Records but no medals for SA swimmers

Jean Basson in the 200m freestyle offered some Olympic hope for a first South African medal on a day that saw the United States snatch victory from France in the 4x100m relay final.

Expectations of a repeat of the Athens gold floundered in the pool when the US team carved a massive four seconds off the world record time, pulling the other teams through to set an additional individual world and four continental marks.

Australia’s Eamon Sullivan gained the 100m world record in 47,24 seconds, with Michael Phelps (US) and Lyndon Ferns clocking American and African records in 47,51 and 48,15 respectively.

Frederick Bousquet put France into the lead on the third leg and the gold seemed secure when Alain Bernard turned with more than a body-length lead for the final 50m. American Jason Lezak had a different opinion and powered his way alongside Bernard to steal the touch in 3:08,24.

Both the US and France replaced three swimmers for the final, whereas South Africa maintained the 2004 Athens quartet, rotating their order to put Darian Townsend in second and Ryk Neethling on the final leg.

“We did everything we could—we changed the order trying to get more front-end speed,” said Townsend. “We broke the African record last night and again this morning—we’re very proud of our team.”

The race highlighted the scale of improvement over the four-year Olympic cycle. All eight finalists went under the World and Olympic record time set by South Africa in Athens, and the top six went under the subsequent record of 3:12,46 set in by the US in 2006.

“It [the times] just shows how things have turned around. Our time would have won world champs nine months ago,” said Neethling. “The world changed; we haven’t changed fast enough with it.”

Ferns summed it up by saying: “Everyone expected us to win a medal back home, I guess. We never expected to win a medal, no one in the world expected us to win a medal—we came here to race and that’s what we did.”

He said he would like to dip under 48 seconds in Tuesday’s 100m freestyle and hopes to be a medal contender in the medley relay.

In the first semi of the men’s 200m freestyle, Jean Basson became South Africa’s first individual finalist, winning his race by more than a second in 1:46,13.

Turning at 50m in second spot, Basson took control passing Britain’s Ross Davenport, who was pushed to third by the charge of Russian Danila Izotov.

“I was hurting pretty bad in the second 100m, but I’ve got more in the tank. I’m much better prepared for this meet than I’ve ever been; I should do a best time,” said Basson, whose time ranked him third, 0,37 seconds behind Peter Vanderkaay and Taehwan Park.

Michael Phelps was content to finish third in the second semi in 1:46,28, using the race as a pipe-opener for his subsequent contribution to the US relay team.

Basson, Townsend and Neethling will combine with either Sebastian Rousseau or Jan Venter for Tuesday night’s 4x200m freestyle relay where South Africa are currently ranked fifth.

There was little for Team SA to get excited about in Monday’s other races: semifinalist Suzaan van Biljon was a distant eighth in her 100m breaststroke race. Never close to contention, she finished in 1:09,56—a full second slower than her qualifying time.

Australia’s Leisel Jones won in 1:05,8 with America’s Rebecca Soni a clear winner in the first semi in 1:07,07.

Jessica Pengelly’s competitive Olympic experience ended in the evening session when she failed to make it past the first round of the 200m medley. After an encouraging start that saw her fourth after the butterfly, she pulled into third in the backstroke, but was then over-powered into sixth, making up one place to finish in 2;15,8. Brazil’s Joanna Maranhao won the heat in 2:17,1.

“I tried my best. I was hoping to go a little bit faster but nothing I can do now. Nothing went wrong or bad; it’s just the way it worked out in the end,” said Pengelly who, as Team SA’s youngest member, has at least two more Olympics in her.

After setting a personal best in the opening leg of Saturday night’s 4x100m relay, Melissa Corfe had a disappointing swim in the 200m freestyle heats.

“I had hoped to get the record tonight. Towards the end my muscles tightened up, but I am hoping that my backstroke will be on [form]. Sometimes that happens to me—my freestyle is off and my backstroke is on,” said Corfe, who will compete in the 200m backstroke heats on Thursday night.

Others competing on Tuesday evening (from 12.50pm South African time) are William Diering and Neil Versfeld in the 200m breaststroke, and Katheryn Meaklin in the 200m butterfly.—Sapa

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