In what will certainly go down as one of the most exciting races of the 2012 Olympic Games, U.S. swimmer Nathan Adrian out-touched Australia’s James Magnussen by .01 seconds in the men’s 100-meter freestyle final Wednesday, winning the fourth U.S. gold thus far in swimming competition at the Games.
Adrian’s victory was a big breakthrough for the U.S., which won its first gold in the 100 free since Matt Biondi did so in the 1988 Games in Seoul.
Adrian’s win is also a major moment in the young swimmer’s career. He earned his first individual Olympic gold medal and joined a legendary list of Americans to win the event, including Biondi, current NBC swimming commentator Rowdy Gaines and Mark Spitz, who won the event as one of his seven golds in 1972.
Adrian swam the fastest time of his career (47.52 seconds), according to FINA’s Swimming World Rankings, and made a huge improvement from last year’s World Aquatics Championships, where he finished only sixth in the 100 free.
Adrian certainly picked the right time to do so, swimming his best race ever to win the sport’s ultimate prize. With his tremendous time, he defeated two of the three fastest 100 free swimmers in history, Brazil’s Cesar Cielo and Magnussen, as listed in the Swimming World Rankings.
The field also included France’s Yannick Agnel, who swam an incredible split of 46.74 seconds in the final leg of Sunday’s 4x100-meter freestyle relay to pass U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte and lead his team to gold. Adrian was a member of that relay team as well but, with his victory on Wednesday, he achieved personal redemption by winning a gold of his own.
The second-place finish in the 4x100 was a disappointment because of how they lost the lead, but Adrian still has a chance to lead another relay team to gold.
Adrian will swim the 100 free once again as a member of the U.S. 4x100-meter medley relay team, which will also include 100-meter backstroke swimmer Matt Grevers competing on that leg of the relay, and Michael Phelps, the most decorated athlete in Olympic history, swimming the butterfly.
With two gold-medalists competing in the same events as legs of the relay, and Phelps also being on the team, the U.S. should enter the medley relay as huge gold-medal favorites.
Adrian has now won gold for his second consecutive Olympic Games, having won with the U.S. 4x100 free relay in 2008 for his participation in the qualification round. But, at only 23 years old, more Olympic glory should be a part of his future.
But while Adrian should be expected to have many more remaining years as one of the world’s elite 100 free swimmers, the competition will be very tough. Magnussen, who is only 21 years old, should have many more close races with Adrian, while Agnel is also emerging as a star for many years to come at only 20 years old.
After such a close and exciting race on Wednesday in the 100 free, it is great going forward for the sport of swimming that there are a trio of young stars who should continue to battle for gold with further young newcomers at the 2016 Olympic Games. The United States is able to play a major factor in that battle, thanks to their newest gold-medalist in Adrian.
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Dan Hope is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist covering the 2012 Olympic Games. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.