RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – American swimmers rule the pool and Brazilians come closer year after year to challenging their reign in the Western Hemisphere. Both nations hope these Pan American Games are an indicator of success to come at the Olympics next year in Beijing.
The Pan Ams no longer are a world championship class event in swimming, but rather a chance for Olympic hopefuls to show their stuff early and earn a second look when countries choose their teams for the 2008 games.
“We don’t see ourselves as the best,” said Ava Ohlgren, a member of the U.S. women’s 800 meter freestyle relay team that won gold in Rio. “The United States are not participating with their main swimmers. So they can give a chance to the new athletes to be in the competitions.”
Top Americans swam earlier this year at the world championships and did not come to the Pan Ams.
But the performance of the American swimmers in Rio has exceeded expectations. After all, 38 medals, including 19 gold, in 32 events is very impressive. The U.S. team also had 14 silver and five bronze, and the women took 14 of the golds.
Mark Gangloff, a 2004 Olympian, won gold in a relay and recorded the third-fastest time in the world this year in the breaststroke, although it only brought him silver.
“Swimmers are doing well, with times in some cases in line with some of the times swam in Melbourne at the world championships earlier this year,” USOC chief of sport Steve Roush said Saturday. “That speaks well to the depth of the sport and number of swimmers we have vying for next year’s Olympic team.”
The swimmers, many in their teens, also got their first taste of an international tournament and of morning competition, which could be an advantage at future meets, including in Beijing.
One of the standouts was 17-year-old Kathleen Hersey of Atlanta, who will take home four gold medals.
“It was absolutely amazing,” said Hersey. “There’s a lot of talent out there, and this certainly was very good preparation for other competitions, even the Olympics. That’s the top event – I’ve been dreaming about it since I was a little girl.”
Yet she’s hardly certain of winding up in Beijing in 11 months.
“I hope to be even better in Beijing,” she said. “Until then I’ll practice even more and dedicate more time to my studies, because I still have to be accepted by a university. I still haven’t decided what to do.”
The Brazilians also feel the Pan Ams moved them closer to the Olympic podium, which, of course, also will be the target of the strong squads from Australia, China, Japan and other nations who were not here.
The star of the games was 21-year-old Thiago Pereira, who made Pan Ams history by winning six gold medals and setting four games records, breaking the record for most swimming golds at a single Pan Ams set by the great Mark Spitz in the 1967 Games at Winnipeg.
“We have improved a lot since the last Pan American Games,” Henrique Barbosa said after Pereira edged him for the gold in the 200-meter breaststroke. “But in relation to the Olympic Games, we are far behind and we need to improve to reach the finals or win a medal.”
On Sunday, he was more optimistic.
“We just have to improve a little. It’s details,” said Barbosa, who trains in Florida under Mike Bottom, the coach of 10-time Olympic medalist Gary Hall Jr. “We’ve improved a lot since last year, and if we keep improving there’s a good chance we’ll reach the (Olympic) finals.”
The Pan American Games could help Brazil turn the corner.
“They were great. They give us more visibility and support, from the government and private companies,” said Barbosa, adding that the massive 35-member Brazilian delegation also turned some heads. “They see that swimming is getting big.”
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