Rough Waters For the U.S. Swimmers

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Things started out well for the U.S. swim team, but medal hopes started to evaporate into the steamy air by the second day in the Greek sun. Phenom Michael Phelps won the country’s first gold medal in the 400m individual medley on Saturday, in world record time (4:08.26), finishing just ahead of Massachusetts native Eric Vendt, who won silver. In the women’s 400m IM, Californian Kaitlin Sandeno made up for her fourth place finish in Sydney by winning the day’s second silver, and Klete Keller claimed bronze for his 3:44.11 in the 400 freestyle. The U.S. women ended the day with a close match-up against rival Australia in the 4x100m freestyle relay, and touched the wall 0.55 seconds behind the Aussies to win silver.

Then, things went bad. On the second day of competition, the weather became a factor with the temperature dropping about 10 degrees and blustery winds sweeping the water’s surface like a giant broom. World record holder Brendan Hansen settled for silver in the 100m breast stroke, after touching the wall 0.17 seconds behind Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima. Three-time Olympian Jenny Thompson failed to medal in the 100 butterfly, and to close the disappointing night, the U.S. men earned a bronze in the 4x100m freestyle relay, not bad until you consider it’s their worse finish in that event ever. (The U.S. had never lost that race until 2000, when the Australians, anchored by Ian Thorpe, beat them to the wall.)

Hansen’s loss did not sit well with teammate and fellow University of Texas backstroker Aaron Peirsol, who accused Kitajima of using an illegal dolphin kick to help propel him off the wall after turns. “I was pretty angry after Brendan’s race,” he told reporters following his own backstroke heat. “That’s [Brendan’s] medal. [Kitajima] knew what he was doing; he was cheating. Instead of gliding off the start, he took a huge dolphin kick to give him extra momentum. He knows we can’t see that. He takes gold and he was cheating.” U.S. team captain Eddie Reese noted that whether or not an infraction was committed is a judgement call, and at this point, “It can’t be appealed in any fashion. My judgement call is if there was no whistle, there was no foul.” Hansen is looking forward to facing Kitajima again in the 200 breast stroke on Tuesday. “I remember him shouting in my ears, so it is important to keep that in my head to fire me up,” he said.

Hansen won’t be the only one needing some fuel — finishing third in the relay, while respectable, was less than the U.S. men expected of themselves. “It’s a little disappointing to get this medal,” said Phelps, who swam the second leg of the relay. “Obviously, we wanted gold.” Ian Crocker, the lead-off swimmer, was under his usual pace because of a bacterial infection; he’s been fighting a sore throat for three days but decided not to take antibiotics. Bob Bowman, Phelps’ coach and the assistant coach for the U.S. men, noted that “It was a rough night, no doubt about it. Morale is not good; we’re going to have to do something different and hope we can pick it up tomorrow.” They should fare better on Monday; Phelps swims against Australia's Ian Thorpe for the first time in a freestyle race, world record holder Peirsol swims for his first gold, champion breast stroker Amanda Beard aims for a medal in the 100m breast stroke, and world record holder Natalie Coughlin races for her first Olympic gold medal in the 100m backstroke.