TOKYO — Say this for the men’s distance freestyle swimming races at these Tokyo Olympic Games: They have been unpredictable.
The meet kicked off Sunday with Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui winning the 400, out in Lane 8. He was apparently so unprepared for victory that he did not even have proper gear for the podium, showing up there in a T-shirt and shorts.
On Thursday, another surprise.
In the first-ever Olympic men’s 800 — the race is a mainstay at other events, including world championships — 21-year-old Bobby Finke, who this fall will be a senior at the University of Florida, came from nowhere on the final lap to win in an American-record 7:41.87.
Finke becomes the first U.S. man to win an Olympic distance freestyle swim since 1984. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” was a new release in 1984. The Chicago Bulls picked Michael Jordan with the third pick of the NBA Draft in 1984. Sam the Eagle was the mascot of the LA Games in — 1984.
Italy’s Gregorio Paltrinieri, the best distance swimmer in the world over the past five years, took second, in 7:42.11, 24-hundredths back. Paltrinieri came down with mononucleosis in June. That he was here, racing, and got silver — incredible. “I would not have bet even one euro about me being able to compete here even two weeks ago,” he said.
Mykhailo Romanchuk of Ukraine got third, in 7:42.33, 46-hundredths back.
Finke all but came out of nowhere to win this race.
But his coach knows a thing or two about winning, and especially at the Olympics. He’s Anthony Nesty — the head coach at Florida, who famously won the Seoul 1988 butterfly gold by one-hundredth of a second. Among Nesty’s other charges in Gainesville: Caeleb Dressel.
Swimmers talk about tapering for a race — that is, putting down a block of heavy training and then, per a detailed and prescribed plan, resting and peaking for exactly the right moment.
This is what Bobby Finke did. He was in seemingly every way a work in progress.
Understand that Finke raced at the 2017 world championships in Budapest, finishing 21st in the 1500. He did not compete at the 2019 championships in South Korea.
At the U.S. Trials in June in Omaha, Finke won both the 800 and 1500. His 800 time: 7:48.22.
In Omaha, Finke told reporters he thought the 1500 was his best event.
Fast forward, through the U.S. team’s Hawaii camp, to Tokyo, and the Games.
In the fourth heat of the 800 prelims, Finke won his heat. In 7:42.72. That was a new American record. Michael McBroom had held the prior mark, 7:43.6, since the 2013 worlds in Barcelona.
That 7:42.72 was not just a second faster. It was seven and a half seconds faster than any American time in any 2019 international competition.
It was five and a half seconds faster than Finke’s trials time.
Moreover, it was 4.86 seconds faster his prior personal best.
He had never before gone under 7:48.
In Thursday’s final, Finke was fourth at 750 meters. Then he summoned a final lap of 26.39 seconds. Paltrinieri and Romanchuk both went 28.04. That was the difference.
“I cannot tell you how many times coaches throughout last fall taught us how to switch gears in a race,” Finke said later. “They all taught us how to switch gears at the end of a race.
“I wasn't holding anything back. I just tried to let loose and have fun when I started gaining some ground.”
Bobby Finke is by nature pretty low key.
Asked what now, he said, “This is probably the happiest I’ve been in this sport.” There’s a 1500 yet to go. He might well win. It would not be a surprise.