World Championships: Alex Walsh Dominates 200 IM Final With Blistering 2:07.13; Leah Hayes Sets World Junior Record for Bronze

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Kaylee McKeown, Alex Walsh & Leah Hayes (left to right) -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

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World Championships: Alex Walsh Dominates 200 IM Final With Blistering 2:07.13; Leah Hayes Sets World Junior Record for Bronze

All year long, Alex Walsh has been building to a coronation as 200 IM world titlist. There was the fastest time in history in the 200-yard IM at the NCAA Championships in March and then the 2:07.84 in the long course version of the event in April that made her the sixth-fastest performer in history. Walsh has all the strokes: she is an NCAA champion in the 200-yard butterfly and a Pan American Games gold medalist in the 200 backstroke, and she is qualified to represent the U.S. in the 800 freestyle relay later in the week. Oh, and her best stroke is probably breaststroke.

Sunday evening, she put all the pieces together as she dominated the 200 IM final at the World Championships by almost a second-and-a-half. Walsh was two tenths ahead after the butterfly leg and then nine tenths in front after backstroke, where she slightly out-split Olympic backstroke champion Kaylee McKeown of Australia. In last year’s Olympic final, Walsh led with 50 meters to go before Japan’s Yui Ohashi surged ahead, but this time, Walsh’s 150-meter lead was 1.38 seconds, and no one was going to catch her.

Walsh finished in 2:07.13, chopping another seven tenths off her lifetime best from April. Walsh moved ahead of 2012 Olympic champion Ye Shiwen on the all-time list, and she now trails only Katinka HosszuAriana KukorsSiobhan-Marie O’Connor and Stephanie Rice on the all-time list. No one has been quicker since Hosszu won her fourth consecutive world title in this event three years ago in Gwangju. The medal was her first ever at a World Championships, with her only previous honor at a global-level competition the silver she won in this event last year in Tokyo.

“I’m super happy with this result,” Walsh said. “I was totally calm before the final. I knew this was gonna happen. After so many years of training, I knew what I was capable of.”

The battle was for second place, and two swimmers separated themselves from the field on the breaststroke leg: McKeown and Walsh’s 16-year-old American teammate Leah Hayes. Hayes recorded the quickest freestyle split in the field (30.80), but she could not catch up with the Australian, who scratched out of the 100 backstroke (where she is the world-record holder and reigning Olympic champion) to focus on the medley final. McKeown finished in 2:08.57, just off her lifetime best of 2:08.19 that ranks ninth all-time in the event, while Hayes came in third at 2:08.91.

“I wasn’t expecting to get a good place in this event,” McKeown said of her silver medal. “It was for international experience because I didn’t get to race it at the Olympics. It’s just great experience, really good to be in this field.”

Hayes’ time made her the 22nd-fastest performer in history, and she crushed the world junior record of 2:09.57 set by China’s Yu Yiting at last year’s Olympics. Hayes entered the International Team Trials in April with a lifetime best of 2:11.22 in this event, and then she swam a time of 2:09.99 to place second behind Walsh at that meet. In Budapest, she continued her rapid improvement as she went 2:09.81 in prelims before cutting a further nine tenths in the final to earn bronze.

“I’m just so happy. I’m overwhelmed. It’s extraordinary, and I’m so honored to represent the United States of America at the World Championships,” Hayes told NBC Sports. On reaching the podium together with Walsh, she added, “That’s my dream, to lead our country and to podium with such an extraordinary swimmer. She has been so helpful to me and given me so many great words of advice.”

Walsh expressed admiration for her young teammate’s accomplishment. She told USA Swimming, “I knew she was super nervous in the ready room. I was just super happy she was next to me, and I didn’t even see that she got third because I was so shocked by my time, and then when I saw she got third and beat the 2:09 barrier at such a young age — she’s on a really great path.”

Japan’s Rita Omoto finished fourth, but her time was 2:10.01, more than a second back of the medalists, while the rest of the field was more than a second further back. Hosszu was aiming for her record-breaking fifth consecutive world title in the 200 IM, but she ended up seventh in 2:11.37. Hosszu will have another chance at a five-peat in the 400 IM at the end of the competition, while Katie Ledecky will also have a chance at five straight in the 800 freestyle. Meanwhile, Olympic gold medalist Yui Ohashi of Japan did not even qualify for the final after she placed 13th in Saturday’s semifinals.

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