|Michael Phelps wasn't the only American swimmer to miss out on the medal he or she had hoped for Saturday. (AP)|
If the first night at the London Aquatics Center proves to be any indication, the U.S. swim team may not be quite the force at the 2012 London Games it was expected to be.
Breaking down a night of distinct -- if not severe -- disappointment:
Men's 400 individual medley: Yes, Ryan Lochte won the first American gold medal of the Games in the event. But when Saturday started, the race was universally expected to be a mano a mano showdown between Lochte and Michael Phelps, the latter believed to earn silver at worst. Phelps's shocking 8th-place finish in the heats burst that particular balloon, and when all was said and done the world's (former?) greatest swimmer didn't even stand on the podium. It was Phelps's first Olympic final without a medal since his teenage appearance at the 2000 Sydney Games.
So full credit to Lochte. But from the overall American perspective, this is what seemed to be a sure medal now off to Brazil (who did take the silver) or Japan.
Women's 400 individual medley: The U.S.'s Elizabeth Beisel came in as the favorite after a strong swim at Trials, and appeared to be living up to that billing after posting the fastest time in the heats. She even seemed in good shape during the final itself, leading the race at the halfway mark. But China's 16-year-old Ye Shiwen dominated the final 200 meters, eventually defeating Beisel by nearly three seconds and setting a new world record of 4:28.43 in the process.
Beisel settled for silver, edging a second Chinese swimmer by more than a second and a half, so her night was hardly a disaster. But the expectations for her swim Saturday were still even higher.
Women's 4x100 freestyle: There's not all that much disappointment here: though the U.S. was expected to medal, they were only given an outside shot at taking down gold-medal favorites Australia, and knew that the Netherlands would be tough competition for the silver. The team of Missy Franklin, Jessica Hardy, Lia Neal, and Allison Schmitt swam well and even set an American record of 3:34.24. But it wasn't enough to best the Australians or the Dutch, who took second in 3:33.79.
Unlike with Phelps or Beisel, it's not that the silver (much less gold) was an expectation. But it did seem possible, and that possibility didn't work out for the Americans, either.
Did it have to be China? Rubbing salt in the Americans' collective wounds was that the country with the best day in the pool just-so-happens to also be Team USA's biggest competition in the medal counts. In addition to Shiwen's gold, the Chinese took the men's 400 freestyle in Sun Yang's Olympic record time and picked off the bronze behind Shiwen and Beisel. Peter Vanderkaay also took a semi-surprising bronze for the U.S. in the 400 free, but the final tally for the day was China with two gold, a bronze, a world record, and an Olympic record, and the U.S. with a gold, a silver, two bronzes, and no records.
It's not a bad haul at all for the Americans. But it's not the haul they wanted, either. And given how much stronger an overall discipline swimming is for the U.S. compared to China, the hauls may -- and possibly will -- have to get better for the U.S. to win the medal counts.