M1500fr – Distance Double For Bobby Finke & The Fury Of Last-Lap Beyond Phelps, Scott, Biedermann & Zhang

2021-08-01 Reading Time: 4 minutes
Bobby Finke - double distance king of Tokyo - by Patrick B. Kraemer

We knew what he was capable of in the flight after fight over 800m, so when the three experienced favourites for the 1500m freestyle crown, including the Olympic, World and European champions, led a relatively sluggish start to the 30-length battle and allowed pioneer 16-length champion Bobby Finke to pace along beside them, they could surely guess what was going to happen.

After all, everyone else in the building could see it a mile off as the 1500m crew made its way to the only length that mattered, the last one. U.S. men’s head coach Dave Durden was with us. He noted in the wrap of all things at the weakest showing for an American swim team for more than 30 years:

“I don’t think we necessarily saw the performance in the 800 going the way that it went, but we certainly saw it coming in the mile. I think everybody in the building knew what was coming down that last 100 of the mile.”

Dave Durden – photo, Bobby Finke and rivals get the battle started – by Patrick B. Kraemer

Durden called Finke’s coach at the Gators, Anthony Nesty his “staff MPV (most valuable player). In 1988, pulled off one of the biggest upsets in swim history when he pipped Matt Biondi for the 100m butterfly crown at the Seoul Olympics to become the first swimmer from Surinam to get into a final, to medal and to claim gold, and the first black swimmer to top the ultimate podium in the pool.

A bigger question than ‘will he do it again’ hung in the air over the pool when the fight was done. Just how Bobby Finke manages to travel to a 14:39 Olympic victory via a 25.78 last 50 is a puzzle with no easy answer.

Finke mentioned college swimming and doing fast 50s to finish off hard training sessions and so on but then Gregorio Paltrinieri, Florian Wellbrock and Mykhailo Romanchuk are no slouches of preparation, being the 14:31 to 14:36 men they are. Wellbrock’s 400 best: 3:44. Finke: 3:48.

The sum is hard to add up. The look on the faces of Finke’s closest challengers suggested they werfen struggling too.

Bobby Finke gets a pat on the back from Mykhailo Romanchuk after the American touches ahead of him for gold in the 1500m freestyle at Tokyo 2020 – by Patrick B. Kraemer

At 25.78, Finke left the 26.46 in which Duncan Scott produced the fastest homecoming split on the way to the 200m podium in Tokyo on the cutting-room floor in splits, along with the shredded remains of the 26.12 at which Michael Phelps raced in polyurethane to the Olympic record over 200m at Beijing 2008. Even the 25.70 last length of Paul Biedermann speeding towards what survives yet as the World record of 1:42.00 was rattled by Finke’s fury.

Take a dip into the history book and we find him travelling faster than Jill Sterkel ever did in the dash and then there’s this: when Zhang Lin set the 800m freestyle record at an other worldly 7:32.12 at the Rime shiny suits circus, compressions squeezing the very fatigue out of his loins, he came home in 25.99, ripping 2.69sec off Oussama Mellouli – he of `Olympic 1500 and marathon gold – just down the one lap home.

We never thought we’d see the likes again. Finke has changed all that. But where Zhang faced a heap of questions back in Rome, ‘the shining’ surely not the only explanation, Finke was asked about his dog; what was it called, what breed was it, and so on.

That’s what you get when you stop a clock at 14:39.65, just shy of the American record of 14:39.48 set by Connor Jaeger for a podium place at Rio 2016. Bobby Finke, double Olympic distance freestyle champion, over 800m and 1500m. The races were a touch slower than others had proved themselves capable of on previous occasions.

Romanchuk took the silver in 14:40.66, the bronze to Wellbrock in 14:40.91.

The Result In Full

Paltrinieri, sadly, had suffered glandular fever after claiming three open water crowns at European Championships in May and did well to take a medal in the 800m and finish fourth in 4:45.01. He tried to swim the 1500m more like Kieren Perkins and Grant Hackett used to: bullet-like from the blocks and hit the surface swimming like no others had the courage or lack of sense to do.

The Italian just did not have what it would have taken to chart a course to the sub-14:30 he believed was possible before the world caught a bug, the sporting realm shifted on its axis with the rest of realms and a different kind of 2020 Games in 2021 proved to be his destiny.

Finke, meanwhile, even shocked himself with that last lap from … well, from where? He trains at the Gators in Florida and knows what hard work and mega conditioning feels and looks like. Even so, 25.7? He said:

“For myself, I didn’t know I had these swims in me. So I’ve just gained a lot of confidence with Coach Nesty being here. Even during the training trip, I was having some of the best practices of my life, so it gave me a huge confidence boost coming here.”

Bobby Finke – photo by Patrick B. Kraemer

Finke, now all-time No10, is the first American winner of the 1500m since 1984, when Mike O’Brien and George DiCarlo took gold and silver at the boycotted L.A. Games between historic wins for Vladimir Salnikov in 1980 and 1988.

Had he been aware of the 37-year drought? “It was something I was aware of,” Finke said. “Going into [Olympic] trials I didn’t really now how long it was, but we’ve got a lot of silver medals and bronze medals, so I’m glad to be able to pull it off with gold.”

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