WRITTEN BY SHARON ROBB
July 28, 2012
Reigning world champion Ryan Lochte won his first gold medal of the 2012 London Olympics Saturday night to highlight a dramatic night of swimming at the steamy Aquatics Centre.
Lochte, 27, of Daytona Beach, won the 400-meter individual medley, the first of two highly-anticipated races against rival Michael Phelps. Lochte pulled away during the backstroke and won in 4:05.18, a textile-best.
Phelps, the two-time defending Olympic gold medalist and world record holder, was fourth in 4:09.28, 34/100ths out of medal contention.
It was the first gold medal for the U.S. team and first time Lochte beat Phelps in an Olympic final.
“I think I am in shock right now,” Lochte said. “Going into these Games I knew I was capable of getting the win. I’m happy that I was able to do that. I am ready to rock. This is going to be an Olympics to remember.
“I heard the fans screaming all throughout the race and definitely had my family there. It definitely helped me out a lot.”
Lochte was his laidback self before the race and on the medal podium. He wore new bright green shoes and put his diamond Stars and Stripes grill across his top front teeth for photographers. Lochte was not allowed to wear his grill on the podium. An IOC official told him he would not get his gold medal if he did.
“It’s just a unique way of showing my personality,” Lochte said.
Three-time Olympian Thiago Pereira of Brazil took the silver, his first-ever Olympic medal, in 4:08.86 and 17-year-old Kosuke Hagino of Japan finished with the bronze in 4:08.94. Hagino, who won the 200 IM at last year’s FINA Junior World Championships, was not expected to reach an Olympic final.
The race was no contest with Lochte leading from start-to-finish and crushing the men’s field. Lochte, who has six Olympic medals including three golds in his lifetime, had flirted with world record pace for the first 350 meters.
“I know he gave it everything he had,” Lochte said of the 16-time medal winner. “That’s all you can really ask. I’m going to talk to him and see how he feels about that.”
Phelps had barely made it into the final, qualifying eighth just out-touching Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh. Lochte, who said he didn’t feel good in the morning prelim, was third fastest qualifier.
“I was lucky to get in,” Phelps said. “I had a chance to put myself in a spot to start off on a good note and didn’t do it. Ryan had a good race.”
It is the first time since 2000 when Phelps was 15 that he has missed a medal in an Olympic event. It was the 400 IM that Phelps kept saying he would never race again after 2008 because it was too painful. But inexplicably decided to race it at trials.
“It was just a crappy race,” Phelps said. “They swam a better race than me, they swam a smarter race than me and that is why they are on the podium. It’s just really frustrating to start off on a bad note like this. It’s pretty upsetting.
“The biggest thing now is to try and get past this and move forward,” Phelps said. “I have a bunch of races and hopefully we can finish this a lot better than we started.”
On Wednesday, the two go head-to-head for the second and final time in the 200-meter individual medley, an event Phelps has won in each of the last two Olympics.
Meanwhile, China dominated the remainder of the swimming.
Sun Yang, 20, won the men’s 400-meter freestyle in an Olympic record 3:40.14, eclipsing Ian Thorpe’s Olympic record set in 2000. Olympic defending champion Tae-Hwan Park of South Korea, after being disqualified in morning prelims for a false start and then reinstated by FINA, was second in 3:42.06. American Peter Vanderkaay, who relocated to Gainesville to train for the Olympics, took the bronze in 3:44.69.
“I am very glad to have won the gold, it means a lot to me,” Yang said. “It is a reward for the many years of effort. Tonight, I did a good race. If I had won the gold without Park swimming in the final, maybe the Korean media would have said that it was a medal not gained well enough. To have Park in the race was a very good challenge for me.”
China’s 16-year-old Ye Shiwen won the women’s 400-meter individual medley in a world record time of 4:28.43, knocking off American Elizabeth Beisel of University of Florida, who was second in 4:31.27. China’s Xuanxu Li took bronze in 4:32.91.
The Aussies looked unbeatable on the women’s 400-meter freestyle relay with Alicia Coutts, 24, Cate Campbell, 20, Brittany Elmslie, 18, and Melanie Schlanger, 25, winning in an Olympic record 3:33.15. Schlanger held off the Netherlands, the defending Olympic champion that finished second in 3:33.79. The U.S. took bronze with Missy Franklin, Jessica Hardy, Lia Neal and Allison Schmitt. Neal became the first African-American woman to swim in an Olympic final.
Natalie Coughlin, 29, as a member of the U.S. relay that swam prelims along with Amanda Weir and qualified, tied for most career Olympic medals with Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres of the Coral Springs Swim Club with 12. Coughlin, who did not qualify in an individual event, is now done for the week and will be a team cheerleader, she said.
“I really have no idea what to think of it so far,” Coughlin said. “I’ll have to let that one sit and I’ll have to take it all in. I’m very proud of it but I’ve never been on a morning relay before.”
If the Florida Gators swimmers were a country, they would be tied with China for Olympic swim medals with three.
SOFLO three-time Olympian Vlad Polyakov was eliminated in the morning prelims of the men’s 100-meter breaststroke, his only event in London.
Polyakov finished 34th in 1:02.15. His splits were 29.06 and 33.09. Suriname’s Diguan Pigot of Metro Aquatics was 43rd in 1:05.55.
In the men’s breaststroke semifinals, which were crazy fast, South Africa’s Cameron van der Burgh broke 59 seconds for the second time in his career to earn the top seed in an Olympic record 58.83, breaking Kosuke Kitajima’s Olympic mark of 58.91 set in 2008. American Brendan Hansen barely qualified for finals with the eighth fastest time in 59.78.
American Dana Vollmer set an Olympic, American and textile-best in prelims of the 100-meter butterfly prelims in 56.25 and earned the top seed after semifinals in 56.36.
On Sunday, SOFLO’s three-time Olympian Alia Atkinson of Jamaica will compete in the prelims of the 100-meter breaststroke, the first of three events she is entered in.
The swimming attracted its share of VIPs including Queen Elizabeth for the morning session and First Lady Michelle Obama for the evening session.
NBC, with its mega hours and channels of coverage, is not making any friends by showing the swimming finals on tape-delay especially in this social media era where followers know who won immediately after races. Twitter lit up with complaints about it and NBC’s sub-par live streaming which kept cutting in out and out online on the first full day of competition.
The U.S. swim team’s “Call Me Maybe” video parody has now hit 2 million viewers on YouTube.
Hungary will put its 17-match unbeaten Olympic streak on the line Sunday as it begins its quest for an unprecedented fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal. Hungary opens up against gold medal favorite Serbia on opening day of the water polo competition. The U.S. team, 2008 Olympic silver medalist, opens up against Montenegro.
Sharon Robb can be reached at email@example.com