MacNeil and Titmus Leading Charge of Rising Swimming Stars to Dent Invincibility of Champions

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Is the Nambu University Aquatics Center becoming a graveyard of champions?

First, Katie Ledecky had a chance. The opportunity then shifted to Sarah Sjostrom. Eventually, Katinka Hosszu came through, and became the first woman in history to collect four consecutive world titles in the same event. But while Hosszu accomplished the feat in the 200 individual medley, a sense of shock has hovered over the upsets of Ledecky and Sjostrom.

The fabric of sports has long featured upset triumphs, those moments when “guarantees” gave way to the improbable. Still, heading into the World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, how could Ledecky and Sjostrom possibly be defeated? It didn’t seem fathomable. After all, while Ledecky owned the 12-fastest time in the history of the 400 freestyle, Sjostrom entered the 100 butterfly with the 11-swiftest performances of all-time.

Yet, when their races wrapped, there were Ledecky and Sjostrom, dealt stunning setbacks by youthful upstarts ready to take a more prominent role on the global stage as the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo await. In the 400 free, Australia’s Ariarne Titmus blew past Ledecky down the final length, the American’s loss her first in the event in international competition. In the 100 butterfly, Sjostrom endured a similar fate as Canada’s Maggie MacNeil comfortably zoomed past the world-record holder for the biggest win of her career.

“Things happen,” said Ledecky’s coach, Greg Meehan. “Even for the superstars.”

The words of Meehan should resonate loudly, for they reveal an indisputable truth: Regardless of prior success and how dominant an athlete has been, vulnerability always lurks. It is impossible to maintain an uninterrupted string of perfect of races, and all it takes is one subpar moment for history to change. Oh, and the belief by a rival that the unthinkable is achievable. That approach was certainly adopted by Titmus, and then MacNeil.

For the past seven years, Ledecky and Sjostrom have competed in their own stratospheres, the competition relegated to silver-medal pursuits. In distance freestyle, Ledecky was a slam-dunk gold medalist. Seconds, not tenths, have separated Ledecky from those surrounding her. But Titmus gradually emerged as a contender and when she joined the sub-4:00 club in the 400 freestyle, there was true proof of her threatening status.

Rather than view Ledecky with awe, Titmus respected the legend while developing confidence that she was beatable. Nowhere was that belief more obvious in the way Titmus attacked the final of the 400 free in Gwangju. Adopting Ledecky’s typical strategy, Titmus pushed the front-half pace and announced her presence to Ledecky. And when Ledecky moved into the lead at the 250-meter mark, Titmus didn’t flinch, but instead remained within herself and dug deep to easily overhaul Ledecky.

“I was 11 when London was on,” Titmus said of the Olympiad in which Ledecky won the 800 freestyle and emerged as a worldwide star. “It’s crazy to think she has been dominating distance freestyle since then. “Now, hopefully she is excited that she now has a battle with me. Katie is a true champion. To do something like this, I suppose every girl dreams of doing it.”

If Titmus expected to dethrone Ledecky, MacNeil seemed more shocked to pull off her upset of Sjostrom. Coming off a superb freshman year at the University of Michigan, MacNeil was far from a surprise in the final, and her semifinal mark of 56.52 in the semifinals placed her in medal contention. But when she popped a 55.83 outing (No. 8 all-time) to knock off Sjostrom for the gold medal, there were second and third glances at the scoreboard.

Words didn’t come easily for MacNeil when asked to discuss her career-defining achievement. That’s what happens when an athlete is still comprehending the moment and trying to move from that land of disbelief to reality.

“I was really hoping just to get on the podium at this point,” MacNeil said. “Getting a gold medal is really unbelievable. (Sjostrom) was really great. She congratulated me and was super-nice and so great. I have looked up to her forever, so it means the world.”

The rise of Titmus and MacNeil as world champions is the latest in the continuous sporting cycle of young stars turning into go-to performers. No matter the event, new faces will emerge while old ones fade away. But given the obstacles facing these two new faces, namely walls known as Ledecky and Sjostrom, their emergence came in eye-opening fashion. Titmus and MacNeil, at least it seemed, had a little more time to wait before it was their turn. And then they cut in line, right to the front, actually.

Simply because Titmus and MacNeil bettered Ledecky and Sjostrom this time around, it doesn’t mean the old guard is moving on and leaving the kingdom. Champions are just that because of the work they have put in and because of a mentality that has allowed them to rise in earlier years. So, if Ledecky and Sjostrom return to the top at next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, it won’t come as a shock. They’ll just enter the meet without the same invincibility they seemingly carried into this one.

“I wish I could complain and say I got water in my goggles or something like that,” Sjostrom said. “But I actually had a pretty good race with good turns and a good start. It’s just the back-end speed. Maybe that’s just age!”

Sports never fail to provide intriguing storylines, and here we are, on the second day of the World Championships, with two untouchables beaten. The new charge has arrived. The Nambu University Aquatics Center is not a graveyard. It is a launching pad.

“I can’t even fathom it right now and I don’t think it will sink in for a few days,” MacNeil said. “It’s crazy.”