto had spots in the top three; Kalisz secured 2nd with a new lifetime best, just tenths behind Seto, and American Jay Litherland also earned a second swim. The Japanese swimmers took the final out strong, playing to their strengths on the butterfly and backstroke legs. But on the breaststroke leg Kalisz made his move catching up 3 seconds to make the last 100m a dog fight between him and Japan’s Hagino who ultimately took the gold in an impressive 4:06.0. Kalisz’s breaststroke split of 1:08.1 was the fastest of the field and it propelled him into second; Litherland finished 5th.
In the men’s 400m freestyle, Conor Dwyer and Connor Jaeger managed to grab places in the final along-side feuding favorites Mac Horton of Australia, and Sun Yang of China. Dwyer held steady in the race from his position as top-seed, but the final push from Yang and Horton (each finishing in 53 seconds) and the closing effort of Gabriele Detti of Italy kept both Dwyer and Jaeger off the medal stand at 4th and 5th respectively. Jaeger, for his part, had a strong second half as well but could not catch the top swimmers. Dwyer was just off his morning swim, a personal best of 3:43.42, while Horton won the finals in 3:41.0.
The women’s 400m IM saw some fireworks as American’s Maya Dirado and Elizabeth Beisel crossed swords with the “Iron Lady,” Katinka Hosszu. Hosszu is known for her dominating performances at mid-season meets and her mastery of all strokes in the medley. Therefore, it was singularly stunning while also not surprising that Hosszu carved up the previous world record, lowering the mark by 2 seconds, in her first Olympic event. Hosszu opened the butterfly leg up in a 1:00, and never looked back. Her dominant backstroke extended her lead over the field, and a strong breaststroke leg kept her ahead. Hosszu looked just as strong on the freestyle, though she was out-split by bronze medalist Meiriea Belmonte of Spain. Through it all, Maya DiRado managed to swim a smart and balanced race, surpassing teammate Elizabeth Beisel’s mark to become the second fastest American in history, missed the American recor of Katie Hoff by .03, and grab a Silver Medal for the USA. Beisel finished 6th in her only event this Olympics, and likely the final of her career. Hosszu’s swim was the most dominant so far this Olympics (though just wait for Ledecky to get into her longer races) and is the first of 5; for all four remaining races consider Hosszu a gold medal threat.
In semi final swimming, Kevin Cordes of the US was a little off his best but is poised to fight for a medal in the 100m breast. The other American, Cody Miller, snatched second in a time of 59.05. All swimmers in the final were around a half to full second off their best times, except for one. Great Britain’s Adam Peaty broke the World Record in the morning, swimming a 57.5, and leaving the field over a second behind. In the semi-finals he swam the second fastest time in history to cement his #1 seed. In the final the Americans will fight the likes of South Africa’s Cam van der Burgh, Japan’s Koseki Yasuhiro, and Brazil’s Franca Felipe to finish second and third, but no one in the field is anywhere near catching Peaty. Also, Peaty is likely to swim the three fastest times in history in a 36-hour period, which, I think, should be called “The Threepeaty.”
On the women’s side, Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom and the US’s Dana Vollmer, who have alternated owning the World Record in the 100m fly, came out as the #1 and 2 seeds heading into the final. Kelsi Worrell, who was lights-out at the US Olympic trials, looked heavy in the water and posted a weak time for her, finishing 9th and out of the final, the first American swimmer to miss. That makes Vollmer the sole American, and she hopes to drop time, reclaim her World Record from Sjostrom, and grab a gold in the process. Canada’s up-and-coming Penny Oleksiak and Australia’s Emma McKeon have both been under 57.0 this meet already, and could give Vollmer trouble making the medal podium. Sjostrom’s semi-final time of 55.84 was the fourth fastest of all time, with the three faster all swum by Sjostrom.
Katie Ledecky swam in the 4×100 free relay finals tonight – how, you ask? At Olympic Trials, Ledecky posted a 7th place finish in the event, where the US typically takes only the top 6 to swim in the relay. In the morning the 3rd-6th swimmers race together to determine the team’s rank in the final; at night, the fastest two swimmers from Trials (who will also compete in the individual 100m free event) join the two swimmers with the fastest times from the morning to form the theoretical fastest relay to race for a medal. The US Olympic Swimming coaches, intensely aware of Ledecky’s talent, decided to swim her in the prelims along with the 4th, 5th, and 6th swimmers from Trials – this might remind some of how Michael Phelps got on the 4×100 relay in 2008, despite not swimming in the 100 free. The decision was also aided by the US’s Dana Vollmer swimming in the prelims and semi-finals of the 100m fly – opting out of the morning relay swim lightened her load and helped her focus on her individual event. Ledecky earned her stripes, splitting a 52.6, nearly a full second faster than any other American in the morning.
When she combined with Simone Manuel, who led off with a 53.3, Amanda Weir (52.5), Dana Vollmer (53.1), her time of 52.7 completed the fastest possible set of US swimmers. This group, which clinched the American Record, could not match the Australian women (McKeon 53.4, Elmslie 53.1, Bronte Campbell 52.1, and Cate Campbell 51.9), who powered to a new World Record, lowering their mark from this morning, to win by over a second. The Bronte sisters had the two fastest splits of the evening, edging out Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom’s 52.4 – they are heavy favorites to take top two in the 50 and 100 freestyle events. Canada finished third behind the US squad.
Sunday night, Ledecky and teammate Leah Smith, the two fastest 400 swimmers in history, will look to sweep; Sun Yang who took silver in the 400m free will vie for top spot in the 200 free, while the US’s Conor Dwyer and Townley Haas will fight for the top 8; Lilly King and Katie Meili of the US will battle contentious Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova in the 100m breaststroke; David Plummer and Ryan Murphy will look to keep the US’s 100m backstroke winning streak alive moving through the semi-finals, fending off Australian Mitch Larkin; and will Michael Phelps be granted a spot on the 4×100 free relay, and if so why? Check it out!