Relay Goes Down Under

Times Staff Writer

If the torch can be passed in a swimming pool, it happened here in the final event Saturday, the women’s 400-meter freestyle relay at the Olympics.

The greatest relay swimmer in recent history couldn’t hold a lead, and a new generation, led by Australian Jodie Henry, stepped right up. So often, 31-year-old American Jenny Thompson has been the closer on successful relays, but this time, it wasn’t even close. Though Thompson hit the water with a slight lead, Henry erased it with the fastest relay split by a female -- 52.95 seconds -- leading the Australian relay team to a world-record performance and winning the gold medal in 3:35.94. The previous record, 3:36.00, was set by Germany in 2002.

The U.S. team of Kara Lynn Joyce, Natalie Coughlin, Amanda Weir and Thompson was second in 3:36.39, an American record. Thompson, though, missed in her attempt to win a record-tying ninth gold medal, all in relays.

“It’s a change of pace for me to be passed by that much,” Thompson said. “Obviously, it was an amazing time and she passed me. I didn’t like that so much. But it fuels the fire. I’m sure it’s happened [before]. But I try not to let it happen.”


Henry said she’d felt she could pass Thompson if she remained close. Her teammates, Alice Mills, Libby Lenton and Petria Thomas, kept her within range, then her split was nearly a second faster than Thompson’s 53.77.

It was a tough loss for Thompson, who had swum anchor on the winning relay in this event the last three Olympics. And that she now has 11 Olympic medals left her unimpressed.

“It doesn’t feel that much different than 10,” she said. “Thirty or 10, it’s a lot of medals.”

Then there was the way Kaitlin Sandeno felt about finishing second in the 400 individual medley. She broke the American record, going 4:34.95, and finished second to defending champion Yana Klochkova of Ukraine by 0.12 of a second. Four years ago, Sandeno just missed a medal in the event, placing fourth.

This time, the result was stunning, about a 5 1/2 -second improvement of her personal best.

“I thought I was second and thought, ‘That’s really good,’ ” she said. “I kept on looking and I had a little ‘AM’ next to it.... I can’t believe how much I broke the 4:40 barrier by -- 38 [4:38] would have been great.”

Sandeno has been tested since her last Olympic appearance, suffering a stress fracture in her back. That made the silver all the more precious. “It’s been huge,” she said. “I was going to quit two years ago, and to be here now and to have a silver medal and an American record ... I’m 21. You don’t do that when you get up there. Five and a half seconds, it seemed like it was always there. I knew I had potential to go that fast, but I just never tapped into it.”