Kliment Kolesnikov Surges Toward Stardom at European Championships

Kliment Kolesnikov 100 free
Kliment Kolesnikov racing freestyle at the European Championships -- Photo Courtesy: Deepbluemedia/Insidefoto

Kliment Kolesnikov Surges Toward Stardom at European Championships

An observer following this week’s European Championships in Budapest who was mostly unfamiliar with elite-level swimming would probably assume that Kliment Kolesnikov is the best swimmer in the world, or at least a candidate for that title. Of course, the greater swimming community does not yet consider Kolesnikov on the level of a Caeleb Dressel or Adam Peaty, but Kolesnikov has surely enhanced his profile over the course of his brilliant week.

And Kolesnikov is just 20 years old—hard to believe, given that his name has appeared on start lists in backstroke races at major meets for years.

MEN - 50M BACKSTROKE - FINAL KOLESNIKOV Kliment RUS Russia Celebrate World Record Swimming Budapest - Hungary 18/5/2021 Duna Arena XXXV LEN European Aquatic Championships Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Kliment Kolesnikov after winning gold in the men’s 50 back at the European Championships — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

He has been a consistent presence for years, but his European championships effort was more than just solid. It was world-beating, all week long. The rundown of his meet includes a pair of world records in the 50 back over the first two days, a victory in the 100 free that was just behind his world-leading and all-time top-ten 47.33 and a series of scintillating relay efforts. He opened the meet with a 47.10 split to anchor Russia to gold in the 400 free relay, and he added a 52.09 100 back leadoff split on the mixed 400 medley relay that would have moved him to sixth all-time in the event, if it had counted.

Finally, Kolesnikov finished the meet by leading off Russia’s men’s medley relay in 52.13, breaking a tie with Ryosuke Irie for ninth all-time in the event, leaving him just two hundredths off Evgeny Rylov’s European record and within three tenths of Ryan Murphy’s world record.

The only disappointment of Kolesnikov’s week came Wednesday, when he finished a seemingly-stunning 16th in the 100 back, but that semifinal went off just 10 minutes after his 100 free victory. Otherwise, he was brilliant and nearly perfect.

So how did Kolesnikov get to this point without attracting major acclaim? He did not swim at the 2016 Olympics, but he made a rousing major meet debut in 2017. Weeks after his 17th birthday, the Moscow-native finished fourth at the World Championships in the 200 back, his time of 1:55.14 setting a world junior record that still stands. Following that meet, however, Kolesnikov gravitated toward the shorter backstroke events, and he began accumulating wins and world records.

Kolesnikov broke his first world record, in the short course meters 100 back, in December 2017, and at the European Championships the following summer, he swept the gold medals in the 50 and 100 back, setting a world record of 24.00 in the 50 and a world junior record of 52.53 in the 100. During the 2020 ISL season, he broke the 100 back SCM world record again, swimming a 48.58 to top a field that included Murphy.

That’s a lot of success in sprint backstroke over a short period, yet Kolesnikov still managed to fly under the radar heading into the Olympic year, first 2020 and then changed to 2021: he failed to make a significant impact individually at the 2019 World Championships. Kolesnikov took ninth in the 100 back in Gwangju, his semifinal time of 53.44 more than a second slower than his best time from the previous year. He bounced back to earn a bronze medal in the 50 back, but in 24.51, he was more than a half-second outside his world record.

Kliment Kolesnikov 2021 European Championships

Kliment Kolesnikov at the European Championships — Photo Courtesy: Deepbluemedia/Insidefoto

And of course, all of those accomplishments and almost all his international experience prior to 2021 happened in backstroke races. Kolesnikov has participated in Russia’s 400 free relay team for most of his career, but he did not even swim the 100 free at the 2019 World Championships. It has only been in 2021 that he has emerged as a legitimate Olympic medal contender in the 100 free.

But with the European championships concluded, Kolesnikov will prepare for the Tokyo Olympics eyeing a large medal haul. No, he won’t get the attention of some of his competitors in the 100 back, since Xu Jiayu is the two-time world champion in the event and Murphy is the defending Olympic gold medalist and world record-holder. Even Kolesnikov’s countryman, Rylov, will get more acclaim since he has won two world titles in the 100 back.

The men’s 100 free, meanwhile, is sure to be billed as another Dressel vs. Kyle Chalmers showdown, the two-time world champion against the defending Olympic champion. Kolesnikov will also provide a critical leg in three Russian relays (the men’s 400 free and 400 medley relays and the mixed 400 medley relay.

Sure, Kolesnikov’s disappointing results from the World Championships in 2019 induced some doubt about how he can perform at the highest level, and he cannot fully eradicate that doubt without some big performances indicative of his abilities at a global-level meet. But the results from this week in Budapest show that Kolesnikov, who will turn 21 just weeks before the Games commence, will be ready to challenge and potentially upset his experienced and decorated competitors in two of the marquee events of the Games.

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3 years ago

One of the fastest ever at 100m IM SCM too!

Jaime Sanchez A
Jaime Sanchez A
3 years ago

THANKS A LOT David—-you are the star with this kind of information.

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