BEIJING Charlotte swimmer Ricky Berens is scheduled to make his Olympic debut today, swimming a leg of the 800-meter freestyle relay for the U.S. men in the preliminaries of the event.
Ideally, Berens would like to duplicate the success of Cullen Jones, the swimmer with N.C. State and Charlotte connections who had a gold-medal effort in the 400-meter freestyle relay. Like Jones, Berens will be faced with the fact that he must go faster than most or all of his American teammates in the relay preliminaries to have a chance at swimming in the final about 12 hours later.
“Everybody wants to swim in the final,” said Eddie Reese, the U.S. men's head swimming coach and Berens' head coach at the University of Texas. “Even the managers want to swim in the final.”
Reese said he wouldn't decide what to do with the final until the preliminary has concluded. It's certain that Michael Phelps will take one of the four spots in the 800, but beyond that anything is possible. The U.S. will be a heavy favorite to win one of the preliminaries as the field of 16 is cut to eight.
Berens would receive the same medal whether he competes in only the preliminaries or in both the prelims and the final.
Jones was able to advance from the preliminary to the 400 final Sunday and then helped the Americans set a world record in the final by nearly four seconds in a magnificent race won by a fingernail over France.
Berens, 20, grew up in Charlotte and graduated from South Mecklenburg. He swam many years both for his mother – local swim coach Leslie Berens – and at the Mecklenburg Aquatic Club. He earned his Olympic spot by swimming his personal best in the 200-meter individual freestyle by more than two seconds at the Olympic Trials in July.
Over the final 100 meters of that race, Berens said, the one thought that he kept in his head was: “Olympics, Olympics, Olympics.”
“Ricky did his lifetime best by a lot to make this team,” Reese said. “I was a little bit surprised that he went as fast as he did in the Trials. And I think he'll do even better here.”
A rising junior at Texas, Berens is considered by many to have a shot at qualifying for multiple events at the 2012 Olympics in London. For these Summer Games in China, though, the 800 relay is Berens' only event.