Epic Showdown Shaping Up For Women’s Olympic 100 Butterfly; Zhang Yufei In Pole Position

Zhang Yufei -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Zhang Yufei Enters Olympic Year in Pole Position in 100 Butterfly

Few races on the annual World Cup circuit will garner much acclaim, but one showdown at the middle stop in Athens featured the four fastest swimmers ever — and the only swimmers to garner World Championships or Olympic gold in the race for the last decade. But the winner was never in doubt, with the event playing in an eerily similar manner to most international 100 butterfly finals in 2023.

That’s because Zhang Yufei is the current queen of the event, having out-dueled Olympic champion Maggie Mac Neil and 2022 world champion Torri Huske for the top spot at this summer’s World Championships. And Zhang has continued her impressive streak in the event in recent months: she has now recorded four efforts in 2023 quicker than the second-best swimmer in the world, Huske. The quickest of those times was a 55.86 that placed her 1.71 seconds ahead of the field at the Asian Games last month.

The continental meet followed Zhang’s golden efforts at Worlds and then the World University Games immediately thereafter, and in October, the 25-year-old pivoted back to the global scene, where Huske, Mac Neil and world-record holder Sarah Sjostrom all awaited in the 100 fly for at least one World Cup stop. And Zhang never lost in her two main events, capturing the 100 fly in Berlin, Athens and Budapest as well as the 200 fly at all three stops, her Budapest time of 2:05.65 marking a triumphant return to the event in which she won Olympic gold two years ago.

Over four laps, Zhang remains well off the 2:04-low marks recorded by Summer McIntosh and Regan Smith this year, and she has yet to hit her own best time in the 100 fly this year either. But it has not mattered; she has been prepared for every opportunity.

Consider the other top performers in the 100 fly this year: Huske went 56.18 to beat out Gretchen Walsh (56.34) and Kate Douglass (56.43) at U.S. Nationals in June, but none of the Americans have come close to matching those times since. Mac Neil sat in the 56-mid range several times this year, but she never eclipsed the 56.45 she swam for silver behind Zhang in Fukuoka, including in her golden effort at this week’s Pan American Games.

Five others have clocked 56s this year: Americans Smith and Claire Curzan, Australia’s Emma McKeon, Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Lana Pudar. The U.S. occupies five of the top seven spots in the world rankings, but only two of those swimmers will be able to impact the racing at the Olympics. McKeon surely will, though, having placed a narrow fourth at Worlds after reaching the podium at the 2017 and 2019 Worlds plus the 2021 Olympics. And Sjostrom, who has not won a medal in a major race in this event since 2019, is making a return to 100-meter events for the Olympic year, and she still owns the world record in the 100 fly.

That world record of 55.48 has survived for more than seven years since the Rio Olympics, despite four swimmers making real runs at the record in recent years: Mac Neil ranks second all-time at 55.59, followed by Zhang (55.62), Huske (55.64) and McKeon (55.72). That’s all within a quarter-second, and it’s worth noting that three of those four times came in a hotly-contested Olympic final (all but Huske, who was one hundredth behind McKeon).

Given that history, why couldn’t Mac Neil, Huske, McKeon or even Sjostrom return to that level in time for an all-important Paris showdown next July? Zhang has the upper hand as October 2023 gives way to November, but the small margins and extensive history for all the major contenders shows that the Chinese swimmer’s advantage is tenuous at best.

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