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September 21, 2021
International Sport

Swimmers Get U.S. Off the Blocks With Six Medals

TOKYO — After an opening day without a medal, the United States swim team got two in the first event of the day Sunday. By lunchtime, Americans had collected a half-dozen at the pool.

Chase Kalisz, 27, won the first — the first gold medal of the Games for the United States — in the men’s 400-meter individual medley, pulling away from the pack just after the halfway mark and cruising to victory in 4 minutes, 9.42 seconds.

As Kalisz, who won silver in the event in 2016, exited the pool, he sprawled onto his back and held his head in his hands for several seconds.

“This is my lifelong dream,” Kalisz said. “I’ve accomplished everything else in the sport — world titles, NCAA titles, an American record — and this was the last thing I wanted to check off.”

Kalisz’s teammate Jay Litherland, 25, an American born in Osaka, Japan, won the silver, giving the Americans their first top-two finish in the event since Michael Phelps and Erik Vendt did it in 2004 in Athens.

But that was just the start. Kieran Smith soon added a bronze in the 400-meter freestyle, and Emma Weyant (silver) and Hali Flickinger (bronze) followed him onto the medals stand after finishing behind Yui Ohashi in the women’s 400-meter individual medley.

Ohashi’s medal, delivered with a brilliant breaststroke leg, was Japan’s first swimming gold. She walked away from the pool wiping away tears of joy.

The United States added a sixth medal — a bronze in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay — with the help of a surprise substitute, Simone Manuel.

Manuel was making her first appearance at the Games, and much earlier than some had expected. She did not swim in the relay semifinals Saturday and will not swim again until the individual 50-meter freestyle next weekend.

But after the United States finished a disappointing fifth in qualifying, Manuel, who had won gold in the relay and the 100 freestyle at the 2016 Rio Games, was drafted in to strengthen the team.

Australia, the heavy favorite, won gold with a time of 3:29.69, and Canada took the silver. The Americans finished in 3:32.81 when Manuel was beaten to the wall by Canada’s Penny Oleksiak.

Questions had swirled about whether Manuel would swim in the event at all after she failed to qualify in the 100 free at the U.S. selection meet in June.

Her stunned expression after winning gold in the individual event at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio remains a lasting image from those Games. With that victory, Manuel became the first Black woman to win an individual Olympic swimming gold.

But her failure to qualify in the individual event for Tokyo had been a shock, given that Manuel is the American record-holder in the event. Afterward, she revealed that she had been diagnosed with overtraining syndrome earlier in the year. Along with extreme fatigue, she had been experiencing depression and insomnia and had been required to step back from her normal, intense training routine.

“Even though the last couple of months haven’t been the greatest for me, I’ve trained really hard the past four 1/2, five years, and eventually that hard work will show up,” said Manuel, who heard Saturday night that she would be on the relay team. “I just have to keep trusting myself.”

Ahmed Hafnaoui, 18, of Tunisia, was the surprise winner of the men’s 400 freestyle.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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