WRITTEN BY SHARON ROBB
July 30, 2012
Smiling from ear-to-ear and forming a heart with her hands as she walked on the pool deck before her race, Alia Atkinson was clearly in her element at the Aquatics Centre Monday at the Olympic Games.
The three-time Olympian for Jamaica and South Florida Aquatic Club swimmer made the most of her championship final debut in the 100-meter breaststroke with her aggressiveness in the opening 50 meters.
Against a world-class field, the 23-year-old just missed becoming the first Jamaican swimmer to medal in the sport at the Olympics with a fourth-place finish.
Atkinson lowered her national record for the fourth time in a career-best time of 1:06.93, just getting edged out by Japan’s Satomi Suzuki by .47 in 1:06.46.
It was the best finish by a Jamaican swimmer since Janelle Atkinson finished fourth at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“My objective was certainly to give Jamaica its best finish in swimming at the Olympics and putting the country on the map, so to speak,” Atkinson said. “I am a little disappointed. I really wanted to get that medal to show that Jamaican swimming is up there. I didn’t die in the last 25, I was still there because I saw the two girls beside me.”
Before the race, a technical problem caused the starting horn to go off early inducing U.S. swimmer and medal favorite Breeja Larson to jump in, forcing the rest of the field to step off the blocks and sit or stand behind the blocks while a technician worked on the glitch.
After a few anxious moments, Larson was not disqualified because of the bug in the system. She went on to finish a surprising sixth in 1:06.96.
Larson of Texas A&M was the first to bear-hug Atkinson, a Texas A&M alum, as the two walked off the deck smiling.
Unheralded 15-year-old Ruta Meilutyte of Lithuania, the only woman swimmer from her country, shocked the breaststroke field including reigning world champion Rebecca Soni and became the youngest swimmer ever to win her country’s first Olympic gold medal in a lifetime best and European record 1:05.47.
Meilutyte finished ahead of Soni by .08 seconds. Japan’s Satomi Suzuki took the bronze giving the country its first medal in event history. Australia’s defending champion Leisel Jones finished fifth.
“I can’t believe it, it’s too much for me,” said Meilutyte, after covering her mouth in shock when she looked at the scoreboard.
Meilutyte moved to Britain three years ago to train with English coach Jon Rudd. She goes to the same Plymouth school as British Olympic diver Tom Daley. She was a freestyler when she came to the United Kingdom but her coach said, “Her breaststroke was pretty tidy and we tidied it up even more.”
Atkinson and her longtime coach Chris Anderson are getting phone calls, messages and tweets from people around the world.
Track and field’s former world 100-meter record holder Asafa Powell tweeted Atkinson. “Congratulations to Alia Atkinson for making it into the 100-meter breaststroke final! Team Jamaica.”
Atkinson still has the 200-meter breaststroke (Wednesday) and 50-meter freestyle (Saturday) remaining this week.
On the third day of swimming, upsets continued to reign supreme. In the 200-meter freestyle, France’s Yannick Agnel stole the thunder from Ryan Lochte again.
After losing to him on the final leg of the 400 free relay Sunday, Lochte finished fourth in the 200 freestyle, an event in which he is reigning world champion. Lochte died going into the wall. It was the first time France had ever won the event in Olympic history.
“I guess I took it out a little too fast,” Lochte said. “I don’t know where I really fell off. I’ll live and learn. That last lap hurt. I put everything into it. I guess it wasn’t there.”
Lochte later tweeted, “Not so happy about that swim tonight.”
Agnel was blazing fast in 1:43.14 followed by South Korea’s Tae-Hwan Park of South Korea and gold medal favorite Sun Yang of China who tied for the silver medal in 1:44.93. Lochte’s time was 1:45.04. It was Park’s second silver of the meet. World record holder Paul Biedermann of Germany failed to medal.
“I was indeed surprised with my time,” Agnel said. “I did not expect that, more like 1:43.80 or 1:43.90. At the end of the race I looked twice on the scoreboard to be sure it was it.”
American teenager Missy Franklin, 17, did not disappoint, winning her first gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke after a quick 14-minute turnaround from swimming the 200-meter freestyle semifinals. Franklin conserved her energy and qualified eighth in the 200 semifinals.
Trailing at the wall by a quarter of a second, Franklin roared back to win in an American record 58.33. Aussie Emily Seebohm, who has the fastest time in the event this year and had the early lead, was second in 58.68. “I knew I needed to give everything I had coming home,” Franklin said.
“I saw the board, I saw the number 1,” said Franklin, who grabbed her forehead with her red, white and blue-polished fingernails. “It doesn’t seem real. I’ve dreamed about it so often. You still feel like you’re dreaming.
“When you dream about something your whole life and you achieve it, you just don’t really understand what you just did. And I definitely don’t think I did but I couldn’t be happier right now. I still feel like someone needs to pinch me. I am so happy. I knew it was going to be a tough night.”
On the podium, Franklin was crying and singing the national anthem as her Canadian parents looked on.
The U.S. team ruled the backstroke even when 6-foot-8 Matt Grevers, who took silver in 2008 in Beijing, won the men’s 100-meter backstroke followed by teamed Nick Thoman. Grevers won in an Olympic record 52.16.
“This is just an incredibly fast Olympics,” Grevers said. “To win a medal, it’s not an easy thing to do. I was able to come home fast. It felt even better to share that moment with Nick, oh my God.”
In the men’s 200-meter butterfly, two-time Olympic defending champion in the event Michael Phelps will get a chance at an Olympic three-peat after qualifying fourth in the semifinals in 1:54.53. Japan’s Takeshi Matsuda is the top seed. U.S. teammate Tyler Clary (1:54.93) also qualified and will be right next to Phelps in the final.
The final is Tuesday night. If he medals, he would win his 18th Olympic medal, tying him with Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina for most career Olympic medals.
Caitlin Leverenz (third) and Ariana Kukors (fourth) both qualified for the 200-meter individual medley in semifinals.
In the overall aquatics medal table, the U.S. leads with 14 medals and China has 7. Both the U.S. and China are tied with four golds apiece.
The U.S. men’s team won its second Olympic medal in the men’s 10-meter platform. David Boudia and Nick McCrory took a bronze medal after Kelci Bryant and Abby Johnston took a silver on women’s 3-meter synchro on Sunday. It is the first two Olympic medals for the U.S. since 2000. The Americans had their best score on the last of their six dives to hold onto third place. Mexico took the silver and China, as expected, won the gold medal with two teenagers. Cao Yuan, 17, and Zhang Yanquan, 18, clinched the title. Brits Tom Daley and Peter Waterfield faltered to fourth after leading for two rounds.
In her Olympic debut, Maggie Steffens, 19, scored seven goals, including six in the first half, to lead the U.S. to an impressive 14-13 win over Hungary. “It was awesome, my heartbeat is still pounding,” said the Californian. Courtney Mathewson added four goals for the U.S…Spain upset 2011 world silver medalist China, 11-6.
“After my 100 breaststroke last night I was going to sink to the bottom and underwater dance but there’s no cameras in Lane 8.”–Brendan Hansen
“Watching Missy Franklin’s post-race interview made me cry! What a sweet sweet girl!!! She deserves all her success.”—Caroline Kuczynski, CSSC swimmer
“Missy Franklin is a very nice girl until you throw water on her.”—Sally Jenkins, Washington Post
“At swimming Tony Parker just asked for a pic, I thought he meant with me but he handed me a camera to take of him with the pool in background, mortified!”—CSSC swimmer Dara Torres
Sharon Robb can be reached at email@example.com