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By David Rieder
BARCELONA, Spain, August 3. SIX years ago, Australia’s Libby Trickett (then Libby Lenton) won five gold medals at the World Championships in Melbourne, much to the delight of the home crowd. Trickett pulled off mild upsets in the 100 free and 100 fly, defended her 50 free world crown, and she swam on two championship relay squads. However, at the conclusion of that meet, few considered Trickett the obvious female swimmer of the meet because of the accomplishments of Laure Manaudou. The French star became the first swimmer under 1:56 in the women’s 200 free while also winning gold in the 400 free and silver in the 800, where she posted the then-third-fastest time ever.
After seven days of competition in Barcelona, Missy Franklin has matched Trickett with five gold medals, and she could surpass that total with the American women favored to come out on top in the medley relay. She won the 200 back today in 2:04.81, the second-fastest swim in history behind her own world record but a seemingly-routine performance by the standard she has created. Meanwhile, Katie Ledecky finished her competition with her fourth gold medal in four races, and she has a leg up on Franklin for top honors. She set her second world record of the meet in the 800 and became just the second swimmer to ever sweep the 400, 800, and 1500 at a World Championships.
The 800 today showed just how much respect Ledecky has earned from her peers after an absolutely dominating week. Lotte Friis, typically one of the fastest-closing distance swimmers out there, put everything she had on the line from the gun, leading Ledecky by more than a second after 500 meters. She knew she would need the swim of a lifetime to beat the young American. Still, that wasn’t enough; Ledecky blew by the 2009 World Champion to win by almost 2.5 seconds and beat out Rebecca Adlington’s world record, the mark that narrowly eluded her in London last year. The performance even drew applause by Friis as Ledecky exited the pool, having completed one of the most impressive weeks ever at a World Championships.
On the men’s side, the competition for swimmer of the meet had never been that clear-cut. In a meet without Michael Phelps and with Ryan Lochte not at his best, the door had opened for someone to claim the title with two wins and impressive performances in each final. However, only three men have won multiple gold medals, Lochte, Chad Le Clos, and Sun Yang. Lochte’s candidacy took a hit today with his sixth-place finish in the 100 fly, his second non-medal-winning performance of the week, even though he missed the silver medal by just 0.13.
Le Clos, meanwhile, swam a lifetime best in his 100 fly at 51.06, but his 200 fly didn’t live up to the amazing swim he posted in the Olympic final to touch out Phelps. Now, Sun could snatch the title outright with a solid performance in tomorrow’s 1500. Sun enters the race as a big favorite to match Ledecky with the 400-800-1500 sweep, a feat only Grant Hackett has previously completed among men. In the absence of Sun’s predecessor as Olympic champion, Ous Mellouli, Ryan Cochrane and Connor Jaeger look like the candidates capable of potentially challenging the Chinese sensation, but he won’t have to approach his world record of 14:31.02 to claim gold.
No events have matched the women’s breaststrokes in intrigue, speed, and history-making this week. After world records in the semi-finals of both the 100 and 200 breast — and a 200 breast final in which the world record-holder settled for the silver — the record in the 50 fell twice today. Most of the talk of records in the event centered around Ruta Meilutyte, who set a meet record for the 50 as a split in her 100 world record, so jaws dropped when Yuliya Efimova set the world record in prelims. Efimova, interestingly, has had more of her success in the 50 and 200 breast than in the 100; she earned silvers in the 50 and 200 at the 2011 World Champs but missed the podium in the 100.
Meilutyte, of course, snatched the record away in the semi-final with a 29.48, crushing Efimova’s 29.78 from the morning. In a 50, records are usually broken by hundredths (as in prelims), so three tenths qualifies as a huge margin. No one else in the field can swim that fast, so the race in finals will be Meilutyte’s to lose. She will duel with Efimova, but don’t forget about Jessica Hardy, the former world record-holder and the defending World Champion, and Rikke Moeller Pederson, the new world record-holder in the 200, will also be in the final. That race should be a highlight of an action-packed final day of swimming in Barcelona.
Check out David Rieder’s Facebook page to see more of his thoughts on the FINA World Championships and his updated race predictions prior to each finals session.