In the welter of failed and lukewarm comebacks - in terms of making the Games goes this Olympic season 2012 - Brendan Hansen stood tall today at US Olympic trials in Omaha with a 59.68 victory in the 100m breaststroke.
That left coach Eddie Reese's Texas Longhorns charge with a mountain to climb to get back on terms with his nemesis, quadruple Olympic champ Kosuke Kitajima (JPN), world No1 this year on 58.90. Even so, the American heads to the Olympics in London as fourth fastest in the world (discounting the third Japanese effort, Japan the world breaststroke force to reckon with among men) six years after his lifetime best of 59.13, that a world record back in 2006.
Hansen tweeted: "The crowd was so awesome tonight! ... thanks so much. I'm beyond excited to be going to London."
The duel between Hansen and Kitakima was thought to be over when Hansen bowed out after having had to lick the bigger wounds. The world will talk of revenge and such like (and beating Kitajma is clearly still in the American's mind) but hor Hansen his comeback had been "just an individual journey … I never thought about him at all the whole time I was coming back. I knew in the back of my mind he was probably going to be the guy to beat, but you don't think about other athletes when you're trying to accomplish or come back.
"You have to focus on yourself, because at the end of the day you're the one on the blocks and racing, so that's the mentality I had," he added. Not entirely: Kitajima is the man "with the target on his chest" for breaststroke crowns once more this year, says the former world champion.
Success in either the 100m or 200m could make the 2004 and 2008 double champion and most successful breaststroke swimmer all-time the first man to win the same swim title at three successive Games, depending on how Michael Phelps fares from the 400m IM on day one onwards in any of of four events, including the 100 and 200m butterfly and 200m medley.
"He's the one with the target on his chest now, and he's the one to beat in London," said Hansen of Kitajima, who has been there before and prospered. "I'm going to do everything in my power the next month and a half to make sure that I make it really, really hard for him."
Kitajima was there to see it all unfold, cheering on the next man home: the second US berth went to his Trojan teammate Eric Shanteau in 1:00.15, third place going to the leader at half-way (27.84), Kevin Cordes, on 1:00.58. It will take much more to make the London podium.
A little odd Hansen's quote that he thought Kitajima would now know how hard it was just to make the US Olympic team (harder in Japan this season in fact, while the Olympic champion would have long been well aware of such things). You can read a take on all of that at Cap & Goggles. American strength lies elsewhere when it comes to potential 1-2 finishes in London.
The score remains 1-0 to Ryan Lochte ahead of Michael Phelps after two days of trials, though the duel tipped a touch further in the world champion's favour this evening as he pipped the Olympic champion 1:46.35 to 1:46.37 in a stroke for stroke 200m free semi.
The times pale by comparison to the two men at their best (in textile) - Phelps the best ever on 1:43.86 in 2007, Lochte on 1:44.44 for the world crown in Shanghai last year - but the determination to get the tip of a finger to the pad first, the roll of the fight, the eyeballing across the lane rope was enough to send steam off the water at the Century Link Convention Center, a prerequisite to the boiling battle ahead. By now, Phelps might be getting a touch annoyed. That makes him a more dangerous animal but the Gator is not about to give way.
The blade will be sharper in the final tomorrow - and fit for the slaughter come London in July but the thing that strikes you about this domestic affair as you walk into the US Olympic swim trials in Omaha for the first time is the size of things.
Many and complex are the reasons why the USA is the world's leading swim nation but one of the answers to the question 'why do they more often step up at the big one when others shy away from best' is here in this temporary pool sunk into the convention center: they've seen it all (and walked it all) before at home when many others will have seen nothing like it until they head out into the lights on a global stage.
The London Aquatics Centre, for example, is certainly no bigger than this venue in terms of many of the internal factors that can turn swimmers into rabbits in headlights. At the Olympic test event in March, audiences of about 2,000 were typical but most of those were there for British trials and left the building before international competition got underway. In Omaha this evening: more that 12,000 spectators for the show.
There'll be no fireworks of the kind that curl your hair 20 rows back as they explode deckside with each passing addition to the US squad but even as the world catches up with such things the US still has a clear edge.
Dana Vollmer, coached by Terri McKeever at Cal, was a case in point as she stepped up for the final of the 100m butterfly this evening. The crowd had barely sat down from a stirring rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. The lights, the noise, the crowd, the moment just as big in some ways as it will be when the world tunes in at the end of July.
Vollmer did not falter (though her opening speed cost her). Living up to her world champion status, she turned in 26.31, 0.63sec under world record pace of Sarah Sjostrom from 2009. The suits are not that easy to get rid of, as we know - on the way home, a 30.19sec return left Vollmer with a ticket to London 2012 but well shy of the Swedish teenager's top speed in the full shiny stuff of Rome three years ago, when 26.94 was followed by 29.12 for 56.06.
Vollmer's 56.50, just 0.08sec shy of the American record she set yesterday, was easily enough for purpose. The other London 2012 ticket went to Claire Donohue in 57.57, the only other sub-58sec effort, Kathleen Hersey third in 58.16.
Vollmer told Summer Sanders (1992 Olympic 200m butterfly champion) deckside: "I'm so relieved. I'm so emotional, it was such an exciting race. I am overwhelmed right now." Had she had Sjostrom's record in mind? "Definitely. I had my heart set on it," said Vollmer. It would take a better paced race to get there, she reckoned.
World champion Rebecca Soni was a class apart in the 100m breaststroke in 1:05.82. Either side of her in the final will be Trojan teammate Jessica Hardy, on 1:06.88, and long-course metres bolter Breeja Larson, on 1:07.00 after dipping below 1:07 and 1:08 for the first time ever in heats. The door to the final was shut in 1:07.70, among those locked out Amanda Beard, Olympic medallist in 1996 and Olympic champion over 200m in 2004.
Matt Grevers, of Tuscon Ford in Arizona, booked lane 4 for the final of the 100m backstroke in 53.10, followed by David Plummer, 53.24, and Nick Thoman, 53.40, the final closed in 54.51.
The closing race of the session raised the possibility that Olympic champion Natalie Coughlin will not be able to defend her crown in London and have a shot at joining the triple champion's club after her 2004 and 21008 victories. Coughlin made it to the final - in 7th on 1:00.63 and may yet muscle her way back on to the team in her signature event from the wings.
To do so she will need to get back to her very best: after Rachel Bootsma clocked 59.10 in the first semi, Missy Franklin, 17, replied with a 59.06 effort for lane 4 tomorrow.
Franklin is now third best ever in a textile suit behind efforts of 58.98 by Zhao Jing (CHN) and 58.97 by Anastasia Zueva (RUS), while Bootsma is fifth best 0.02sec shy of the 59.08 of Aya Terakawa, with Coughlin's 59.12 - for bronze at world titles behind Zhao and Zueva in Shanghai last year - next on the list.
"I love where I'm at right now," said Franklin, world 200m champion and a potential multi-medallist for the US in London this swimmer. "I feel strong, I feel powerful. It's so awesome to feel this way and I'm having a blast. This is what I came here to do."
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