Team USA’s “unbelievably encouraging” swim worlds

SHANGHAI — As the race unfolded, it wasn’t a question of whether Ryan Lochte would win the 400-meter individual medley.

It was by how much. In 2011, he’s just that much better than everyone else. After three of the four segments in the race, he was a stunning three seconds ahead of the other American in the race, Tyler Clary, who was in second place.

Lochte went on to win, in 4:07.13, with Clary  four seconds back, capping the final night of the 2011 swimming world championships, a night that not only saw a second world record — China’s Sun Yang, in the men’s 1500 meters — but also saw the American team again assert its dominance.

Remember former USA Track & Field chief executive Doug Logan, and his ambitious goal of seeing the American track team win 30 medals in London next year?

Ryan Lochte: five gold medals and, "As far as I'm concerned right now, I'm at the bottom."

Here, the U.S. swim team won 29. That’s seven better than it won at the 2009 world championships in Rome.

In Beijing, at the 2008 Games, the U.S. swim team won 31 medals, 12 gold. The track team may still get the love from the traditionalists but the plain, hard fact is that it’s the swim team that carries the U.S. medals count. It did in Beijing and it’s all but sure to do so in London, too.

In a twist, the American dominance in Shanghai can be attributed in large measure to the American women, who came on strong across the board, and in particular to the emergence of 16-year-old Missy Franklin.

In Rome, the American women took home only eight medals — two gold, three silver, three bronze.

Here: 13 total — eight gold, two silver, three bronze.

With Franklin yelling, “Let’s go, USA!” in the stands, Jessica Hardy won gold Sunday night in the 50 breaststroke, a poignant victory after her suspension for inadvertently ingesting a contaminated supplement, with Rebecca Soni — who earlier had won the 100 and 200 breaststroke races — taking third. Then Elisabeth Beisel won the women’s 400 IM.

“It was great by [Saturday] night and just got greater tonight,” the U.S. women’s head coach, Jack Bauerle, said when it was all over.

The sudden depth of the U.S. women’s program was most evident in the medley relay Saturday, when Franklin anchored a victory in American-record time. That prompted Natalie Coughlin to post afterward to her Twitter feed, “Yay. Gold medal, 4×100 MR. 10 yrs on that relay & 1st GOLD.”

The depth on display in Shanghai, moreover, doesn’t even factor in a whole host of college swimmers or the likes of Dara Torres or Janet Evans.

Pointing toward London, it’s “unbelievably encouraging,” Bauerle said.

As for the men — well, the performances that Lochte and Phelps threw down are surely encouraging.

Lochte won five gold medals and set a world record — the first since the plastic suits went away at the start of 2010 — in the 200 IM, edging out Phelps in the race by 16-hundredths of a second.

Asked to reflect on his performance, Lochte said, and he was being dead serious, “I’m not happy. I know I can go a lot faster.”

This is the mental key to Lochte’s success. “I don’t really think I’m the top dog,” he explained, adding that no matter what he might accomplish, immediately afterward, “I knock myself right down to the bottom of the totem pole.” So, looking toward London, “I have a whole year to work hard, train hard, to get back up there to the top. As far as I’m concerned right now, I’m at the bottom.”

Phelps on Sunday night put the American men in position to win the medley relay with his butterfly split; Nathan Adrian swam the winning anchor leg.

Over the course of his week here, Phelps won both the 100 and 200 flys; he also took part in two winning relays; so that’s four golds. He took two silvers, both behind Lochte, in the 200 IM and the 200 free; and he was part of the bronze-winning 400 free relay.

In all, that’s seven medals — the most won by anyone here. Over his extraordinary career, Phelps has won 26 gold and 33 world championship medals; both are records.

The medley marked Phelps’ last world championship swim. He has vowed that the London Games will see the end of his competitive swimming career. He said in a Twitter post that it was “wild” to think that Shanghai was his last worlds — his first was in 2001, in Japan — and “amazing” to finish with a gold medal.

At a news conference, Phelps again made the point that 2011 is a warm-up for 2012. Once more, he said it’s time to buckle down:

“I said this 100 times this week and I’ll say it 100 more. To swim fast you’ve got to be in good shape. Ryan is clearly working hard and is clearly in the best shape he has probably ever been [in]. That’s why he’s swimming how he is. You know, I just need to get back to what I did to get to where I am, and that’s hard work and not giving up, and that really is the biggest key for me over the next 12 months.”

The challenge for the American men is obviously not Lochte and Phelps.

It’s this:

Clary won that silver in the 400 IM and a bronze in the 200 backstroke, both behind Lochte.

Tyler McGill took third in the 100 fly, behind Phelps.

Nobody else won anything.

To be fair, stuff happens. Adrian, for instance, who finished fourth in the 50 free, touched the wall one-hundredth of a second from third place. Nobody’s blaming him for that — that would be ridiculous.

Traditionally, though, the U.S. men are strong in the breaststroke and in a race such as the 100 back. “We know where we’ve got to get better,” the U.S. men’s coach, Eddie Reese, said Sunday night.

As for the inevitable — before the “how many golds can Lochte win in London?” chatter gets overwhelming, remember that the eight Phelps won in Beijing broke down to five individual events and three relays.

One step further: The American men would seem a safe bet for 2012 in two of those relay, the 800 free and medley.

As for the 400 free, though, the one in which Jason Lezak saved the house in 2008 — the Australians, led by James Magnussen, smoked the Americans in Shanghai. Magnussen went on to win the open 100 here as well. He is a force, and he’s just 20 years old.

Magnussen swam the lead-off leg for the Aussies; Eamon Sullivan the anchor. After watching the destruction, Reese had said, “After we saw the first guy from Australia, we didn’t know he could stay out there, that they’d stay out there. Their anchor man’s got such a great history. He’s the guy that scared me on the relay, more so than their lead-off man. But he now scares me more.”

On Sunday night, Reese observed, “The world is getting better.”

Before the Americans even get to Magnussen and the Aussies, they have to get by the French; after all, the U.S. finished third in that 400 relay, not second.

There’s a year for the Americans themselves to get better. And maybe to find new talent. America’s college ranks are filled with up-and-coming swimmers, too, Reese said; the U.S. nationals take place in just a few days.

It makes swim freaks geeked up already for the U.S. Trials next summer in Omaha. “I think,” Reese said, “it’s going to be the best meet any of us have ever seen.”

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