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TOKYO — Bobby Finke swam 46 laps in Olympic finals this week and spent precisely zero full lengths in first place, and that, somehow, isn’t the most improbable part of a story that ends in two gold medals.
It’s a story that not even Finke expected to be telling.
“I had no idea I was gonna do that, honestly,” the 21-year-old Floridian said after winning the 800-meter freestyle here in Tokyo.
And after winning the 1500 three days later: “I didn't know I had these swims in me.”
Nor did anybody. Finke arrived in Japan with a personal-best 800-meter time of 7:48.22, more than six seconds off the world-leading pace; and a 1500-meter time of 14:46.06, almost 10 seconds behind the world leader. Those swims qualified him for his first Olympics at the U.S. trials in June. But once he got here?
“I came in not really expecting to medal,” Finke admitted. “I was just gonna try and do my best to make the finals.”
At a pre-Games training camp in Hawaii, though, Finke began to slash second after second off his times. “I was having some of the best practices of my life,” he said. His coach at the University of Florida, Anthony Nesty, told Yahoo Sports that Finke’s swimming during the three-week camp was “probably the best three weeks I've seen.”
“He may not have liked the training,” Nesty added. He mentions throwing Finke in with the open-water swimmers. “But we did some things that I've never seen people do before.”
And so, a few weeks later, here Finke was at the Tokyo Aquatics Center, keeping pace with the world’s best 1500-meter swimmers on Sunday. By the midway point of the race, he’d nestled in between them, just behind Germany’s Florian Wellbrock and Ukraine’s Mykhailo Romanchuk, just ahead of Italy’s Gregorio Paltrinieri. And, well, he just stayed there. He swam every single lap between 50 and 1400 meters in 29-30 seconds.
His consistency midway through the race was particularly remarkable. He swam laps 9 through 21 no slower than 29.69 seconds and no faster than 29.53.
And then, over the final 100 meters, he turned to a weapon he’d learned how to use at Florida. He and his distance-swimmer teammates, namely Alfonso Mestre and Brennan Gravley, would by no means consider themselves sprinters. But they love to sprint the last rep of every practice set.
“Without them,” Finke said, “I don't think I'd be able to have that finishing speed.”
Part of the habit is good, clean, competitive fun. Part of it is coaches’ instructions, a trained ability to “switch gears,” preparation for races like the ones Finke found himself in here in Tokyo.
In the 800, he chased down Paltrinieri and Romanchuk with a 26.39-second final 50, more than two seconds faster than he’d swum any other 50 on the day.
In the 1500, he closed in a furious 25.78 seconds after swimming much of the race in the 29s.
“I don't like the guys who are sprinting the last 50 so fast,” Romanchuk said with a laugh.
Finke stunned the world, twice, taking roughly six seconds off his personal best in each event.
“Honestly, it doesn't really seem too real,” he said after the 1500. And how about hours later, at yet another news conference?
“Ah, no, it still doesn't feel real,” he said. “I'm not sure when it will.”
He said all of this with a smile, and in a customarily shy tone. When a news conference moderator introduced him as Robert, and asked for an opening statement, he said, “Um, I'm Robert.” He laughed. “Hey. Tokyo's been great. I love being here.”
He’s also looking forward to home, though. He wants to hug his family. He’s particularly looking forward to taking the family dog, Brewster, a golden retriever-German shepherd mix, for a walk in the park. “And just messing around,” Finke said.
No word yet on whether two gold medals will be invited.
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