Four and Five - The Phelps Express steams ahead
Let me be the first to say that for two sports scientists so interested in endurance sports, we have never written so much about swimming! But it is history in the making in Beijing this year as Michael Phelps plowed ahead with gold medals numbers four and five in Beijing. In so doing, he has now won more gold medals than any other Olympian, in history. We look at his latest golds in a moment, but before that, perhaps the highlight of the day was the action in the men's 100 m freestyle, so let's take a look at that event first.
Swap meet of a different kind
Although much focus is on Phelps and his quest for eight golds, the men's 100 m free is shaping up to be one of the great races of the Games, as Australia's Eamonn Sullivan and France's Alain Bernard prepare for a showdown that surely will produce yet another record. In the first semi-final it was Bernard's turn to stamp some authority on the event. Recall that it was Bernard who was caught and beaten by Jason Lezak in the epic 4 x 100m relay two days ago. In that same race, he also lost his 100m Freestyle world record to Eamonn Sullivan - not a good outing all in all, and so he must feel a great desire to re-assert his status as number one.
In his semi-final, he did just that, as he took back the world record by 0.04 s in what must have been a shot at some mind games before the final. His time 47.22, and a record that only two days earlier had stood at 47.50s was now down by 0.28s.
That was only the beginning, however, because in the second semi-final, Sullivan came out to retake the record in 47.05! This year alone the record has fallen by 0.55 s (thank you, NASA and Speedo LZR Racer!), and if these two semis are any indication, either the Frenchman or the Aussie will be the first to break 47 s come Thursday as they fight for gold. There's also the presence of one Jason Lezak, who swam an astonishing 46.06 s in his relay leg, which was a full 0.6s faster than Bernard swam in that race. Somewhat surprisingly, he hasn't shown that kind of form, and is even down on his form from the US Trials five weeks ago, where he won the US title. He remains a threat, however, and has shown once that he can't be counted out.
A full analysis of the progression of that record might be in hand so that we might predict by how much it might fall in the final, but that will have to wait as we keep it coming and now turn to the men's 4 x 200 m freestyle.
China's lucky number of these games is 8/8/8, but so far Phelps is 5/5/8---five golds and five world records out of eight possible in total! Phelps started out the day with a gold, and a world record, in the 200 m fly. It might seem kind of "business as usual" at this point, except that at the end of the race Phelps was not as content as one might have expected, or certainly have seen in the previous victories. That may be because today was always going to be one of his toughest days - a 200m Butterfly final, followed by a medal ceremony, and then within 15 minutes, back in the pool to start off the 4 x 200m Freestyle relay. So perhaps Phelps' focus and "big picture" mindset was in play.
Of all his victories so far, this was the most controlled - it is testimony to the fact that he is so dominant that when he "only" broke the old world record by 0.06 s, it was noticeable! He was always in control, however, always on that world record pace, and perhaps the biggest surprise is that he was not alone, for early on, Moss Burmester from New Zealand in Lane 1 held Phelps by 0.5 s or less on the first three legs before losing 2.3 s in the homestretch. Unfortunately for him, he slipped back so dramatically that he fell off the podium altogether, and perhaps "deserved" something more. In the end, Phelps was comfortable, controlled, though not spectacular, but that might have been expected given the tough schedule he knew he'd be facing.
Men's 4 x 200 m Final. Another extra-ordinary performance: Are swimming world records meaningless?
Next on the agenda for Phelps was his second relay event, the 4 x 200 m freestyle final. The relays of course present a great threat to the quest for 8, because only 25% of the outcome lies in his sizeable hands. The 4 x 100m relay was spectacularly close, but the 4 x 200m, fortunately for Phelps, was not expected to be. It was always going to be a case of the margin of victory, rather than the question of victory, and so it turned out.
Phelps again lead off for his team, and rapidly built up a massive lead to hand over to Ryan Lochte, the second leg swimmer. The lead increased over the second leg, and by the time the third leg began, the USA was over 3 seconds under the old world record pace. Consider the time differences for each 200 m leg between the US men and second place at the time:
As has been the norm for the pool in Beijing, another world record was set, but this time the US men obliterated their prior record of 7:03.24 and dipped under seven minutes, swimming an astonishing 4.28 s faster and lowering the record to 6:58.56. Unlike in some other finals we have seen, no other team beat the previous record.
So the records continue to fall in the pool, including the women's 200 m freestyle and 200 m IM, where Frederica Pellegrini (ITA) and Stephaine Rice (AUS), respectively, took gold. The reality is that when a gold is won and the record is not broken, we feel disappointed. Swimming finds itself in something of an "artificial" situation, where world records are meaningless "tokens", though of course swimmers will not see it that way! However, it's worth looking at the difference between swimming and other world record sports, and that's an analysis for later today.
For the sake of length and time we will leave that analysis for now. We can start to look ahead to the end of the swimming phase of these games, though, and on to athletics, which actually gets underway this Friday. You can see a partial list of the events we will focus on here, so check that out and stay tuned for more insight into the incredible action in the pool.
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Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Four and Five - The Phelps Express steams ahead