By Barry Svrluga,



RIO DE JANEIRO — When Chase Kalisz walked toward one end of the pool deck Saturday night, when he lifted his medal to the crowd waving an American flag, he did so with satisfaction. The 22-year-old from Bel Air, Md., like so many of his U.S. swimming teammates, is in an Olympics for the first time. That the glint off that medal was silver mattered very little to him.

“I don’t think I could have gone any faster,” Kalisz said.

There is little telling how an individual athlete — much less a team of varying personalities and predilections, from big cities and little towns and all the in-betweens — will respond to an Olympic environment. There is practice and preparation, but they are no substitute for competition, the emotions it induces and the performances that result.

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So at one level, Kalisz had a right to be thrilled. His silver in the 400-meter individual medley came in a time of 4:06.75 — by far the fastest time of his life. But it was still well behind Japan’s Kosuke Hagino, who took gold in 4:06.05. Likewise, Maya DiRado — the 23-year-old Californian who is making her first Olympics her last — swam the race of her life in the women’s 400 IM, only to be an afterthought internationally because Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu obliterated the world record, turning in a time of 4:26.36 — more than two seconds better than the old mark.

This, then, was the first night of the Olympic swim meet for the American team: fast, but not quite fast enough. The U.S. is here seeking to lead the swimming medal count for the seventh straight Summer Games. Yet on a night when there were four medal events to start the eight-day meet, the “Star-Spangled Banner” didn’t play at all. The reality, for American swimmers who arrive at the Olympics, was articulated by Cody Miller, who opened his meet with an appearance in the 100-meter breaststroke preliminaries: “When you make the U.S. team, your expectation is to medal.”

Kalisz and DiRado did just that. They are both in the Olympics for the first time, and their medals are necessary in the overall tally, because the established stars, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin and Nathan Adrian, can’t win enough medals by themselves to fend off the stout team from Australia, which closed the gap on the U.S. last year at world championships in Kazan, Russia. The U.S. coaching staff, though, presents that meet as a mere warm-up for this one.

“We’re the USA,” said David Marsh, the head coach of the women’s team. “Even last year, if you’d ask anybody: Russia or the Olympic Games? They’d all say next year is way more important.”

Still, the somewhat mixed results were predictable. The American team that arrived here did so with both expectations and questions about how its members, nearly two-thirds of which are in an Olympics for the first time, would perform. Saturday afternoon, they seemed to indicate that all would go almost perfectly. Kalisz led all qualifiers in the 400 IM, posting his personal best in a remarkably relaxed swim. Conor Dwyer was the fastest in the men’s 400 freestyle heats, and said quite bluntly afterward: “The USA’s making a statement.”

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Dwyer, though, didn’t back up his own statement. In the prelims, he finished in 3:43.42. In the night-time final, he went backward, finishing in 3:44.01 — good for fourth, not a medal.

The winner of that event was Australia’s Mack Horton, who not only put the Aussies on the board for medals, but did so in colorful and controversial fashion. Horton’s main rival in the event is China’s Sun Yang. Sun created a stir during a training session earlier in the week when he appeared to splash water in Horton’s lane. Horton, after Saturday’s prelims, fired back.

“He just kind of splashed me, but I ignored him because I don’t have time or respect for drug cheats,” Horton told reporters. “He wasn’t too happy about that so he kept splashing me. I just got in and did my thing.”

That is the concern for the Americans: That the Aussies could be here to do their thing. It takes nothing away from the performances of Kalisz and DiRado, who performed better than ever before.

“I didn’t think about getting a medal,” Kalisz said. “I didn’t think about a time. I thought about giving my 100 percent honest effort. At the end of the day, I look back at that, and that’s all I could do.”

DiRado’s emotions had to be similar. She swam wonderfully, stretching out an advantage in the breaststroke leg over Great Britain’s Hannah Miley. The problem: She was barely in sight of Hosszu, who nearly set the world record in prelims Saturday afternoon, then acted as if it was a plaything at night. When DiRado touched, she had shaved nearly two-thirds of a second off her personal best in the event, capping what might have been a daunting experience.

“Before the race, I kind of smiled behind the blocks, which I don’t normally do,” said DiRado, who will retire after this meet. “I was like, ‘I’m swimming in an Olympic final. I was the girl who was videotaping, and recording all those sessions. And now I get to be up there.’”

Yet when she turned to look at the results, she saw Hosszu’s number — 4.79 seconds faster than DiRado, the silver medalist — and her jaw fell agape.

That is the state in which American swimmers are accustomed to leaving jaws across the globe. The U.S. women’s 4x100 freestyle relay team added another medal, a silver, and so the team is off to a three-medals-in-four-events start even before Phelps, et al, enter the pool.

But after a day, it’s clear the world is here to swim, too — and even the best performances in the lives of some of these young Americans might not be enough to hear their national anthem.



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