Australia stood toe-to-toe with the powerful US swim team as Emily Seebohm, Jessicah Schipper and Marieke Guehrer won gold medals on the opening night of the Pan Pacific Championships in southern California.
Having slipped to a world No.4 ranking after last year’s world championships, the Australians lived up to their pre-meet vow to give the No.1 Americans a dogfight.
And, while the women again led the way for the Australian team, controversial Nick D’Arcy provided a highlight as he pushed Michael Phelps hard in the 200m butterfly before settling for silver behind the US superstar.
“We’re going to keep moving up the ranks and hopefully take on the Yanks,” said Seebohm, who finished the night with gold and silver in the William Woollett Jr Aquatics Center in Irvine, south of Los Angeles.
Guehrer and Seebohm got the Australian squad off to a flying start with a 1-2 result in the opening final, the 50m butterfly.
Seebohm followed up with a thrilling come from behind win in the 100m backstroke final, overhauling American Olympic champion Natalie Coughlin in the process.
“I saw Natalie and thought ‘No, I can’t let you win this time,’,” added Seebohm who had never beaten veteran Coughlin before but went in with the year’s fastest time.
Coughlin faded to third place with Japan’s Aya Terakawa talking the silver.
Schipper also showed grit in the the 200m butterfly final, leading most of the way and holding off fast-finishing American Teresa Crippen.
“It definitely hurt a little bit,” Schipper said. “I told myself I could breathe once I hit the wall.”
The US men continued their dominance with Phelps extending his eight-year winning streak in the 200 fly in a time of 1:54.11 despite feeling pressure from fast-finishing D’Arcy (1:54.73).
“I was talking to Michael after the race and I think he was hurting as much as what I was,” said D’Arcy, who has emerged on the world stage with some blistering times after his two-year suspension from the Australian team for misconduct.
Phelps confirmed the pressure he was put under.
“I felt a splash of water from the lane next to me, I was just thinking ‘Please don’t let me get run down,'” Phelps said. “The fitness level is just not there.”
American champion and world record holder Aaron Peirsol, who fumbled his start in the morning heat, only made the 100m backstroke final after team-mate Ryan Lochte stepped aside, and Peirsol took advantage, beating Japan’s Junya Koga for gold as Australia’s Ashley Delaney scored bronze.
Lochte’s freed up program helped him win the 200m freestyle in the year’s best time of 1:45.30.
Perth’s Blair Evans took bronze in the women’s 200m freestyle final behind American duo Allison Schmitt and Morgan Scroggy.
Australia’s Geoff Huegill was the fastest qualifier for the 50m men’s butterfly final, but it was not a fairytale comeback for the veteran who was competing in his first major international meet since the 2004 Olympics.
Huegill finished fourth, well behind Brazil’s gold medal winner Cesar Cielo.
The 31-year-old Huegill shrugged off the race and said he was targeting his best event, the 100m butterfly, on Friday.
“I love being back in this arena and environment,” Huegill said.
Stephanie Rice’s debut at the PanPacs was a tentative one with Australia’s golden girl at the Beijing Olympics failing to qualify for the final in her first event, the 50m butterfly.
Rice is entered in Thursday’s 100m freestyle heats, but a shoulder injury may keep her out of the PanPacs and also threatens her hopes of competing at October’s Commonwealth Games.
Rice says it was “looking very possible” her shoulder, which has had seven cortisone injections, will need surgery.
“I’m not allowed to have anymore (injections) because it starts to impact your shoulder and make it weaker anyway,” Rice said.
“Surgery is looking very possible at this point in time and I’m obviously just trying to put it off.”
The current plan is to battle on, compete in Delhi, and then immediately have surgery after the Commonwealth Games, and aim for the 2011 national trials in April and the 2012 London Olympics.