After Nine Years, Recent Disappointments, Daiya Seto Remains 400 IM Short Course World Champion

SETO Daiya JPN celebrating Gold Medal 400m Individual Medley Men Final Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates 20/12/2021 Etihad Arena FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) Photo Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto
Daiya Seto celebrates winning gold in the 400 IM in Abu Dhabi -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

After Nine Years, Recent Disappointments, Daiya Seto Remains 400 IM Short Course World Champion

When Daiya Seto was 18, he won his first short course world title in the 400 IM. He had not been an Olympian yet, having just missed out on Japan’s squad for the London Games, but he had enough in the short course pool to pull away from Hungarian legend Laszlo Cseh and claim gold in Istanbul.

Now, Seto has five such titles, making him only the second man to accomplish such a feat at the Short Course World Championships. After beating a man nine years older than himself to win title No. 1, he barely squeaked past a man nine years younger to win No. 5. Seto led wire-to-wire in Monday’s 400 IM final in Abu Dhabi, and he was actually ahead by 2.5 seconds heading into the freestyle leg, but 18-year-old Russian Ilya Borodin closed in on the freestyle and ended up finishing just 0.21 behind.

Seto won in 3:56.26, while Borodin finished second in 3:56.47, becoming the third-fastest man in history. Ironically, the world junior record that Borodin broke had been the one Seto set while winning that first world title in 2012.

In between those two golden moments, Seto built himself a career, and on numerous occasions, he has looked like the best swimmer in the world. In 2013, Seto passed fading countryman Kosuke Hagino to capture the long course world title in the 400 IM. He was already a short course world champion at that point, but that gold medal really cemented Seto as a global star in the medley events. He repeated the title two years later, and arguably his best meet was the 2019 World Championships, where Seto swept gold medals in the 200 and 400 IM and it took a world record from Kristof Milak to beat him in the 200 fly.

SETO Daiya JPN 400m Individual Medley Men Heats Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates 20/12/2021 Etihad Arena FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) Photo Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Daiya Seto — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

That World Championships performance set him up to be one of Japan’s biggest stars at its home Olympics. He would be favored for gold in the 400 IM, the very first race on the swimming program, and he would be aiming to win Japan’s second straight title in the event after Hagino won gold four years earlier (in a race where Seto took bronze). In early 2020, he beat all his long course best times, and that included a 4:06.09 in the 400 IM that ended up being three seconds faster than the time required to win Olympic gold.

But for whatever reason, Seto did not perform as expected at the Olympics. Certainly, the one-year delay of the Games did Seto no favors. His personal life took a major turn during this period as reports of an extramarital affair surfaced in mid-2020. That news cost Seto at least one major sponsorship, and he resigned as captain of Japan’s Olympic team.

When the Games finally got underway one year later, Seto was still the consensus gold-medal favorite in the 400 IM, but he shockingly missed the final. He would finish outside the top-eight in the 200 fly as well, and while he made the final in the 200 IM, he ended up fourth.

So he could not emerge as an unforgettable Olympic star, and after that sort of disappointment, few could have blamed Seto for wanting a break. Instead, he was back in the competition pool just one month later for the ISL regular season, and he was dominant during that five-week stretch. He won 14 individual races between the 200 IM, 400 IM, 200 fly and the 200 breast, the latter of which was a new addition to his program. He was the MVP of the regular season, although his Tokyo Frog Kings did not advance to the playoffs.

And he delivered in Abu Dhabi, too. He held off Carson Foster for gold in the 200 IM and then Borodin in the 400 IM, and in between, he took fourth in the 100 IM. And as for his five-peat accomplishment, it’s worth remembering that he won the first and fifth races nine years apart. For fellow five-time winner James Hickman (200 fly), the wins were in 1997, 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2004, with the first and last separated by just seven years. So Seto’s longevity is completely unprecedented.

Think about how much has changed for Seto throughout that nine-year stretch — or even just the three-year gap since his previous title in 2018. He officially became the world’s most versatile swimmer and then dealt with personal turmoil and crushing Olympic disappointment, a confluence of upheavals. Yet Monday night in Abu Dhabi, he was still 400 IM short course world champion.