The US 4x100m freestyle quartet crept up to France on paper this evening but there's much work to do to catch the Dolphins as Nathan Adrian thundered to a 48.10 victory in the 100m freestyle ahead of Cullen Jones, on 48.46 and in the solo event for London 2012.
Matt Grevers took third in 48.55, Rickey Berens clocked 48.80, Jimmy Feigen on 48.84 and Jason Lezak set to make his fourth Games (Phelps pipped him to a first on that one on day 1 here at trials) in 48.88.
Out first in 22.66, Adrian, coached by Dave Durden at CAL, returned in 25.41 for a 48.10 that places him fourth in the world this year. If the James I and James II of Australia, Mssrs Magnussen and Roberts, stay true to their form at trials in Adelaide back in March, the Us is staring at defeat in the solo and the relay on sprint freestyle.
Asked if he could get to Magnussen's blistering world textile mark of 47.10 (then there's a 47.63 for Roberts to get to), Adrian shrugged and said: "I think it can be faster [than a 48.10 not 47.10]. Right now, numerically, it means nothing."
On 48.10, he knew what it takes to swim fast. But 47.10 was something else? "Yes… You know, at this point, I'm chipping away at my best time. Given different circumstances I think I could have gotten under 48 tonight, but, again, I got on that team. A 47.1 probably wasn't in the cards for this evening, but sometime in the future hopefully I will be around that range."
As for the relay clash with Australia, Adrian added: "We're fine. Nothing we can change now about our preparation. I'm not going to go to our training camp and lift a bunch of weights and drop a full second. I'm going to rest a little more, try to get a little more speed and see how that race turns out. There is a reason why we swim it."
The US sums are not yet complete, of course. Phelps, untapped, unshaved, clocked 48.49 earlier in the year and did not stand up for the 100m at these trials. He is a man capable of cracking 48sec. That would bring the deficit down to 1.5sec or so. Still a long way to go - but as leak and Co showed in Beijing, it won't come down to paper but pride, performance, nerves of steel and guts aplenty on the day.
Grevers said: "I want some magic to happen - I want US to win gold again!" Cue cheer. Magic is indeed what it may take if James The Missile Magnussen and James The Rocket Roberts fire on all engines, Targett is on and Sullivan sizzles.
Jones showed a bit of his own sizzle today out on the wing in lane 1. Coached by Dave Marsh at SwimMac, he was one of only three, with Adrian and Feigen, under 23 at 50m. On the way home he hung on, peered across the lane ropes with 10m to go, put his head down and used his momentum to roll into the wall, his last two strokes straight-armed. His presence on the team is more than a personal triumph: it will further the cause of minority inclusion and drowning prevention that he spearheads across the US.
Jones said he was not yet fully tapered. "I know my coach has a lot more for me to do. I hope he comes with me to London, but I'm feeling good. It's always fun racing Nathan." Of coach Marsh, Jones said: "He has been a big mentor to me, a father figure. He's molded me into a different swimmer. My stroke is different, my mentality toward racing has been different. He's been a godsend for me … first thing when I came out he hugged me and said, "Perfect" and you don't get that very often!"
A big campaigner for swimming and safety Jones has been busy out of the water in recent years. Some of that has cost him form and results. "I had some definite downs this year, past couple of years, living the celebrity life, going out," said Jones. "Although a lot of my work is positive and talking to kids, I wanted to live; I wanted to enjoy what I had got in 2008. And I refocused this past year and a lot of the coaches from the National Team in Shanghai said to me, 'We need you for this relay. We need one of the best 100 freestylers to come to London, because the world is getting faster'. And I'm happy to answer that call."
How the quartets stack up so far:
Bernard will not defend his solo 100m crown in London after missing the domestic cut at trials.
Phelps emerged from a 200m medley dress-rehearsal with Ryan Lochte to acknowledge that the US 4x100m relay needed to step up if it was to keep the crown. He also knows that he will have to get a keen edge on Lochte in the medley final if he is to win.
Just ahead at the first turn, Phelps hung on to Lochte on backstroke but the world champion's breaststroke is proving too hot to handle for the Olympic champion, who was not prepared to go where he didn't have too on the way home on freestyle. Lochte sped ahead until putting in a couple of last loping strokes to stop the clock at 1:55.51. Phelps, who was officially announced for the 400IM in London 2012 in a presentation to the crowd this evening alongside others who have doubled up for action at the Games, eased in on 1:56.66.
Neither men appeared to be too troubled by the effort. They looked at each other, nodded and headed to opposite sides of the pool. The final will be another nail biter.
By the time he raced in the medley, Lochte had already led the way to the 200m backstroke final in 1:55.73, with Tyler Clary closest on 1:55.88.
The double in finals tomorrow would be a challenge but one that Lochte was up for, said coach Gregg Troy.
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The US London 2012 qualifiers after five days