World Championships, Day Two Finals: Kate Douglass Overtakes Alex Walsh for 200 IM Gold; First American Win in Fukuoka

Kate Douglass of the U.S.A. competes in the Women's Medley 200m Heats during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 23rd, 2023.
Kate Douglass -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

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World Championships, Day Two Finals: Kate Douglass Overtakes Alex Walsh for 200 IM Gold; First American Win in Fukuoka

Over the past two years, the college swimming community has marveled at Kate Douglass. The 21-year-old originally from Pelham, N.Y., has achieved record-breaking speed across events where there is almost never crossover. Now, Douglass has brought those winning ways to global-level competition as a decisive final 50 delivered her first world title in the women’s 200 IM.

Douglass never led in the race, with China’s Yu Yiting taking the early lead before Alex Walsh of the United States took over on backstroke and breaststroke. Walsh, last year’s world champion in the event, has the world’s best middle 100 meters, and her lead was more than a second as she turned in 1:36.19 with 50 meters remaining, the identical split to the one she posted in her title-winning swim one year ago.

But at that point, Douglass unleashed her monster freestyle finishing speed. She is among the top-ranked 100 freestylers in the world after clocking 52.57 at U.S. Nationals, and here, she closed down on Walsh, her teammate at the University of Virginia, before taking the lead for good inside the final 10 meters. After a blistering 29.83 freestyle split, Douglass finished in 2:07.17 to secure gold.

“We do this in practice a lot, we know how each other swims the race and we know it’s going to come down to that last 50 free,” Douglass said. “I honestly couldn’t see the rest of the field since I was breathing just to one side, so I was kind of just swimming my own race and giving it my all that last 50.”

Walsh ended up fading down the stretch before touching second in 2:07.97. After closing in 30.94 to win a world title last year, Walsh finished in 31.78 this time around. Yu held on to take bronze, her time of 2:08.74 superior to the 2:08.98 of Australia’s Jenna Forrester. No one else broke 2:10 in the final, with Israel’s Anastasia Gorbenko ending up sixth in 2:10.08 and Olympic gold medalist Yui Ohashi fading to sixth (2:11.27).

“It’s no surprise,” Walsh said of her teammate’s closing burst to sneak ahead of her. “I know exactly how I swim this race and how Kate and all those other girls in that heat swim this race. I knew I was just going to have to battle it, and obviously I wasn’t where I was last year, but there’s a lot to learn after that. I’m here for the experience and I’m happy with my swim.”

All three medalists were marginally short of their best times. Douglass ranks sixth all-time at 2:07.09, followed by Walsh’s 2:07.13, while Yu moved into the all-time top-15 with a 2:08.34 earlier this year.

The gold medal was the first that the United States has captured thus far in Fukuoka, including in other aquatic sports preceding the swimming competition, and the 1-2 finish gives the Americans eight swimming medals through two out of eight days of racing.

“That was a huge honor for me to do tonight. I kind of knew going into the race it was going to be me or Alex on top getting a goal for the U.S. — at least that was what we were hoping for,” Douglass said. It’s awesome to be able to stand on the podium with her, too.”

Walsh added, “It’s a pretty big honor, especially standing up there and hearing the national anthem for the first time. That was pretty cool. I think it’s really cool that we’re both from UVA and we get to represent our country but knowing that we’re the top two IMers in the world. That’s a pretty unique story and not something you se pretty often, and it’s pretty cool to be a part of.”

However, Douglass and Walsh did have the advantage of circumstances clearing some of their top competition from the field. Summer McIntosh, the world’s top-ranked swimmer at 2:06.89, opted not to enter the 200 IM to focus on her four other individual events while Australia’s Kaylee McKeown, ranked third at 2:07.19, was disqualified in the semifinals for an illegal backstroke-to-breaststroke turn. And if she had qualified for Monday’s final, McKeown would have faced a difficult double (or tough decision) with the 100 backstroke semis only minutes before the 200 IM final.

But in a meet lacking any real U.S. highlights thus far, it was important for the momentum of the American team for Douglass and Walsh to provide a 1-2 finish and begin building some momentum.

Douglass is elite in sprint freestyle, sprint butterfly and breaststroke. That makes her a natural candidate for an elite individual medley, but even after winning Olympic bronze in the 200 IM, Douglass had reservations about the event. Simply, it was not one she enjoyed training for and racing. So she skipped the event across the entire 2022 summer season. Instead, she raced the 200 breaststroke at the World Championships and emerged with a bronze medal.

However, as 2022 morphed into 2023, Douglass made a return to the 200 IM. Given an opportunity to race at Short Course World Championships in December, she responded with a dominant gold medal. A hyped-up matchup in the 200-yard IM at the NCAA Championships turned into a Douglass runaway, as she obliterated the previous all-time record by 1.41 seconds with her time of 1:48.37.

When she swam her best time at U.S. Nationals last month, Douglass admitted that she had regained her enthusiasm for the 200 IM. “I think I’m in a pretty good place with it right now,” she said that night. “I think taking some time off from it was a good idea. I haven’t focused my training on the 200 IM, but it’s kind of worked out where I’m training each of the strokes and I put it together and it goes well.”

Douglass and Walsh have been college teammates since the fall of 2020, and they made their international breakthroughs together shortly thereafter, both qualifying for the 2021 Olympic team in the 200 IM and both winning Olympic medals in the event. Walsh was the first to win international gold, capturing the title in the 200 IM in dominant fashion last year in Budapest, while Douglass took a hiatus from the individual medley in 2022, only to begin making a mark internationally in other events, winning World Championships bronze in the 200 breast.

Now that Douglass has 200 IM gold plus 400 free relay silver already collected, and her remaining individual program includes the 100 free and 200 breast plus likely three additional relays. A week off to a golden beginning has plenty more episodes remaining.


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