08/03/2012 07:01 EDT | Updated 10/03/2012 05:12 EDT

Ryan Cochrane Advances To Men's 1,500 Freestyle Final At London Games

LONDON - Ryan Cochrane looks like a man ready to race for an Olympic medal.

Smooth and powerful in the water, the Victoria swimmer dominated his heat Friday and qualified third for Saturday's 1,500 freestyle final.

"It was good to have a swim this morning and really build off that," Cochrane said Friday. "That's exactly what I wanted to swim."

Cochrane, 23, won Olympic bronze four years ago in Beijing as well as silver at the last two world championships. If he wants gold, China's Sun Yang is the man to beat.

Sun was 10 seconds faster than Cochrane at last year's world championship en route to setting a world record of 14 minutes 34.14 seconds.

Yang was fastest in qualifying Friday, followed by Oussama Mellouli of Tunisia 2.98 seconds back and Cochrane 6.06 behind.

Cochrane's calling card is setting a punishing pace off the blocks to make his competitors suffer. The thing is, that's Sun's strategy too.

"I think Sun Yang is beatable," Cochrane declared. "All of us are vying for that spot. I just want to put together a race that I'm proud of.

"Hopefully that means I can be vying for top spot."

His 1,500 heat was Cochrane's first swim since Saturday's opening day of swim competition. Cochrane prepared to race the 400 final after the morning heats that day, but was bumped from the eighth and final berth when another swimmer's disqualification was overturned.

"I'm still learning in that event," Cochrane said. "I take full responsibility for it. I was just too slow in the morning.

"It's been a pretty tough week. I underestimated how hard it was going to be Day 1. It was a bit of an up and down day and it really took an emotional toll for a couple of days, but I left the village, got my thoughts back together."

Cochrane spent the week living in a downtown London apartment with his nutritionist to get away from village life and regroup. During one of his commutes, the music on his iPod suddenly cut out and Cochrane immediately thought "pickpocket".

"The guy grabbed it, so as soon as my music stopped, I went 'oh God,'" Cochrane recounted. "They'd warned us about it so I knew it could happen.

"There's no way I would have caught the guy but about 10 people around me, because I was wearing my Canada stuff, were watching, so they grabbed him. There's the Olympic experience as a whole. People are great."

The Canadian swim team needs Cochrane's medal to meet its goals in London. Swimming Canada chief executive officer Pierre Lafontaine said prior to the Games that "two or three medals" and "way more than 10" finals were the targets here.

Brent Hayden of Mission, B.C., won bronze in the 100 freestyle Wednesday. Cochrane on Saturday and open-water swimmer Richard Weinberger next week can satisfy the medal objective if they both get on the podium.

Beyond that, however, the swim team made only seven finals in London.

"That's disappointing," Lafontaine said. "We do have to set targets.

"I think we're going to walk out of here not necessarily reaching the target in finals and other aspects, but unless we aim at it, we'd be silly not to do that. We want to belong among the big nations. I do think our athletes are that good. We're getting there. We just have to keep plugging away at it."

Three Canadians finished ninth, one spot out of a final. China has joined the U.S. and Australia as the world's swimming powerhouses, which makes it more difficult for other countries to get a piece of the medal pie.

At $9.3 million, Canada's swimmers received more money from Own The Podium than any other sport in the four years since Beijing.

Lafontaine's long-term vision for the swim team is to be among the top eight countries by 2020.

"That means we need to be five-six medals, 18 to 22 finals consistently," he said at trials in April.

He felt Friday that Canada can still get there.

"I don't think it feels further away," Lafontaine explains. "A couple of years ago, we didn't have that many people swimming every night, every semis, every this, every that. We weren't hitting on many fronts.

"Now we're in the game every event almost, which is not what we were doing in 2007 when we just had Brent. We're knocking on the doors in so many events."

Also among the highlights were 18-year-old Brittany MacLean reaching the 400 freestyle final and 19-year-old Sinead Russell doing the same in 200 backstroke. MacLean finished seventh and Russell eighth.

A couple of bold swims Friday pushed the men's medley relay team to a berth in the final. Charles Francis of Cowansville, Que., led off with a 53.91 backstroke split, one of Canada's fastest times in two decades. Hayden's 47.52 freestyle anchor leg tied the winning time in the 100 two days earlier.

Francis, Hayden, Scott Dickens of Burlington, Ont., and Joe Bartoch of London, Ont., grabbed the eighth and final berth for Saturday's relay final and what will be the finale of Olympic swimming in the pool.

"This is a blue-chip event for us, the medley relay," Lafontaine said. "These four guys are bringing it back to where it belongs."

Victoria Poon of Lasalle, Que., was 15th in the women's 50-metre freestyle and did not advance.

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