SYDNEY — Mai Nakamura led the field until the last two strokes of the pool but had to settle for silver as she claimed Japan’s second medal in swimming at the Sydney Olympics in the women’s 100-meter backstroke Monday.
The 1999 Pan-Pacific champion, who came fifth in the same event in Atlanta four years ago, was beaten at the finish by Romania’s Diana Mocanu, who won her nation’s first-ever swimming gold.
“The last four years leading up to this Olympics have gone really quickly, but in these last two days, it seems I’ve been waiting so long,” Nakamura said after the race. “I was very nervous today.”
Mocanu edged out the 21-year-old Niigata native by just .34 of a second to post a new Olympic record of 1:00.21.
However, the silver that Japan’s International Olympic Committee member Shunichiro Okana presented to Nakamura at the medals ceremony is the first Japan has won in the event since the Rome Olympics in 1960, when Satoko Tanaka took bronze.
Nakamura came home in 1:00.55 — beating her own Japan record of 1:00.78, which she posted at the Japanese National Championships in April.
That time had been the fastest of the year coming into the Olympics, making Nakamura a strong favorite to win the event and one of Japan’s strongest gold-medal hopes.
But Mocanu, European Championships silver medalist this year, went into the final with a time of 1:00.70, the fastest in the semifinals and just .54 off the world record time of 1:00.16.
In the final, Nakamura was first off the blocks and first into the turn at the end of the first length, despite hitting the rope with her left hand as she broke the surface.
She hit the rope again on her second length on the way home and Mocanu began to draw even in the last 20 meters. But Nakamura, also a silver medalist at the 1998 World Championships, said she felt the second length was where she made up the ground to post a new personal best time.
“The actual race itself seemed so long. The first 50 was about the same as I always do, but the second 50 was faster than ever before, but it was not good enough,” she said.
Nakamura expressed disappointment that teammate Noriko Inada did not get the chance to stand on the winner’s podium. Inada was second behind Nakamura on the first length, but finished fifth, behind Nina Zhivanevskaya of Spain, who took bronze, and France’s Roxana Maracineanu. Inada posted a time of 1:01.14 — just outside her personal best of 1:01.11.