David Popovici, Kristof Milak Pose Rare Threats to Caeleb Dressel Dominance

David Popovici -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

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David Popovici, Kristof Milak Pose Rare Threat to Caeleb Dressel Dominance

In a single race lasting less than two minutes, a 17-year-old rising star became a world champion as he recorded the quickest performance in the men’s 200 freestyle in almost a decade. Olympic champion Tom Dean held a slight lead through the first half of the World Championships final, but then David Popovici took command. The Romanian was favored for gold after setting a world junior record of 1:44.40 in the semifinals, and he followed that up with a mark of 1:43.21 in the final, a time that only Paul BiedermannMichael Phelps and Yannick Agnel have ever surpassed.

It has been a stunning rise to prominence for Popovici over the past year. He first emerged from anonymity at the European Junior Championships and the Mediterranean Games in early July 2021, and only a few weeks later, he was challenging for medals at the Olympics as the youngest man by two years in the finals of the 200 free and 100 free. He ended up just four hundredths off the podium in the 200-meter race, but the trend was clear: Popovici was coming, and the veterans had better watch out.

Now, Popovici is the king of the 200 free. He has one world title — and he’s not done in Budapest yet. He still has the 100 free to go, and he entered that event with the second-fastest seed time, 47.30.

About 90 minutes after that 200 free final came a much more low-key display of dominance in the men’s 200 butterfly semifinals. Five years ago, Kristof Milak was 17, the same age Popovici is now, when he won his first World Championships medal, a silver in the 100 fly. Two years later, Milak earned his first gold as he took down Michael Phelps’ world record in a stunning 200 fly performance. In the Budapest semifinals, Milak merely recorded a mark of 1:52.39, which was 1.62 seconds ahead of his closest competition. That mark would almost certainly be good enough for gold in the final, but Milak has his sights set on his own world record, the 1:50.73 he swam in Gwangju in 2019, and possibly the first-ever sub-1:50 performance.

MILAK Kristof HUN 200m Butterfly Men Heats 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

Milak, now 22, is a virtual lock to secure gold in Tuesday’s 200 fly final in front of an adoring Hungarian crowd, and after that, he will turn his attention to half the distance. He captured Olympic silver in the 100 fly in 49.68, moving him ahead of Phelps to become the second-fastest man in history.

What do Popovici and Milak have in common entering their second individual races of the meet? Both have a chance at topping the man who has been the world’s dominant swimmer for the past five years, Caeleb Dressel. Yes, seriously.

Dressel first swam in a major international final in 2016, when he placed sixth in the 100 free at the Tokyo Olympics. In his World Championships debut one year later, Dressel ended up fourth in the 50 fly, five hundredths off the podium. But since then, Dressel is undefeated in major long course finals. He won gold in each of his last three events at the 2017 Worlds before finishing four-for-four in individual swims in 2019. At the Tokyo Olympics, he won gold in the 100 free, 100 fly and 50 free, becoming just the third man (after Phelps and Mark Spitz) to win more than two individual golds at one Games. And he kicked off his Budapest Worlds by capturing gold in the 50 fly Sunday.

That’s 11 consecutive finals with gold medals, but the streak is in imminent danger, and not because of Dressel underperforming. That’s just how impressive Popovici and Milak have been so far in Budapest.

Popovici dropped his lifetime best in the 200 free from 1:44.68 to 1:43.21, which is an improvement of 1.47 seconds. What if he could drop half that amount in the 100 free? Well, Popovici’s lifetime best is 47.30, so dropping more than seven tenths would crush the world record of 46.91, Cesar Cielo’s mark which has stood for 13 years. This isn’t to say that Popovici will break the world record, but it’s absolutely within reason.

As for Milak, he was only 0.23 behind Dressel in the 100 fly at the Olympics, and Dressel has not looked as crisp in the early going here as he did in Tokyo, when he required every bit of his world-record breaking swim (49.45) to hold off Milak.

Of course, the all-time great swimmers do not yield without a fight, and Dressel is certainly in that realm. The 25-year-old is only a few days into his third World Championships, and he has already won 15 Worlds gold medals, a mark only Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Katie Ledecky have surpassed. But to hold off Popovici in the 100 free and Milak in the 100 fly this week, Dressel will need something extra special.

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9 months ago

I wouldn’t call Dressel’s wins over Chalmers by 0.11s and 0.06s respectively dominant.