Abrahamson: Setting the Scene for the 400 Relay
OMAHA -- Garrett Weber-Gale was back in the pool Thursday, swimming rounds of the 100 meter freestyle. Cullen Jones, too. And, of course, Jason Lezak.
Michael Phelps was at it, too, in the 200 fly, winning his signature event in 1:53.65.
It was all enough to evoke memories of that electric moment in Beijing in 2008, when those four guys, and especially Lezak, summoned one of the most incredible performances in Olympic history, winning the 400-meter freestyle relay.
The huge challenge now awaiting the 2012 U.S. team is to bring back relay gold again. It took a miracle four years ago. Bluntly, and everyone involved with the U.S. swim community knows so, even if they won't say so publicly, it may take more in London.
Why? Because the Australians have gotten that good. The French are good, too. The Italians, Russians and South Africans have gotten way better.
And the Americans, who have tradition and pride and history on their side, all of that -- it's not clear who the Americans are going to put into that relay beyond Phelps and the current No. 1 American sprinter, Nathan Adrian.
The prelims and the semis of the 100 free Thursday, of course, aren't the finals, which go down Friday. But rest assured that after reading the times the leading Americans posted Thursday the Aussies probably weren't breaking into a cold sweat.
Adrian led the semis with a 48.33. Jimmy Feigin was next in 48.48. Matt Grevers, who won the 100 back the night before, came third in 48.71.
Weber-Gale? Seventh, in 48.98. Jones? Eighth, in 49.03.
Lezak finished ninth, in 49.05. That left him out of Friday night's final -- for all of about a moment. Ryan Lochte, who had finished in a tie for fifth, with Scot Robison, at 48.91, told Lezak on his way off the pool deck that he would be scratching out of the final, to concentrate on his Friday night double, the 200 IM and the 200 back.
So Lezak lives to fight on, at least for one more day.
Grevers, meanwhile, also scratched out of the 100 final, again to concentrate on the 200 back. That gave a spot in the 100 final to David Walters, who had finished 10th, in 49.34.
Again, the semi times are not likely to be the finals times. Even so, all involved well understand the complexity of the situation as it relates to the relay.
"We'll put together four good guys and hope for a Lezak-type swim," Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, said with a smile.
The 2008 400 free relay was awesome and awe-inspiring and to watch it, no matter how many times you watch it, is an occasion for chills. Even if you're French.
To watch Lezak's anchor leg is to take in the power and potential of human will. Lezak swam 100 meters in an other-worldly 46.06 seconds, overtaking France's Alain Bernard at the very end, the Americans winning in world- and Olympic-record time, 3:08.24.
Phelps swam the lead-off leg on that relay. He won eight golds, of course, in Beijing. He went eight-for-eight in Beijing in measure because of Lezak.
If you want to know why, among other reasons, Phelps has consistently downplayed any eight-for-eight talk at the 2012 Olympics, it's best to understand how significantly the sprint scene has changed since four years ago in Beijing.
The Americans had won the 400 free relay at the 2005, 2007 and 2009 world championships -- Adrian bailing them out in Rome in 2009 with a stirring anchor leg -- and in Beijing in 2008.
Swimming can sometimes be an intensely technical sport. A breakdown here of the splits from Beijing:
Phelps swam his lead-off leg in Beijing in 47.51 seconds. Weber-Gale followed in 47.02. Jones went next, in 47.65. Then Lezak, in 46.06.
At the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, the pre-race focus within the American camp was Eamon Sullivan, the Australian anchor. He had gone a then-world record 47.05 in Beijing, at the Games.
The Aussies' lead-off guy was James Magnussen. No one knew much about him except he was tall and 20 years old.
Everyone learned fast.
Magnussen went 47.49. Compare that to Phelps' Beijing lead-off leg.
Phelps, who was in decent but not tip-top shape in Shanghai, turned in an eminently solid 48.08. That put the Americans in second place.
The Americans never did lead in that race. In Shanghai, Weber-Gale swam second; Lezak, third; Adrian, anchor. The Americans dropped to third during the second leg; fourth with Lezak; Adrian pulled them back up to third at the finish.
Final standings: Australia, in 3:11 flat. France, 3:11:14. United States, 3:11.96.
Along with Magnussen, each of the four Aussies on that relay swam in the 47s: Matthew Targett, Matthew Abood, Sullivan.
The Austrialians are just flat-out loaded with sprinters. There's another Australian guy on the scene: James Roberts. At the Aussie Trials this past March, he swam a 47.63 in the 100.
Magnussen is a cool customer. Asked in Shanghai what it was like to swim against Phelps, he said, "No biggie."
Magnussen went on to become the first Australian in history win the open 100 at the worlds, going 47.63 in Shanghai.
Earlier this year, he swam a 47.10, fourth-fastest ever. The world record is 46.91, held by Brazil's Cesar Cielo. You can bet that Magnussen has his eyes on that record in London.
The French, meanwhile, have a young gun of their own, 20-year-old Yannick Agnel. In March, he swam a 48.02 open 100. Fabien Gilot typically anchors for the French; in Shanghai, he swam a 47.22 anchor leg.
Asked late Thursday how the U.S. team is likely to stack up against the world, Phelps said, "I mean, you can look at times but you'll never know until … we all get together. We look fairly decent; I think some of the things we'll probably have to work on and get ready for. I think the 400 free relay and the 400 medley relay are going to be very challenging events."But I think we'll be able to come together as a team. We always have. We have been able to do that very well, I guess, throughout my experience on the international level. I have no doubt we'll be able to come together and get behind one another and prepare ourselves the best we can to represent our country."