Can Kristof Milak, Adam Peaty, Other Stars Missing From Worlds Reclaim Golden Touch in Paris?

MILAK Kristof HUN 200m Butterfly Men Semifinal Swimming FINA 19th World Championships Budapest 2022 Budapest, Duna Arena 20/06/22 Photo Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto
Kristof Milak -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Can Kristof Milak, Adam Peaty, Other Stars Missing From Worlds Reclaim Golden Touch in Paris?

When medals were awarded last month for the top swimmers in each event for 2023, plenty of big names were absent from the proceedings in Fukuoka, Japan. The list of stars included three world-record holders, all on the men’s side, who have all undergone struggles with mental health since capturing Olympic gold two years ago in Tokyo.

Can the likes of Kristof MilakAdam Peaty and Caeleb Dressel be back contending or even winning gold medals by next year’s Paris Games? How about some of the other swimmers who either skipped Fukuoka or had extremely disappointing swims during this trip to Japan? Here are some of the key storylines for potential rebound candidates over the next year.

Kristof Mikak: This 23-year-old Hungarian had his finest meet in front of a hometown crowd last year, breaking his own world record in the 200 butterfly while winning the 100 fly world title for the first time. He withdrew from Worlds this year after reaching “rock bottom,” but if Milak is back in competition and even close to his best by Paris, he will be the huge favorite in the 200 fly, with his best time of 1:50.34 sitting two seconds clear of Leon Marchand’s world-title-winning time from this year. Milak will also be on the short list of gold-medal contenders in the 100 fly as he ranks No. 2 all-time in the event. Given the heights he has reached and the fact that his early-season times this year were solid, Milak could very easily make it back within a year.

Adam Peaty of Great Britain prepares to compete in the 100m Breaststroke Men Semifinal during the FINA Swimming Short Course World Championships at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre in Melbourne, Australia, December 14th, 2022. Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Adam Peaty — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Adam Peaty: Even after Qin Haiyang swept the breaststroke events in Fukuoka, a version of Peaty at 100% would be favored for 100 breaststroke gold and three medals overall, counting Britain’s men’s and mixed 400 medley relays. Peaty is the only man ever to break 57 and still one of only three to swim beneath 58, but he has not approached those heights since winning his second straight 100 breast gold in Tokyo. But Peaty has a champion’s heart, and the hunch is that he will be prepared to try to win a third consecutive gold in Paris, an accomplishment that Michael Phelps alone has accomplished among men’s swimmers. Meanwhile, Peaty’s standard 56-second breaststroke splits will instantly put both medley relays into the conversation for gold.

Caeleb Dressel: Nowhere close to his best times off a very abbreviated season of training at U.S. Nationals, we’ll see how close Dressel can come to his peak with a full year’s preparation. He was the undisputed top swimmer in the world from 2017 until 2021, but the competition in Dressel’s main events is fierce. That said, he doesn’t have to reach his best to swim impact performances, particularly in the relay events. The U.S. men would return to favorite status in the 400 freestyle relay if Dressel combines with a young core led by Jack Alexy. In his individual swims, he is a wildcard. His best chance at winning another individual Olympic gold could be in the 50 free, but even there he would face a huge test in resurgent Aussie Cameron McEvoy. Or perhaps the 100 fly, where no one has broken 50 since Tokyo.

Cate Campbell: Now 31 years old and turning 32 next May, Campbell will try to qualify for her fifth Olympics, but it’s hard to see her impacting her country’s medal results — not because of Campbell’s flaws but Australia’s incredible strength in women’s sprint freestyle. Campbell could get onto the 400 free relay squad, but that team already won gold by a whopping four seconds in Fukuoka. Qualifying for an individual event might be tough with the likes of Mollie O’CallaghanShayna Jack and Emma McKeon all in a stronger position.

Others Absent: The elephant-in-the-room remains the Russia question; given the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, will the country’s athletes be eligible to compete in Paris? Defending double backstroke gold medalist Evgeny Rylov is unlikely to be allowed regardless, but if Kliment Kolesnikov and Evgeniia Chikunova are entered, both will be gold-medal contenders if not favorites. Kolesnikov reclaimed the 50 backstroke world record this year while swimming the world’s fastest time in the 100 back. Chikunova smashed the 200 breast world record while swimming a medal-worthy 100 breast mark.

The missing Australian woman who could provide a huge boost in Paris would be one of two breaststrokers: both Chelsea Hodges and Jenna Strauch missed Fukuoka with injuries, but the presence of one of these women on the 400 medley relay will allow Australia to close the gap on the United States. Meanwhile, what will Michael Andrew bring to the table after a disappointing performance at U.S. Nationals left him off the Worlds team? At his best, he can contend for medals in four Olympic events (50 free, 100 breast, 100 fly and 200 IM), but he was nowhere close to any of his best times in 2023, even the 21.41 in which he won global silver in the 50 free last year. His form for next year remains a question.

The potential return of Canadian sprinter Penny Oleksiak would provide a huge boost to Canada’s relays, with all three women’s relays likely favored to reach the podium if Oleksiak is present. Can veteran medal-winners Luke Greenbank (Great Britain) and Hali Flickinger (U.S.) put together one more run and return to major competition? And we’ll see if young South Africans Pieter Coetze and Matt Sates can find their footing and make a significant impact after both decided to forgo Worlds.

Popovici to Rebound in 2024?

Like his fellow world-record holders mentioned above, David Popovici was absent from the medal stand in Fukuoka, but he was in the pool. In fact, he looked to be on track for a repeat of last year’s Worlds, where he swept 200 free and 100 free gold medals, until he faded dramatically on the final length in the 200-meter final. Popovici fell all the way to fourth, almost two seconds off his best time, and in the 100 free, the race where he holds the world record, he ended up one second off that mark in sixth position.

David Popovici of Romania reacts after competing in the 100m Freestyle Men Heats during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 26th, 2023.

David Popovici — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Now, the pressure will be on to bounce back in the Olympic year. Remember, Popovici does not turn 19 until next month, and his ascendance over the previous two seasons was rapid and stunning. So chances are high that the young Romanian can determine what went wrong this year and make the necessary adjustments in time for Paris. He will need to return to his world-record ways in the 100 free to beat out a field full of 47-low performers, but in the 200 free, Popovici is the only active swimmer to ever break 1:44 (and he’s also been sub-1:43).

Popovici is not alone among those hoping to make changes off disappointing Fukuoka performances. On the women’s side, veterans Emma McKeonKylie Masse and Lilly King combined for one individual medal (King’s 50 breast silver) despite all entering with big medal hopes, while men’s distance veterans Gregorio Paltrinieri and Florian Wellbrock were both well off their top form this year, although Wellbrock may have been fatigued by the time he reached the pool after a successful week in open water competition.

Each of these swimmers will have golden hopes for Paris, and it would not be a surprise if any or most of them can rebound significantly in one year. The tweaks might be very minor for some on that list, particularly King and Wellbrock, who both swam times earlier in the year which would have reached the podium.

Notify of

Welcome to our community. We invite you to join our discussion. Our community guidelines are simple: be respectful and constructive, keep on topic, and support your fellow commenters. Commenting signifies that you agree to our Terms of Use

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
9 months ago

What about Simone Manuel? I don’t think we should be ready to count her out!

Last edited 9 months ago by GHTX
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x