The Best World Championship Performances in History

Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps start the 200 IM final at the 2011 world championships
Photo Courtesy: O Sports

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Commentary by Kevin Gill, Swimming World College Intern.

In just a few short days, the world’s best in the sport of swimming will gather in the same arena to go head to head. All swim fans will turn their attention to Budapest, Hungary for world-class racing and some of the fastest swimming in history.

For years, the FINA World Championships have proven to be the second most prestigious swim meet on the globe, behind the Olympics. This event has provided some of the sport’s most iconic moments for almost two decades. As we await to see what the next generation has in store at the 17th edition of this meet, it is important to look back at some of the most dominant individual performances in World Championships history.

2001-Fukuoka, Japan

One year after claiming multiple golds in front of his swim-crazed home country, Australian legend Ian Thorpe aimed for a historic showing in Japan. The Thorpedo collected gold medals in the 200, 400, and 800m freestyles as well as relay victories in all three contested at the meet.

Those three individual wins all came in world record fashion. The times Thorpe posted in the 200 and 400 would last many years and the Aussie standout would become the first person to win six golds in a single World Championships. With his performance in Fukuoka, Thorpe paved the way for several other swimmers to achieve similar success at this meet.


Photo Courtesy: Adidas

2007-Melbourne, Australia

In front of a passionate Australian crowd, the world’s best swimmers prepared for the 2008 Olympic Games. Out of all of the spectacular performances at the meet, two swimmers stood out in particular.

Libby Lenton, now Libby Trickett, handled the pressure of the home crowd better than anyone could have expected. The Australian stud claimed individual gold in the 50 and 100m freestyles as well as the 100m butterfly. Both 100m swims were championship records.

In addition to her individual triumphs, Lenton lead the Australian team to gold in the 800m freestyle relay and the 400m medley relay, breaking a world record in the medley. Lenton was able to put up one of the most impressive individual performances by any swimmer, male or female.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Along with their hometown hero Lenton, the Australian crowd was treated to one of the best meets of the greatest Olympian of all time. Michael Phelps put on quite the show in his lead up to the historic Bejing Games.

In Melbourne, Phelps claimed a record seven gold medals. He did not just win his five individual events but dominated the field. He touched first in world record fashion in the 200 and 400m IM, 200m freestyle, and the 200m butterfly as well as claiming victory in the 100m butterfly. Additionally, Phelps helped Team USA to gold in the 400 and 800m freestyle relays.

But the biggest statement from Phelps came in the 200m freestyle where he took out the long standing world record from Australian superstar Thorpe in front of his home nation. This meet proved to be just a glimpse of the capabilities of the legend himself, Michael Phelps.

2011-Shanghai, China

In another pre-Olympic World Championships, one American star made his case for being considered one of the best swimmers of all time.

Ryan Lochte continued the momentum that he built in 2009 and 2010 by putting on a legendary performance in China. Lochte beat a loaded field in the 200m freestyle, dominated the 200m backstroke and 400m IM, and outpaced rival Phelps in world record fashion in the 200m IM. This world record came in a fantastic battle that resulted in the first world record since the high-tech suit ban in 2010.

Lochte was also a member of the winning 800m freestyle relay for the Americans. This meet solidified Lochte as a major threat for the following year’s Olympic Games in London where he would go on to collect even more hardware for team USA.


Photo Courtesy: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/GettyImages

2013-Barcelona, Spain

One year post her Olympic breakthrough, Missy Franklin found herself at the FINA World Championships for the second time in her career. Unlike her 2011 debut, in Barcelona Franklin dealt with some high expectations.

The American star walked away from this meet making history. She became the first female to win six gold medals at a single World Championships. Franklin claimed gold in the 100 and 200m backstroke as well as the 200m freestyle. The victory in 200m freestyle over world record holder Federica Pellegrini was Franklin’s first time on the podium in a freestyle event at a major international meet.

Franking added crucial legs on all three winning relays for the United States. In Spain, Franklin put herself in to conversation as one of the greatest in the sport’s history.

Missy Franklin places second in the prelims of the 50 backstroke.

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

2015-Kazan, Russia

There has been no more dominant swimmer in recent years than Katie Ledecky. At the World Championships two years ago, Ledecky put on the best performance of her career up until that point.

The then NCAP standout faced a grueling schedule that included two 400m freestyles, two 800m freestyles, two 1500m freestyles, and three 200m freestyles. This schedule included a difficult double with the 1500m final and the 200m semifinal in close proximity.


Photo Courtesy: R-Sport / Mia Rossiya Segodnaya

The distance star claimed gold in all four of her individual events and scored three world records, two in the 1500 and one in the 800. All these swims were done in typical Ledecky fashion. She won the 400 by four seconds, the 800 by 10 seconds, and the 1500 by 14 seconds. Additionally, she anchored the winning 800m freestyle relay.

In Kazan, Ledecky’s dominant performance set her up for eventual Olympic success.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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Lane Four
Lane Four
6 years ago

Hello? Tim Shaw 1975??? Tracy Caulkins 1978???

Chuck Kroll
Chuck Kroll
6 years ago
Reply to  Lane Four

Only one word here and I hope not to offend…intern.

Lane Four
Lane Four
6 years ago
Reply to  Chuck Kroll

Spot on, Chuck. Where is Bill Bell when you need him?

6 years ago

I didn’t see the part that said best WC performances in this century. Just off the top of my head I can recall ’73 for Demont , ’75 Shaw, ’78 Caulkins, etc.

Morten Aurvig Lystlund Brøndum

Maybe you forgot a few… Just to mention some: Kieran Perkins 1994, Sjostrom and Peaty 2015!

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