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Cesar Under Attack: Jones 21.59 Ervin 21.60

Jul 1, 2012  - Craig Lord

US Olympic Trials, Omaha, Day 7 finals: 

Men's 50m freestyle

Olympic and world champion Cesar Cielo, on a cracking 21.38 this year, is under attack: Cullen Jones stopped the clock on 21.59, 0.01sec ahead of Anthony Ervin, the Americans piling on the pressure, with Nathan Adrian, 21.68, Josh Schneider, 21.78, and Jimmy Feigen, 21.93, completing the sub-22sec club.

It was a boiling splash of a race but in the mix three things stood out: Adrian did not get off to a good start and was always a fraction out from where you expected him to be; Ervin's rock-steady stroke locked him on to the wave like no-one else in the race barring Jones; and it was Jones who taught the rest how to finish, nailing his intent to the pad with a winning precision that Cielo will have to watch for.

As the eight men glared up at the scoreboard to try to work out what happened, Ervin, who can barely see beyond the end of his outstretched hand without his glasses on, asked Adrian, in the next lane, to reveal the news. 

The top two Americans have faced the Olympic 50m free before, Ervin taking joint gold with teammate Gary Hall Jr on 21.98 back at Sydney 2000.

Coached by Dave Marsh at SwimMAC Carolina, Jones, already on the team for the 100m and 4x100m free and the kind of swimmer that may well persuade Nike to return to swimming after it set it all aside in the flip-flopping chaos of shiny suits, was in rush to swim down.

He did have time to answer a couple of questions, one being "what will you focus on now". His instant reply: "Cesar Cielo". Fair enough.

When he returned after swim down, the smile was still firmly in place, not only for the swim - second fastest in the world this year and fourth best ever in textile after Fred Bousquet (who missed the French cut for London 2012), Cielo and Adrian - but for the effect his success will have on the campaign he spearheads to get more minority kids in the pool learning to swim and less likely to drown.

As a child he had almost drowned. That's when it all started, his mother Debra making sure her boy got to learn to swim. She is still very much involved in her son's swimming. She had "kicked my butt" after watching his form suffer two years ago.

There were times in 2010 and 2011 when Jones might have walked away. What had kept him in? "Having a great support network," he said. As I think you all know I've been in the sport long enough to know my mom puts her foot in the my butt often when I'm not motivated and paying attention, and we had a long talk and she asked me, "Do you want to do this anymore? If you do, you have to go 100 percent; you can't do it halfway," which shot me back to when I was eight years old and she said, 'We're going to start swimming, and if you do it you're not going to stop in the middle', and I became focused."

Jones added: "Also a big thing for me was the National Team coaches. Couple of them came up to me in 2011 in Shanghai, and I was watching the relay and they said, 'We don't have one of our best 100 freestylers out there, and we're going to need you next year'. I heard that from a couple of coaches."

Once the decision had been taken to get down to full-on work, Josh Schneider, with whom Jones had swum-off for a place in Shanghai after controversy over entry denied to Schneider at national championships because his club missed notification cut, was there to help his training partner. 

After racing tonight, Jones said: "I haven't seen Josh yet. I saw that in his heart he was hurting. The biggest strides I've made have been in the gym with him: he made me focus like never before."

Jones had another partner in performance on that score: Ryan Lochte. Jones laughed as he talked of "throwing kegs and dragging 575lb chains" around in reference to some of the extreme power training that Lochte has undertake in recent years.

Ervin's return to Olympic waters stirred deep emotion in a man who left the sport in 2003 and lived through some low times. In his time away from the sport after he quit not too long before the Athens 2004 Games, Ervin left college without completing his degree, returned to New York, took up teaming kids to swim and took up cigarettes and playing in band stew had ever heard of. It wasn't what he wanted.

"I was this skinny guy in black clothes smoking cigarettes," Ervin told the media. "I don't recognise that person now."

He decided to make his way back to the swimming family he still felt connected to. In an Oscars-style speech in the media mixed zone, Ervin, coach by Dave Durden and guided by Teri McKeever at CAL, poured out his heart, naming his high school coach, among those there to witness his performance today, and several others who have supported him along the way. 

It was when he mentioned Mike Bottom that the voice cracked. "He took me to the mountain top but when I [slid down] he was there waiting for me. He didn't just care about Anthony Ervin the swimmer, he cared about Anthony Ervin the person. 

McKeever had helped him "get back the joy for swimming", while Durden had been a tower of strength and had got him to this moment. 

Asked what he wanted to gain from it all, Ervin, in 2001 only the second man in history after Alex Popov to win both the 50m and 100m world titles in the same year, said: "I just want to have a good time and keep this fun train chuggin'." He promised what he could: "To do what I can".

For Jones, the final had been about putting into practice "everything that I have learned in the past four years. David [Marsh] has completely revamped my stroke from the start, the turn, everything, so there is a lot of T's to cross and I's to dot, but I was focused on the start, just not slowing down and stream rolling to the finish. Semifinals I had a long finish, and I knew with the 22.0 that was the one race that I was sitting there. I'm not ecstatic about that, but I knew that I could go faster if I had a great finish, and my goal was to swim through the wall."

Four years ago he finished third at trials in both the 50 and 100m. "It's always been a goal of mine and a dream of mine to represent the country individually, in an individual event, so to be blessed with two events, I'm ecstatic," said Jones.

Women's 50m freestyle semi-final

Jessica Hardy scorched a 24.56 at the helm of the dash into the final, Christine Magnuson next through in 24.72, with Dara Torres, 45, keeping her hopes of a sixth Games with a 24.80 as the third of five under 25sec.