Top 4 Swimming Rivalries Leading up to the 2019 World Championships

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By Giulia Filocca, Swimming World College Intern.

With the 2019 World Championships lurking on the horizon, excitement and competitiveness is building up across all parts of the globe. Certain athletes are vying for positions on national teams, while others are competing for the potential to claim a coveted title. Either way, a handful of swimmers are primed to beat their long-standing rivals.

Indeed, the sensation of out-touching the opposition – of solidifying one’s superior status – acts a source of intrinsic motivation for many. In the words of President Richard Nixon: “I don’t know anything that builds the will to win better than competitive sports.”

Battles in the Pool

For the fervent spectator, these illustrious rivalries are at the heart of the sport. They create a mixture of exhilaration and competitiveness, sending entire fan bases and journalists into frenzies. After all, how can we forget the epic Michael Phelps versus Ryan Lochte or Gary Hall Jr. versus Alexander Popov showdowns?

Moving forward from these past show-downs, let’s hone in on swimming’s most recent heated rivalries.

#4. Australia vs. the United States


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Tantamount to the Argentina-Brazil football rivalry, Australia and United States have long clawed for supremacy in the relay domain. These two teams have been butting heads since the sport’s inception, putting up some thrilling races.

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Aussies captured only one of six relay titles – the women’s 4×100 LCM freestyle – in a nail-biting 3:33.14. Team USA’s quartet fought back with an American Record at the 2017 World Championships, only to be dethroned by the Aussies’ 3:30.05 world record at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. With emerging talent such as Kyle Chambers, Ariarne Titmus and Shayna Jack contending for relay positions, America’s dominance could be conceivably challenged for years to come.

#3. Adam Peaty vs. Cameron van der Burgh


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Luck has almost always been on Peaty’s side, who has proven virtually infallible in the sprint breaststroke events. As of 2015, Peaty has reigned victorious in all four major international meets – the Olympic Games, World Championships, European Championships and Commonwealth Games – becoming one of only three British swimmers to do so.

Van der Burgh has an equally admirable track record, amassing 16 total World Championship medals and two Olympic medals as early as 2012. The pair have battled it out since the 2014 Commonwealth Games, when van der Burgh narrowly grabbed the gold with a record-breaking 26.78, just 0.02 ahead of Peaty. Thereafter, the gold has almost exclusively rested with Peaty.

At the 2018 Commonwealth Games, the South African swimmer finally terminated the Englishman’s four-year winning streak in the 50 LCM breaststroke. “It’s probably one of the worst-feeling races I’ve ever done,” laments Peaty, who experienced his first major international setback.

Van der Burgh remains a force to be reckoned with. At 29 years old, the incumbent 50 SCM and 100 SCM world record holder retains the second-fastest position in the 50 LCM breaststroke of 2018, falling 0.17 short of his rival. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics – the last for soon-to-retire van der Burgh – could bring a host of surprises. Will history be rewritten?

#2. Sun Yang vs. Mack Horton


Photo Courtesy: Maria Dobysheva

Dubbed the “War on Water” by the international press, the feud between Sun Yang and Mack Horton remains one of the most vocal rivalries in the books. Horton first sledged Yang at the 2016 Rio Olympics, branding him as a “drug cheat” before clinching 400 LCM freestyle gold by 0.38 seconds. This followed Yang’s three-month ban for the stimulant trimetazidine, which he claimed had been prescribed for an alleged heart condition. Yang’s fanbase responded with a preemptive attack on Horton’s social media posts, which purportedly garnered over 500,000 hate comments during the Games.

Few have been sympathetic to the Chinese athlete’s plight, given his alleged assault of a Brazilian female swimmer, bitter verbal exchanges with the South African and Canadian national coaches, and recent altercation with Horton himself. The latter sparked another firestorm in Budapest, with Yang reportedly “disrupting” his Aussie rival’s training sessions in an attempt to “distract and taunt him.” He was able to channel this energy into a stellar 400 LCM freestyle swim, burying Horton with an insurmountable two-second lead at the 2017 World Championships.

#1. Lilly King vs. Yulia Efimova


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This rivalry has been marred by unsavory contention, debuting with King’s finger-wagging episode during the 2016 Rio Olympics. In a formal statement to NBC, King lambasted the Russian for “shaking [her] finger number one,” an inappropriate gesture for a two-time “drug cheater.”

“I’m just not a fan,” comments King, who proceeded to clinch the Olympic gold by a few fractions of a second. The 2017 World Championships featured another round of stare-downs and finger-wags, with King finishing first in a new world record-breaking time. 

In the span of two months, the pair have fiercely grappled for top position in the 100 LCM breaststroke. King first cemented her mark at 1:05.90 in mid-May, only to be dethroned by Efimova’s 1:05.78 three weeks later. At the Santa Clara Pro Swim Series in June, King provisionally regained her spot with a 1:05.61, until Efimova posted a 1:04.98 at the Sette Colli Trophy.

“It’s a virtual battle,” explains the former, who will be gunning for a sub-1:05 swim at the Phillips 66 National Championships.

Sporting Rivalries: A Blessing or a Curse?


Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr/Swimming Australia Ltd.

Fierce rivalries fuel the engine of swimming – they color it with memorable races, sparking immense exhilaration among avid spectators. Certain battles must undergo sanity checks, however, as a toxic cocktail of narcissism, jealousy and dysfunctional competition can corrupt the sport.

In spite of this, swimming would be incomplete without its iconic confrontations – from the gripping Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett face-offs, to the speedy Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres showdowns. With the 2019 World Championships and 2020 Tokyo Olympics looming on the horizon, fans can only be riled up and excited for the impending battles in store.

Other Noteworthy Rivalries

  • USA Men’s 100m Breaststroke (Prenot, Cordes, Fink, Wilson, Andrew and Miller)
  • Women’s 100m Freestyle (Sjostrom, Manuel and the Campbell Sisters)
  • Katie Ledecky vs. the World Record Line

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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1 comment

  1. avatar
    Michael Maloney

    Classic ending for all time…KL vs the WWL….too funny..but SO TRUE

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