Races Without Favorites: Olympic Champions Tatjana Schoenmaker, Lydia Jacoby Set for Return to Crowded Breaststroke Events

Tatjana Schoenmaker in the 200m breatstroke
Tatjana Schoenmaker -- Photo Courtesy: Swimming South Africa

Races Without Favorites: Olympic Champions Schoenmaker, Jacoby Set for Return to Crowded Breaststroke Events

Less than two months out from the World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, several individual races already have clearly-established favorites, but plenty of others lack an obvious choice for gold. Most countries have already competed their selection meets for Worlds while the world’s two premier swimming powers, Australia and the United States, have meets scheduled for next month. So it’s a great time to examine the status quo in several of the events lacking a centerpiece star right now.

Previous entries: women’s 200 individual medley, women’s 400 freestyle and men’s 100 breaststroke. Up next are the women’s breaststroke events.

Last year, the Olympic champion from the women’s 100 and 200 breaststroke were both absent from the World Championships. Lydia Jacoby failed to qualify to represent the U.S. in the two-lap race while South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker chose to skip Worlds to focus on the Commonwealth Games. That left American Lilly King as the obvious favorite in both distances, but King was swimming at less-than-100% in Budapest, and she fell to a surprising fourth in an extremely close 100 breast final before taking the win in the 200.


Benedetta Pilato after winning the 2022 world title in the women’s 100 breaststroke — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

That aforementioned Worlds final in the 100 breast was an unexpectedly slow affair, with Benedetta Pilato winning gold in 1:05.93, almost a full second slower than Jacoby’s gold-medal time from Tokyo. Five swimmers (including Pilato) beat that time last year, but where the race lacked speed, drama was at a maximum. Medalists Anna Elendt and Ruta Meilutyte were both within a tenth, with King just five hundredths adrift.

Expect a much quicker affair in 2023. King swam her 2022 best prior to Worlds, as did Elendt and Japan’s Reona Aoki, while several swimmers had yet to unveil their top efforts by the time Worlds rolled around. South Africa’s Lara van Niekerk won gold at the Commonwealth Games in 1:05.47, and Pilato’s teammate Lisa Angiolini completed a 1-2 finish for Italy at the European Championships after swimming as fast as 1:06.00.

So far in 2022, the Netherlands’ Tes Schouten, last in the 100 breast semifinals in Tokyo, has been as quick as 1:05.71, and Jacoby has been resurgent, with a season-best of 1:05.84 (prior to U.S. Nationals) that is her quickest mark since Tokyo. Jacoby also took the title in the 100-yard breast at the NCAA Championships in March, and while short course yards success cannot predict long course performance, it’s clear that the 19-year-old is back to the peak form she showed prior to and during the Olympics, where her finishing speed lifted her to an unexpected gold.

Aoki has also broken 1:06 this year, and Tokyo finalist Mona McSharry is once again racing at an elite level. Estonia’s Eneli Jefimova has been swimming at the edge of international contention for a few years now. With all of these contenders, we could see another nail-biting finish in Fukuoka, although Jacoby and/or King could change the complexion of this race with big swims at next month’s U.S. Nationals.

However, there is a big asterisk around both this event and the 200: the fastest swimmer in the world thus far in 2023 in both events will not be at Worlds. Evgeniia Chikunova, an 18-year-old from Russia, is barred from international racing along with all Russian swimmers, but she sparkled at the Russian Championships in April. Her 1:04.92 in the 100 breast leads the world rankings by eight tenths and ranks seventh all-time, and in the 200 breast, she swam a time of 2:17.55 to beat Schoenmaker’s previous world record by an incredible 1.39 seconds.

If Chikunova were heading to Fukuoka, she would be a slight favorite for 100-meter gold and a huge favorite in the 200 breast, where she sits nearly five seconds clear in the world rankings. But in her absence, it is anyone’s game, and the best of the rest so far in 2023 have included Schouten (2:22.41), China’s Ye Shiwen (2:22.44), Denmark’s Thea Blomsterberg (2:22.61) and Japan’s Runa Imai (2:22.98).


Lilly King is the reigning world champion in the women’s 200 breaststroke — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

However, the three medalists from last year’s Worlds have yet to seek World Championship qualification, and expect King, Australia’s Jenna Strauch and American Kate Douglass to overhaul the world rankings next month. Strauch was a surprise silver medalist behind King at the World Championships and then the silver medalist behind Schoenmaker at the Commonwealth Games, while Douglass, the Olympic bronze medalist in the 200 IM, has embraced the 200 breast in recent years.

Again, short course yards and long course meters are very different racing formats, but at this year’s NCAA Championships, Douglass swam the fastest time in history in the 200-yard breast for the fourth time in a year, cutting off almost a second from her first swim to her fourth. In short course meters, she fell just short of a world record in her golden effort at the Short Course World Championships in December. It’s clear that Douglass has plenty more to give in long course. In the meantime, look for an exciting race between Douglass, King, Jacoby and 200 breast Olympic bronze medalist Annie Lazor for the two U.S. qualifying spots in this event.

And we cannot forget about Schoenmaker, who will race at a global-level meet for the first time since becoming the first woman ever to break 2:19 at the Tokyo Games. Sure, Chikunova has surpassed that time by a huge margin, but with no Russians in the field, Schoenmaker will arrive in Fukuoka with by far the quickest lifetime-best mark. King is the only other active swimmer to ever break 2:20.

Plenty of high-level breaststroke racing will transpire prior to the World Championships, particularly in two weeks in Melbourne and two weeks after that in Indianapolis, but it’s clear that familiar and unfamiliar contenders will head to Japan with legitimate world-title aspirations.

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