Abrahamson: Tokyo swim meet wraps up successfully as America weighs its gold standard

Posted at 12:29 AM, Aug 01, 2021

TOKYO — Caeleb Dressel was point-blank about it, and America should be, too.

“Our standard,” he was saying after the U.S. mixed medley relay staggered to fifth, “is gold. It’s what we shoot for every race.”

By that standard, was this meet a success for the U.S. team? It won 11 gold medals. Dressel himself won five, including two Sunday. Only a handful of Americans have won five gold medals at a Games, Summer or Winter: Eric Heiden, Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi, Michael Phelps and, now, Caeleb Dressel.

As a team, the U.S. won 30 at the pool. That was a clear No. 1, with Australia second, at 20; Great Britain, third, with eight, that nation’s most-ever. China, Canada and Italy each got six. The ROC took five.

The swim meet at the Tokyo 2020 Games wrapped up Sunday, and with it the irrefutable evidence that — for the Americans, Australians, Brits and others — will now serve to immediately yes immediately and directly influence planning for Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028. The Paris Games are but three short years away.

For emphasis, these Tokyo 2020 Games not only showcased but made acute important trendlines, and fault lines, in global swimming in a post-MP world. The Australians, for one, are back. The Brits — taking one from Paul Revere, they’re coming. 

The Americans have two leading talents, and team leaders, around whom to keep building, presumably through Paris and LA — Caeleb Dressel and Katie Ledecky.

First thing Sunday morning, Dressel won the men’s 50 free, his third individual gold, fourth medal of the meet, in an Olympic record 21.07. On Saturday Dressel set a world record in the 100 fly, 49.45. Second Sunday in the 50 free: France’s Florent Manaudou, the London 2012 champ, in 21.55. The 48-hundredth of a second made for the largest margin of victory, ever, in the event’s history, men’s or women’s. From second-place Manadou to last-place Thom de Boer of Holland: 24-hundredths.

The 50 free gold meant Dressel joined Phelps and Spitz as the only men to win three individual swim events at one Games.

The meet’s final race, the men’s medley, gave Dressel his fifth gold. He swam the third leg, the fly. 

Ledecky’s final Tokyo swim came Saturday, a gold in the women’s 800. She earlier won gold in the first-ever women’s Olympic 1500 free. 

In a turn that no one — literally no one — saw coming before the meet, American Bobby Finke, a rising senior at the University of Florida, made himself into one of the great stories in Olympic history. On Sunday, he won the men’s 1500. On Thursday, he had won the 800. In both instances, like Dave Wottle on track in 1972 in Munich, he had mounted a furiously fast late comeback. Six-tenths of a second behind at 1400 meters, Finke won by a full 1.01 second. His last 50? 25.78 seconds. 

“Honestly, it doesn’t seem too real. I wasn’t expecting to medal,” Finke said Sunday, adding a moment later, “To come out of it with two golds means the world to me, especially to my family and my teammates."

SEE MORE: Abrahamson: Bobby Finke showcases unpredictability of distance freestyle races

Finke’s story is beyond heartwarming. He said one of the things he’s most looking forward to upon returning home is taking his dog, 5-year-old Brewster, a golden retriever and German shepherd mix that he got after the 2017 world championships in Budapest, to a local park. He hasn’t been able to do that since, he said, late last year.

Ledecky, meantime, also swam to two silvers, in the 400 free and the 4x2 relay. 

Ledecky, 24, for the first time at a Games, got blanked, finishing fifth in the 200 — a race she won five years ago in Rio. 

Younger and faster at the 200 and 400 free, 20-year-old Ariarne Titmus of Australia emerged as one of the Games’ biggest stars — along with her coach, Dean Boxall, with his Spicoli-like dance when Titmus won the 200. 

The biggest star, though, indisputably: another Australian, Emma McKeon. She won seven medals, three individual, gold in the 50 and 100 free, bronze in the 100 fly; four in the relays, two gold, including in the women’s medley, also Sunday. Those seven made her only the second woman to win seven medals at an Olympics. The first: Soviet gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaya, 1952. 

McKeon’s medal haul underpinned an Australian resurgence. The second-to-last race Sunday, that women’s medley relay, served as punctuation, the Aussies winning in an Olympic-record 3:51.6, the Americans 13-hundredths behind.  

“It’s overwhelming,” McKeon said, “knowing how much hard work me and everyone else has put into this.”

The American women, it should be noted, had set the world record in that medley relay at the 2019 world championships. But for backstroker Regan Smith, the other three who swam Sunday were different — Lilly King, Kelsi Dahlia and Simone Manuel out, Lydia Jacoby, Torri Huske and Abbey Weitzel in.

The American swim team went into these Tokyo Games having never failed to medal in a swim relay. Here: two, the men’s 4x2 (Dressel did not swim) and Saturday’s mixed medley. 

Though the U.S. women’s team featured 11 teenagers, the mystery of the U.S. men’s swim program — bailed out by here by Finke and IMers Chase Kalisz and Jay Litherland — is where over the next years the talent pool is going to come from. Because of those 11, only one, Jake Mitchell, a 400 free finalist, is male. The other 10: on the women’s team.

Phelps’ goal was to grow the sport. Did he inspire a generation of American boys to follow? 

Clearly, the program at the University of Florida is roaring: Dressel, Finke, Kieran Smith (400 free bronze medalist). Elsewhere? For that matter, is the entire NCAA structure reliable to and through the LA28 Games?

And what about Michael Andrew, who invited the pre-Games spotlight? Beyond his issues with wearing — or not — a mask for interviews, for instance, he will be seen here to have underperformed. He swam a leg on the winning medley relay. But one stat will stick out. He finished fifth in the 200 IM, an event Phelps had won at the past four Games, a race in which Andrew was believed to be a gold medal favorite, his final lap 50 free in 30.69 seconds, super-slow at this level. How slow? Finke’s last 50 Sunday in the 1500 — after already swimming for 14 or so minutes —was 4.91 faster.

In Rio, as in London in 2012 and Beijing in 2008, the swim program featured a total of 34 events — 17 each for men and women. Here in Tokyo, it was 37, 18 each for men and women and the mixed medley.

In 2016, the Americans won 33 medals — 16 gold, eight silver, nine bronze.

In 2012, not counting a silver in open water, 30 — 16, eight, six.

In 2008, 31 — 12, nine and 10.

Here in Tokyo, to reiterate, 30 — 11, 10, nine.

On the one hand, as King noted in one post-race interview, “Pardon my French but the fact that we’re not able to celebrate silver and bronze is BS,” and she said the word itself.

On the other, compared to Rio, simple math says there were more events and the U.S. won fewer medals. And a lot fewer golds.

Any number of athletes, Americans and others, spoke here about the varieties of pressures they faced owing to the pandemic. And as Simone Manuel’s eloquence at the June Trials in Omaha makes plain, USA Swimming will face unprecedented funding challenges to underwrite, if it can, far-ranging mental health support as well as whatever else it takes to stay world No. 1.

“It’s absolutely important to remember,” one of the teenagers, 19-year-old Regan Smith said, that “a year ago we didn’t even think these Games were going to happen … there’s a lot to be proud of.”

Winner of three medals, including a silver in the 200 fly and a bronze in the 100 back, she added a moment later, “You should be proud of yourself no matter what, basically.”