We’re in for a treat next week. The Arena Pro Swim Series stops in Atlanta and the second night features a heavyweight tilt in the women’s 100m free between Simone Manuel and Penny Oleksiak. The Rematch if you will. In every sport these types of matchups never go as we imagine. In baseball the most anticipated pitching duals often turn into early inning blowouts and in our sport we see headscratchers at every meet. It’s especially so this time of year.
Manuel v. Oleksiak II is an early in-season gift which will give all of us who love this sport a chance to remember what those two accomplished last August, late into the night, on a cold and drizzly night in Brazil. Heading into Rio, Australia was a powerhouse in this event featuring with 5 swimmers in the top 10 and 12 of the top 14 swims overall. When the swimmers marched out everyone who understands this sport even a little bit predicted Australia taking gold and silver. The realistic battle would be for bronze. Sarah Sjostrom or Ranomi Kromowidjojo? I picked Kromo reckoning a double gold medalist would be hard to topple but I didn’t feel that strongly one way or the other. There, 1-4 taken care of.
I figured 5 and 6 would be between the two Americans who were seeded fairly close together. Both Abbey and Simone took a year off from school to train for this but as I saw it, the women’s 100 free was one of America’s weaker events. The smart play would have been to pick Weitzel for 5th but Manuel has an eerie calmness to her coupled with an I-got-this look to her face. I wrestled with this for a while and decided on Manuel. I didn’t feel confident about it though.
Oh look there’s Penny! Fantastic achievement for Penny Oleksiak, a Canadian teenager, getting into this final and rubbing elbows in the ready and room breathing the same rarefied air as swimming royalty. This will undoubtedly be a great experience for her and hopefully she’ll be able draw on it four years from now. I watched the walkout and was hoping she’d beat Ottesen and not come in last. I wasn’t confident about this pick either. Then the race started. It went as most thought with one of the Campbells hitting the 50 wall first under world record pace and the other one not too far behind. Simone was right there in a medal position and Penny was way back. 4th, 5th and 6th were bunched together.
We all know what happened. Inexplicably both Australians ran out of gas and Simone reeled them in. I still don’t know how to process what Oleksiak did on her last 50 overtaking so many tough-to-topple swimmers and touching at the same time as Simone for a shared gold. Oleksiak’s last 50 was, by far, the coolest thing I’ve ever seen at a swimming pool. In an age where we structure our diets around our blood types and monitor our iron levels, Oleksiak had the same excited look at the start as a little kid does jumping into a lake off a dock with water wings. She just might be the one who uncomplicates a sport the rest of us had taken a long time complicating. Oleksiak could be the swimmer who can take her headphones out of her ears after detailed pre-race instructions and simplifies things into so-i-just-swim-there-and-back……and-beat-these-7-people. Right?
We get a chance to relive it next week in Atlanta. American networks won’t break away from their basketball playoff coverage to show it live and with hockey playoffs going on it won’t get any mainstream media attention in Canada, but Simone and Penny racing one another will be a special treat for people like us. Don’t even try predicting a winner.