I woke up this morning at 4:30 eastern. I was nervous about missing the first prelim session of the Olympics. When your sport only gets meager coverage every four years, you feel guilty for squandering even one second of it. What I saw in the wee hours of the east coast (thank goodness I don't live out west) was both exciting and totally maddening. In that way, it's just like any other swim meet.
Let's start with exciting: the men's 100 breaststroke is shaping up to be an incredible race. It's rare to have so many potential medalists and have them all swimming at such a high level. Breaststroke fans should soak up this field- although I definitely found myself thinking of Alexander Dale Oen and how he would have brought this race to an even higher level. Regardless, you have Kitajima, who has already gone where no breaststroker has gone before, trying to go where no male swimmer has gone before. It's almost certain that Phelps will become a three time Olympic champion in the 200 fly at this meet, but Kitajima could do it first. Unlike Phelps however, Kitajima has to deal with the inconsistencies of breaststroke and a fairly loaded field.
Likewise, the women's 4x100 relay had a few surprises up its sleeve. Lia Neal had an outstanding leadoff swim for the US- maintaining her cool while racing next to Belarussian world champion Aleksandra Gerasimenya. It's rare to get such composure out of a young swimmer on their first Olympic team. It also appears that media darling Natalie Coughlin will get to make her final Olympic swim underneath the final's lights. As for the rest of the field, Australia had some really surprising depth and the Dutch don't look like the sure thing they did a few months ago, unless Marleen Veldhuis and Inge Dekker got special instructions to not swim as fast as they could in the prelim.
Dana Vollmer lit it up once again in a prelim 100 fly, and that is sort of the border point between exciting and maddening. Vollmer employed a similar strategy in Omaha, and while it worked out well for her in the 100 fly, she seemed to wear out as the meet went on. Vollmer is a key player for the US both individually and on relays, and she didn't need to press this race nearly that hard to advance to the semi-final.
The men's 400 IM and 400 free were firmly in the maddening category. It's hard not to feel cheated by not having Park Tae-hwan in the final of the 400 free. A race that was sizing up to be one of the best in the meet is now missing one of it's biggest players (Ed: It appears the DQ is under review. PLEASE FINA). (And he's back!) Kudos to the Americans for shaking off a lackluster trials and swimming their way into the finals in that race. They exhibited a willingness to race that the rest of the field sorely lacked. Much like Omaha, too many swimmers seemed preoccupied with what the other swimmers in the heat were doing rather than swimming their own race. I could easily visualizes coaches in the stands shaking their heads as their charges failed to establish pace early on that would carry them to the final. The 400 IM had some flashes but the gamesmanship from Lochte and Phelps (almost too much) made the prelims a bit of a yawner.
Luckily, Elizabeth Beisel was there to save us with a stellar 400 IM. She didn't look like she took too much off but she may not need to tonight. Her race also provided the lone positive to the prelim feed with no commentators- coach Chuck Batchelor (you may want to mention him Rowdy Gaines) could be heard producing his trademark high pitched whoop in the background. For a moment, it felt like I was right there!