Another day, another gold medal and world record for the amazing Michael Phelps. In fact since I last wrote this blog he has added the small matter of three gold medals each one complete with world record. At the time of writing this he has a career haul of 11 Olympic golds – two more than anyone else in the history of the modern games. And he has three more to compete for over the next few days. The scary thing to consider is that he has already pledged to compete in London in four years time (he’s only 23 after all), by which time he could conceivably end up with twice as many golds as the next greatest Olympians. Just astonishing.
The superlatives are beginning to run out and it won’t be long before we have to invent new words to describe what this man is doing in swimming. Physically it is as if he has been genetically designed from birth to swim. His lung capacity is twice that of the average man, his arm span is greater than his height and his 6ft 3 frame actually has the body length of a 6ft 8 man – all of these attributes are perfect for swimming (I had the same benefit. At 5ft 11 Im taller than my 6ft.1 husband when sitting down). However they count for nothing without the bottomless determination, application, drive and exemplary technique of an extraordinary champion.
In a sense his ‘easiest’ gold may have also been his hardest. It is generally believed that he owns the 200m butterfly and anything les than a stellar performance will be seen as a slip up. There were to be no slip ups though and he powered his way to victory in a world record time of 1:52.03, yet he seemed muted and less than impressed with himself on completion. It was a strange response for a man who treats every victory as if itÕs his first and seems to have energy to spare. It turns out his goggles kept filling up with water – the kind of thing every recreational swimmer can equate with – and this cost him time and scuppered his chance of a personal target of 1:51 or better.
It just goes to show the perfectionism of the man. A gold medal and world record would satisfy every other athlete on the planet but Phelps felt he’d left something out in the pool – and that wasn’t good enough. Regardless of leaky goggles this was the victory that made Phelps the most prolific golden boy the Olympics has ever known. Shortly afterwards he enhanced that claim further by taking the 4x200m relay gold medal in 6:58.56. Another world record needless to say!
And talking of world records Frenchman Alain Bernard held what must have been one of the briefest ever. His 47:20 set new standards for the 100m freestyle, but only until the very next semi final when Eammon Sulllivan of Australia clocked 47:05!
GB enjoyed another solid day of competition with the men’s 4x200m team finishing sixth in a new British record time. Caitlin McClatchey swam well to also manage being placed sixth in the 200m freestyle final. She was ranked outside of the top ten prior to the Games so sixth in the world represents a wonderful progression for another swimmer with an exciting future.
The downside today was a miscalculation that means GB – a strong medal tip for the Women’s 4×200 relay – will not even compete in the final. Gold medal winner Becky Adlington and Caitlin McClatchey were both rested in anticipation of the impending final. Sadly the quartet of Jackson, Marshall and the inexperienced Miley and Halsall couldnÕt do better than an overall ninth. This tactic was clearly a mistake and should in no way reflect on the ‘substitute’ girls who took to the water. Whilst we are getting stronger as a team and our standards are increasing hugely (50% of the team has swum a PB at this meeting), we can’t afford to ‘mess around’ against this strength of opposition. It has been a rare low point this week and will be a lesson well learnt.
Back to the positives. Eighteen year old Fran Halsall won her 100m freestyle heat a fraction outside her British record. Liam Tancock looked mightily impressive for most of his 200 IM heat before fading over the last few metres to finish fourth. Unfortunately this wasnÕt enough to move through to the semis. Liam is a terrific talent as his 50m backstroke world record suggests. He just needs to find that bit extra that allows him to swim every last metre in the longer distances. I don’t think it will be long before he finds it. In the same event James Goddard swam alongside Phelps (as much as anybody can swim alongside him!) finishing fifth, and also qualified for the next round. And Gregor Tait also progressed by finishing second in his heat behind world record holder Ryan Lochte.
I hope people back home realise that huge forward strides are being taken here. The medals might not be cascading down on our team but they are setting PB’s and British records. There might be little recognition when being placed fourth through to eighth. But it must be remembered that they are positions in the world. A terrific platform on which to build towards the next World Championships and London 2012.
Remaining in the world of aquatics I’d also like to point out that our synchro’ divers deserve commendation. We might have come eighth, eighth, eighth and seventh, but once again it should be remembered this positioning is in the world. It is also worth noting we were one of only five nations to qualify a team for every finalƒanother firm block on which to build.
I’d like to take the opportunity to pinpoint a sequence of events that encapsulates much of what the Olympics is about. The whole “not the winning but the taking part” thing is perhaps an increasingly redundant notion in the modern era. But try telling that to anybody who watched GB weightlifter Michaela Breeze. Carrying a back injury that simply did not allow the Commonwealth Champion to lift anything like her potential, she took part nevertheless. After each lift she was in tears, doubled up and barely able to get off the stage. Yet she returned time and time again to execute yet another sub-best lift. In such circumstances a medal was never remotely possible yet she refused to quit. It will probably rank as the greatest unrecorded triumph of this Olympics. Afterwards an ailing and emotional Michaela simply explained, “This is the Olympic games – pain doesn’t matter.”
Wednesday was something of a fraught and painful day for me too. My 18 month old boy Finlay is out here with me and during the early hours he began to exhibit a troublesome chest and breathing difficulties. An initial diagnosis threw up the possibility of pneumonia and we were rushed to Beijing Children’s Hospital. Despite broadcasting commitments I was going nowhere until I knew the score. Thankfully the problems were found to be less serious and a nebulizer and course of antibiotics were prescribed and Fin’ was free to leave. A mad dash across town ensued in which I ran the last mile to the Water Cube, crashing through puddles and arriving just in time to plug in my ear piece, grab my microphone and talk to Sue Barker live. All the while trying to give the impression all was relaxed and calm Ð quite an acting job!
Some journalists in the media centre were aware something was up. If anything does appear in the press along the lines of ‘Sharron Davies’ baby in emergency hospital dash’, I can report that Fin is back with us and should return to his bouncy, healthy self soon. I’d like to thank the Chinese medics who helped and were so efficient, effective and helpful in circumstances that were anything but ideal.