Budapest Mirage? Assessing U.S. Dominance at World Championships

Katie Ledecky -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

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Budapest Mirage? Assessing U.S. Dominance at World Championships

Kieran Smith had his arms in the air before any other anchor swimmer had touched the wall. He motioned as if to say, “Bring it on,” and then he turned to his teammates for rousing high-fives. Finally, he took a seat on the lane line, raised his arms once again and slammed the water. Of the many American relay victories over the years at the World Championships, this particular triumph in the men’s 800 freestyle relay meant something extra. After all, the Americans were less than 11 months removed from finishing fourth in the event at the Tokyo Olympics, the first U.S. relay in any swimming event ever to finish lower than third at an Olympics.

Now, the Americans are back on top, with their first world title in the 800 free relay since 2013 and their first gold medal at a major international competition since 2016, when the team of Conor DwyerTownley HaasRyan Lochte and Michael Phelps raced for the Stars and Stripes. A strong performance in the 200 freestyle at the U.S. International Team Trials in April, where Smith, Drew Kibler and Carson Foster all swam in the 1:45-mid range, was a promising development, and in Budapest, those three plus Trenton Julian keyed a three-second, swagger-boosting victory.

This event marked the fourth relay gold medal for the U.S. this week, the 14th gold medal overall and the 32nd American medal. The performance has been dominating, and the Americans have already topped their tally from last year’s Tokyo Olympics with two days of competition remaining. However, it is crucial to remember the realities of this week’s competition: this is not a full-scale World Championships.

It’s a storyline of this meet that is unshakeable. So many stars of the Tokyo Olympics never made it to Budapest for one reason or another, including Emma McKeonAriarne TitmusEvgeny Rylov and Adam PeatyKaylee McKeown was a late scratch from the 100 backstroke, and Caeleb Dressel swam just two events and the prelims of a third before he was done for the week.

Of course, every swimmer and relay team that has earned a medal this week deserves to be commended. They raced against the field present, and the results are legitimate. But we still must consider the what-if.

In the aforementioned men’s 800 free relay, the Americans’ time of 7:00.24 would have been quick enough to win Olympic silver last year, but it was more than a second-and-a-half behind the winning time of Great Britain. The British team is without Duncan Scott, who split 1:43.45 on the anchor leg of the Olympic quartet. The British won bronze in Budapest, but replace the slowest leg of that relay with another 1:43 for Scott, and the Brits likely have enough to sneak by the Americans.

How about the women’s 800 free relay? The U.S. women were at risk of missing the podium after a shaky 200 freestyle behind Katie Ledecky at April’s Trials, but they rallied to take gold Wednesday evening, largely fueled by a career-best performance from Ledecky and a stunning 1:54.60 anchor split from 17-year-old Bella Sims. Australia was 2.41 seconds behind to earn silver, but what would have happened if Titmus was part of that quartet? Last month, Titmus clocked in at 1:53.31 at the Australian Championships, the fastest time in the world this year. There’s a good chance her presence could have helped push the Aussies over the top.

Yes, these are hypothetical situations. Yes, the Americans won world titles fair and square. And yes, both relays were signs of enormous progress in a short amount of time, the men’s relay since the Olympics and the women’s relay since the Trials less than two months earlier. But when the World Championships are not a true representation of the best the world has to offer, it’s important to properly contextualize these results, especially with the eyes of the swimming world already peering ahead to the Paris Olympics just two short years away.

The U.S. squad has captured 10 individual golds this week, but of those 10, only four were won against a full-strength field. Ledecky did not have to contend with Titmus in the 400 free. Ryan Murphy’s first individual world title in Thursday’s 200 backstroke came against a field lacking the suspended Rylov, Murphy’s nemesis in the event over the past five years. As impressive as was Torri Huske’s gold in the women’s 100 butterfly, Olympic champion Maggie Mac Neil was absent. Take nothing away from these well-deserved gold medals, but understand the realities.

If we are to truly judge the best swimmers in the world for 2022, let’s wait. Let’s see what sort of times the missing Australian and European stars can produce at the Commonwealth Games or European Championships in just over one month’s time. Compare the results from everyone’s focus meet for the year to calculate supremacy. That will give a more accurate assessment for this year than simply zeroing in on Budapest.

It has been an extremely strong week of performances for the United States, and it has been particularly impressive to watch young swimmers like Foster, Huske and Alex Walsh take the next steps in their careers. This week’s breakout performers can, should and will use confidence derived from Budapest to build off in the leadup to the Paris Games. But let’s wait a month or two to let the full picture of world swimming for 2022 unfold.

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1 day ago

There are always these scenarios. But in the end it’s who shows up and who wins that day – times don’t matter when you talk about winning. You can’t hypothetically come up with scenarios that are NEVER guaranteed !

15 hours ago

So, they should give the medals back? smh

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