By David Rieder
Six years ago at the FINA World Championships in Rome, 42 total world records went down in a suit-aided blitz, leaving behind in seemingly-unbeatable marks in the women’s 100 fly and 200 IM. Sarah Sjostrom and Ariana Kukors lowered long-standing world records in their respective events to previously-unthinkable levels. With the banning of polyurethane bodysuits, many felt those two records could last for years. But after today’s swimming in Kazan, both records are now gone.
The 100 fly record, of course, had been broken before this year’s World Championships. Dana Vollmer clipped a tenth of a second off the mark on her way to Olympic gold in 2012, clocking 55.98 to beat Sjostrom’s 56.06 from Rome. Three years after losing her grasp on the world record, Sjostrom got it back with a 55.74 in Sunday’s semi-final, and then she broke her own mark as she won the gold medal tonight, clocking 55.64.
When Sjostrom first broke Inge de Brujin’s iconic, nine-year old record in Rome, she overcame a sluggish start and a relaxed first 50 to blast past the field at the end. She lulled fans into thinking no record would be at stake before turning on the jets just in time. And in each of her successive record-breaking 100 fly swims, she has followed the same pattern, swimming effortlessly down the first 50 before blowing by everyone else at the end. And now, in a suit just as permeable as de Brujin’s, Sjostrom has swum a full second faster than the Dutch legend ever did.
The 200 IM world record, meanwhile, had lasted six years since Kukors clocked 2:06.15 in Rome. Reigning world champion Katinka Hosszu swam a 2:06.84 in Sunday’s semi-final, seven tenths faster than anyone else had ever swum in a textile suit (Ye Shiwen’s 2:07.57 from the London Olympics). Prior to that swim, Hosszu’s lifetime best had stood at 2:07.46 (2:07.92 in a textile suit), but few believed she had another big drop in her necessary to challenge the world record.
The world record in the 200 IM had belonged to China’s Wu Yanyan for more than a decade beginning in 1997, and at 2:09.72, she was the only swimmer to ever break the 2:10 mark. But Stephanie Rice twice lowered that record in early 2008 on her way to Olympic gold. Kukors then broke Rice’s mark in the semi-finals in Rome with a 2:07.03 before she clocked a 2:06.15 in the finale. And today in Kazan, Hosszu finally got under that vaunted time.
Hosszu took the early lead as expected, swimming well ahead of world record-pace through 150 meters, and she held on during the freestyle leg to finish in 2:06.12, three one-hundredths faster than Kukors’ mark. The suit era filled the world record book with artificially fast records, and the 200 IM record was the poster-child, particularly since Kukors never again managed to break 2:09 in the event. Hosszu today showed that swimming has finally moved beyond the tech suit era.
Parity and Speed in Sprint Dorsal
Two years ago at the Worlds in Barcelona, both American Olympic gold medalists won their respective 100 back races without too much of a challenge. This year in Kazan, both Missy Franklin and Matt Grevers advanced to Tuesday’s finals of those events, but neither looks like the favorite after massive improvements from their competitors since the last time the best swimmers in the world got together.
In 2013, Franklin won the women’s 100 back in 58.42, a full seven tenths ahead of Emily Seebohm; now Seebohm holds the top seed heading into finals with a 58.56, nine tenths ahead of Franklin’s 59.42. And whereas no one else besides Franklin broke 59 at the Worlds in Barcelona in 2013, Mie Nielsen has already joined Seebohm under the mark (58.84) this time around, with Seebohm’s Australian teammate Madison Wilson close behind at 59.05. If Franklin hopes to defend her world title, she will have to do so from lane two.
On the men’s side, Grevers has already swum significantly faster than he did to win the World title in Barcelona, but he’s seeded just third for the final. Grevers clocked 52.73 in tonight’s semi-final, two tenths faster than he swam to win the event in the final two years ago. Now, though, Mitch Larkin leads the way into the final with a 52.38, and Grevers also trails Camille Lacourt’s 52.70, while the always-dangerous Ryosuke Irie looms in fourth with a 53.13.
But the improvement has been evident well beyond the top few places. In the women’s semi-finals today, eighth-place finisher Lauren Quigley clocked 59.71, which would have earned her the fourth seed in Barcelona; eighth place there was Belinda Hocking in 1:00.24. Chris Walker-Hebborn rounded out the men’s field today with a 53.39, which would also have been good for fourth in the semi-finals in 2013. Gareth Kean’s eight-place time of 53.81 would have placed 14th today.
Americans on the Verge of a Breakout?
The American team did not win a single medal on day two of the World Championships. Whereas other countries face such droughts regularly, Team USA has not suffered through such a stretch in any of the past six editions of the meet. After two days of competition, the team has earned just two medals, Katie Ledecky’s gold from the 400 free and the women’s 400 free relay team’s bronze medal. Moreover, only 10 out of a possible 22 individual swimmers have qualified for championship finals in their respective events.
Could improvement be on the horizon? The American team typically does excel beginning on day three, and they will be favored to earn a medal − in some cases, the gold medal − in four of five finals to be contested on Tuesday. And perhaps the Americans will end up on the correct side of tight finishes, as in six finals so far, they have already had two swimmers finish one spot out of the medals in fourth, Connor Jaeger in the men’s 400 free and Maya DiRado in the women’s 200 IM.
Meanwhile, in the 13 individual events in which qualification is complete, the American swimmers have finished seventh or eighth in the final qualification round just once − Kathleen Baker in the 100 back − but have ended up ninth or tenth six different times! Simple probability indicates that a few Americans will end up on the other side of some tight finishes before this eight-day meet runs its course.
*Adam Peaty did not break the world record in route to gold in the 100 breast today − he had already done that, with a 57.92 earlier this year − but he overcame an imperfect race to win his first world title. Swimming from behind the entire race in his first major international final, Peaty used his signature strong finish to overcome one of the best ever in the event, Cameron van der Burgh. Winning that race will be a big boost to Peaty’s confidence going forward as he has now proved that he can compete on the biggest of stages.
*She did not earn a medal for her efforts, but Maya DiRado provided the highlight of the day for the United States with her fourth-place effort in the women’s 200 IM. She clocked a 2:08.99, almost a second better than her best time coming into the meet, even though her finishing surge just fell short of a top three finish. DiRado will have another shot at a medal this weekend in the 400 IM, where she will need to swim in the 4:32-range − a drop of about two seconds from her personal best − to be in contention.
*Ryan Lochte did not have his best stuff this morning in the prelims of the 200 free, one of just two events he will compete in at Worlds, but he sent a message with his semi-final swim. He dropped from a prelim time of 1:47.18 to a semis time of 1:45.36, his best time in the event in three years. He enters the final as the top seed but by no means the overwhelming gold medal favorite. James Guy, Sun Yang, and world record-holder Paul Biedermann promise to make this final a fun race to watch.
*The double of the day goes to Japan’s Kanako Watanabe, for whom qualifying fifth for the final of the women’s 100 breast was merely her warm-up. Her 1:06.64 in the breast will give her a chance tomorrow for a medal, but she will already have one in her pocket after a silver medal performance in the 200 IM. Fourth at the 150, Watanabe split a race-best 30.11 on the freestyle leg to pass DiRado and then Siobhan-Marie O’Connor to secure a silver medal.