BEIJING — You would like U.S. Olympic swimmer Mark Gangloff. I promise you would.
He lives in Charlotte. He's funny. He can blow a perfect ring of air while under water. He's got a nice wife. He's reliable. He looks you in the eye when he talks to you. He already coaches some young Charlotte swimmers in preparation for what he hopes will be a long career as a swim coach.
The question is whether the world will learn enough about Gangloff to like him in the next three days. There are thousands of Gangloffs at these Olympics. You saw a bunch of them if you watched the opening ceremony Friday night -- well-meaning, well-scrubbed athletes awaiting their chance at glory.
Unless Gangloff has the weekend of his life in China and wins a gold medal, the world probably won't get to know him here. But that's OK -- Gangloff is secure enough not to need the world's approval. But he still would love to pull off a monstrous upset in Beijing and win the gold, because that's what he has worked for during the past four years.
Three minutes will determine Gangloff's fate in the 100-meter breaststroke, his specialty event, at these Olympics.
It takes about a minute for the best swimmers in the world to do the 100 breast. In fact, it takes the very best ones 59 seconds and change -- Gangloff has never quite broken the one-minute mark. Gangloff will have to swim the event extremely well three times in a row -- in the preliminaries this morning and then in the semifinals tonight and the finals Sunday night (all times Eastern) -- to win a medal of any sort.
Gangloff's qualifying time of 1:00.10 in these Olympics ranks as sixth fastest, behind U.S. teammate Brendan Hansen (the best qualifier at 59.24) as well as a swimmer apiece from Japan, Great Britain, Russia and France. The favorites in the event will be Hansen and Japan's Kosuke Kitajima, widely acknowledged as the two best breaststrokers in the world. But Gangloff's practice has gone so well the past few weeks that he believes he has a shot to beat both of them.
"All is going very well," Gangloff wrote me in an e-mail this week from Beijing. "Feeling healthy, prepared and excited. Hopefully I can make my way to the top of the podium."
Gangloff wrote that the U.S. team practices have turned into "some of the best training of my life. ... Since I have had such a great training camp my nerves have not bothered me at all. I plan on getting a little more nervous as the race gets closer, but nothing to this point."
In the 2004 Olympics, Gangloff finished fourth in the 100 breast, a hair out of third place. He did win a gold in the medley relay.
Said David Marsh, Gangloff's coach at Mecklenburg Aquatic Club: "I think for Mark the exciting thing is that he has a gold medal in his pocket already [from that relay in Athens]. So he's going to shoot for the stars. He's directing all of his strategy toward winning the event."
What that means is that Gangloff won't be afraid to go out too fast in the first 50, burning up too much of his energy. Gangloff, 26, is naturally a fast starter. In his four dozen or so career races against Hansen, all but two or three of which he has lost, Gangloff almost always leads at the 50-meter mark and then is caught and surpassed by Hansen in the last 25 meters.
Gangloff's strategy today? He saved some energy Friday night by skipping the opening ceremonies. He wouldn't mind saving a little more in the prelims.
"I am planning on relaxing a hair for my first swim if I have that luxury," Gangloff wrote. "If I need to go all out, I will, but if I am in good position, then I will back off."
The semifinal and final, of course, would be sprints. The final will be held Monday morning in Beijing in large part to accommodate the U.S. audience, which will see the 100 breaststroke final Sunday night and most of the other swimming finals live and in prime time all week long.
So that's when the world might discover Gangloff, but only if he has three great minutes left in him.
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