Tokyo Summer Olympics 2021: Day 9 Highlights
We're starting to move into a different phase of these Olympics.
Day 9 saw the conclusion of a frenzied swimming program, the tennis men's singles gold-medal match and four more individual gymnastics competitions.
It also included the continued ramping up of track and field medal events. The men's 100 meters, men's high jump and women's triple jump all gave out medals, while the men's 400-meter hurdles and 800 meters both delivered entertaining semifinals.
With about one week left in Tokyo, the Games have managed to thread an ever-so-tricky line of showcasing the true heights of athletic greatness while also being genuinely unpredictable. Sunday was just the latest example of that.
Let's go through what you may have missed in the past 12 hours.
Team USA's Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil Controversially Eliminated
Team USA went a perfect 6-0 in pool play of women's beach volleyball, but the first match of the knockout round did not go according to plan for Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil.
Canada's Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson jumped out to an 11-6 lead in the first set before the Americans stormed back for a 24-22 victory. Much of that blown lead was self-inflicted wounds by the Canadians, though, as six of Team USA's first 14 points after that 11-6 deficit were of the "Canada service fault" variety.
The second set went in the opposite direction. Claes and Sponcil pulled ahead 10-4 early, punctuated by an incredible backset for a point by Claes. But Canada scored the next five points to get back in the match and gradually pulled into the lead for a 21-18 set victory.
The third and final set was all about defense.
During a 20-point stretch in the middle of the set, the non-serving team won the point 19 times. Canada won the outlier and held a 12-11 advantage with Sponcil serving when the controversy happened.
Sponcil's serve was originally ruled long, but the Americans challenged the call and replay determined that the ball nicked the back line for an ace, tying the score at 12-12. However, the Canadians evidently challenged the challenge and got it overturned. When Sponcil asked the referee for an explanation, she was given a yellow card.
The ball very well may have been out. I certainly couldn't tell while watching several replays. But how the heck do you overturn a call and then overturn the overturn?
Canada still might have won even if Sponcil had been credited with the ace, but Team USA's chances at a win went from "coin toss" to "minimal at best" once that controversial ruling happened. Bansley and Wilkerson went on to win the final set 15-13, eliminating one of USA's two female teams.
Nothing controversial in Team USA's loss in men's beach volleyball four hours later, though. Nick Lucena and Philip Dalhausser convincingly won their opening set 21-14, but Qatar's Ahmed Tijan and Cherif Younousse were simply the slightly better duo from there, winning the next two sets 21-19 and 15-11.
The Americans still have one team left in each tournament, but it was a disappointing first day of knockout play in the sand.
Americans Finish off the Distance Sweep in the Pool
It's little surprise (but still mighty impressive) that Katie Ledecky took gold in both the women's 800-meter freestyle and the women's 1,500-meter freestyle swims earlier in the week. She has been the most dominant female distance swimmer in the world for years and now has more individual Olympic gold medals than any other female swimmer in history.
But Team USA winning both of those events on the men's side was much more unexpected and way more dramatic.
Bobby Finke entered these Games as a relatively unknown swimmer on the international circuit. He competed in the 1,500 at the World Championships in 2017, but he didn't come anywhere close to qualifying for the final. He didn't compete at the 2019 World Championships. Yet, he's flying back home with a pair of gold medals thanks to an unbelievable closing kick.
In the 800 earlier this week, Finke spent most of the race in fifth place before swimming the final 50 meters in a lightning-fast 26.39 seconds, blowing right by the competition.
And his finishing length in the 1,500 was even more preposterous. At the end of a nearly mile-long race, Finke swam the final 50 meters in 25.78 seconds, turning a 0.72-second deficit into a 1.01-second victory.
Per Paul Carr of TruMedia, Finke swam the last 50 meters of the 1,500 faster than anyone swam the final 50 meters of the 800, the 400 or the 200. That much speed at that stage of that race is unfathomable.
This was the first year that the men's 800 was part of the Olympic schedule, but the 1,500 has been around for more than a century. Finke became the first American to win gold in that distance since Mike O'Brien in 1984.
USA Dominates the Men's 4x100-Meter Medley, Per Usual
The men's 4x100-meter medley has been an Olympic event at each Summer Games since 1960, making this the 16th time the race has been held.
Team USA had won gold 14 of the first 15 times, and it was a perfect 14-for-14 if you ignore the 1980 Games in Moscow in which the U.S. did not compete (boycott).
Americans set the world record in this event in 2009, and in the final Olympic swim of Michael Phelps' career, they set a new Olympic record in 2016.
This year's quartet (Ryan Murphy in the backstroke, Michael Andrew in the breaststroke, Caeleb Dressel in the butterfly and Zach Apple in the freestyle) had to swim from Lane 1 after the team darn near failed to qualify for the final the previous morning. That race featured four different swimmers, though—Joseph Armstrong, Andrew Wilson, Tom Shields and Blake Pieroni.
Once the four best American swimmers were in the pool, it was a much different, record-breaking story.
Murphy holds the world record in the 100-meter backstroke and finished his leg in first place. After Great Britain's world record-holder Adam Peaty pulled ahead in the breaststroke, it was time for another American world record-holder to do his thing. Dressel swam his butterfly leg in 49.03 seconds, turning a 0.64-second deficit into a 0.60-second lead for Apple.
Apple not only kept that lead but created a little more separation en route to a world-record time of three minutes, 26.78 seconds.
Caeleb Dressel and Emma McKeon Add to Their Ridiculous Medal Collections
Yes, we're doing a third slide on swimming. But it's the last day of swimming at these Olympics, so you probably won't read about swimming again until 2024. Plus, this final day was full of history.
On the men's side of things, Caeleb Dressel won gold in both the 50-meter freestyle and the 4x100-meter medley relay. He also took gold in the 100-meter butterfly and the 100-meter freestyle earlier in the week, bringing his individual gold count at these Games to three. The only other men to ever win three individual gold medals in swimming in a single Olympics were Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps. That's mighty good company.
The medley relay victory was Dressel's fifth overall gold medal at these Games, which also puts him in a tie for the most ever in a single Olympics.
Dressel was also part of the relay teams that won two golds in Rio in 2016, so he now has seven gold medals in his career. Only Phelps (23, LOL), Spitz (nine), Matt Biondi (eight) and Jenny Thompson (eight) have more, and Dressel is now tied with Ledecky for the fifth-most swimming gold medals of all time.
Can't wait to (hopefully) watch both of those current 24-year-olds try to reach double digits in career medals three years from now in Paris.
On the women's side, Australia's Emma McKeon finished up quite the ridiculous week of her own.
McKeon won an individual gold in the women's 50-meter freestyle, and then she swam the butterfly leg of Australia's gold-medal-winning medley relay about 40 minutes later. Previously, she took gold in the 100-meter freestyle and the 4x100-meter freestyle relay. She also earned bronze medals in the 100-meter butterfly, the 4x200-meter freestyle relay and the 4x100-meter mixed medley relay.
All told, that's seven medals for McKeon. She's the first female swimmer to ever pull off that feat in a single Olympics and just the second woman all time, joining Soviet gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaya in 1952, per Paul Carr of TruMedia.
McKeon also won four medals in Rio, bringing her career total to 11. Only Americans Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres have more career Olympic medals with 12 each.
China's Gong Lijiao Dominates the Women's Shot Put
During the Day 7 women's shot put qualifying round, China's Gong Lijiao only threw the shot one time and launched it 19.46 meters—0.23 meters further than any other qualifier was able to muster in up to three attempts.
Gong also took Olympic bronze in shot put in 2008 and silver in 2012, and she won gold at both the 2017 and 2019 World Championships.
To put it lightly, it's not a surprise that she won the gold medal.
But it's almost laughable how dominantly Gong did so.
Team USA's Raven "Hulk" Saunders earned the silver medal with a throw of 19.79 meters—for which she celebrated with some twerking and flexing—but Gong had not one, not two, not three, not four, but five successful throws of 19.80 meters or greater.
On the fifth of Gong's six attempts, she improved her best score from 19.98 to 20.53. And just for good measure, her sixth toss went 20.58 meters.
New Zealand's Valerie Adams took bronze in the event, medaling in shot put for the fourth consecutive Games.
Alexander Zverev Wins Men's Tennis Gold
After defeating Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, Alexander Zverev entered the gold-medal match with some momentum and followed through on it, defeating Karen Khachanov 6-3, 6-1 to claim Germany's first-ever men's singles gold and second total, joining Steffi Graf.
This one was never really close. Zverev recorded six aces and dominated Khachanov with a combination of soft hitters and backhands, frustrating the Russian so much that at one point he slammed a ball into the stands. It only took 79 minutes, and the German collapsed to his knees when it ended.
"This is so much bigger than anything in the tennis world, in the sports world," Zverev said after the match. He made a name for himself at last year's U.S. Open, losing to Dominic Thiem in the final, and may now be considered a favorite for the 2021 tournament, set to begin later this month.
Like so many male tennis stars, Zverev has been trying valiantly to chip away at the Djokovic-Nadal-Federer grouping that's run the sport over the last decade-plus. But with a major finals appearance and an Olympic gold under his belt since last August, Zverev might be on his way to doing just that.
History Made in Men's Gymnastics; MyKayla Skinner and Sunisa Lee Earn Medals
Just four individual events remain on the Tokyo gymnastics schedule now, and four individual medals were given out overnight. And though Simone Biles remains out of competition, the field still produced entertaining results.
The men's side saw history play out, as Artem Dolgopyat claimed gold in floor exercise, earning Israel's first gymnastics gold medal and the country's first gold of the 2020 Games. Great Britain's Max Whitlock also etched his name further into stone, defending his 2016 pommel horse victory and posting a higher start value (7.0) in his routine than any of his competitors.
As for the women, Belgian Nina Derwael—a two-time world champion on uneven bars—won gold with a 15.200 score from her complicated routine. Anastasia Ilyankova of the Russian Olympic Committee won the silver, while all-around champ and pre-meet favorite Sunisa Lee took bronze despite some early stumbles.
Rebeca Andrade of Brazil then barely outdueled Biles replacement MyKayla Skinner on the vault, winning a gold in addition to her all-around silver. Skinner, who thought her time at the Olympics was over not so long ago, took second.
Karsten Warholm, Rai Benjamin Provide Dynamite Preview of 400m Hurdle Final
Though we would have preferred to see them face off in the finals only, world record-holder Karsten Warholm and U.S. star Rai Benjamin were matched up in the first heat of the 400-meter hurdle semifinals. And while it's tough to know how much effort each man was giving, they nevertheless delivered a thrilling race.
Warholm and Benjamin both sprinted out of the blocks, made up their staggers quickly, and set a relaxed but safely ahead pace over the last 150 meters. The Norwegian barely came out ahead, finishing the lap in 47.30 seconds to Benjamin's 47.37, but the message the duo sent could not have been clearer: Everybody else is most likely racing for bronze.
The latter two semifinal heats provided clues as to who might join Warholm and Benjamin on the podium, as Brazilian's Alison dos Santos hurdled around the track in 47.31 seconds and Abderrahman Samba of Qatar wasn't far behind that time (47.47). But this continues to be a two-hurdler field, and it will conclude in a highly anticipated final Monday night (ET).
Xander Schauffele Claims Men's Golf Gold for U.S.
It was closer than expected, but Xander Schauffele still secured a golf gold for the U.S. on Sunday, shooting a 68.
Before the final day of competition began, this looked like a rout for the California native, but Rory Sabbatini started his round several hours before Schauffele and recorded a blistering 61 to add some intrigue back into the medal chase.
The pressure didn't seem to bother Schauffele on the front nine, as he began the day bogey-less, but things got more complicated later on as he bogeyed the 14th hole. However, facing a tie with Sabbatini with just two holes left, the 27-year-old powered through the end of the tournament, birdying 17 and hitting an absolutely beautiful, crucial chip shot just three feet from the hole on 18. He subsequently made par and clinched gold.
Schauffele has won five tournaments to date in his short career, but this is obviously the most significant one.
Women's Triple Jump World Record Shattered; Men's High Jump Gold Is Shared
It was a banner day on the "field" side of track and field.
Let's start with the women's triple jump. Though she had already won gold by the time her final attempt came around, Venezuelan Yulimar Rojas decided that wasn't enough, jumping 15.67 meters to crush the previous world record of 15.50, set by Ukraine's Inessa Kravets in 1995.
Rojas, a two-time world champion and Rio silver medalist, had already set the Olympic record earlier in the competition by jumping 15.39 meters on her first attempt but is now unequivocally the best in the world.
The men's high jump was even more competitive, with 10 athletes clearing the 2.3-meter bar. It eventually came down to three men—Italy's Gianmarco Tamberi, Qatar's Mutaz Essa Barshim and Maksim Nedasekau of Belarus—who each jumped over the 2.37-meter barrier. The former two had each successfully cleared all prior heights and were given the opportunity to jump for a lone title, but they decided to share gold in a moment of pure elation for two athletes who suffered serious injuries not too long ago.
Though given significantly less attention than their runner counterparts by the general public, jumpers can showcase similarly jaw-dropping feats with regularity. Today, they proved that beyond any doubt.
Lamont Marcell Jacobs Becomes the Fastest Man Alive
We're in a new era of men's sprinting. Usain Bolt is obviously retired, but this extends beyond him. Rio silver medalist Justin Gatlin (39 years old) suffered a hamstring injury at U.S. Olympic Trials, while four-time Olympic medalist Yohan Blake (31) and world leader Trayvon Bromell (still just 26) both failed to reach the finals in Tokyo. This set up, for the first time in decades, a wide-open field of eight. Who would triumph, and how fast would they go?
As expected, the race was extremely close. All six sprinters who finished the race came across the line between 0.2 seconds of each other. Leading the pack, however, was Italian Lamont Marcell Jacobs, who set a personal best and European record of 9.80. American Fred Kerley came in second at 9.84, while Canadian Andre De Grasse overcame a slow start to collect his second straight bronze with a 9.89 final time.
This race may have seemed a little anticlimactic given Bolt's physics-defying feats in recent years, but Jacobs actually barely outdid the Jamaican's 2016 gold-winning time of 9.81. Bolt's Olympic and world records may stand for a long time, but that's more a statement of his generational greatness than a decline in the sport. There's no marquee name at the moment, but that just makes for more competitive races going forward.