Ahmed Hafnaoui, Ruta Meilutyte Now Facing Major Questions in Leadup to Paris

Ahmed Hafnaoui of Tunisia reacts after winning the gold medal in the 1500m Freestyle Men Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 30th, 2023.
Ahmed Hafnaoui -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Ahmed Hafnaoui, Ruta Meilutyte Now Facing Questions in Leadup to Paris

Their performances at last year’s World Championships were among the most surprising of the meet, breakout efforts vaunting previous champions back to lofty perches. For Ruta Meilutyte, the 100 breaststroke gold medal was her first global-level gold in that event in a decade, with a long slump plus a brief retirement in between, and she also won her second consecutive title in the 50 breast, tying the world record in the process.

Ahmed Hafnaoui, meanwhile, had been totally absent from international racing for two years after stunning the world for 400 freestyle gold at the 2021 Olympics, but he was suddenly faster than ever in the distance events, taking silver in the 400 free by two hundredths (thanks a near-superhuman effort from Sam Short to win gold) before ridiculous closing surges helped Hafnaoui secure gold in both the 800 free and 1500 free.

Just over six months later at this unusually-timed World Championships in Doha, the early returns for both veteran champions have been unexpectedly poor. On the meet’s opening day Hafnaoui ended up 17th in the 400 free, more than seven seconds behind his best time and almost two seconds behind what it took to advance into the final. His 800 free was no better, with the Tunisian starting off at a solid pace but fading badly, ending up 18th and nearly 15 seconds off his gold-medal-winning time from last year.

Meilutyte, meanwhile finished 17th in the women’s 100 breast, her mark of 1:07.79 more than three seconds slower than she swam in Fukuoka last July (1:04.62) but just four hundredths too slow for a spot in the semifinals.

Surely, neither traveled all the way to Doha expecting to struggle just to earn an evening swim.

Ruta Meilutyte of Lithuania shows the gold medal after competing in the 100m Breaststroke Women Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 25th, 2023.

Ruta Meilutyte — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Of course, this is an Olympic year, with few (if any) swimmers targeting the World Championships as their ultimate goal, not with the Paris Games beginning in just over five months. Naturally, swimming fans want to extract meaning from this week’s results, make sense of the swims in the context of how they affect the pre-Paris status quo.

Adam Peaty did not win gold in the men’s 100 breast, but he showed solid progress in his comeback attempt in advance of a three-peat attempt in Paris. Erika Fairweather and Kim Woo-min have been among those to already use their Doha swims to improve their positioning for the Olympic summer. By that same logic, Meilutyte and Hafnaoui no longer look like heavy gold-medal favorites.

This is Hafnaoui’s first significant competition since last summer’s Worlds after he scratched from several meets in the United States in recent months, with the 21-year-old Tunisian relocating his training base from Indiana University to Southern California under the guidance of accomplished coach Mark Schubert. At this point, there are absolutely questions about which version of Hafnaoui, the world-beater or the man struggling to reach a final, will be ready for Paris.

As for Meilutyte, three seconds off a best time in a 100-meter race is an eternity. No need to peak in February, but we must note that Lilly King clocked 1:05.67 in the event at the Knoxville Pro Series meet last month, with fellow Olympic medal contenders Mona McSharry and Lydia Jacoby comfortably in 1:06-territory. No reason why Meilutyte should not be around those times at this point in the season, let alone almost two-and-a-half seconds behind semifinals top qualifier Tang Qianting.

That said, don’t assume all hope is lost. We don’t know exactly how Doha fits into the training plans for Hafnaoui, Meilutyte or many of the other top swimmers racing this week. It would be foolish to declare someone a medal lock for Paris or count them out entirely based on what we see. However, we now questions about what sort of form Hafnaoui and Meilutyte can bring to the Olympic level, and we will not know the answers for sure until July.

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