Swimmer Chase Kalisz wins 400-meter individual medley; U.S. takes 5 of first 9 swimming medals

TOKYO — Swimmer Chase Kalisz won the first American medal of the Tokyo Games, taking gold on Sunday in the men’s 400-meter individual medley.

Jay Litherland made it a 1-2 finish for the powerhouse U.S. team, rallying on the freestyle leg to take the silver. Brendon Smith of Australia claimed the bronze.

Kieran Smith grabbed another medal for the Americans, with bronze in the men’s 400 freestyle. Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui was the surprising winner from lane eight, while Australia’s Jack McLoughlin settled for silver after leading much of the race.

The American women also did their part. Japan’s Yui Ohashi won gold in the women’s 400 IM with a dynamic breaststroke leg, but two Americans were right in her wake.

Emma Weyant earned the silver, while the bronze went to Hali Flickinger.

In all, five of the first nine swimming medals went to the U.S.

Kalisz, a protégé and former training partner of Olympic great Michael Phelps, touched first in 4 minutes, 9.42 seconds.

Litherland was next in 4:10.28, just ahead of Smith (4:10.38).

Kalisz flexed his muscles and then climbed atop the lane rope, splashing the water while a contingent of his teammates cheered him from the stands of the nearly empty Tokyo Aquatics Centre.

“U-S-A! U-S-A!” they chanted.

Kalisz was the silver medalist in the grueling event at the Rio de Janeiro Games five years ago. Now, at age 27, he is the best in the world at using all four strokes.

Litherland came over to give the winner a hug, having ensured the Americans got off to the best possible start at the pool.

After putting their own medals around their necks during a masked-up victory ceremony, Kalisz and Litherland walked around the deck arm in arm. No social distancing for the longtime teammates.

The Americans seized their chance after Japanese star Daiya Seto stunningly failed to advance to the final, having finished ninth in the preliminaries after making a tactical error attempting to save his energy for the medal race.

The finals were held in the morning Tokyo time rather than their usual evening slot, a nod to U.S. television network NBC, which wanted to show the finals live in prime time back in America.

That was the same format used at the 2008 Beijing Games, where Phelps won a record eight gold medals. He retired after Rio, having won 23 gold medals, but the Americans still have plenty of star power for the post-Phelps era.

The first two finals gave a tantalizing glimpse of what was to come in the long-standing rivalry between the U.S. and Australia, the world’s most dominant swimming countries. They took five of the first six swimming medals awarded in Tokyo, though Hafnaoui joined Ous Mellouli as a gold medalist from the north African country of Tunisia.

Hafnaoui touched in 43:43.26, followed by McLoughlin (3:43.52) and Smith (3:43.94).

“I sprinted my butt off the last 50 like it was a 50 free,” Smith said. “It was a really fun race.”

Ohashi helped to make up for Seto’s flop in the men’s IM. She pulled away in the breast to win 4:32.08.

Weyant gave chase in the freestyle leg but settled for silver in 4:32.76. Flickinger was third in 4:34.90, while Hungarian great Katinka Hosszu, the defending champion, faded to fifth.

“After we saw [Kalisz and Litherland go 1-2], we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘It’s our turn,”’ Weyant said. “I think that really got our team going.”

The only people in the stands of the 15,000-seat arena were media, VIPs, officials and swimmers who weren’t competing Sunday. It was an eerily quiet atmosphere at times, though many ignored requests by Japanese organizers to refrain from any sort of cheering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

There was a drum in the stands as well as a few horns to spice things up. In a striking touch before the first race, the loudspeakers blared the song “Pompeii” by the British band Bastille, which includes the lyrics, “But if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing changed at all?”

In the pool, it was business at usual. But it certainly felt like plenty had changed in an Olympics that were delayed a year by a worldwide pandemic and that are finally being staged under tight restrictions, including a ban on all fans.

A montage of fans watching around the world via video links were shown on the scoreboard as the swimmers headed to the deck for the first final.

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Swimmer Chase Kalisz wins 400-meter individual medley; U.S. takes 5 of first 9 swimming medals

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