Budapest Beckons: The Storylines Surrounding an ‘Extraordinary’ World Championships

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Caeleb Dressel has already won 13 World Championship gold medals -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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(From June’s Swimming World Magazine)

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Because of the uncertainties related to the COVID-19 pandemic that first appeared more than two years ago, the 19th edition of the World Aquatics Championships has been scheduled—and rescheduled—four times between 2021 and 2023 with two different locations (Fukuoka and Budapest). Appropriately called the “extraordinary” World Championships, the world’s best swimmers (well, most of them) will gather in Hungary later this month.

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After the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics to 2021, the FINA World Championships scheduled for Fukuoka, Japan, were delayed from July 2021 to May 2022 to accommodate the Games. But early in 2021, the Fukuoka meet was postponed again to July 2023, and it appeared that the year 2022 would pass without any international championship meet that welcomed the entire world.

Then, a few weeks later, FINA announced the addition of a new “extraordinary” championships set to take place, June 18 through July 3, in Budapest, Hungary. In a departure from World Championships norms, the pool swimming competition was scheduled for the first eight days instead of the final eight.

That means swimming’s biggest competition outside of the Olympic Games is returning to the Duna Arena after first hosting the event in 2017, and American sprinter Caeleb Dressel will be returning to the venue where he first elevated himself from a rising star in the domestic sphere to the world’s premier sprinter.

At his first Worlds, Dressel stormed to gold and an American record in the 100 meter freestyle, and then he became the first swimmer to win three world titles in one day, capturing gold in the 100 butterfly, 50 free and mixed 400 free relay on the meet’s seventh day. Including relays, Dressel won seven gold medals to tie a record first set by Michael Phelps in 2007.

Since then, Dressel has only been back to Budapest once, during the 2020 ISL season, and he finished off that campaign by setting three short course meters world records (50 free, 100 fly, 100 IM) during the ISL final. At the 2019 Worlds, he won eight total medals (six gold and two silver) to break the all-time records for medals at one World Championships, and then he produced on the biggest stage when he won five Olympic gold medals in Tokyo. His wins in the 100 free, 100 fly and 50 free made him just the third man to win three or more individual golds in one Games, joining Phelps and Mark Spitz.

This year, Dressel will be favored to win repeat gold medals in both sprint freestyle and both sprint butterfly events, and he will be at the center of at least four American relay efforts. At last year’s Olympics, Australia’s Kyle Chalmers provided the biggest challenge to Dressel’s golden streak when he nearly caught the American for gold in the 100 free, but Chalmers will only compete in butterfly events at this year’s Worlds.

Thus, the biggest challenger to Dressel’s supremacy will be 22-year-old Hungarian star Kristof Milak, the world record holder in the 200 fly. Three days after capturing his 200 fly gold, Milak put a scare into Dressel in the 100-meter distance, and he fell just 23-hundredths behind as Dressel set a world record. Milak is the second-fastest performer in history, and he will be charging hard in their Budapest showdown as he is buoyed by the home crowd. Milak will also be the big favorite to repeat as world titlist in the 200 fly, and he could threaten the 1:50-barrier, a performance that would have been unfathomable just three years ago.


Women’s Stars from Tokyo Absent

Titmus, australia

Ariarne Titmus broke the world record in the women’s 400 freestyle, but she will miss the World Championships in Budapest — Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr/Swimming Australia

While Tokyo provided the setting for Dressel’s showcase on the men’s side, the swimmer who won the most medals was Australia’s Emma McKeon, whose seven total awards were the most ever by a female swimmer at one Games. McKeon was the Olympic champion in the 50 and 100 freestyle and the bronze medalist in the 100 butterfly, and she helped Australia to golds in the 400 free and medley relays. Also winning freestyle gold in Tokyo was Aussie countrywoman Ariarne Titmus, who won an epic showdown against Katie Ledecky in the 400 free before overtaking Siobhan Haughey for 200 free top honors.

But both McKeon and Titmus — who blasted her way to a world record in the 400 in May at the Australian Swimming Championships in Adelaide with a 3:56.40 — have announced their intentions to skip Worlds, with both planning to focus on the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, one month later. Three other individual gold medalists will be missing from action at Worlds: Canada’s Maggie Mac Neil won gold in the 100 butterfly in Tokyo, but she will race only relays this year. South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker, the 200 breaststroke world champion and world record holder, will also focus on the Commonwealth Games, while 100 breast winner Lydia Jacoby of the United States did not qualify for Worlds, placing fourth in the event at U.S. Trials in April.

That means only half of the races in Budapest will include the women’s champion: Ledecky will be back in the 800 and 1500 free as the big favorite in both, and with Titmus absent, she will also take over as favorite in the 400 free. Japan’s Yui Ohashi will try to back up her Olympic gold medals in both IM events, and Australia’s Kaylee McKeown will aim for world titles in the backstroke events. China’s Zhang Yufei, who dominated the 200 butterfly in Tokyo, will be favored in that event as well as the 100 fly, where she was the Olympic silver medalist behind Mac Neil.


Seeking a Five-Peat

No swimmer, female or male, has ever won five consecutive world titles in one event. Only two swimmers have ever won five titles overall, but not in a row. Michael Phelps skipped the 200 fly at the 2005 World Championships, while Katinka Hosszu missed the 400 IM final in 2011, but won titles in 2009, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019.

This year, two swimmers will have a chance to secure that honor of five straight. One of those is Hosszu, who has now won four world titles in a row in both individual medley events, but the Hungarian veteran had a poor Olympics, finishing fifth in the 400 IM and seventh in the 200 IM, and she has competed sparingly since.

The other contender for a historic finish is Katie Ledecky, going for her fifth 800 freestyle title in a row. Ledecky first took charge of the 800 free with a shocking upset win over Rebecca Adlington at the 2012 Olympics (when she was 15), and she has not lost since, so she will be favored to accomplish that feat this year.

In history, only five swimmers have ever won four consecutive world titles in one event. The list includes:

  • Grant Hackett, 1500 freestyle (1998, 2001, 2003, 2005)
  • Ryan Lochte, 200 IM (2009, 2011, 2013, 2015)
  • Sun Yang, 400 freestyle (2013, 2015, 2017, 2019)
  • Hosszu, 200 IM and 400 IM (2013, 2015, 2017, 2019)
  • Ledecky, 800 free (2013, 2015, 2017, 2019)

Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom will be bidding to join that four-peat club, having already won three consecutive gold medals in the 50 butterfly. Her premier rival in the event, the Netherlands’ Ranomi Kromowidjojo, retired at the end of 2021, so she will be a big favorite this year. Sjostrom narrowly missed out on a four-peat in the 100 fly in 2019. In addition to the 50 fly, the 28-year-old will be favored for gold in the 50 freestyle with McKeon absent, and she should contend for gold in the 100 free as well. Sjostrom rebounded from a fractured elbow to win silver in the 50 free in Tokyo before an amazing fall short course season.

Great Britain’s Adam Peaty, the dominant sprint breaststroker in the world since 2014, would have been the heavy favorite to win his fourth consecutive gold medals in the 50 breast and 100 breast this year, but he will miss the World Championships after fracturing a bone in his right foot during training in May. Describing himself as “devastated,” Peaty said he would need six weeks of complete rest, which would take him to around the third week in June.


The Rise of Duncan Scott

SCOTT Duncan LON London Roar (LON) ISL International Swimming League 2021 Match 9 day 2 Piscina Felice Scandone Napoli, Naples Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Duncan Scott — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

After narrowly coming up short of Olympic gold in two individual events last year, 25-year-old British star Duncan Scott will be in the mix for three individual world titles in 2022 while contributing to two relays with gold-medal potential. In Tokyo, Scott finished just behind countryman Tom Dean in the 200 free as the two produced the nation’s first 1-2 finish in swimming since 1908. Three days later, China’s Wang Shun held off Scott for gold in the 200 IM.

This year, Scott has added the 400 IM to his schedule of events, and in April, he produced a performance quicker than the time that won Olympic gold last year. Scott has no major weaknesses, and his elite freestyle makes him incredibly dangerous on the end. The 400 IM sets up as one of the most anticipated races of the World Championships with defending world champion Daiya Seto, Olympic gold medalist Chase Kalisz, Olympic bronze medalist Brendon Smith and a pair of rising 20-year-olds, France’s Leon Marchand and the USA’s Carson Foster, all expected to be in the mix.

Additionally, Scott will likely anchor the British 800 freestyle relay squad that dominated the field at the Olympics last year, and at the last World Championships, he anchored Britain’s 400 medley relay to a stunning, come-from-behind gold medal with his 46.14 split that is the second-fastest in history. Scott is currently dealing with a COVID-19 diagnosis, but if he can recover quickly and return to form, he could leave Budapest with a significant medal haul, and his variety of individual chances could produce his first-career individual world title.


American Women with Big Medal Potential

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Katie Ledecky — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The United States women will struggle to make the medal podium in the 50, 100 or 200 freestyle events in Budapest. Simone Manuel, the 2019 world champion in both sprints, has not competed in 2022, while Katie Ledecky withdrew from the 200 free individual race to concentrate on the longer distances. But the Americans will take a dynamic contingent of female medal contenders to Budapest, and with the competition somewhat weakened this year, they are likely to win medals in most of the remaining 15 individual events.

Ledecky should be the big favorite in the 400, 800 and 1500 free, and compatriots Leah Smith (400 and 800) and Katie Grimes (1500) will also be in the mix for medals. In the backstrokes, Regan Smith is a gold-medal contender in the 100, while Phoebe Bacon and Rhyan White will look to build on Olympic final appearances last year in the 200. Lilly King will be the gold-medal favorite in the 100 and 200 breast at Worlds, with Italy’s Benedetta Pilato only slightly ahead of King as a favorite in the 50-meter event.

The women’s sprint butterfly races will feature the duo of teenagers Torri Huske and Claire Curzan. Huske missed a 100 fly medal by just 1-hundredth in Tokyo, while the 17-year-old Curzan won two individual bronzes at the Short Course World Championships in December. Hali Flickinger and Regan Smith were the silver and bronze medalists, respectively, in the 200 fly in Tokyo, while IM silver medalists Alex Walsh (200) and Emma Weyant (400) will also be back competing for medals.


Russian Swimmers Absent

There will be no Russian swimmers competing at the World Championships as a result of the country’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. That will change the dynamics of numerous races, most notably the men’s backstroke events. Evgeny Rylov and Kliment Kolesnikov finished 1-2 in the 100 back in Tokyo, and their absence will leave Americans Ryan Murphy and Hunter Armstrong as the pre-race favorites. Murphy and Great Britain’s Luke Greenbank will be the ones to watch in the 200 back with Rylov, the two-time world champion in addition to his Olympic gold medal, out of the mix.

Kolesnikov also won bronze in the 100 free in Tokyo, and Russia typically brings a strong contingent in the 800 free relay, with the Martin Malyutin-led group securing a silver medal in Tokyo. Also prohibited from attending are Anton Chupkov, the world record holder in the 200 breast, and Andrei Minakov, the 2019 World Championships runner-up in the 100 fly.

The Russian women did not win any medals in Tokyo, but their absence will be felt in the breaststrokes, where Yuliya Efimova has been a stalwart contender for the last decade and teenager Evgeniia Chikunova has recently emerged. Chikunova placed fourth in Tokyo in both the 100- and 200-meter events.


Additional Notes

MCINTOSH Summer TOR Toronto Titans (TOR) ISL International Swimming League 2021 Match 5 day 1 Piscina Felice Scandone Napoli, Naples Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Canadian teenager Summer McIntosh could be a breakout performer in Budapest — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

  • After securing the first-ever Olympic swimming medals for Hong Kong at the Tokyo Games, Siobhan Haughey will be back and seeking gold medals in the 100 and 200 free. She will be the top returning finisher from Tokyo in both events. Haughey did secure gold at the Short Course World Championships in both races, setting a world record in the 200-meter event.
  • Canada’s women have steadily become a huge force in women’s swimming, and that trend should continue in Budapest. Kylie Masse is the two-time world champion in the 100 back, and she captured silver in both backstroke races in Tokyo, while Penny Oleksiak also won an individual medal in the 200 free. All three Canadian relays should contend for medals, while 15-year-old Summer McIntosh has become a breakout star over the past year with enormous time drops. She could pull off amazing performances in the 400 free and 400 IM.
  • While Australia’s women dominated the Tokyo Olympic swimming competition, the only men’s gold medalist from Down Under was Zac Stubblety-Cook, who pulled away for Olympic gold in the 200 breaststroke. In an initially unpredictable event, Stubblety-Cook now enters Budapest as the favorite after breaking Anton Chupkov’s three-year-old world record of 2:06.12 with a stunning 2:05.95 at the Australian Swimming Championships in Adelaide. The 23-year-old from Brisbane became the first man ever under.
  • European women captured just four total medals in the pool in Tokyo, with two of those honors coming in the same race on the final day. A confluence of factors contributed to that disappointing performance: Sarah Sjostrom won just one medal after fracturing her elbow earlier in the year, and Katinka Hosszu’s streak of dominance stretching back to 2013 came to an end. In her final major competition, 32-year-old Federica Pellegrini could not return to medal form. The stars of women’s swimming right now reside in North America, Australia and Asia, although the Italian women’s contingent that includes Simona Quadarella, Benedetta Pilato and Arianna Castiglioni could have a strong meet this year.
  • There should be plenty of intrigue in the men’s distance races, as surprising gold medalists from Tokyo attempt to back up their accomplishments. Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui was just 18 when he pulled off a complete stunner to win the 400 free, while in both the 800 and 1500, American Bobby Finke used stunning finishing splits to overtake European rivals and distance stalwarts Florian Wellbrock, Mykhailo Romanchuk and Gregorio Paltrinieri.
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