Bobby Finke charges on final lap to win gold in 800 freestyle at Tokyo Olympics
TOKYO – Bobby Finke flipped off the wall for the last time Thursday, popped out of the water and noticed, all of the sudden, that he was gaining ground on the rest of the field.
It was all the motivation he needed.
The 21-year-old University of Florida student began furiously spinning his arms as 40 meters became 20, and 20
became 10. After spending almost the entirety of the men’s 800-meter freestyle final in the middle of the pack,
he surged past Italy’s Gregorio Paltrinieri and Ukraine’s Mykhailo Romanchuk to win gold at the Tokyo Olympics,
finishing with a personal-best time of 7:41.87.
Finke became the first American male swimmer to win gold in an Olympic distance race since 1984.
“I honestly did not expect to win. At all,” he said. “Let alone medal.”
A rising senior at Florida, Finke had arrived in Tokyo with only the 12th-best qualifying time in the 800 free, which
was being contested at the Olympics in Tokyo for the first time since 1904. His entry time (7:47.58) was a full
eight seconds slower than that of Paltrinieri, who entered as the favorite.
But then, in the preliminary round, Finke shaved five seconds off his previous best, which gave him confidence.
His time in the final Thursday was an additional second faster.
“When I got third (in the preliminaries) and dropped the six seconds I think from my best time, I was like, ‘Oh, I
actually have a chance to do this,’ ” he said. “That’s what really started it off for me. I just tried to do my best to
get my hand on the wall.”
Even so, the gold medal still came as a shock – both to Finke and those who have followed swimming in the
leadup to Tokyo.
“How did this happen, Bobby? Really?” an exasperated reporter asked during a news
conference. “Congratulations, I’m thrilled for you, but how did this happen?”
Finke credited his coaches for teaching him to “switch gears” in the closing moments of a race, regardless of its
In this particular instance, Finke was in fifth place with 100 meters to go, and fourth as he entered the final 50.
Then, he 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.”
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 Summer, swam at Florida and Florida State, respectively.
Finke said he entered his first competitive race when he was 5 years old.
“My mom taught me swim lessons and everything,” he said. “… I have two older sisters, we’re all super competitive and we’re all just racing each other all the time.”
Finke’s gold was one of five medals won by American swimmers Thursday. Caeleb Dressel also won gold, in the
men’s 100 freestyle, while Regan Smith and Hali Flickinger took silver and bronze, respectively, in the women’s
200 butterfly. The U.S. also won silver in a thrilling women’s 4×200 relay, with Katie Ledecky powering the
Americans past Australia in a close finish.
The U.S. has now won 21 medals in the pool in five days. Entering Thursday, swimmers had accounted for more
than half of Team USA’s overall medal count.
Finke said he realized that winning Olympic gold will change his life forever, but the magnitude of the moment
still hadn’t sunk in. What he’ll most remember is the celebration after the win, as he slapped the water in triumph.
“That was like the first time I celebrated in a race,” he said. “I think that’s probably the happiest I’ve been from the sport.”