For the first time in 17 years, Michael Phelps is not a part of world swimming stage. After going out on top with a four gold, one silver performance at last years Summer Games in Rio at age 31, many casual observers of the sport (i.e. those who only watch during the Olympics) wondered if the sport would suffer in without the incredible star power and crossover appeal that Phelps carried for years. Maybe we would all just fall asleep until Tokyo in 2020 and then find out who were the stars at that time.
If you’re a casual observer and and this is your school of thought, wake up from your nap. The performances at this year’s FINA World Swimming Championships in Budapest, Hungary proved that there are plenty of headlines to pay attention to leading up to the next Olympic Cycle. Lead by a dominant performance by Team USA and a strong supporting cast of athletes from other nations, there is a lot to look forward to in the next three years. Here’s a recap
USA Swimming-Deep And Talented
Subtract a team’s best player and watch what they do the next year. The exodus of Phelps left questions, but also opened opportunities. Lead by a team that full of youth with the right mix of veterans, USA Swimming captured 38 medals total medals, easily outdistancing its closest competitors in Australia, Russia and China, who each had 10 medals. Most evident in this go around at FINA Worlds was the depth for Team USA, no more present within the relays-all but one in which they captured gold.
Here are some highlights of the Team USA and the rest of the week in Budapest.
Caeleb Dressel: Get Familiar
Remember you read this article when Toyko 2020 comes around. And remember his name.
Let’s get one thing clear: Caeleb Dressel is not Michael Phelps. But he was Phelps-like this past week in Budapest.
Last year in Rio, Caeleb Dressel played a supporting role in capturing two gold medals. He lead off the men’s 4 x 100 free relay and swam in the prelims of the men’s 4 x 100 medley relay. Most in the swimming world knew what the sophomore from the University of Florida was capable of and most casual observes knew little to nothing about him. His performance this week him in rare territory with the best and only equaled by the greatest swimmer of all-time.
In eight days, Dressel raced 15 times. He got things started by leading off a rousing victory 4 x 100 free relay for the U.S., breaking the 100 m free American record in the process. Then, he swam the butterfly leg in the 4 x 100 mixed medley relay, with the U.S. breaking the world record. Then, he took gold in the 100 free, going the second fastest time in history only behind Michael Phelps. The next, he accomplished the impossible: winning three gold medals in a single night (50 free, 100 butterfly and mixed 4 x 100 medley, which the Team USA won in world record time). Finally, he capped the best week ever on the final day of competition, by winning gold in the men’s 4 x 100 medley relay as the U.S. swam the second fastest time in history.
If you lost count, that’s seven gold medals. SEVEN! Dressel tied Phelps’ championship record for golds at a world championships and became the first man to win three gold medals in one night at the world championships. The thing that stood out the most was his stamina after a grueling program and the explosive speed that he swam with. I’ve never see anyone explode off the blocks at a start and completely take charge of race within the first 25 meters. It’s similar the burst of athletes like Rocket Ismail, Bo Jackson and Kevin Johnson have.
Come Tokyo, he may not equal record of eight gold medals at an Olympic Games, but he could accomplish a number of feats that have not been seen in ages in the sport of swimming. If you don’t know about him, now you know.
Ledecky: Dominance, But One Slip Up
Katie Ledecky entered the week in Budapest hoping to equal compatriot’s Missy Franklin’s record of six golds at the World Championship. After the amazing summer she had last year at Rio, no one doubted that she would do so. She kicked off her competition swimming the third leg of a gold medal USA women’s 4 x 100 performance. As she always does, she smashed the competition in the 400 free by three seconds. She started off her third day by winning the 1500 free by an astonishing 19 seconds. Later, she had her one disappointment, finshing tied for silver in the 200 free with Australia’s Emma McKeon behind Italy’s Frederica Pellegrini. Ledecky won gold and was the defending world champion in the event. She straightened up by swimming anchor on the U.S. women’s gold medal 4 x 200 free relay. Then she closed out her week in signature fashion in her signature event, blasting the field away in the 800 free and winning by three seconds. Her five golds are still a magnificent accomplishment, but the silver sticks in her craw a huge letdown. In her post race interviews, you could tell how disappointed she was that she didn’t win and said that it would motivate her to do better.
All in all, not bad for Katie. But you can bet your paycheck that as soon as she rests from this week, she will be back training in that 200 free to avoid disappointment again.
Simone Manuel: Picking Up Where She Left Off
When the pressure is on, the odds are stacked and the lights are the brightest, Simone Manuel comes up big. No, not big-MASSIVE.
We all watched when Simone Manuel stood mouth agape as she found out she won the gold in the women’s 100 free in Rio last summer, becoming the first African-American woman to accomplish such.
She was supposed to figure in the medal conversation, but supposedly had no chance off beating the Campbell sisters (Cate and Bronte) of Australia or world record holder Sarah Sjöstrom of Sweden.
But she did.
This time around, she was fully expected to be on the podium, but was expected to finish second to Sjöstrom once again in the 100 free.
She didn’t. She won again
Three times this week, she was asked to anchor three relays and bring home a gold medal for Team USA.
She delivered each time, helping to break two world records in the process.
Coupled with a bronze in the women’s 50 free, Manuel has continued her streak of excellence and momentum brought forward from last summer. She’s become one of the sport’s clutch performers on the biggest stages.
And she’s only 20. And she has now 7 major championship gold medals to her resume.
The world needs to do itself a favor and never count her out when she in a race. Tokyo in 2020 could be massive for her.
Chase Kalisz: Carry On Tradition
After finishing with a silver in the 400 IM in Rio to Japan’s Kosuke Hagino, Chase Kalisz felt like he let so many people down. The Bel Air, MD native, who trained with Michael Phelps and coach Bob Bowman at the famed North Baltimore Aquatic Club, felt that he personally let down not only Phelps (who won gold in 2004 and 2008 in the event), but the long list of American swimmers who have dominated the event over the last 30 years. There would be no disappointment this time, as Kalisz handled his business; first in the 200 IM and then in the 400 IM on the last day of the meet. He registered personal best times in both events and admitted that he took the loss in Rio personally and wanted to redeem himself. Just 23, he figures to reassert the U.S.’s dominance in the event it once had.
Once Again, It’s Lilly’s Time
It took one finger wave at Russia’s Yulia Efimova as she watched in the ready room to make Lilly King famous around the world with an unforgettable image last year in Rio. Then, she backed it up with an epic win in the women’s 100 breaststroke, as she out-touched her Russian rival for gold. This year, there was no such build up leading up women’s 100 breaststroke as both King and Efimova were expected to advance to the final. But then something happened.
In the first semifinal, Efimova won with a national record time. She covered her mouth and smiled.
Then, in a play on King’s gesture last year, she wagged her finger at the camera.
Oh HELL NO!!!
This set the stage for a great final. What did Lilly King do? Only defeat Efimova again in the final with a world record time? On the final day of competition, King bested Efimova again and broke the world record in the 50 breaststroke. Efimova did have a measure of revenge, winning the 200 breaststroke, while King finished off of the podium in 4th. After the 50 breast medal ceremony, the two rivals shared a hug. But Efimova might want to keep her fingers down completely before stepping into the pool with King again. Her record is not advantageous with that action.
The Rest of the World: Not Quite there, But Catching Up
While the U.S. dominated this past week Budapest, there were plenty of noteworthy performances from other competing countries during the week. One thing is evident: The U.S. is clearly the best swimming nation on the planet, but the rest of the world (outside Australia) is catching up and making moves.
The “Iron Lady” Strikes Again
After a wildly successful campaign in Rio that lead her to three golds and one silver, Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu set foot in her home country ready to have repeat performance. Each time she introduced pre-race to the crowd in the Danube Arena, the crowd erupted in cheers. She did not disappoint them, winning two golds in her signature events, the 200 and 400 IMs and finishing second in the 200 fly and third in the 200 back. She is clearly a rockstar in Hungary and you could tell what her victories meant to her on home soil. Thankfully, we did not see too much of Hosszu’s husband and coach Shane Tusup, who became a sideshow with his wild antics before, during and after her races. At 31, she figures to continue to be factor up until Tokyo.
Peaty: No Match
Last year in Rio, Great Britain’s Adam Peaty dominated his events unlike any other swimmer in their specialty. To take the words from wrestling great Chris Jericho, he is “the best in the world at what he does.” That continued in Budapest in truly ridiculous fashion. Peaty tallied up two gold medals in 50 and 100 breaststroke, breaking his own world record in both events. In the 50, Peaty broke his world record in the prelim swims and final. In the 4 x 100 medley relay, he brought the Brits from last place during the breaststroke leg into a slight lead when he touched the wall. His performance could be credited as vital in positioning Britain to take silver to the U.S. in the relay. Over the last three years, Peaty has piled up a resume that has him primed to the best in breaststroke ever. He owns the top 10 times in history in both the 50 and the 100. There are lots of great swimmers in the world, but there may not be anyone better at a discipline than Peaty is with the breaststroke.
Sjöström: Still Fast
Despite the disappointment of Silver in the 100 free, Sarah Sjöström of Sweden had a hell of a meet. She started her championships by leading off Sweden’s 4 x 100 relay and breaking the world record on her split. She sandwiched her disappointment in the 100 free winning three gold medals in rather comfortable fashion. She is still one of the fastest swimmers in the world and has claimed the title of ‘worlds fastest women’ by winning the 50 free.
- South Africa’s Chad Le Clos overcame disappointment in Rio by winning his third straight world championship in the 200 fly. He overcame veteran and hometown legend Lazlo Cseh of Hungary and Daiya Seto of Japan to win.
- Sun Yang of China also got a measure of revenge by winning the 400 free, beating Australia’s Mack Horton and Italy’s Gabriele Detti. Last year in Rio, Horton bested Sun in the 400 free, which sparked off a huge rivalry between the two. Sun also won gold in the 200 free, but failed to medal in the 800 free and did not make the final of the 1500.
- Mereia Belmonte of Spain capped off a great meet by winning gold in the women’s 200 fly, adding to her two silvers in the 400 IM and 1500 free, respectively.
- Emily Seebohm brought home Australia’s only swimming gold medal of the world championships -men or women- in the 100 backstroke. After seeing the Aussies and Americans battle fiercely in the pool for the better part of the last 20 years, this is the worst performance I have seen from an Australian swim team. In Australia, the swim team makes major headlines. It’s time to go back to the drawing board.
- The race of the meet may have come in the men’s 1500 free final. Italy’s Gregorio Paltrinieri and Ukraine’s Mykhailo Romanchuk swam almost stride for stride for almost the entire race before Paltrinieri pulled away slightly with 150 meters left to gold to defend his world championship in the event. Australia’s Horton finished with the bronze. The 1500 is swimming’s most grueling race and it is rare that you get a close race in an event where the winner normally wins by three seconds or more at times.
- The depth of Team USA is astonishing. Aside from the stars, Team USA had great performances from Kelsi Worrell (fly), Katie Meili (breast), Townley Haas (200 free), Kathleen Baker (back), Bethany Galat (breast) and grizzled veterans and Olympic champions Nathan Adrian, Matt Grevers and Ryan Murphy. The mix of youth and veterans has served Team USA well and it will be interesting to see what these faces and the ones that emerge from the shadows as we head towards the next Olympic Cycle.
- Swimming programs to watch over this next cycle: Great Britain, Canada, Hungary and China. Each country seems to be developing depth within their teams as well.
- On many occasions on the NBC and Olympic Channel broadcasts, we were reminded by swimming and broadcasting great Rowdy Gaines that many of world records that were broken and/or still stand came from the “high tech suit era.” This refers to the period from 2007-2009 when the full body swim suits were popular and had swimmers like torpedoes in the water, breaking world records at every turn. FINA banned the suits in 2009 from competition and many of the world records from that era still stand. Some are starting to fall, slowly but surely.
To recap all of the results, check out the results on FINA’s page. For those of you who are visual, check out the video from each event final from this years world championships in Budapest.