Kaylee McKeown, Summer McIntosh Have Strengthened Loaded 200 IM Field For World Champs

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Kaylee McKeown, Summer McIntosh, Kate Douglass & Alex Walsh -- Photos Courtesy: Delly Carr, Scott Grant & Peter H. Bick

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Kaylee McKeown, Summer McIntosh Have Strengthened Loaded 200 IM Field For World Champs

For the first time in 13 years, an American was world champion in the women’s 200 individual medley. And it was not close — Alex Walsh produced a dominating effort in the final, leaving Australian runnerup Kaylee McKeown almost a second-and-a-half in the dust. The Nashville native had been building toward that crowning performance, and at 2:07.13, Walsh swam the fastest time recorded globally in five years.

WALSH Alex USA Gold Medal 200m Individual Medley Women Final Swimming FINA 19th World Championships Budapest 2022 Budapest, Duna Arena 19/06/22 Photo Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Alex Walsh is the reigning world champion in the 200 IM — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

But in less than a year since that race, Walsh’s sizeable advantage over the rest of the world has vanished. Only four swimmers broke 2:10 all of last year, but already eight have done so this year, with two women having approached or beaten Walsh’s gold-medal time from Budapest. Moreover, Walsh has yet to race the long course 200 IM since last year’s Worlds final, and she could have rivals from the United States threatening her chance at racing the event at the World Championships this July in Fukuoka, Japan. It would be no surprise if that race produces the fastest field in history in the event.

The new face in the 200 IM is Summer McIntosh, who won world titles in the 200 butterfly and 400 IM last year as well as silver in the 400 freestyle. She raced the 200 IM at the Commonwealth Games and did enough to claim gold in 2:08.70, a world junior record at the time. The medal-contending potential was obvious, but the shorter medley appeared to be her fifth or sixth-best event, not likely a priority for global competition.

Or so we thought, at least until McIntosh swam a time of 2:06.89 at Canadian Trials last month, the first sub-2:07 swim by anyone since 2016 and good enough to make her the fourth-fastest performer in history. Also making a jump in rankings this year was McKeown, who swam a best time of 2:08.16 last month and then swam almost one second faster at this weekend’s Sydney Open. Her time of 2:07.19 moved her to seventh in history and only six hundredths behind Walsh.

Third so far this year is 17-year-old Chinese teenager Yu Yiting, the sixth-place finisher in Tokyo in 2:09.57 (a world junior record at the time) but completely absent from the 2022 Worlds. Yu made a triumphant return at China’s National Championships earlier this month, crushing her previous best and touching in2:08.34. And Canada’s Sydney Pickrem has also been sub-2:09, the 2019 Worlds bronze medalist touching in 2:08.61 to finish behind McIntosh in their national final.

That list does not include the four other swimmers with season-best marks in 2:09-territory (the Netherlands’ Marrit Steenbergen, Australia’s Jenna Forrester and the British duo of Katie Shanahan and Abbie Wood), and the United States is also completely absent as well, although that will surely change by the end of next month’s U.S. Nationals or perhaps sooner. Given recent American results in this event, whichever Americans end up racing in Fukuoka will automatically be medal contenders.

At the NCAA Championships in March, Walsh was aiming for a third consecutive national title in the 200-yard IM, and she did slip under her previous American and U.S. Open records by one hundredth (1:50.07). The difference was Walsh finished behind two other swimmers: Stanford’s Torri Huske was just one hundredth clear of Walsh while Walsh’s Virginia teammate Kate Douglass obliterated the field and the previous record, swimming a time of 1:48.37. Douglass was also the short course world champion in the 200 IM in late 2022, defeating Walsh and McKeown in the final.

Converting times between courses is an inexact science, but her recent short course magnificence suggests that Douglass has plenty of room to drop from her best time of 2:09.04.

Douglass was the bronze medalist in the long course 200 IM in Tokyo behind Japan’s Yui Ohashi and Walsh, but she skipped the race completely in 2022. In her absence, teenager Leah Hayes (a future Virginia Cavalier herself) joined Walsh as a Worlds qualifier, dropping her best time from 2:11.22 entering the U.S. International Team Trials to 2:09.99 and then, at Worlds, to 2:08.91 and a bronze medal. And Hayes is likely to drop even more time this year, having already posted a mark of 2:10.03 at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Westmont, Ill.

That all adds up to at least six swimmers with sub-2:09 potential converging in Fukuoka, between McIntosh, McKeown, Yu, Pickrem and whichever two Americans qualify, with several more swimmers on the verge of a 2:08.

Kaylee McKeown smile W200BK Photo Courtesy Delly Carr (Swimming NSW)

Kaylee McKeown — Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

The potential monkey-wrench in all this? The schedule, which presents serious problems for the two swimmers who might be considered the co-gold-medal favorites at the moment, McIntosh and McKeown. The 100 backstroke semifinals take place right before the 200 IM final, and when faced with the same scheduling conflict last year, McKeown chose to skip the 100 back despite entering as the Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder. She will have to make the same decision this year about which event to focus on (or take her chances with both).

McIntosh, meanwhile, would have to race the 200 IM semis minutes after her much-anticipated showdown with Ariarne Titmus and Katie Ledecky in the 400 free final. She has yet to explore doubles at major meets, so this would be her first big one in a big spot on day one of the World Championships.

Fortunately for both, the 200 IM will take place at the end of the schedule at the Paris Olympics next year, opening the door for a fully-loaded field in the Olympic final.

It was four years ago when Katinka Hosszu won the last of her four consecutive world titles in this event, with an Olympic gold (2016) sandwiched in between. Following the one-year delay of the Tokyo Olympics, Hosszu’s form was diminished as she returned to competition, and she ended up seventh in the final while Ohashi, Walsh and Douglass claimed the podium spots. The current landscape of the event is quite the opposite as Hosszu’s long period of dominance, with a long list of contenders setting up for a world-title run.

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commonwombat
commonwombat
1 year ago

Will be very curious to see what McIntosh’s final schedule looks like. She has any number of event where she could conceivably contend (and a number with gold potential) but the risk of “chasing every rabbit” is that you can end up wearing oneself out and underperforming in most. It also has to be acknowledged that she will also be co-opted for at least 2 relays.

Will McKeown take on a double this year ? Hard to say for certain but I suspect she may. She backed out of the 200IM for Tokyo due to shoulder labrum issues being identified plus relay commitments. Last year, her backstroke (and form) was slightly down.

This year, however, she is “flying”; particularly on her backstroke. She essayed a double at this past weekend’s NSW Open/University Nationals meet; where she followed up a 4.31 400IM with a 58.3 100back in the same session. Whilst I think the final call will hinge on how her shoulder is holding up; her backstroke form (in particular) has been such that she (like Smith) have the leeway of not having to overextend themselves in the heats (and even semis) of the 100back.

Concur with your general assessment of the event. Our leading players look to be McIntosh, McKeown and whichever Americans qualify. Competition for the last 4 lanes of the final will be stiff. Yu certainly has to be respected as should Pickrem (if her head’s in the right place). Forrester has been on a major PB tear this year and could drop further. Think one, but not both, of the Brits should final.

Nick the biased Aussie
Nick the biased Aussie
1 year ago

It’s clear from the meets Kaylee has done this year that she knows she needs to be prepared to double up and she’s shown she can do it well. Could be Summer’s downfall in the 400m free having the 200m IM semis beforehand.

McCormack
McCormack
11 months ago

And then again, quite unbiasedly, it may not be. Let them swim. We can prognosticate all we care to, but that’s only, predictably, the hot wind of naught. Bias? Yeah, I’m biased: I root for all of them. Women’s high level international LCM swimming is the most fun spectator sport we have…by some distance. Where they’re from or what they are like out of the pool are matters of nil, I think.

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