World Championships Day Eight Preview and Predictions: Sarah Sjostrom, U.S. Medley Relays Hoping to Finish Strong

Sarah Sjostrom 50 fly
Sarah Sjostrom -- Photo Courtesy: Deepbluemedia/Giorgio Scala

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World Championships Day Eight Preview and Predictions: Sarah Sjostrom, U.S. Medley Relays Hoping to Finish Strong

The final day of the FINA World Championships will feature seven gold medal-finals, beginning with the men’s 50 backstroke as new world-record holder Hunter Armstrong aims for gold. In the women’s 50 breaststroke, Lilly King could be aiming to finish off a sweep of the breaststroke events since she is favored in both the 100 and 200-meter events, while the rematch in the men’s 1500 freestyle between 2019 World Championship medalists Florian WellbrockMykhailo Romanchuk and Gregorio Paltrinieri and surprising Olympic champion Bobby Finke will add German upstart Lukas Martens into the mix.

Veteran Sarah Sjostrom will try to capture another world title in the 50 freestyle, and the final individual event could be the first golden moment for Canadian teenager Summer McIntosh as she tries to out-duel Olympic gold medalist Yui Ohashi and other favorites in the women’s 400 IM. And then, as usual, the men’s and women’s 400 medley relays will cap off the meet.

Men’s 50 Backstroke

At the U.S. International Team Trials, 21-year-old Hunter Armstrong stunned the world when he lowered the world record in the men’s 50 backstroke with a mark of 23.71. While Armstrong will face a tough battle against veteran teammate Ryan Murphy in the 100 back, former world-record holder Kliment Kolesnikov is absent along with his Russian teammates, making Armstrong the clear favorite for gold here. In his Olympic debut last year, Armstrong had difficulty recapturing his Trials form in Tokyo, but if he can master that transition, he will be tough to beat here.

The Americans will have a very solid shot at a gold-silver finish here since Justin Ress also broke 24 at the U.S. Trials, becoming the third-fastest performer in history. Ress did not automatically qualify for Worlds as the second-place finisher in a 50-meter stroke race, but he added the swim since he was already on the American team as a relay alternate. European Championships medalists Robert Glinta and Hugo Gonzalez, two-time 100 back world champion Xu Jiayu, Germany’s Ole Braunschweig, Greece’s Apostolos Christou and Italy’s Thomas Ceccon are all possible contenders.

Gold: Hunter Armstrong, USA
Silver: Justin Ress, USA
Bronze: Robert Glinta, Romania

Women’s 50 Breaststroke

Lilly King enters this race as the two-time defending world champion, and it is a solid bet that she will have already captured gold in the 100 and 200 breaststroke events with many of her top competitors missing in those races. But King’s toughest competitor will be present in the sprint, and 17-year-old Benedetta Pilato, who broke King’s world record with a time of 29.30 at last year’s European Championships, will be seeking her first win over the 25-year-old American.

Pilato holds the top time in the world this year at 29.58, while King sits third at 29.76, with South Africa’s Lara Van Niekerk (29.72) having also posted a sub-30 performance. Italy’s Arianna Castiglioni, Great Britain’s Imogen Clark, Japan’s Reona Aoki, Germany’s Anna Elendt and Australia’s Chelsea Hodges are among the other medal contenders, while former world-record holder Ruta Meilutyte could be in the mix again after returning from a long layoff.

Gold: Benedetta Pilato, Italy
Silver: Lilly King, USA
Bronze: Arianna Castiglioni, Italy

Men’s 1500 Freestyle

Many of the top men’s milers in history will be present for this match race. There’s Gregorio Paltrinieri, the Italian who won Olympic gold in 2016 and world titles in 2015 and 2017. A bout of mononucleosis disrupted Paltrinieri’s preparation for the Olympics, and he ended up fourth in this event, but in August 2020, he posted by far the best performance of a COVID-disrupted year when he swam a time of 14:33.10 in the 1500 free, moving to second all-time in the event behind Sun Yang (and ahead of Aussie legend Grant Hackett). Florian Wellbrock, meanwhile, was the man who dethroned Paltrinieri at the 2019 World Championships, and although he was not at his best in Tokyo either, Wellbrock did break the short course meters world record in the 1500 free in December.

Mykhailo Romanchuk has been the perpetual bridesmaid in this event, placing second at the 2017 Worlds (to Paltrinieri), 2019 Worlds (to Wellbrock) and 2021 Olympics, the race where American Bobby Finke turned on the afterburners with 50 meters to go to clinch Olympic gold. Any one of these men could top the podium in Budapest, and Germany’s Lukas Martens will have a shot here as well (in addition to the 400 and 800 free). Martens enters with the world’s fastest time of 14:40.28. No one else in the field has ever broken 14:50.

Gold: Florian Wellbrock, Germany
Silver: Bobby Finke, USA
Bronze: Gregorio Paltrinieri, Italy

Women’s 50 Freestyle

In early 2021, Sarah Sjostrom slipped and fractured her wrist, but she returned from the injury in time to race at the Tokyo Olympics, and she claimed a silver medal in the 50 freestyle. Now, with a full year of training and racing behind her and Olympic champion Emma McKeon absent from the field, Sjostrom is favored to reclaim the top prize in the women’s splash-and-dash. She holds the world record in this event at 23.67, and she was the world champion in this race in 2017 after claiming bronze in 2015 and before placing second in 2019. Sjostrom is also the top-ranked swimmer in the world this year at 24.08.

While Sjostrom’s 81 international medals make her one of the most decorated swimmers in history, the swimmer who is perhaps her closest competitor here has never won an individual medal at a major international competition. Shayna Jack is returning from a suspension, and she is ranked No. 2 in the world at 24.14. As for other medal contenders, Tokyo bronze medalist Pernille Blume is absent, and fourth-place finisher Ranomi Kromowidjojo has retired, and both are past Olympic champions, so there is a chance for new blood to reach the podium. European Championships silver medalist Kasia Wasick has a really strong podium shot, while China’s Zhang Yufei and Cheng Yujie and Americans Torri Huske and Erika Brown are among those looking to make the improvements necessary.

Gold: Sarah Sjostrom, Sweden
Silver: Shayna Jack, Australia
Bronze: Kasia Wasick, Poland

Women’s 400 IM

When Summer McIntosh debuted as an Olympian last year, she was primarily a freestyler, and the then-14-year-old came very close to winning a medal. Now, McIntosh is well-established internationally, and she will contend for World Championships medals in the 400 free, 200 fly and 400 IM. The long medley will be her best shot at taking gold, largely because she swam a time of 4:29.12 in March, three seconds faster than Yui Ohashi’s winning time from the Tokyo Games and good enough to make McIntosh the third-fastest performer in history behind Katinka Hosszu and Ye Shiwen. If she can even repeat that swim, it’s really hard to envision anyone in the field coming close.

Ohashi, of course, won’t be going anywhere, while Olympic silver medalist Emma Weyant has not repeated the 4:32 form that helped her reach the podium last year. The other American in this race, Katie Grimes, swam a mark of 4:36.17 at the U.S. Trials that ranks her third in the world behind McIntosh and Kaylee McKeown (not swimming the event), but Grimes’ recent form indicates she might have another solid drop in the works. Of course, it would be foolish to count out Katinka Hosszu, aiming for a record five consecutive world titles and a record six world titles ever in one event, and the 400 IM is Hosszu’s best shot to reach the podium. The other Hungarian in the field, Viktoria Milalyvari-Farkas, Japan’s Ageha Tnigawa, Australia’s Jenna Forrester and Canada’s Tessa Cieplucha are outside medal possibilities.

Gold: Summer McIntosh, Canada
Silver: Yui Ohashi, Japan
Bronze: Katie Grimes, USA

Men’s 400 Medley Relay

With Caeleb Dressel leading the way, the American men are again favored in the 400 medley relay. Great Britain upset the U.S. team for gold at the 2019 World Championships before taking silver at the Olympics, but Britain loses two big legs here with Adam Peaty and Duncan Scott both missing Worlds. The Americans will swim Ryan Murphy or Hunter Armstrong on backstroke, Nic Fink or Michael Andrew on breast, Dressel or Andrew on fly and then Dressel or Brooks Curry on free. Dressel typically handles the fly leg, but the absence of any internationally-proven relay anchor swimmers might convince the U.S. coaches switch up the lineup, depending on individual results from the meet.

Even without Peaty and Scott, Britain will still have a medal-contending bunch with James Wilby on breast and Lewis Burras on free to join butterflyer James Guy, although backstroke could be an issue. Italy took bronze at the Olympics and will be really strong on the front end with Thomas Ceccon and Nicolo Martinenghi, and Alessandro Miressi is likely to anchor. Australia could be in the mix if Kyle Chalmers handles anchor duties behind Mitch LarkinZac Stubblety-Cook and Matt Temple.

Gold: United States
Silver: Italy
Bronze: Great Britain

Women’s 400 Medley Relay

Australia took down the United States for Olympic gold in the medley relay when Chelsea Hodges kept it close enough on the breaststroke leg to give Emma McKeon and Cate Campbell a chance on the back end. But McKeon absent, Australia has a big hole to fill on the fly leg, even with 100 back world-record holder Kaylee McKeown leading off and Mollie O’Callaghan or Shayna Jack capable of filling in for freestyle. The Americans, meanwhile, have individual gold-medal contenders in backstroke (Regan Smith), breaststroke (Lilly King) and butterfly (either Torri Huske or Claire Curzan). One of Huske or Curzan will swim fly, and the other will anchor, likely with a big enough lead to hold off the field.

The Americans typically deploy two completely different squads for prelims and finals, so they will have to make some difficult lineup decisions with Huske and Curzan set to swim the 100 fly and 100 free in Budapest and Curzan also entered in the 100 back. However, there are enough versatile swimmers on the team to handle each leg in prelims. Rhyan White or Katharine Berkoff could swim backstroke, Annie Lazor can swim breast, Kate Douglass is the likely call on fly, and either Erika Brown or Natalie Hinds could serve as the No. 2 freestyler.

Canada was the bronze-medal-winning team in Tokyo, with IMer Sydney Pickrem stepping in for breaststroke duties alongside the the all-star squad of Kylie Masse (back), Maggie Mac Neil (fly) and Penny Oleksiak (free). The teams with the best chance of breaking into the medal mix are China and Sweden, two nations with incredible back-halves of their relays. China will finish with Zhang Yufei (fly) and Yang Junxuan (free), while Sweden has the sisters Sophie and Louise Hansson on breast and fly, respectively, with Sarah Sjostrom anchoring.

Gold: United States
Silver: Australia
Bronze: Canada

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9 months ago

That’s great that Chelsea Hodges is also a contender in 50 breast even when she’s not swimming worlds ?