LONDON - Ryan Lochte won the United States Olympic Team’s first gold medal of the 2012 Games Saturday, taking the men’s 400m IM with a time of 4:05.18. It was one of four medals for the U.S. on the first night of competition.
Also winning medals for Team USA were Elizabeth Beisel with a silver in the women’s 400m IM and Peter Vanderkaay with a bronze in the men’s 400m freestyle. Missy Franklin, Jessica Hardy, Lia Neal and Allison Schmitt also won a bronze and set an American record in the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay.
Finalist for the U.S. included Michael Phelps with a fourth-place finish in the men’s 400m IM, Conor Dwyer with a fifth-place finish in the men’s 400m free and Caitlin Leverenz with a seventh-place in the women’s 400m IM.
Men’s 400m IM
Coming into tonight’s finals, all eyes were on the much-anticipated matchup between Lochte and Phelps in the men’s 400m IM. Phelps was the defending back-to-back Olympic champion and world record holder in this event, while Lochte has been the top swimmer in the world in the 400m IM since the 2009 World Championships. The duo are the top two swimmers of all time in this race.
But the match-up almost didn’t happen. Lochte and Phelps qualified third and eighth, respectively, for tonight’s finals, with Phelps just making the field by seven-hundredths of a second.
As the race unfolded, Lochte began to distance himself from the pack during the backstroke leg. He built a two-body-lengths lead on the field at the 200-meter mark, and was about a half-second ahead of world-record pace heading into the final 100 meters.
At that point, everyone else was racing for silver, which went to Thiago Pereira of Brazil in 4:08.86, followed by Kosuke Hagino of Japan in 4:08.94. Phelps finished fourth in 4:09.28.
Lochte’s win continued the streak of Olympic gold for Team USA in this event. An American swimmer has now won the 400m IM at every Games since 1996.
“It feels amazing knowing the last four years I put in all the work and it finally paid off,” Lochte said. “This is my year. I feel it deep inside my gut. There’s no better way to start than with a gold. It’s definitely a great feeling. I could hear the fans screaming, and having my family here helped a lot.
“I knew coming into this race that it wasn’t going to be just me and Michael. It was a great field. I think I was in shock – I think I still am – that I finally won.”
Phelps’s performance marked the first time since his first Games in 2000 that he has failed to medal in an Olympic final.
“I’m a bit frustrated,” Phelps said. “I just want to put that race behind me and move on. I was lucky to get in(to the final). The lane draw had nothing to do with me coming in fourth place. It was just a crappy race. I was trying to find a gear that I couldn’t find. I felt fine for the first 200 and spent the last 100 struggling. I’ve swum better races and been better prepared. But I’ve got a bunch of other races to come. I hope to finish better than I started.”
Women’s 400m IM
Beisel swam a strong race in the women’s 400m IM. In eighth place after the first 100 meters, she reeled in the field in the backstroke leg, and built a solid body-length lead after the breaststroke. Just when it looked like she had the win all sewn up, China’s Ye Shiwen came roaring from behind, splitting a 59.32 in the final 100 meters for the win in 4:28.43.
Beisel touched almost three seconds behind for silver in 4:31.27, followed by Ye’s teammate Li Xuanxu in 4:32.91. Leverenz finished seventh in 4:35.49.
The silver marked Beisel’s first Olympic medal.
“It's every little kid's dream to have an Olympic medal and to have it finally happen, it feels so great,” Beisel said.
“I'm definitely not going to be able to sleep tonight, but I'm definitely happy. “It's a lot better than what I felt four years ago. (Then) I was sort of like a deer in headlights...This year I'm more mature and more experienced, and it feels really great to win the medal.”
Men’s 400m Freestyle
Gold and silver medalists Sun Yang of China and Park Taehwan of South Korea proved too much for Vanderkaay in the men’s 400m freestyle, but Vanderkaay had a strong second half, overtaking China’s Hao Yun in the final 100 meters for the bronze medal in 3:44.89. Sun was first in 3:40.14, followed by Park in 3:42.06. Vanderkaay’s teammate Conor Dwyer was fifth in 3:46.39.
Saturday’s medal was Vanderkaay’s second individual Olympic medal, his fourth Olympic medal overall. He also won bronze in the 200m free in 2008 and has a pair of gold medals in the 4x200m free relay in 2004 and 2008.
“Feeling good in my race is something that really stands out to me today,” Vanderkaay said. “I didn’t have to work as hard as I did at Trials to get out as fast. It was just cleaner, smoother, easier.
“It feels incredible. You come here to get on the medal stand. I did that, and I’m proud to get a medal for my country.”
Women’s 4x100m Free Relay
The American women put up a good fight in the women’s 4x100 free relay, with Franklin taking a slight lead in the first leg, and Hardy and Neal keeping it close with the Australians through the 300 meter mark. As the Aussies pulled ahead in the final 100 meters and the Netherlands surged, Schmitt held on for bronze in an American-record time of 3:34.24. Australia and the Netherlands finished 1-2 in 3:33.15 and 3:33.79. The Australians’ time was an Olympic record.
“I’ve been dreaming of this since I was 5 years old,” said Hardy. “My journey was longer than I ever imagined.
“With this being my first Olympic race ever, medaling and setting an American record. I think that’s success.”
Americans swimming in semifinals Saturday night included Dana Vollmer (1st, women’s 100m butterfly, 56.36), Claire Donahue (5th, women’s 100m fly, 57.42), Brendan Hansen (8th, men’s 100m breaststroke, 59.78) and Eric Shanteau (11th, men’s 100m breast, 59.96).
Vollmer’s time of 56.25 from this morning’s prelims set an American record.
The top eight swimmers in the semifinals will advance to tomorrow night’s finals.