After Eight Years, Sarah Sjostrom Still Evolving

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By David Rieder.

A Sarah Sjostrom victory in the women’s 100 fly final at the World Championships seemed like a foregone conclusion. Her times in the prelims and semi-finals were both under 56 seconds, both faster than any other woman had ever swum.

But Sjostrom never expected that she would be close to her own world record, the 55.48 she set on the way to Olympic gold last summer in Rio.

“I know I was at my best for the butterfly last year at the Olympics. I haven’t really trained that much for the butterfly this year,” she explained. “I’ve been focusing more on the freestyle lately.”

That was plenty apparent on night one. Before this year, Sjostrom had a history of success in the freestyle events, finishing as high as second in the 100 free at the 2015 World Championships and third at the Rio Olympics.

Solid results, sure, but nothing to what she has achieved this year. She switched coaches, moving from longtime mentor Carl Jenner to Johan Wallberg. In less than a year, she already has broken her first freestyle world record.

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Photo Courtesy: Jack Gruber-USA TODAY Sports

The previous few months had made apparent it was coming. Sjostrom nearly broke world records in both the 50 free and 100 free during the summer racing season. In June, she swam a 23.83 in the 50 free, the second-best mark in history and just a tenth off the world record, and she also put up a 52.08 in the 100 free, two hundredths off Cate Campbell’s world record.

On Sunday afternoon, Campbell admitted that she fully expected Sjostrom to take down her world record.

“She is an incredible competitor, watching her swim is like poetry in motion, and she is fit and strong,” Campbell said. I’ll definitely be sad to see it go, but I think she will be on fire this meet.”

Hours later, Campbell’s words proved prophetic. Leading off for Sweden’s 400 free relay, Sjostrom took off. She touched the wall nine tenths ahead of American Mallory Comerford—who herself was quicker than last year’s Olympic gold medal-winning time.

Sjostrom had hoped to swim under 52 seconds. She did—by a lot. When she touched the wall, the scoreboard read 51.71.

“I was hoping for a time under 52, but I did not think I was going to be that much under,” Sjostrom said. “It felt so good yesterday in the first leg in the relay. I guess it’s a bit easier when you go for the world record in the relay instead of going for the world record in the World Championship final or something. I didn’t expect to break it by that much yesterday.”

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Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

In the past, Sjostrom’s most successful freestyle event has been the 200, the event in which she pushed Katie Ledecky to the finish in the 2016 Olympic final. So with the prelims of that event scheduled for Tuesday’s prelims, Sjostrom is headed for… a day off?

Indeed. She announced earlier this year that the 200-meter event would not be part of her program in Budapest. But if her freestyle is so strong, why not at least give that event a go?

On the flip side, consider this: with how she’s training now, would she be competitive to her usual standard in a four-lap race. How she swam the 100 fly suggests that she might not.

Sjostrom has for years been known for her killer closing speed, her ability to swim by or swim away from rivals over the final 25 meters. That’s how she won her first world title in the 100 fly as a 15-year-old in 2009, coming back from a poor start and turning seventh at the halfway point.

Now 23, Sjostrom doesn’t swim that way anymore, and she doesn’t train to swim that way anymore. She won the race on the front half, with a split six tenths ahead of the field and three tenths ahead of her world record pace. Her back-half split was almost exactly the same as that of the two other medalists, Emma McKeon and Kelsi Worrell.

“More muscles makes me more tired in the end of the race, but I am very strong in the beginning of the race,” Sjostrom explained.

Naturally, her improved front-half speed has Sjostrom feeling supremely confident heading into the 50-meter races of butterfly and freestyle coming at the end of the week, and her world record indicates that she should be heavily favored for gold in the 100 free. One gold medal is out of the way, and three more seem to be well within her grasp.

In eight years since she first became a World Champion at 15-years-old, Sarah Sjostrom has evolved plenty, but it was not until the past year that she fully embraced speed and power. All the sudden, she stands on the verge of becoming the world’s most dominant female sprinter.