World Championships: Benedetta Pilato Touches Out Elendt, Meilutyte for 100 Breast World Title; Lilly King Fourth

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Benedetta Pilato -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

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World Championships: Benedetta Pilato Touches Out Elendt, Meilutyte for 100 Breast World Title; Lilly King Fourth

The women’s 100 breaststroke final at the World Championships was missing two-thirds of the Olympic podium with Lydia Jacoby of the U.S. and Tatjana Schoenmaker of South Africa not in Budapest, and bronze medalist Lilly King barely snuck into the final as the eighth-fastest qualifier. In fact, King and Sweden’s Sophie Hansson were the only returning swimmers from that Tokyo final. In a completely open field, it was Italy’s Benedetta Pilato who emerged from the madness to claim her first world title.

At the start of the race, China’s Tang Qianting and Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte jumped to the front of the field, with both splitting 30.2s on the first 50. Tang was expected to be in the mix here after winning gold at the Short Course World Championships in December, while Meilutyte has written a completely-unexpected comeback story. Meilutyte was the Olympic gold medalist in the 100 breast in 2012 and world champion in 2013, but she announced her retirement from the sport in 2019 after receiving a two-year suspension for missing anti-doping tests. But Meilutyte made an unexpected comeback this year and found her way into the World Championship final — and even into medal contention.

As the swimmers came down the back stretch, Tang began to fade, and Meilutyte briefly held the lead. In lane eight, King turned on the jets after the two-time defending world champion and world-record holder got off to a slow start, and also surging were the top two qualifiers out of semifinals, Germany’s Anna Elendt in lane four and Pilato in lane five.

The swimmers hit the wall together, and it was Pilato who got the job done in 1:05.93, five hundredths ahead of Elendt in 1:05.98. Meilutyte hung on for bronze in 1:06.02, while King was fourth in 1:06.07, just five hundredths off the podium and 0.14 away from winning a third consecutive gold. The top-ranked swimmer in the world for 2022, Japan’s Reona Aoki, ended up fifth in 1:06.38.

Pilato is only 17 years old, but she is already an international veteran. When she was 14, she earned silver behind King in the 50 breast at the 2019 World Championships, and at the European Championships in May 2021, she broke King’s world record in the 50 breast with a time of 29.30. However, Pilato had yet to break through in the two-length event until here in Budapest. Of course, she will still have the sprint to come later in the week, and she has cemented her status as the favorite with her gold medal in the 100.

“I’m super, super happy and proud,” Pilato said. “I’m so grateful. It was a dream which came true tonight, and I would like to say a big thank you for my coach and my whole team.”

The race was surprisingly slow as six swimmers have already surpassed Pilato’s winning time this year: Aoki (1:05.19), King (1:05.32), Elendt (1:05.58), South Africa’s Lara Van Niekirk (1:05.67), Pilato (1:05.70) and the United States’ Annie Lazor (1:05.91). But as King told NBC Sports after her semifinal swim, “If we went off the psych sheet, we wouldn’t swim the meet.” Performing in the moment matters, and Pilato is the one who did enough to win gold while Elendt earned the first major international medal of her career and Meilutyte completed her successful return.

“I’m really happy with the result,” Elendt said. “Actually, the aim was to be in the finals, but this is something much bigger. The others were up front after 50 meters, but I kind of like to hunt. That’s my style. I was slower than yesterday, but I can’t be really angry about it.”

As for the 25-year-old Meilutyte, the medal was her first at a major international competition since taking silver in this event at the 2015 World Championships, and it was her first at any international meet since 2016.

“I just got back to the pool six months ago, but I think it’s a deserved medal and a good result, and I’m so happy to have been able to achieve this,” Meilutyte said. “I’m enjoying to compete and swim, and I’ve never felt this before in my life. I truly recommend to every swimmer to take a break from swimming and try to think and approach the sport in a totally different way. Try to save your mentality and personality. You need that for your mental health. Now, I’ve come back as a different person with a different perspective, and I’m really enjoying what I’m doing.”

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MastersSwimmer
7 months ago

Absolutely thrilled to see Meilutyte back- and in great form.