World Championships, Day Seven Finals: Sarah Sjostrom Speeds to Fifth Straight Title in 50 Butterfly; Also Ties Michael Phelps Record

Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden celebrates after winning the gold medal in the 50m Butterfly Women Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 29th, 2023.
Sarah Sjostrom -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

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World Championships, Day Seven Finals: Sarah Sjostrom Speeds to Fifth Straight Title in 50 Butterfly; Also Ties Michael Phelps Record

Longevity is an appreciated trait in the sports world, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee uninterrupted peak performance. Most athletes experience a dropoff at some point in their careers. A pitcher might lose some velocity on his fastball. A point guard’s first step might not be as explosive. A quarterback’s arm strength might not be what it once was.

Sarah Sjostrom hasn’t slipped in the slightest.

It’s been 14 years since the Swedish star announced her presence on the global stage. In 2009, a 15-year-old Sjostrom powered to victory in the 100-meter butterfly at the World Championships in Rome, setting a world record in the process. A decade and a half later, now at the age of 29, Sjostrom is as good as ever. She presented that evidence on Saturday night at the Marine Messe Hall.

Racing in the final of the 50 butterfly at the World Championships, Sjostrom obliterated the field. En route to claiming her fifth consecutive gold medal in the event, Sjostrom popped a time of 24.77, the sixth-fastest in history. Sjostrom now owns the 22-fastest times in the history of the 50 butterfly, domination only known by Katie Ledecky (800 freestyle) and Adam Peaty (100 breaststroke).

More, Sjostrom moved into a tie with the legendary Michael Phelps for the most individual medals won in World Championships competition. In eight appearances, spanning 2009-2023, Sjostrom has won 20 solo medals. The breakdown of that hardware is 11 gold medals, six silver medals and three bronze medals across five events.

Before Sjostrom pulled away over the second half of the race, China’s Zhang Yufei made an early move for an upset. Ultimately, she snared the silver medal in 25.05, making her the No. 2 performer of all-time. The bronze medal went to the United States’ Gretchen Walsh in 25.46.

“I never really look at the stats too much,” Sjostrom said of the record. “Of course, I’m super proud when I hear about all the stats and I enjoy this. It’s great that I keep winning medals, and I think I can win more in the future. Maybe Michael will want to come back now. He’s the hero of swimming and what he has done for swimming is amazing. I think after Michael Phelps, people got even more interested in swimming.”

There was a time early in her career in which Sjostrom was a bridesmaid, including a trio of fourth-place finishes at the 2011 edition of the World Champs. Sjostrom, though, was undeterred by the near misses and simply adhered to her training program and self-belief. By the 2013 World Champs in Barcelona, Sjostrom began to make multiple trips to the podium a regular occurrence.

Throughout her career, Sjostrom has medaled at Worlds in the 50 freestyle, 100 free, 200 free, 50 butterfly and 100 fly. That range is an attribute of Sjostrom that deserves greater recognition and, with time, it will be honored. Sjostrom is a lock for future induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, the type who warrants first-ballot enshrinement.

It was fitting that the 50 butterfly enabled Sjostrom to equal Phelps for most medals at World Aquatics’ signature competition. The way Phelps once ruled the 200 butterfly and 400 individual medley is the manner in which Sjostrom has owned the 50 butterfly. There is no one on the planet who can match her speed over one lap of butterfly.

While Sjostrom holds the world record at 24.43, Zhang, as the newly minted No. 2 in history, sits .62 behind the Swede. Even more impressive is that Sjostrom, who set her world record in 2014, has continued to churn out historically significant performances in the decade since.

The 50 fly accounted for the first of two events on Sjostrom’s Day Seven program. She followed her victory in the fly with the semifinals of the 50 freestyle, where she stunned by breaking her own world record. Sjostrom clocked 23.61 in the 50 free to slice .06 off the standard she set in 2017. A medal from Sjostrom in the final – almost a guarantee – would move her ahead of Phelps on the solo-medals list.

The sprints are Sjostrom’s only two individual events for the week. Next year, with the Olympic Games scheduled for Paris and the 50 fly not part of the program, Sjostrom will almost surely return to the 100 freestyle. The 100 fly, the event which jumpstarted her stardom, is also a possibility.

For now, she’s enjoying the moment.

“I just do the work every day and go to practice, and try to stay humble,” Sjostrom said. “…I’m not forcing anything to come to me. Back in the day, I was forcing. When I started breaking world records and I started to improve my best times, I wanted more all the time. But now I’m like, I can be calm with where I am at the moment and just hope for the best sometimes. You try to relax with everything and it comes to me naturally.”


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