TOKYO – About 10 meters after Bobby Finke flipped off the far wall Thursday, the last turn in the men’s 800-meter freestyle, he saw that he was gaining ground.
It was all the motivation he needed.
The 21-year-old Floridian, who spent most of the race in the middle of the pack, surged past the rest of the field to win a surprising gold in the event at the Tokyo Olympics, finishing with a personal-best time of 7:41.87.
The gold medal came as a shock to casual onlookers – and to Finke, too.
“Oh yeah,” he said, when asked if he had surprised himself with his performance. “My best time going into this was (7:47). And then in prelims, I dropped down to (7:42). And then here I dropped another second. So I had no idea that I was going to do that, honestly.”
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Gregorio Paltrinieri of Italy led much of the race and took silver. Ukraine’s Mykhailo Romanchuk finished third for bronze. It’s the first time since 1904 that the 800 freestyle has been part of the Olympic program for the men.
A rising senior at the University of Florida, Finke comes from a diehard swimming family. His mother, Jeanne, swam collegiately at Ball State. His dad, Joe, is a swim coach. And his two older sisters, Autumn and Ariel, both swam at Division I schools.
Finke credited his training regimen for his late kick Thursday. He was in fifth place with 100 meters to go, and fourth as he entered the final 50. Then, he just turned it on, summoning a final charge that he described as painful but worth it.
“It kind of goes away once you just start,” he said of the pain. “Your mind just kind of disappears, and you’re just kind of blacking out a little bit.”
The U.S. has now won 17 medals in the pool in four-plus days. Entering Thursday, swimmers had accounted for more than half of Team USA’s overall medal count.
The gold is the first for an American male swimmer in an Olympic distance race since1984.