By David Rieder
The hype almost took the temporary roof off the Kazan Arena. The women’s 200 free final had been ordained the race of the meet, as it would feature the defending champion, the woman who won the two world titles before that, the gold medalist in the 200 IM, the gold medalist in the 400 and 1500, and the number one-ranked swimmer in the world. And for once, the race lived up to expectations. And she had already twice this week, Katie Ledecky got her hand on the wall first.
Femke Heemskerk, she of the top time in the world (that still stands), took the race out fast as expected, with the multi-talented Katinka Hosszu on her tail. But unlike in the semi-finals, where she was dead last through the halfway point, Ledecky hung with the leaders early on before exploding down the third 50. Ledecky then had enough gas in the tank to hold off late charges from Federica Pellegrini and Missy Franklin to earn the gold, matching her lifetime-best time of 1:55.16.
Even two years ago, when Ledecky stunned the world in sweeping the 400, 800, and 1500 events at the World Championships, few expected her to be the best in the world in the 200 free by the time the top swimmers next convened in Kazan. Franklin had defeated Ledecky by more than two seconds in the event at U.S. Nationals that year, while Ledecky’s top time from 2013, a 1:56.32 swum leading off the 800 free relay in Barcelona, ranked her just ninth in the world.
And now, after the win at the 200 meter distance, Ledecky has the chance to achieve a truly historic feat: win the 200, 400, 800, and 1500 freestyles, a Golden Sweep that no woman or man has ever achieved. In fact, since the women’s 1500 and men’s 800 were added to the World Championships program in 2001, only four people have swept the 400, 800, and 1500 in one meet: Hannah Stockbauer in 2003, Grant Hackett in 2005, and both Sun Yang and Ledecky herself two years ago.
With the win today, Ledecky has entered remarkable territory previously exclusive to the legendary Shane Gould. In 1971 and 1972, the Australian held world records in the every freestyle event from the 100 to the 1500, along with the 200 IM. She won five medals at the Munich Olympics in 1972, including three golds. Could Ledecky pick up the 100 free as well? After the World title in the 200, she could certainly consider adding the two-lapper for the Olympic year in hopes of earning a bid on the American 400 free relay.
Even though the World Championships are just at the halfway point, Ledecky looks like the easy choice for Female Swimmer of the Year right now. Ledecky, who has now competed in seven World Championship races and won gold in every single one of them, will be favored to make it nine-for-nine this week in the 800 free and 800 free relay. Her chief competition for the award headed into the meet was Katinka Hosszu, but Hosszu faded to fifth in that 200 free final.
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Hosszu did shock everyone when she broke Ariana Kukors’ world record in the 200 IM, but she has otherwise not looked as sharp as usual in Kazan. Her 200 free finals time of 1:56.19 fell short of her season best, a 1:55.89 from the Arena Pro Series in Charlotte, and she followed that up with a disastrous 200 fly semi-final, where she finished 13th in 2:08.91, a full second slower than her season-best. Whereas all season she has routinely aced the test of multiple swims in a session, she could not bounce back for that semi-final today.
Hosszu will have two more medal chances this week, in the 400 IM, where she still looks like the strong favorite, and in the 200 back. With the 200 free in the books, the 200 back looks like the biggest race remaining on the women’s program. Will Franklin, the world record-holder and two-time defending champion, bounce back from her disappointing 100 back performance? Can 100 back champ Emily Seebohm extend her range up to the 200? Does Hosszu have the second wind she needs to salvage her meet? And could someone like Daria Ustinova, Elizabeth Beisel, or even Kirsty Coventry crash the party?
Sun Yang Knows How to Win World Championships
Sun Yang knew he had a challenge on his hands. After all, the two-time defending champion in the 800 free qualified just sixth for tonight’s final, and the man who many believed would be his toughest competitor, Gregorio Paltrinieri, just last year swept the distance events at the European Championships and there became just the fifth man to ever break 14:40 in the mile. Sure enough, Sun found himself dead even with Paltrinieri with just a 50 to go in the final of the 800 free.
And as he’s done so many times, the Chinese distance star who now has seven world titles to his name put his legs into gear on the final lap to win the gold with a time of 7:39.98. Sun has faced obstacles since the last World Championships in Barcelona − among them, a doping suspension and other swimmers throwing down fast times while he sat out − but head-to-head, he remains a formidable foe. His opponents know that if Sun is close with 50 meters to go, they had better watch out.
Although he won an Olympic silver medal in the distance, Sun Yang had never competed in the 200 free at the World Championships before this year because of a scheduling conflict with the 800. But like Ledecky, Sun attempted the week this week to sweep the 200, 400, 800, and 1500. James Guy dashed those hopes, touching out Sun by six one-hundredths of a second in the 200 free, but Sun can still make it three golds plus one silver. That would match the haul Grant Hackett earned in 2005, currently the best ever showing by a male distance swimmer at Worlds.
Surging British Earn Mixed Medley Relay Victory
Just like everybody predicted, the team with the most gold medals at the halfway point of the World Championships is Great Britain. The British became the first team to four gold medals when Adam Peaty completed the sprint breaststroke sweep with a 50 meter triumph and then joined teammates Chris Walker-Hebborn, Siobhan-Marie O’Connor, and Fran Halsall to take the victory over the United Statesin the new mixed medley relay.
Without Australia in the field, the U.S. entered as the favorites after a strong morning swim which saw Ryan Murphy lead off in 52.18, the top 100 backstroke time in the world. But Walker-Hebborn stuck with and then passed Murphy on the lead-off leg before Peaty opened up a huge lead over Kevin Cordes. O’Connor, who like Peaty skipped the morning relay, split a swift 57.03 on the fly split to end any hope of a U.S. comeback.
The Americans earned silver as Murphy swam a full second slower than his incredible time from prelims, while Cordes, coming off his bronze in the 50 breast, chipped in a solid split of 58.63. Russia, meanwhile, made a push for the medals at the end but settled for fifth. Playing to their team strengths, the Russians swam their two women, including Yuliya Efimova, ahead of their two men, which included Vlad Morozov, whereas most other countries started out with two men. The strategy did not work out, though, as Morozov had to swim through choppy water with way too much ground to make up to even move up to get fifth.
*Ryan Lochte will attempt to make history tomorrow and join Grant Hackett as the only men to win four consecutive World titles in the same event. Hackett won the 1500 free four straight times between 1998 and 2005, while Lochte previously won the 200 IM in 2009, 2011, and 2013. He qualified first for the final in 1:56.81 after he “stopped swimming” with 10 meters to go. Without the injured Kosuke Hagino in the field, he will be heavily favored to pull off the fourpeat, with Thiago Pereira as the only possible challenger. The Brazilian, who won bronze in the event two years ago, might be able to hang with Lochte for the first 150 meters, but Lochte should pull away on the freestyle leg.
*For all the excitement the women’s 200 free final provided, the winning time did not startle anyone. Ledecky’s 1:55.16 ranks just fourth in the world, and two swimmers in the final − Heemskerk and Pellegrini − have actually swum faster this year. Then there’s Sarah Sjostrom, already the World Champion in the 100 fly who passed on the event at this World Championships. She ranks second in the world this year with a 1:54.77, and she was first last year at 1:55.04. If she chooses to swim the event next summer in Rio, she will instantly become gold medal contender.
*The pre-meet favorite will not be in the final of the men’s 100 free. Vlad Morozov false-started in today’s semi-final (he would have qualified second before the DQ) after entering the day ranked number one in the world. Now, Australia’s Cameron McEvoy, who reigning World Champion and absent teammate James Magnussen picked to win the race all along, suddenly looks like the favorite for gold after qualifying first in the semi-finals with the only time under 48. Olympic gold medalist Nathan Adrian faded in the semi-finals and fell to the fifth seed, but the medals don’t figure to be concentrated in the middle of the pool in this wide open race.
*The women’s 800 free relay gets underway tomorrow morning, and the Americans look like big favorites to pick up the gold. The team will swim Chelsea Chenault, Leah Smith, Shannon Vreeland, and Cierra Runge in prelims, two of whom will move on to join the finals squad. Even if no one from that foursome steps up, the Americans should still have a comfortable cushion with two medalists from the 200 free in the fold (Ledecky and Franklin) and no other country possessing considerable depth. The Australians usually provide a threat, but they are missing Kylie Palmer, while veterans Melanie Wright and Bronte Barratt have struggled this year.