Duel in the Pool Revival Has Potential to Become Captivating Rivalry Showdown

Titmus, australia
Ariarne Titmus -- Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr/Swimming Australia

Duel in the Pool Revival Has Potential to Become Captivating Rivalry Showdown

The Duel in the Pool is back. This made-for-TV, rivalry-style event has been absent from the international calendar since December 2015, when the United States faced a team of European All-Stars in Indianapolis, and the last event featuring the original United-States-vs.-Australia matchup occurred back in April 2007. Almost exactly 15 years later, the swimming federations representing the two powerhouse nations have announced its return, in the same Sydney Olympic Aquatic Center that hosted the memorable 2007 event.

That was the meet when Libby Lenton, later known as Libby Trickett, became the first woman to break 53 seconds in the 100 freestyle as she raced Michael Phelps on the leadoff leg of a mixed 400 freestyle relay. This was before mixed relays were commonplace, so it took several months before FINA announced that Lenton’s 52.99 would not be certified as the world record, but she would officially break the barrier one year later at Australia’s Olympic Trials. Phelps, meanwhile, won the 100 freestyle and 200 backstroke at that meet, which was held just two days after he completed a magnificent seven-gold-medal performance at the FINA World Championships in Melbourne.

Four years earlier, Phelps provided the best performance at a Duel in the Pool. At the inaugural edition of the meet in 2003 in Indianapolis, Phelps almost broke two world records in one day. He lowered his own mark in the 400 IM (4:10.73) before finishing just three hundredths off Michael Klim’s world record in the 100 butterfly with a time of 51.84. For good measure, Phelps out-touched teammate Tom Malchow to win the 200 fly by seven hundredths and then swam the fly leg of the U.S. men’s victorious 400 medley relay. All in one day.

None of the three previous USA-Australia matchups have been close in the final team score, with the Americans dominating all three, but Australia did finish on top in the women’s competition in both 2005 and 2007. The Australians went on to be the dominant women’s team at the 2008 Olympics, but they lost momentum during the next two Olympic cycles. However, the Aussies’ performance at the 2021 Games in Tokyo was magnificent, with three female swimmers winning two individual golds each: Ariarne Titmus in the 200 and 400 freestyle, Kaylee McKeown in the 100 and 200 backstroke and Emma McKeon in the 50 and 100 freestyle. Australia also won two women’s relay gold medals, and Zac Stubblety-Cook won the men’s 200 breaststroke.

Australia finished Tokyo with 21 total medals and nine golds, just two behind the 11 won by the United States. That made 2022 a perfect opportunity to resurrect the previously-lifeless concept of the Duel in the Pool. The initial announcement of the event promised a series of showdowns that would be rematches from the Tokyo Games, particularly with many of the highest-profile Australian stars skipping this year’s World Championships to focus on the Commonwealth Games.

CHALMERS Kyle LON London Roar (LON) ISL International Swimming League 2021 Match 8 day 1 Piscina Felice Scandone Napoli, Naples Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

kyle Chalmers could match up with American rival Caeleb Dressel at the Duel in the Pool — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Titmus would get a rematch with Katie Ledecky in the 400 freestyle for the first time since their epic race for gold in TokyoKyle Chalmers would have his shot at revenge against Caeleb Dressel after Dressel beat the Aussie by just six hundredths in the Olympic final of the men’s 100 free. McKeown could race American backstroker Regan Smith, although it’s worth noting that McKeown is tentatively planning to race in Budapest, unlike Titmus, Chalmers and McKeon.

The Duel presents a lower-stakes atmosphere but exciting format, making it the ideal ending to a summer championship season. This meet has so much potential — assuming, of course, that the biggest names in the U.S. commit to swimming. Late August is an unusual time for a major championship meet, and this will be two months after the World Championships. Swimming fans certainly hope that the biggest stars decide to make the trip around the world for this unique event.

The meet will be held in long course meters, just like the three previous USA-Australia matchups (while the four meets between the U.S. and European All-Stars were all in short course meters). Wednesday’s announcement of the new Duel in the Pool revealed that this new 2022 edition will include multi-class para competition as well as an open water race at Bondi Beach. That means a lengthy schedule events, but the roster of athletes will remain relatively small.

Rosters for both countries will consist of 30 total athletes, a number that includes pool swimmers, open water swimmers and para swimmers, and USA Swimming has confirmed to Swimming World that the organization plans to bring 15 athletes of each gender, including 13 able-bodied athletes. For some comparison, the maximum size of the U.S. World Championships team is 26 female athletes plus 26 male athletes, so the group heading to Sydney in August will be half that size. That could mean either a group of all-stars or potentially a watered-down field if many of the sport’s biggest names decline a spot on the team.

Let’s hope for the first scenario, which would create the Duel in the Pool fans have hoped for since its inception: the brightest stars from the two top swimming nations in the world, both now and for most of the sport’s history. Match races in a relatively low-stress environment (compared to the Olympics, at least) with the Australian fans roaring in Sydney? Especially given the circumstances surrounding this year’s international racing calendar? Yes, this new edition of an old event could be a real delight.

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