Ross Report: Daiya Seto, Danas Rapsys Peaking at the Right Time; Who Else Is Tilting At Titles In Tokyo?

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Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

Swimming World presents the reprise of the Ross Report, which was formerly a video series on various athletes from around the world. This year, it will be a bi-weekly analysis feature from US Correspondent Andy Ross as he observes and analyses the ebb and flow of  the swimming world.

It is officially Olympic year. With roughly 185 days until the Tokyo Olympic Games, the clock is ticking down to the big show in July. There have been lots of bold predictions since the Rio 2016 Games about who will win medals in Tokyo. The verdict approaches.

Of course, preparations for the Games started years in advance, and those who are just now shifting their focus to Tokyo are likely to have done so too late. Many of the swimmers listed below have had a plan in place for at least the last couple of years, if not the whole Olympic cycle and before that, when it comes to counting back from an intention to fire on all cylinders come 2020.

So after this weekend’s crowded action line-up of the TYR Pro Swim Series in Knoxville, the FINA Champions Series in China, and the South Australian State Championships in Adelaide, we are starting to get a clearer picture of who could be the stars at the Tokyo Games this summer.

Early days yet, of course, but here are a few of those who could achieve swimming immortality this summer because they seem to be peaking at the right time ahead of their respective Trials and/or the Games in general.

Daiya Seto

Japan’s Seto has long been one of the most underrated swimmers in the world. Having won the 400 IM World title three times now, he is going to be a popular pick this summer in that event and perhaps a couple of other races, too. At the Champions Swim Series in China this week, Seto blitzed the field in the 200 butterfly, swimming a 1:52.53 to gain third on the all-time list, sitting just behind Kristof Milak (1:50.73) and Michael Phelps (1:51.51). That swim wiped out the Asian record of 1:52.97 from Takeshi Matsuda in 2008.

Just a few minutes after his 1:52 200 ‘fly, he swam a 1:55.55 in the 200 IM, which was faster than his gold medal winning time from the World Championships this year. This was all just a few weeks after Seto broke the world record in the 400 IM in SCM at the ISL Final Match in Las Vegas, ultimately providing a clutch pinch hitter situation for Energy Standard in winning the title at what was the Japanese ace’s debut with the pro-team.

We didn’t get a chance to see what Seto could do in the 400 IM in China, the event not on the program, which will only leave swimming fans salivating until he swims it again.

Just when it looked like Milak was going to be the overwhelming favorite to win gold in Tokyo in the 200 fly, in comes Seto and delivers doubt. Milak retains a towering edge but Seto could be setting himself up for a medal haul to match that of his last major moment: he collected two golds and a silver at the World Championships, winning both IM’s and finishing runner-up to Milak in the 200 fly.

Japan also has a budding 4×200 free relay that could challenge for a medal in a race that is extremely wide open at the moment. Five countries were separated by a second and a half at the World Championships in that relay and if Japan can put together a relay with Seto, Worlds silver medalist Katsuhiro Matsumoto, reigning 400 IM champ Kosuke Hagino and maybe Naito Ehara, the hosts could be in the mix for a medal. They did win the bronze in Rio with a different team, so they have the capability of doing it again.

If Seto can win four medals in front of the Tokyo crowd, then he will be perhaps the face of the Games. Kosuke Kitajima is still the most decorated Japanese swimmer with three medals won at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics each, but only Takashi Ono has ever won more than four medals in a single Olympics for Japan: he won six medals as a gymnast in 1960. There will be a lot of pressure on Seto and we will see how he will handle that on the first, err technically second, day in the morning 400 IM final when he will lock horns with (presumably) his biggest international rival, American Chase Kalisz. This is assuming that Kalisz makes the US team and both of them end up making the final.

But after the performances this week in China and last month at the ISL Final, is there anyone out there who is willing to bet house money against Seto?

Danas Rapsys

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Rapsys has been around the scene for many years but only in the last couple has he emerged as a world-class middle distance freestyler capable of challenging for medals on the biggest of occasions. In 2016, he represented Lithuania in Rio in the 100 and 200 backstroke, failing to reach the semi finals in either event. At the 2017 Worlds, he made the final in the 200 back in placing eighth but switched from the 100 back to the 200 free, where he finished 10th in the semi finals. In 2018 at the European Championships he won the silver in the 200 free and did not swim either backstroke event.

2019 looked to be his breakout year on the international stage and it nearly was so. He was fourth in the 400 at the World Championships, just off the podium, but he managed to touch everyone out in the 200 free in swimming a beautifully-paced race to win his first medal on the world stage. But that celebration was quickly tarnished as he immediately found out that he had been disqualified for a false start, elevating the controversial Sun Yang to the gold medal.

But that didn’t seem to hinder Rapsys, who swam at all three of the World Cup meets in the three weeks after the championships and actually swam quicker in the 200 free at the very last stop, a showing of amazing endurance and determination.

In 2020, he swam at both stops of the FINA Champions Series where he was going to do battle with Sun in his home country and those two gave us a delight in the 200 free on the first day. The FINA Champions Series didn’t really pose a lot of sexy matchups beforehand and there weren’t expected to be any jaw-dropping times (until Seto came along in Beijing), but the Rapsys – Sun duel was a can’t miss race.

It lived up to its expectations with Rapsys out-touching his Chinese rival in the 200 at 1:46.50 to 1:46.53, and Sun getting the upper hand in the 400 at 3:44.07 to 3:46.62. It was a nice pre-cursor to what we could see in Tokyo this summer – that is if Sun is allowed to compete, but that is a conversation for another day.

The Rapsys – Sun matchup seemed to be the only race that viewers wanted to see throughout the week. It was almost as if all the other events were just the warm-up or the appetizer and the 200 and 400 frees were the main course. Sun is a fascinating case as he has been the subject of many controversies in the past eight years since becoming the first Chinese man to claim Olympic gold in the pool at London 2012. Two years after that, he tested positive for a banned substance and after events in 2018 that led to a challenge from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), he awaits the decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport as to whether he will get to race in Tokyo or not.

But the way Rapsys has been looking, particularly since getting disqualified in Gwangju in the 200 free final after touching ahead of Sun, he lis among those who could dethrone the Chinese Olympic champion. Rapsys hasn’t really missed a beat the last few months, nearly breaking the world record in the 400 SCM free at last month’s European Championships, along with all the impressive long-course swims he has compiled. At just 24-years-old, Rapsys seems to be peaking at the right time.

Arno Kamminga

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Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Although Kamminga will likely not be hearing the Dutch national anthem for winning the 100 breast in Tokyo this summer, with that distinction belonging to the seemingly unbeatable Adam Peaty, he could find himself on the podium in that event. Just about every single time Kamminga races of late, he emerges faster with a new Dutch record in tow. He was a virtual no-show at the last two World Championships, finishing 13th in Budapest and in Gwangju in the 100. He was tenth in the 200 at Worlds this past summer and was 14th in 2017.

But like the aforementioned Rapsys, he really kicked it into full gear after Worlds, going faster at the World Cups in the weeks afterwards. In December, he officially booked his ticket to his first Games in swimming a 58.65 at the Amsterdam Cup. That time would have been fourth at Worlds, and this past week in China, he went a 58.61 which elevated him to sixth all-time in the 100 breast.

At the World Cup in October, he swam a 2:07.96 in the 200, which was a half-second faster than his 2:08.4 at Worlds and would have put him sixth had he swam in the final in Korea. Kamminga has been steadily improving the last couple of months and seems to get faster each time he dives into the water. Now with his qualification already secured, he will be able to train through the Dutch Cup, European Championships, and all the other competitions to ensure he is 100% ready to go for Tokyo.

If Kamminga does find himself on the podium at the Olympics, he will be just the fourth Dutch man to do so in the pool (the Netherlands has already won two of the three 10K open water gold medals) after Johannes Drost (1900), Wieger Mensonides (1960) and Pieter van den Hoogenband (2000, 2004). The Dutch women have been primarily the headliners in the country with the likes of Ranomi Kromowidjojo and Femke Heemskerk and most recently Kira Toussaint, but Kamminga is showing that he is on form and should be taken seriously this summer.

However, Kamminga has yet to swim in an individual final at the World Championships and has not swam in the Olympics before. So he doesn’t have the experience on the big stage. He has been swimming incredibly well the last couple of months against some great competition so he should not be taken lightly. After Peaty, the 100 is wide open and Kamminga could find himself on the podium in Tokyo.

Here’s the mountain to climb: no Dutchman has ever won a 100m breaststroke medal … and none has ever made an Olympic final in that race. Kamminga would be the first since the 100m was added to the Games in 1968.

Regan Smith & Kaylee McKeown

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Regan Smith. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

It is really no surprise that Smith has been swimming well. After an impressive summer where she broke two world records and won the 200 back gold medal at Worlds as well as a 200 fly national title, she was on top of the world. And she hasn’t slowed down since.

This past weekend in Knoxville, Smith was a 58.2 in the 100 back and 2:05.9 in the 200, putting herself at the top of the world rankings for about 10 hours (more on that later). Smith is leading a very deep backstroke field in the United States ahead of fellow high school senior Phoebe Bacon as well as pros Olivia Smoliga and Kathleen Baker. The 100 could be one of the most competitive events of the entire year at the Olympic Trials in June and Smith will be at the forefront of that.

When Smith had her breakthrough at the World Championships at just 17, there were comparisons between her and 16-year-old Missy Franklin’s breakthrough in 2011 at those Worlds in China. Franklin didn’t break any world records but starred in her one individual event, the 200 back, winning gold, as well as leading off the gold medal winning 4×200 free relay in a time that would have won the 200 free at those Championships. Franklin became one of the faces of the 2012 Olympic campaign due to her ferocious competitiveness in the pool as well as her gracious smile outside of it, and won both backstrokes in London right before her senior year of high school. Joining Franklin in London was 18-year-old Rachel Bootsma, who made the team right before her freshman year at Cal Berkeley.

If Smith ends up making her first team this summer, then maybe Bacon, who took down Smith in December in the 100 back at the US Open, could get the second spot to replicate the Franklin – Bootsma duo.

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Kaylee McKeown. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Smith did enter this year as a heavy favorite in both backstroke distances, but it is the emergence of 18-year-old Kaylee McKeown of Australia that is causing many swimming experts to also take notice of what is going on Down Under. It is hard to say that McKeown has “emerged” as a contender this year. She was fourth at Worlds in the 200 back in 2017 when she was just 16, trading world junior records with Smith during the semi finals and the final, and also finished with the silver in the 200 behind Smith at Worlds in 2019.

This past weekend, nearly 10 hours after Smith’s 2:05.9, McKeown did one better with a 2:05.8 at the South Australian State Championships in Adelaide. It was faster than what she swam to win the silver medal and it was a tick quicker than Smith to put the Aussie as the number one swimmer in the world just a few weeks into the new year.

Is McKeown peaking at the right time or is she peaking too early? It is too early to tell at the moment, but the Aussies have stepped up big time the last two summers at the Pan Pacs and World Championships, showing out a lot better than they did at the 2016 Olympics and 2017 Worlds. They shifted their Trials closer to the end of season meet and the team has benefitted greatly from that change, mimicking what the Americans usually do in selecting a team roughly four to six weeks before a championship meet.

A lot of USA fans have just assumed that the Americans will just run the table come the Olympic Games, and that last year’s Worlds were not a true indicator of what will happen this year. Perhaps that is true, but with the recent resurgence of the Aussies, no one should count any of the Aussies out either.

Kyle Chalmers

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Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Speaking of the Aussies, how about Kyle Chalmers? After a swift 47.9 at the same state championships in Adelaide, he has shown he is ready for an Olympic title defense. Winning the 100 free at the Olympic Games, swimming’s oldest event, is a big deal. Winning it twice puts you on swimming’s Mt. Rushmore. If Chalmers were to win the 100 free in Tokyo, he would join the likes of Duke Kahanamoku (1912, 1920), Johnny Weissmuller (1924, 1928), Alexander Popov (1992, 1996) and Pieter van den Hoogenband (2000, 2004) as repeat winners in the 100 free.

Assuming he makes the team to Tokyo, Chalmers will likely battle with two-time reigning World champ Caeleb Dressel, who had the upper hand over him at the 2019 Worlds. Considering Chalmers an “underdog” seems foolish on the outside looking in, considering he won the 2016 Olympic title at 18, and had the fastest time at any of the major international meets in 2018 after taking off racing in 2017. In 2019, he moved to sixth all-time with the 47.0 in Gwangju and yet all of the attention seems to be on Dressel and if he can get under Cesar Cielo’s world record.

Recently, Australian American-based coach Brett Hawke predicted that Chalmers and fellow-Aussie Cate Campbell would win the gold medal in Tokyo in the 100 free, much to the chagrin of American fans everywhere who want to see Simone Manuel defend her title and Caeleb Dressel win his first individual Olympic gold medal. But maybe Hawke is on to something?

“If you let Chalmers win at 18, you’re not stopping him at 22,” Hawke said in the video. He brings up a good point. Chalmers was really just a boy when he won in Rio and now he, as well as Dressel, have matured and are completely different swimmers than they were in 2016. Perhaps this 47.9 in January is a sign that the 46.91 world record could be in jeopardy. All that said, a game of did it at 18, so at 22 he’s a shoe in, is a risky one, both history and Dressel’s trajectory suggest.

Last year, Chalmers was a 47.3 at the Aussie Trials in June just weeks before he went 47.0. He also claimed the 200 free (1:45) and 50 free (22.09), showing his speed and versatility which hasn’t really been seen the last few years. And with evidence of his 47.9 this past week when he was not rested or anything, he is looking dangerous. Maybe he is peaking too early, but he has performed on the international stage each of the last three years so he knows how to step up when it counts.

2 comments

  1. avatar
    Verram

    How come when it comes to the Aussies listed above, there’s a suggestion that theyre “peaking too early” but when it comes to other international swimmers such as world-record breaking Daiya Seto, there’s no such suggestion? Just curious.

    • avatar
      Andy Ross

      Good question. I don’t know why I did that. The point of the whole column was to highlight all the swimmers that seem to be peaking at the right time but also raising the question of “is it too early?” There was no intended malice in placing that question in the Australian paragraphs.