By David Rieder.
Sure, Adam Peaty made it interesting, giving the British men a four-hundredth lead over the Americans at the halfway point of the final event of the FINA World Championships, the men’s 400 medley relay. But with Caeleb Dressel and Nathan Adrian closing it out, the result was never really in doubt.
As Adrian powered to the wall, British anchor Duncan Scott was more than a bodylength behind. Only fitting to close off a dominant week across the board in similarly dominating fashion. And when the dust cleared and the waves in the competition pool settled, the American totals were staggering.
The second-most medals any country won in the pool this week was 10. The American team, meanwhile, won 38 medals, the most all-time at a World Championships. Sure, mixed relays hadn’t been around back when the Americans won 36 medals in both 1978 and 2007, but this team was perfectly happy to take all the chances it could get.
The 18 golds stand as the most any country has won at a major international meet since the Americans took home 20 from Melbourne a decade ago. 14 of those golds came in events contested at last year’s Olympic Games. Second among teams in the gold category? Great Britain, with four.
Seven of the eight days of the meet saw Team USA win at least one gold medal, and on six of those days it was at least two. The one day that the Star-Spangled Banner did not play inside the Danube Arena was day two, and that was the day Kelsi Worrell and Madisyn Cox each broke through to win their first individual medals at a major meet.
The U.S. team did all this without so many of the regulars that had topped podiums over the last several years: no Michael Phelps and no Ryan Lochte, no Missy Franklin and no Maya DiRado.
A plenty familiar face led the way on the women’s side in Katie Ledecky. Even if she was not quite the same world record-crushing dynamo from the last Olympics in Rio and at the last World Championships in Kazan, five gold medals and one silver still made her the most decorated female at the meet.
“I’ve never walked away from a season completely satisfied, even last year. You always are looking and moving forward,” Ledecky said. “If that was my bad year for the next four years, then the next couple years are going to be pretty exciting.”
But at those Worlds in Kazan when Ledecky won five gold medals and set three world records, she was the lone bright spot for the U.S. team. Americans just won three other golds, with Lochte taking first in the men’s 200 IM and two relays (mixed 400 free and men’s 400 medley) topping the podium. That was it.
Ledecky had plenty more help this time, particularly from Lilly King, now an established star in sprint breaststroke, and from Simone Manuel, again a gold medalist in the 100 free.
King, no longer a teenager scorcher who went from relative obscurity to Olympic gold in 12 months’ time, has grown into a much larger role on the team. In Budapest, she was a part of four gold medals, including two in world record-time on day eight, and she has embraced that larger, more central role.
“I couldn’t imagine a better finish to this meet. I did what I came here to do, and luckily I was able to finish this meet, which is something I’ve had trouble doing in the past, to get those two world records and get those two golds,” she said.
“I wasn’t the baby this year, and I’m used to being the baby in past years. But I love having that responsibility and knowing that my swims really count, and they’re going to inspire other people to swim fast. I love it.”
As for the men, they more than held their own. Dressel won seven gold medals—yes, seriously, and absolutely no one predicted he would be anywhere close to that gaudy total. Sure, the mixed relays helped, but no one could have seen that sort of sprint dominance coming.
His three-gold-medal effort Saturday night drew comparisons to a guy by the name of Phelps.
“Dangerous throwing around the name,” Matt Grevers said Saturday night, referring to the 23-time Olympic gold medalist, “but he’s showing signs of just being incredible.”
After gold medal No. 7 as a part of the U.S. men’s 400 medley relay, Dressel has shown more than just signs. He split 49.76 on that relay—even with a very sluggish 0.47 reaction time—and took the American squad from a virtual tie with Great Britain to a full second ahead.
Was Dressel’s effort as awe-inspiring as Phelps’ seven-gold-medal tally from Melbourne a decade ago? Not quite—Phelps broke four individual world records that week, including Ian Thorpe’s world record in the 200 free. Dressel swam on four relays, including mixed relays, while Phelps had just two. But the 20-year-old Floridian undoubtedly deserves his place in history.
“I don’t really know what to say,” Dressel said. “I’m just happy to be done. I’m going to take a little break, go see some of my teammates in Europe and just enjoy myself. That’s probably the most fun I’ve had within eight days. It was just a lot of fun in the atmosphere here. I had an absolute blast getting to do what I love to do.”
Day eight of finals at the Duna Arena began just as day seven had ended—with two U.S. gold medals. King took down the world record in the women’s 50 breast on her way to gold, with Katie Meili joining her on the podium with a bronze, before Chase Kalisz came out and dominated the men’s 400 IM final.
It wasn’t watching Kalisz win gold that was stunning—it was the fact that the typically strong-finishing Kalisz took over the lead at the 100-meter mark. He held the lead through the backstroke, typically his weakest stroke of the four. At that point, it became clear he was about to break into rare territory.
He finished in 4:05.90, winning by almost three seconds and becoming just the third man in history to crack the 4:06 barrier. The other two? Phelps and Lochte.
The women’s and men’s 400 medley relays would conclude the meet, and the U.S. had no peer in either of them. The women’s squad of Kathleen Baker, King, Kelsi Worrell and Simone Manuel smashed a world record, finishing in 3:51.55.
Later that evening, the relay swimmers and team captains stepped on to the pool deck to accept the award for the top team of the meet—a shoo-in if there ever was one.
Elizabeth Beisel, a team captain and a member of the top U.S. international team each of the last 12 years, accepted the award, close to an hour after a swim in the women’s 400 IM final that will most likely be her last at a World Championships.
The team had rallied around its four captains—Beisel, Meili, Grevers and Adrian—but Adrian insisted that it wasn’t the captains who deserved the credit for the historic week.
“We don’t take any responsibility for that,” Adrian said. “This is an individual sport, but we come together as a team now. A lot of people were working really, really hard at home. I think it would be an over-statement for us to take credit for anybody else’s success.”
It’s not just one thing that’s working—it’s a lot of things, at so many different training sites around the country. No, the World Championships may not be an Olympics, but what more satisfying way to go out for those using Budapest as a swansong? Think Beisel or USA Swimming National Team Director Frank Busch, who is preparing to retire next month.
“The team has been amazing, and I wouldn’t want to go out on any other note than this one, having one of our best meets ever, one of the best teams I’ve ever been a part of. You can’t really ask for more than that,” Beisel said.
“I don’t want to say this is a dream come true, but certainly, considering the expectations coming in the year after the Games. I’m amazed at how well this has gone,” Busch said. “The team atmosphere has been tremendous and great staff. The culture seems to keep rolling and rolling.”
The entire American squad has continued to ride the momentum from the Rio Olympics, but, of course, there’s a long way to go until Tokyo. That’s when the results will count just a little bit more, when much more of the world will be paying attention.
Perhaps Kalisz put it the best after his 400 IM, after which he became the first swimmer since Lochte in 2011 to sweep the IM races at a World Championships.
“I think it’s like a stepping point right now. I’m more focused for 2020—that’s the pinnacle of our sport. World Championships are great, and I’m here to compete at my best, but the Olympics are the things that have been in my mind for my entire life,” Kalisz said. “Every year is a step, and I think I took a step in the right direction for that.”
It’s not just Kalisz—the entire U.S. team took a massive step towards embracing this new era, one where Phelps won’t be around to cover all the cracks and where Ledecky can’t do it all herself.
The names and faces may change, but this era of U.S. dominance in swimming is showing no signs of abating.