Mon, September 23, 2013

Phelps barely qualifies for final

Sneaks into 400-metre medley final by seven one-hundredths of a second

By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency


Michael Phelps reacts after racing in heat 4 of the men's 400-metre individual medley at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre in London, England, July 28, 2012. (MICHAEL DALDER/Reuters)



LONDON - It didn’t take long for Michael Phelps to provide the first surprise of the London 2012 Games ― though not the way you might expect.

The superstar American swimmer, who is a good bet to leave here the most decorated athlete in Olympic history, survived a scare in the Saturday morning heats for the 400-metre individual medley, barely qualifying for the final later in the day.

"You can't win a gold medal in the morning," Phelps said of his lacklustre finish.

Though Phelps hit the wall first in his prelim, his relatively slow time of 4:13.33 allowed him to just snuck into the final eight as the meet got under way at the Aquatics Centre. If it weren’t for a late rally to edge out Hungarian Laszlo Cseh by seven one-hundredths of a second, Phelps would have been a shocked observer for the final.

As it is, he will have to start from Lane 8 where he won’t be able to keep a close eye on the competition. Among the competitors will be fellow American, Ryan Lochte who got the better of Phelps in the U.S. Trials earlier this month. Lochte was hardly dominant either, finishing second in his heat, though his time was third fastest.

For a man who has forged an historic Olympic career finishing first, these are a Games of lasts for Phelps. On Friday, the 14-time gold medallist had what will be the final true training session of his career. On Saturday night, he will look for his first gold in this his fourth Olympic Games.

And when the swimming meet comes to a close next weekend, it is likely Phelps will add to his legacy and record medal haul.

“These are the last competitive moments that I will have in my career,” said Phelps, who looked relaxed ― perhaps a little too much so ― in winning his prelim. “It’s going to be big ― there are going to be a lot of firsts and a lot of lasts this week but I won’t be holding back when I am in the pool.”

Phelps won’t be able to match his eight golds in Beijing, in part because he is only competing in seven events here. But how many can he get?

It will certainly be able to see how Phelps responds in the final. It appeared that the 27-year-old was toying with his competition, conserving energy for the long day and meet ahead. If that was the case, a strategy that almost blew up in his face, may help him the rest of the way.

The lone Canadian in the 400 IM ­― 18-year-old Alec Page ― finished 23rd and obviously didn’t advance.

Prior to the start of competition, Phelps seemed confident and relaxed, which may have explained his tactics in Saturday morning’s heats. He knows that at age 27, recovery time doesn’t come as easily as when he was a younger man and pacing himself will be a factor.

“I’m very happy with my career and what I’ve done throughout it, and we’re going to see what happens over the last week of it,” Phelps said. “This is closure.”

If Phelps is able to turn the table on Lochte (who won the U.S. trials) in the 400IM final, he will kick the Games off in style with a fifteenth gold and the historical anecdote of becoming the first male swimmer to win gold in the same even in three consecutive Games.

Meanwhile, Canada’s top medal hope in the pool, Ryan Cochrane advanced to the final in the 400-metre freestyle. The Victoria, B.C. swimmer, who won bronze in the 1,500-metre free four years ago in Beijing, won his heat and is considered a fringe contender in the 400, which will also be raced on Saturday night. Though he qualified eighth, Cochrane’s medal hopes got a boost when defending Olympic Champion Park Tae Hwan was disqualified in his heat.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

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