By Phillip Whitten//Contributor | Wednesday, July 31, 2019
THE first four days of the FINA World Aquatic Championships, held July 18-29 in Gwangju, South Korea, the US competitors could be likened to a very large grizzly bear, prematurely awakened from hibernation. Not yet fully awake, it wanders around the cave, without direction, trying to get itself oriented.
The next day, it all comes together. The bear knows exactly what it needs to do and exactly how to go about doing it. So, too, Team USA.
In the first half of this meet, the United States found itself in the midst of a street brawl with Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy and Russia. Each time a country made it to the top of the heap, along came another contender to the throne to knock it off. So, it’s not surprising that no one was prepared for the explosion of talent and performance that ensued.
Caeleb, Katie and Simone
Caeleb Dressel led the way with an 8-medal, 6-gold-medal performance. Back in 2017, he had similar success: 7 gold medals.
Starting things off, he flew to an American record 22.35 for the 50 fly, decisively defeating Oleg Kostin of Russia at 22.70. Third place shared the ink, as 39 year-old Brazilian Masters swimmer, Nicholas Santos, took the bronze (22.79).
Not surprisingly, it was Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel and Caeleb Dressel who rallied the U.S. team behind their leadership with World and American record swims, but every member of the American national team found ways to promote the cause.
You, no doubt, recall that Katie started feeling weak and nauseous during the prelims of the 1500-meters. She the scratched from the 200 prelims and 1500 finals, which led to rumors claiming she would withdraw from the meet altogether.
Although Katie looked pale and exhausted, she proved she is one tough young lady by swimming the 800, turning in a stellar performance (8:13.58) that, if swum by any other woman, would be considered phenomenal.
Phelps’ Fly Records Fall
Caeleb proved he is no one-stroke kind of guy, complementing his butterfly gold with two more for the freestyle. And he did it in convincing fashion, taking both the 50 and the 100 freestyle sprints with wall-to-wall victories in American record times of 21.04 and 46.96. No one challenged him in the 50 and only Australia’s Kyle Chalmers took a stab at it with his 47.08 in the 100.
Fittingly, it was young Mr. Dressel who notched the first world record, a monster 49.50 in the semifinals of the 100-meter butterfly. To show it was no fluke, he cranked out a 49.66 effort in the finals. The old mark, 49.82, was set by Michael Phelps at the World Championships held in Rome in 2009. Always a class guy, Michael called Caeleb to congratulate him on breaking his (Michael’s) records.
Two days earlier, Michael also lost his 200-meter fly mark, a record that had withstood countless assaults for more than a decade. The old standard (1:51.51) fell to a beautifully-paced 1:50.73, authored by 19 year-old Hungarian, Kristof Milak.
The 200 fly was just as tough for the women, with the three top 200-meter flyers exchanging rankings in each of the two preliminary rounds. The final went to Hungary’s Boglarka Kapas in 2:06.78. Americans Hali Flickinger and Katie Drabot took second and third.
And speaking of tough, we’ve got to get some photos of Simone Manuel in her Supergirl outfit and post it on your wall. At the last two Worlds and the 2016 Olympics, she was called upon to rescue a vulnerable U.S. swim team. Each time she went just fast enough to get the job done, this year clocking an American record 52.04 for the 100 free. This is the kind of athlete you want on your team: A winner!
Toward the end of the meet Russia’s Evgeny Rylov edged America’s Ryan Murphy, who had swept the backstroke events in Rio and was trying to repeat. He came close, but fell a bit short. Olivia Smoliga timed her finishing touch perfectly and emerged the winner in a blanket finish in the women’s 50-meter backstroke. Her time: 27.33 seconds moving up a notch from last year was Brazilian Etienne Medeiros.
Perhaps the most unheralded of the record-breakers was 17 year-old Regan Smith. She broke the world record in the women’s 200m back, clocking an awesome 2:03.35 in semifinals after going 2:06.01 in prelims. She won gold in finals in 2:03.69.
She followed that up with a world record in the 100m backstroke leading off the women’s world-record-setting 400m medley relay. I find her excitement and enthusiasm totally genuine and infinitely superior to any canned recital learned at a “how to talk to the press” seminar.
The IMs produced a rare double-double, with Hungary’s Iron Lady, Katinka Hosszu, taking the two women’s medleys and Japan’s Daiya Seto swimming away with the men’s.
Hosszu’s 4:30.39 victory in the 400, was her fourth consecutive World Champs title in the event. China’s Ye Shiwen was second in both races.
Hosszu followed the same tactic in both races, hanging back the first half of the race, making the big move on breaststroke, then holding on for the freestyle.
Seto had little trouble in his two successful gold medal bids, using a strong fly leg, then cementing his win in the breaststroke, barely out-touching a fast-charging Jay Litherland for the win in 4:08.95 to Litherland’s 4:09.22.
The relays turned out to be among the most exciting events of the entire meet. Here are some of the relay highlights:
The men’s 4 x 100 meters freestyle: USA edged Russia, 3:09.06 to 3:09.97. In the 4 x 200 free, it was Australia nipping the Russians, 7:00.85 to 7:01.81 with the USA third in 7:01.98.
The men’s 4 x 100 medley relay saw Great Britain’s Duncan Scott come from behind with the meet’s fastest 100-meter relay split, 46.14. It gave the Brits the gold over the U.S., 3:28.10 to 3:28.45. Russia was third at 3:28.81. Scott’s split is the second fastest in swimming history.
The women’s relays were every bit as exciting as the men’s. In the women’s 4 x 100 medley, the team of Regan Smith, Lilly King, Kelsi Dahlia and Simone Manuel clocked a world record 3:50.40, three seconds ahead of Australia. Splits: Smith at 57.57, King at 1:04.81, Dahlia at 56.16, and Manuel at 51.86.
This meet turned out to be perfect for USA Swimming to assess exactly where we stand one year before Tokyo. There are some events in which we obviously are vulnerable, but we have plenty of time to fix them. There’s every reason to believe that the USA will be the No. 1 swimming nation when Tokyo rolls around.