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Ye (Up On Lochte's Last 50m) WR In 4:28.43

Jul 28, 2012  - Craig Lord

Olympic Games, London, day 1 finals:

Women's 400m medley final

Ye Shiwen, a 16-year-old from Hangzhou in China who began swimming at after her kindergarten teacher noticed her large hands, has become the first woman in history to race faster in any part of a race than the Olympic champion in the same event among men since the fairer sex took their maiden plunge at the Games 100 years ago.

The time difference between Ryan Lochte's 4:05.14 victory in the 400m medley and Ye's 4:28.43 world record victory in the women's equivalent final was as vast as you would expect but the manner in which the Chinese schoolgirl trounced world champion and Lochte's training partner in Florida, Elizabeth Beisel, on freestyle demands the Olympic flame to be shone on it.

Ye swept past Beisel like a man might have: Lochte, a man who shoves tractor tyres uphill and drags chains in the same direction, came home to victory in 29.10sec on his last length of freestyle. Ye beat him with a 28.93 - a first in Olympic history. The last 100m splits compared: Lochte - 58.65; Ye - 58.68. 

Beisel’s 4:31.27 just held off Ye's teammate Li Xuanxu, on 4:32.91 for bronze, China topping the swimming medals table for the first time at a major international since its tainted supremacy in the 1990s, which ended with more than 40 steroid positives.

Locked out of the medals were a host of world-class acts, Katinka Hosszu (HUN), the 2009 world champion on 4:33.39, Britain’s world-championship silver medallist Hannah Miley fifth in 4:34.17, defending Olympic champion Stephanie Rice sixth in 4:35.49. All but Hosszu beat Ye when she finished 5th at the world championships in 4:35.15 last year.

London 2012

  • 1. Ye Shiwen CHN 4:28.43 world record 
  • 2. Elizabeth Beisel USA 4:31.27
  • 3. Li Xuanxu CHN 4:32.91

Beijing 2008

  • 1. Rice (AUS) 4:29.45 WR
  • 2. Kirsty Coventry (ZIM) 4:29.89 Af rec
  • 3. Katie Hoff (USA) 4:31.71

Fastest field ever: London 2012: 4:28.43 - 4:35.62

Comparison fields, finals:

  • London 2012: 4:28.43 - 4:35.62
  • Shanghai 2011: 4:31.74 - 4:38.80
  • Beijing: 2008: 4:29.45 - 4:42.13
  • Melbourne 2007: 4:32.89 - 4:46.97
  • Athens 2004: 4:34.83 - 4:50.85

What it took to make the final

  • 4:36.09 London 2012
  • 4:38.18 Shanghai 2011

That last time in Shanghai last year belonged to Ye.

She was a very different swimmer today, though there was a hint of what was to come: down the last 50m in Shanghai on the way to 5th and 6th places, Ye, on 29.88, and Li, on 29.95, were the swiftest home comers in the field, no others inside 30sec. Today, Li's finish was 29.77, sweeping her past Hosszu for bronze. Again, no others inside 30.7. What is is that China is doing that makes sub-29 splits possible for a 16-year-old girl travelling at the speed of Ryan Lochte, the world may well ask.

What I know for sure is that Beisel's worth ethic and workload is awesome, Miley's regime monumental, for example. Yet they got nowhere close, Beisel's silver marked in a time that would have been the best ever in a textile suit - but for Ye 2.84sec ahead.

Fifth after the butterfly, with Miley in seventh and Beisel eighth, Ye moved up to third on backstroke as the American ploughed through the field to second place behind Hosszu. On breaststroke, the race tightened, Beisel first to the turn into freestyle, Ye placing clear blue water between herself and third-placed Hosszu as she made ready to pounce.

To talk of a teenage sensation does not go nearly far enough with Ye. She crashed through the biggest barrier of all: gender in sport. Ye swam precisely as fast over the last 100m on freestyle than Johnny "Tarzan" Weissmuller raced to the Olympic record and gold medal in the men's blue ribband 100m freestyle back in 1928. 

When Rice, wearing a bodysuit made of polyurethane panels since banned because they floated everyone like boats, came home to gold in Beijing 2008 inn a world record of 4:29.45 her 1:00.99sec last 100m split was sensational. Today it was left 20 years behind. 

Beisel had swum a smart race and heading into the wall on breaststroke 0.81sec ahead of Ye as the fastest women ever seen in textile (her heats time of 4:31.68 that standard) looked set to give the US its second gold of the opening session of finals at the London Aquatics Centre. 

Beisel's homecoming 1min 02sec split was at least as good as any other in the final - Ye was 3sec quicker, almost 2sec of that accounted for on the 50m going into the last turn. World swimming had seen nothing like it, not even in the days when China was the scourge of world swimming in the 1990s.

Lochte intends to race on to 2016 - he’ll need to watch out. "There’s much room for improvement,” said Ye. “It's true for breaststroke I am lagging behind but I think my freestyle result is also not that good. Usually I'm very bad at turning. This is one of my worst basic skills but turning is a very important skill therefore I was practicing my turns before the competition."

She added: "I am so excited, it is out of a dream. My coach said he didn't imagine I would have this result.” Ye, who turned 16 in March, comes from an ordinary working-class background in the affluent eastern tourism hub of Hangzhou, best known for its famous lake. 

She brushed off criticism from some quarters that China trains its competitors like robots. "Of course not," she said. "I think we have very good training, very scientific based training, that's why we all have progressed."

Of the race, she said: "I thought at the 200 metres that the race was lost but then on the breaststroke I realised I was in the top 2 or 3, and I was confident I could win on the last leg. I've been working on my butterfly and backstroke since the world championships and have closed the gap - while freestyle is my best stroke. I dreamed of winning the gold medal, but I never ever expected to break a world record - I'm overwhelmed."

So was everyone else.