Rieder’s Richter Scale: Australia-USA Mixed Relay Finish Epitomizes World Swimming Championships

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Each day during the FINA World Swimming Championships, Swimming World will present “Rieder’s Richter Scale,” an analysis of the impact of each swimming final on the sport’s wider landscape: “1” indicates just a minor tremor, while a “10” means a race brought massive upheaval.

When Simone Manuel dove in with a full second advantage to anchor the mixed 4×100 medley relay, the United States looked golden. Pre-race analysis showed a tight dual between the U.S. and Australia, but Ryan Murphy had crushed Mitch Larkin on the opening backstroke leg, and Caeleb Dressel had opened up a lead with a monumental 49.33 butterfly leg.

And then Cate Campbell happened. The Aussie superstar sprinter delivered a 51.10 anchor leg, not quite to the level of her 50.93 split from Pan Pacs last summer but a historic performance nonetheless, and Manuel couldn’t come close to that, her 52.37 split coming up well short of the 51.92 she swam three days earlier to anchor the 4×100 free relay.

Give Manuel credit: She fought to the end, even when it appeared as though Campbell had gone by her. Manuel has a reputation for phenomenal closing speed, but she ended up hitting the pad two hundredths behind the Australian.

And with that, another Australian relay triumph, and another missed opportunity for American gold.

Australia has earned three gold medals this week and has an opportunity for plenty more with Campbell looking like the big favorite in both sprint free events and strong teams set for both remaining women’s relays. Thanks to Campbell’s return after she skipped the 2017 World Championships and Ariarne Titmus’ breakout meet, Australia has already earned nine total medals at the meet’s halfway point, only one shy of the country’s total from the entire 2017 meet.

Meanwhile, the United States has won just three gold and eight total medals after four of eight days of racing, a far cry from the 18 golds and 38 total medals from two years ago in Budapest. What has happened? Well, a confluence of circumstances add up to historic performances like Budapest and the Rio Olympics before that (16 gold, 33 total medals), and exactly the opposite confluence of mistiming and bad luck has led to this less-than-stellar showing.

Picking the World Championships team one year out is certainly a factor, with many potential medal contenders left behind or left out of events where they could have been medal contenders. Katie Ledecky’s illness has been crushing for American medal potential. And then luck: The close races have consistently gone the other way. Already, in just 18 events, the Americans have recorded four fourth-place finishes.

There’s potential for a turnaround, particularly with American swimmers holding top seeds in three of Thursday’s four individual finals—Hali Flickinger in the women’s 200 fly, Dressel in the men’s 100 free and Kathleen Baker in the women’s 50 back—and Chase Kalisz entering the men’s 200 IM final as defending champion and favorite.

But the women’s 4×200 free relay, a consistent gold-medal opportunity for the U.S., will be in trouble with Ledecky still sick and Allison Schmitt struggling. That team should certainly still medal, but beating a Titmus and Emma McKeon-led Australian team while compromised seems like an unlikely outcome.

Ah yes, there’s Australia again. For years, the U.S. and Australia dueled for swimming supremacy, only for the balance of power to shift considerably in recent years. Australia won just a single gold in swimming at the 2012 Olympics, and then, when pegged to thrive in Rio and perhaps earn more gold medals than the U.S., the Aussies flopped again, winning just three gold medals and only one after the first day of competition.

fina world swimming championships, rieder's richter scale, ryan murphy

So perhaps the pendulum swings again by the time next year’s Tokyo Olympics roll around, or at least expect some balancing out. After all, the U.S. similarly underperformed at the 2015 World Championships, earning just eight golds and 23 total medals, only for a complete reversal one year later. It’s no time for American panic, but certainly, a medal run over the next few days would ease some concern.

For now, let’s appreciate Campbell and her colossal relay abilities. That earned Australia another striking win, and that records a 7 on the Richter scale.


When Federica Pellegrini won gold in the 200 free at the 2017 World Championships, that was it, she insisted. She would no longer compete in the event at big meets, instead focusing perhaps on the 100 free or some backstroke event. That proclamation looks silly now, with Pellegrini again ascending to the top step of the podium as World Champion.

No need to rehash the glorious details of Pellegrini’s victory in this space; instead, some perspective: The gold marks the eighth straight World Championships where Pellegrini has won a medal in the 200 free, a streak dating back to Montreal 2005. Pellegrini is one of two swimmers who won a medal in Montreal to still be competing in 2019, joining Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh.

Pellegrini still holds the world record in the event, a 1:52.98 from the 2009 World Championships, the height of the polyurethane bodysuit era. She also recorded a 1:53.73 at that meet in Rome a decade ago. The next-best effort of her career? The 1:54.22 from Gwangju. To reiterate: 30-year-old Federica Pellegrini, who claimed she was retiring from the 200 free two years ago, just swam her best time in 10 years.

After the race, Pellegrini declared her ambitions to win an Olympic gold in 2020, a feat she has accomplished just once, in 2008. Despite her consistent success at World Championships, Pellegrini did not win a medal in the 200 free at either the 2012 or 2016 Games, with her Olympic hardware consisting of the aforementioned gold and a silver from Athens 2004.

fina world swimming championships, rieder's richter scale

Certainly, Pellegrini will have that chance for a golden swansong in Tokyo, a race that should be eagerly anticipated. Four swimmers—Pellegrini, Titmus, Sarah Sjostrom and Siobhan Haughey—all broke 1:55 in Gwangju, and Ledecky, Taylor Ruck and Emma McKeon should all rejoin the fray after scratching the event this week.

For now, give Pellegrini credit for a whopper of a swim, an 8 on the Richter scale.


Size and strength wins 50-meter races, right? Not when Adam Peaty is involved. At 6-foot-3-inches and 190 lbs., Peaty typically races men taller and much larger, and his pullouts are just fine compared to others, so he typically emerges behind the pack in a 50 breast and trails for the first 25 meters.

But then he gets going, and the speed and power in Peaty’s stroke and narrow kick takes over. It’s a sight to behold. No, Peaty didn’t break a world record in the 50, but his 26.06 ranks as the third-fastest time ever behind two of his own performances from the Budapest World Championships two years ago. He won by a full six tenths, an enormous margin in a 50-meter race.

fina world swimming championships, rieder's richter scale

For the first time since 2005, a 50 breast podium did not feature Cameron van der Burgh, the South African sprint breaststroke specialist who retired last December. Van der Burgh, who twice won World titles in the 50 breast and six total World Champs medals, actually beat Peaty in their final head-to-head matchup at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. But no peer for Peaty this time.

All in all, the 50 breast brought few surprises, aside from the expected bump to Peaty’s World Swimmer of the Year candidacy. A 2 here on the Richter scale.


Gregorio Paltrinieri did not swim anywhere close to his best in 2018, fading to second at the European Championships in the 800 free and third in the 1500 free, his specialty event in which he has won the last two World titles. But now it’s 2019, and he’s back.

fina world swimming championships, rieder's richter scale

Paltrinieri’s 7:39.27 brought him a new European record, taking over for defending champion, countryman and training partner Gabriele Detti. Only five men—Zhang Lin, Ous Mellouli, Sun Yang, Grant Hackett and Ian Thorpe—have ever gone quicker. And Italy now owns three gold medals, courtesy of Paltrinieri, Pellegrini and Simona Quadarella, tied with the U.S., Australia and China for most of any country.

Paltrinieri has two days to rest up for the 1500 free, and you have to believe Sun Yang’s world record of 14:31.02 will be on high alert. After capturing an Olympic berth for the 10k open water swim last week and a world title in the 800, history will await as Paltrinieri chases a third-straight world title in the mile Saturday. For the 800 triumph, a 3 on the Richter scale.


Finally, Kristof Milak, wow. Just wow. He annihilated a Michael Phelps world record, his victory in the 200 fly coming in an unfathomable 1:50.73. He won his first world title by more than three seconds, and Phelps’ tenure as 200 fly world record-holder, which began March 30, 2001, officially came to a close July 24, 2019.

Phelps, at one point or another, held world records in five individual events, and three of those marks have stood the test of time. He held the 200 free world record for just two years, from 2007 to 2009, and Ryan Lochte ended Phelps’ run as standard-bearer in the 200 IM in 2011, eight years after Phelps first set it.

Moving forward, Phelps’ 400 IM mark of 4:03.84 will likely live on, but his 49.82 in the 100 fly, another mark from those 2009 World Championships, is likely in its last days. The 100 fly final, scheduled for Saturday, will pit Milak against Dressel, who won the 2017 world title in a 49.86 that fell just four hundredths short of Phelps’ world record. It’s not an unreasonable bet that both Milak and Dressel eclipse Phelps in their upcoming showdown.

So far this week, the Richter scale has recorded a 9, when Titmus beat Ledecky in the 400 free, and a 10 after Maggie MacNeil’s shocking upset in the 100 fly. But taking down a Phelps world record? That breaks the Richter scale.

Read more about the FINA World Swimming Championships.

4 comments

  1. avatar
    Superfan

    Especially breaking a world record from the suit era!

  2. Aleksandar Tasic

    With exception of few American swimmers that appear on target with form, majority seems as if that target was missed. That is subject for the coaching staff to reexamine. Something to rethink. Lot of indicators show team wide symptomatic issues which is more of a reflection of the program rather than individuals.

    • Brandon Simpson

      Coaches should examine themselves first … I know I enjoy our reflective sessions!

  3. Dave Hoover

    Another horrible U.S. swim effort. It shouldn’t have even been close…