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Europe blazes in relay, but US dominates Duel

United States' Ryan Lochte swims the 100-meter backstroke during the Duel in the Pool swim meet at Georgia Tech, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) 

United States' Ryan Lochte swims the 100-meter backstroke during the Duel in the Pool swim meet at Georgia Tech, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) 

ATLANTA -- Maybe it's time to change things up at Duel in the Pool.

Again, it was an American rout.

Even though the European women posted the fasted short-course time ever in the 400-meter freestyle relay, that was one of the few highlights for the visiting team. The United States wrapped up the victory with nine events to go, more than doubling its opponent in a 181.5-80.5 triumph Saturday.

American star Ryan Lochte said a message was sent with the London Olympics only seven months away.

"This is just the start of it," said Lochte, who won the 200 individual medley. "We're the team to beat, there's no doubt about it."

Certainly, there was no uncertainty about how this Duel would turn out after the Americans won 12 of 14 events on the opening day to build an insurmountable lead. Europe performed better on Day 2, winning six of 16 races, but they had no chance of chasing down the U.S.

"It was good fun," Britain's Francesca Halsall said. "But we knew it would be hard to get past the depth of the Americans. They had some great swims. They were the better team."

Halsall and her relay teammates had plenty of fun in the 400 free, holding off a star-studded U.S. squad with Olympic veteran Natalie Coughlin leading off and 16-year-old Missy Franklin on the anchor leg.

Jeanette Ottesen of Denmark went first for the Europeans, followed by Halsall, Aliaksandra Heresimenia of Belarus and Ranomi Kromowidjojo of the Netherlands. They posted a time of 3 minutes, 27.53 seconds, which was faster than the world record of 3:28.22 set by the Netherlands in 2008, but won't count as an official mark since the swimmers are from different countries.

"We had the top four swimmers from the world championships, so we knew it would be quite exciting," Halsall said. "The Americans stepped up their game."

Franklin was about half a body-length behind Kromowidjojo in 3:28.46, the Americans coming less than three-tenths of a second from a time that would have counted as a world record, even though they didn't win the race.

For the most part, it was the Americans getting to the wall first -- a common theme at Duel in the Pool, an every-other-year event that was launched in 2003 in hopes of boosting interest in swimming beyond the Olympics.

After the U.S. easily beat Australia in the first three Duels, the format was changed in 2009 to pit the Americans against a European all-star team. But the result was much the same -- a 185-78 blowout -- and this one was nearly as lopsided.

In fairness to the Europeans, many of the continent's top swimmers skipped the Duel. There was only one swimmer each from Russia and Germany, and no one at all from Italy or the powerful French squad, which performed well at U.S. Winter Nationals two weeks ago in the same pool but with a standard 50-meter course. They passed on the chance to compete at 25 meters.

"We were prepared to swim very fast," said Jessica Hardy, who beat fellow American and world-record holder Rebecca Soni in the 100 breaststroke. "We definitely would have liked some better competition."

Eric Shanteau, captain of the men's team and a former star at Parkview, said he hopes USA Swimming can come up with a format that will give the Americans a tougher challenge at the next Duel in the Pool.

He's not very hopeful, though.

"They've got to figure out a way to make it a more interesting meet," Shanteau said. "But that's going to be a challenge. We're a country that knows how to step up at dual meets like this because we do them all the time in college. It's difficult for a lot of the other countries. They're used to having prelims and semifinals. There's no second chances in these meets. That really gives the U.S. an advantage."

Looking to bounce back after its miserable performance on the first day, Europe got off to a strong start in the 800 freestyle. Lotte Friis of Denmark won on the women's side, just missing a world record, and Pal Joensen of the Faroe Islands was first in the men's race.

Then, it settled into a familiar parade of U.S. wins.

Both 200 frees were 1-2-3 American sweeps: Franklin finishing ahead of Dana Vollmer and Katie Hoff, while Ricky Berens beat out teammates Matt McLean and Conor Dwyer. Elizabeth Simmonds of Britain pulled off an upset in the 100 backstroke, edging out Coughlin and Franklin, but Matt Grevers led another sweep of the points in the men's backstroke, followed to the wall by Nick Thoman and Lochte.

In the 200 butterfly, Kathleen Hersey won with an American women's record, while Laszlo Cseh of Hungary took the men's victory. In the 50 free, Marleen Veldhuis of the Netherlands led the Europeans to the top four spots in the women's race, but Nick Brunelli gave the American another victory. Caitlin Leverenz of the U.S. took the women's 200 IM, and the U.S. closed the meet with a victory in the men's 400 free relay.

Brendan Hansen won for the second day in a row, again edging world champion Daniel Gyurta of Hungary in the 100 breaststroke. The American beat Olympic champion Kosuke Kitajima of Japan at the Winter Nationals, and now he's shown what he can do against another top competitor.

"I've gotten back to my old self," Hansen said. "This has made me realize I can compete against the best in the world."

Hansen needed a boost of confidence. After two straight disappointing Olympics, he walked away from the sport in 2008 and didn't have any intention of returning. But he came back at the beginning of this year, unable to resist the urge of taking another shot at the individual gold medal that eluded him in both Athens and Beijing.

"This really sets me up well for next year," he said. "I'm really enjoying racing and competing so much."

Now, if someone can just figure out how to give the Americans better competition at Duel in the Pool.