Behind Popovici Record Rush, Kristof Milak Showing Off Previously-Unseen Versatility

Kristof Milak -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Behind Popovici Record Rush, Kristof Milak Showing Off Previously-Unseen Versatility

As David Popovici finished off the most stunning of performances, a world-record breaking moment in the 100 freestyle that was somehow both expected and surreal, he was greeted in the next lane over by a man once in his shoes, as a teenager erasing a long-lasting, legendary mark. Back in 2019, Kristof Milak was just 19 when he knocked off Michael Phelps’ world record in the 200 butterfly at the World Championships in Gwangju. Milak’s ascension as Phelps’ successor in the 200 free was of little surprise, but Phelps’ world record did not seem to be in reach so soon.

Since that moment, Milak has affirmed his status as the best men’s butterflyer in the world. He secured Olympic gold in the 200 fly in Tokyo, and he came very close to catching Caeleb Dressel in the 100-meter race a few days later before settling for silver and status as the second-fastest man in history. This year, Milak delighted a home crowd in Budapest with double gold at the World Championships, again breaking his world record in the 200 fly before cruising to a title in a Dressel-less field in the 100 fly.

Again, that’s butterfly. So what was Milak doing in the lane next to Popovici in Saturday’s European Championships final of the 100 free? Well, Milak was winning silver while putting up a sizzling mark of 47.47 that, given the circumstances, has been massively overshadowed.

Yes, 47.47, faster than Popovici swam to win gold in the Budapest final and good enough to make Milak the third-fastest performer in the world this year behind Popovici and 2016 Olympic champion Kyle Chalmers and the 17th-fastest performer in history in the blue-ribband event. Milak is now faster than all-time greats such as Phelps and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Nathan Adrian.

Not bad for a butterfly specialist.

Minutes after that 100 free final, Milak returned to the pool for the 100 fly semifinals, and he was good enough to claim the No. 1 seed for Sunday’s final. A day later, he easily won the event in 50.33, just over a half-second off his own European record of 49.68. Then, Milak was back in the pool for the 200 free semifinals, and finally he showed some fatigue as he fell to fourth in his heat and 10th overall at 1:47.37. He had previously gone 1:46.26 in prelims and split 1:44.42 as the anchor swimmer of Hungary’s gold-medal-winning 800 free relay earlier in the week.

Catching Popovici in the 200 free would have been a big stretch, but the schedule of events prevented Milak from showing his full capabilities in the event. But no matter. At the end of the session, he was back in the pool to anchor Hungary’s 400 free relay, and his blistering 47.24 split, the quickest in the field, helped him get by Great Britain and secure the silver medal.

Milak has one individual event left on his slate, the 200 fly beginning Monday. Of course, Milak will be judged primarily by his ability to set world records in his main events, and after Popovici’s performance in the 100 free and with another special effort potentially on tap in the 200 free, the only way for Milak to steal back the thunder for this week’s continental meet would be with a record of his own. Inevitably, Milak will one day become the first man under 1:50 in the 200 fly, and there’s an outside chance it happens this week.

But his success in freestyle is revealing: in an era of specialization, Milak is one who can cross boundaries between strokes. He indeed possesses some of that versatility prized by some of the all-time greats. When Milak is in the water, individual event or relay, butterfly or freestyle, he is threat to run somebody down and steal away a medal. Just his name carries so much weight and intimidation for his competition.

And Milak intends to build upon his versatility in future international competitions and add the 100 free to his repertoire. After Saturday’s final, he said, “I don’t care about this new national record here. My goal is very clear: I just want to reach a level in this event to arrive to Paris 2024 with the capability of swimming a time somewhere very close to 47-flat.”

This European Championships silver medal makes that goal seem not so unrealistic. Big picture, the meaning of a 47-mid 100 free is that Milak is unlocking a skill not yet displayed on the international stage. As for right now, keep the record book handy in case he posts another jaw-dropping performance to join Popovici in this week’s standard-setting club.

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