5 Women’s Storylines To Follow On Road to the 2024 Olympics in Paris

Summer Mcintosh of Canada competes in the 400m Individual Medley Women Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 30th, 2023. Summer Mcintosh placed first winning the gold medal.
Summer McIntosh -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

5 Women’s Storylines To Follow On Road to the 2024 Olympics in Paris

Australia was the dominant women’s team of this year’s World Championships in Fukuoka, with the Dolphins winning six individual gold medals plus two relays, both in world-record time. But the meet was not lacking in dramatic moments, with six total world records on the women’s side—including the oldest record on the books going down—and gold medalists ranging in age from 16 to 29. Also, the reign of dominance of one of history’s all-time greats continued. Now, all the champions from Fukuoka have their sights set on Olympic glory less than one year away.

Summer McIntosh Positions Herself to Star in Paris

Summer McIntosh arrived in Fukuoka in the pole position for the event circled as the race of the meet—the race of the century, even. Earlier in the year, McIntosh had taken down Ariarne Titmus’ world record in the 400 freestyle, and the 16-year-old Canadian would try to hold onto first place as she contended for a world title against Titmus and another previous gold medalist in the event, Katie Ledecky.

But for the first time in the teenager’s rapid run toward swimming stardom, she had a poor race. McIntosh never hit her speed to challenge Titmus and Ledecky, and as Titmus reclaimed the world record, McIntosh fell to fourth as Erika Fairweather charged down the stretch to take bronze.

McIntosh, though, refused to allow one swim to define her World Championships and derail the buildup toward an expected prolific showing at the Paris Olympics. After one day off from racing, she was back to her usual tricks midway through the meet. Winning her first two world titles in 2022 had been followed by her first two world records (in the 400 free and 400 IM) at the 2023 Canadian Trials plus world junior records in the 200 free, 200 butterfly and 200 IM. After missing her best time by nearly four seconds in the 400 free, she was again hitting best times in the 200 free and 200 fly before finishing just off her world record in a dominant 400 IM.

Placing higher than third in the 200 free would have been a tall task, given that Mollie O’Callaghan broke a 14-year-old world record on her way to gold while Titmus swam the third-quickest time ever. McIntosh finished in 1:53.65 to move to fifth all-time, edging veteran Siobhan Haughey for bronze. In the 200 fly, McIntosh entered a tie for fifth in history as she got out ahead of American rival Regan Smith and never gave the rest of the field a chance.

Finally, McIntosh was not far off her 400 IM world record of 4:25.87 as she beat the field by four seconds, her 4:27.11 marking the third-best mark ever. That medley race took place one week after McIntosh’s disastrous 400 free, and it marked the culmination of one of the best big-meet turnarounds ever, placing McIntosh’s star on the rise again leading into the Olympic year.

Looking forward to the Paris Games, McIntosh looks like the strong favorite in both of her world-title events, and even after the results in the anticipated 400 free showdown in Fukuoka, don’t expect the Canadian, who would swim in her second Olympics prior to her 18th birthday, to surrender to Titmus, Ledecky and Fairweather in that big moment.

Kaylee McKeown Takes This Round Against Regan Smith

Kaylee Mckeown of Australia reacts after winning the gold medal in the 100m Backstroke Women Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 25th, 2023.

Kaylee McKeown — Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

The only three-time individual gold medalist in Fukuoka was Australia’s Kaylee McKeown, who became the first woman to sweep all events in one stroke since the 50-meter races were added to the World Championships program in 2001. And in all three of those races, McKeown had to fend off the same American challenger: Regan Smith, who preceded McKeown as the world record holder in the 100 and 200.

Smith showed superior early speed to McKeown, leading halfway through the 100 back and at each intermediate split in the 200 back, and the American ended up swimming faster than the winning time in all three events from the 2022 edition of the World Championships. But each time, McKeown was just a notch better, showing clutch finishing speed on all three occasions to reach the wall first.

Expect this duo to continue battling in backstroke events moving forward, with McKeown 22 years old and Smith 21. After finishing well off her best times in 2022, McKeown has returned to world-record form this year, breaking Smith’s 200 back mark in March, while Smith has returned to 2:03-territory in the 200 back for the first time in four years, with a move to train with Coach Bob Bowman at Arizona State University producing immediate dividends.

Don’t be surprised if McKeown and Smith again take gold and silver in the 100 and 200 back at next year’s Paris Olympics, and Smith surely will be hungry to reverse the order of finish with her longtime rival.

Katie Ledecky Continuing Quest for Historic Heights

At this point in her career, Katie Ledecky may no longer be a contender for international medals in the 200 free, but her 400 free abilities are still elite—although currently behind the likes of Ariarne Titmus and Summer McIntosh. Over 800 and 1500 meters, however, Ledecky remains untouchable, her winning streaks in both events having stretched out over a decade. In Fukuoka, a pair of blowout victories made her the first swimmer to win five world titles in two different events (800 and 1500 free) and then the first swimmer ever to win six straight in one event (800 free).

And remember, Ledecky’s competition is getting faster. She faced a threat from Titmus in the 800 free after the Aussie lowered the 400 free world record. Ledecky still went wire-to-wire, winning by 4.44 seconds as China’s Li Bingjie became the second-quickest woman in history and Titmus tied her best time. In the 1500, Ledecky’s 17-second victory came in 15:26.27, the third-quickest mark ever recorded. The two gold medals in Fukuoka gave Ledecky 16 individual world titles, passing Michael Phelps for the most all-time.

Ledecky is set up to become the first female swimmer ever to win four consecutive Olympic golds in one race, the 800 free. Currently, she and Australia’s Dawn Fraser (100 free) and Hungary’s Krisztina Egerszegi (200 back) are the only three-peat winners, so Ledecky could join Michael Phelps (men’s 200 IM) alone atop the sport with another win next year. The most dominant stretch in the sport’s history over one discipline rolls on.

Can Sarah Sjostrom Continue Her Late-Career Winning Ways?

Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden celebrates after winning the gold medal in the 50m Butterfly Women Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 29th, 2023.

Sarah Sjostrom — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Overshadowed by the legendary swimmers with whom she has shared the pool deck over the last decade-and-a-half, Sarah Sjostrom has now been winning major gold medals for almost half her life. She was just 15 when she won 100 fly gold at the 2009 World Championships, taking advantage of then-legal full-body polyurethane suits to break Inge de Bruijn’s world record. She would again break the 100 fly world record (in a textile suit) in 2015 and 2016, the latter effort yielding the only Olympic gold medal of her career thus far.

And this year, weeks before her 30th birthday (Aug. 17), Sjostrom won two more individual gold medals. Her fifth consecutive gold in the 50 fly put her into an exclusive club (Katie Ledecky is the only other swimmer to five-peat at Worlds), and just minutes after that golden swim, Sjostrom broke her first individual world record in five years. She blasted a mark of 23.61 in the 50 free semifinals, knocking six hundredths off her previous world record from 2017. A time of 23.62 helped Sjostrom win another gold in convincing fashion the next evening.

The Swede now has 22 World Championship medals, and her 21 individual honors ranks tops all-time. Next year, Sjostrom will try to add to her collection of four Olympic medals when she swims at her fifth Games in Paris, where a return to 100-meter events of freestyle and butterfly is on the table. After a wrist injury marred her fourth Olympic campaign, it would be foolish to count out Sjostrom continuing her remarkable run next year and potentially earning just the second individual Olympic gold of her career.

Oldest Surviving Women’s World Record Knocked Off; Which Long-Lasting Mark is Next?

Federica Pellegrini became the first woman ever under 1:53 in the 200 freestyle during the supersuit era of 2009, and her mark of 1:52.98 survived numerous scares: American Allison Schmitt reached the 1:53s during her golden swim at the 2012 Olympics, and four years later, an intense Ledecky-Sjostrom Olympic final duel put both swimmers within striking distance. Finally, Ariarne Titmus nearly beat the record on multiple occasions in her run-up to winning gold in 2021.

In Fukuoka, Titmus swam her best time, a 1:53.01 that was only three hundredths off Pellegrini’s 1:52.98. But one lane over, one of her training partners was swimming a final length even quicker than Pellegrini’s on her way to a magical swim. Mollie O’Callaghan, a 19-year-old Aussie, came back in an incredible 28.11 to run down Titmus and finish in 1:52.85, finally knocking the Italian from the world record books.

Now, only one record from 2009 remains: Liu Zige’s 2:01.81 200 fly that sits more than one-and-a-half seconds clear of anyone else in history on the all-time list. We expect that mark to last a while longer, but some of the other marks that have lasted a while could be in danger on the road to Paris.

Katinka Hosszu’s 200 IM mark of 2:06.12 is the second-oldest mark in an Olympic event, and it could get a push next year with Summer McIntosh and Kaylee McKeown joining Americans Kate Douglass and Alex Walsh in pursuit. Sarah Sjostrom’s 55.48, set at the 2016 Olympics, in the 100 fly has survived numerous attempts in recent years, but no one has seriously approached a 1:03 performance in the 100 breast, with Lilly King’s world record of 1:04.13 surviving more than six years.

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