US starts off strong with 3 swim medals, including 1st gold

·3-min read

TOKYO (AP) — Chase Kalisz won the first American medal of the Tokyo Games, taking gold Sunday in the men’s 400-meter individual medley.

Jay Litherland made it a 1-2 finish for the powerhouse U.S. team, rallying on the freestyle leg to claim the silver. Brendon Smith of Australia earned the bronze.

Kieran Smith grabbed another medal for the Americans with bronze in the men's 400 freestyle. Tunisia's Ahmed Hafnaoui was the surprising winner from lane eight, while Australia's Jack McLoughlin settled for silver after leading much of the race.

Kalisz, a protégé and former training partner of Olympic great Michael Phelps, touched first in 4 minutes, 9.42 seconds.

Litherland was next in 4:10.28, just ahead of Smith (4:10.38).

Kalisz flexed his muscles and then climbed atop the lane rope, splashing the water while a contingent of his teammates cheered him from the stands of the nearly empty Tokyo Aquatics Centre.

“U-S-A! U-S-A!” they chanted.

Kalisz was the silver medalist in the grueling event at the Rio Games five years ago. Now, at age 27, he's the best in the world at using all four strokes.

Litherland came over to give the winner a hug, having ensured the Americans got off to the best possible start at the pool.

After putting their own medals around their necks during a masked-up victory ceremony, Kalisz and Litherland walked around the deck arm-in-arm. No social distancing for the longtime teammates.

The Americans seized their chance after Japanese star Daiya Seto stunningly failed to advance to the final, having finished ninth in the preliminaries after making a tactical error attempting to save his energy for the medal race.

The finals were held in the morning Tokyo time rather than their usual evening slot, a nod to U.S. television network NBC, which wanted to show the finals live in prime time back in America.

That was the same format used at the 2008 Beijing Games, where Phelps won a record eight gold medals. He retired after Rio, having won 23 gold medals, but the Americans still have plenty of star power for the post-Phelps era.

The first two finals gave a tantalizing glimpse of what was to come in the longstanding rivalry between the U.S. and Australia, the world's most dominant swimming countries.

They took five of the first six swimming medals awarded in Tokyo, though Hafnaoui joined Ous Mellouli as a gold medalist from the north African country of Tunisia.

Hafnaoui touched in 43:43.26, followed by McLoughlin (3:43.52) and Smith (3:43.94).

The only people in the stands of the 15,000-seat arena were media, VIPs, officials and swimmers who weren’t competing Sunday. It was an eerily quiet atmosphere at times, though many ignored requests by Japanese organizers to refrain for any sort of cheering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

There was a drum in the stands, as well as a few horns to spice things up.

In a striking touch before the first race, the loudspeakers blared the song “Pompeii” by the British band Bastille, which includes the lyrics, “But if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing changed at all?”

In the pool, it was business at usual. But it certainly felt like plenty had changed in an Olympics that were delayed a year by a worldwide pandemic and are finally being staged under tight restrictions that included a ban on all fans.

A montage of fans watching around the world via video links were shown on the scoreboard as the swimmers headed to the deck for the first final.

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and his work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry

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More AP Olympic coverage: https://www.apnews.com/OlympicGames and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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