Five takeaways from World Swimming Championships

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Five thoughts following the World Swimming Championships in Budapest …

1. This is the most dominant U.S. swim team in nearly 50 years

The U.S. won 38 medals (most by one nation at a single worlds in history), with 18 golds, in the Duna Arena pool. But that’s not the full extent of the Americans’ grip on the sport.

Look at the rest of the medal standings. No other nation won more than 10 medals or four golds in Budapest. That’s also a world championships first (and hasn’t happened at the Olympics since 1968). Proof that the distance separating the U.S. and the second-best swim nation is greater than ever in the worlds era (since 1973).

No question the pool of reputable swimming nations is as strong as ever, but the increased competition impacted everybody except the U.S. in Budapest. Same in Rio, where the U.S. had its best Olympics since 1972.

The breadth of this U.S. team is also extraordinary. Its individual gold medalists in Budapest are from Stanford via Maryland (Katie Ledecky) and Texas (Simone Manuel), Florida (Caeleb Dressel), Indiana (Lilly King) and Georgia via Maryland (Chase Kalisz).

The U.S. won all but one relay at worlds, its best total effort there since 1978. It put swimmers in every final save two. It won three open-water medals.

And it had zero combined medals from Michael PhelpsRyan Lochte and Missy Franklin, who not too long ago carried the program.

2. Katie Ledecky’s times were surprising; her medal haul was superlative

Ledecky’s performance in Budapest is not a simple dissection. Olympic sports are judged on medals above all else. In that sense, Ledecky had the meet of her life — five golds and one silver.

But in swimming, times are also newsworthy (world records, personal bests, relay splits, etc.). If you watched the USA Swimming National Championships last month, you saw Ledecky incredibly clock within a second of her combined pool time in finals at the 2016 Olympic Trials. Then you heard Ledecky say she was less tapered for nationals than she was for trials.

All this after what had to be the most exhausting year of her life, the Rio Games followed by enrolling at Stanford, changing coaches and completing a full NCAA season through March.

Overall, Ledecky was slightly slower at worlds than at nationals. Which was definitely a surprise and noteworthy. Swimmers train to peak for major international meets. Ledecky has a history of time drops at the Olympics and worlds, lowering world records multiple times in 2013, 2015 and 2016.

Did it matter that Ledecky broke no records in Budapest? No. She won all of her distance events easily and was part of two winning relay teams.

Then there’s the 200m freestyle. Ledecky suffered her first major loss there. However, she had the fastest 200m free time of the meet. It just so happened to come in the semifinals.

3. Caeleb Dressel is now on world-record watch

By now you know Dressel won seven golds in Budapest, including three on Saturday alone. Let’s take a closer look at his times.

In the 100m freestyle, Dressel lowered his personal best from 47.91 (Rio Olympics) to 47.17. In the 100m butterfly, from 50.87 (2017 Nationals) to 49.86. In the 50m freestyle, from 21.53 (2017 Nationals) to 21.15.

If Dressel can drop his times by about half as much in the next year (or by the end of his career), he will break all three world records. Those three records were set in the high-tech suit era to boot.

There’s little reason to think Dressel won’t get faster. He’s the same age as Ledecky (20) and, unlike Ledecky, races the shorter distances that more favor veterans. Cesar Cielo was 22 when he set the 50m and 100m free world records in 2009. Michael Phelps was 24 when he set the 100m fly mark.

As for the Phelps-medal-haul comparisons, keep in mind that one of Dressel’s golds came in a mixed relay that is not on the Olympic program. Dressel’s other individual event at worlds, where he finished fourth, was the 50m butterfly. Also not on the Olympic program. He could tack on another event in the 4x200m free relay, but the Phelpsian eight golds at an Olympics is not yet in Dressel’s range.

4. The world’s best swimmer is …

How about Sweden’s Sarah Sjöström? She won three events and broke the world record in a fourth, giving her four individual world records, the most of any male or female swimmer in the current record book.

Sjöström was one of three female headliners at this meet, and you could argue she had the best overall performance considering expectations. Ledecky also won three individual golds but had that 200m free defeat and no personal bests. Katinka Hosszu swept the individual medleys, but also no personal bests.

5. Looking ahead to 2018

Next year is the one year in the Olympic cycle where the world’s best swimmers are divided into two major international meets — the European Championships and, for all other nations, the Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo in August. No Olympics. No worlds.

Ledecky will presumably not face her toughest international rivals at Pan Pacs — no Sjöström, no Federica Pellegrini, the Italian who beat her in Budapest. Maybe no Li Bingjie, the Chinese 15-year-old who cut five seconds off her personal best to finish two seconds behind Ledecky in the 800m free. China has a history of not sending its best swimmers to Pan Pacs.

At Pan Pacs, Dressel could face the 2016 Olympic 100m freestyle champion, Australian Kyle Chalmers, who missed worlds after heart surgery. In the 100m butterfly, Olympic champion Joseph Schooling of Singapore and 2013 and 2015 world champion Chad le Clos of South Africa are also eligible for Pan Pacs.

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WORLDS: Full Results | Race Videos

Female runners with high testosterone face new restriction

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Female runners with high testosterone must reduce those levels or will not be allowed in international races between 400m and the mile, according to an IAAF rule starting Nov. 1.

Olympic 800m champion Caster Semenya, who was gender tested in 2009, is expected to be affected, according to South Africa’s Olympic Committee.

“Our evidence and data show that testosterone, either naturally produced or artificially inserted into the body, provides significant performance advantages in female athletes,” IAAF president Seb Coe said in a press release. “The revised rules are not about cheating, no athlete with a DSD [difference of sexual development] has cheated, they are about leveling the playing field to ensure fair and meaningful competition.”

The IAAF, after funding a study along with the World Anti-Doping Agency, said research showed the following natural testosterone levels:

Most women: .12-1.79 nanomoles per liter in blood
Normal men after puberty: 7.7-29.4 nmol/L

The IAAF rule forces all women who race the 400m through mile and who are androgen-sensitive to restrict their ratio to below five. It said women who have “a difference of sexual development” can have natural testosterone levels beyond the normal male range.

The IAAF and WADA-funded study found that women with high testosterone have up to a 4.5 percent advantage over their competition on the track.

Research showed 7.1 of every 1,000 elite female track and field athletes have elevated testosterone, most of which were runners in events between 400m and the mile.

“The treatment to reduce testosterone levels is a hormone supplement similar to the contraceptive pill taken by millions of women around the world,” an IAAF doctor said in the release. “No athlete will be forced to undergo surgery.”

The IAAF had gender-verification testing in place until 2011, when it was replaced with a test for abnormally high levels of natural testosterone. Under that rule, female athletes with a ratio of 10 nmol/L or higher could only compete against women if they had an operation or took hormones to reduce their testosterone level.

In July 2015, the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) suspended the IAAF’s regulation, ruling that it lacked sufficient scientific backing and was therefore unjustifiably discriminatory.

The gender-testing issue was raised in 2009, when Semenya won the world 800m title by nearly 2.5 seconds at age 18. Word leaked that track officials mandated she undergo sex testing.

Semenya was not cleared to run for 11 months and came back to earn silver at the 2011 Worlds and 2012 Olympics, while the testosterone-limiting rule was in effect, behind Russian Maria Savinova, who has since been stripped of her golds for doping.

Semenya then had a lull in performance after the London Games while the testosterone-limiting rule was still in effect. After CAS suspended the rule in 2015, Semenya peaked again in 2016, going undefeated in 800m races, twice breaking the national record and comfortably winning Olympic gold.

Semenya has never spoken publicly in detail about her situation. It has never been publicly verified that Semenya’s body naturally produces abnormally high levels of testosterone or that she ever took hormone suppressants.

An image with the sentence, “How beautiful it is to stay silent when someone expects you to be enraged,” was posted on Semenya’s social media Wednesday after reports were first published about the new rule.

Her default position is generally to talk only about her running, but she spoke out against her critics in a speech after accepting South Africa’s Sportswoman of the Year in November 2016.

“They say she talks like a man, she walks like a man, she runs like a man,” Semenya said, before finishing off the series with an Afrikaans word that loosely translates to “Get lost.”

South Africa’s Olympic Committee president Gideon Sam said Thursday his organization was “disappointed by the IAAF ruling.”

“Especially given that Caster’s name is again being dragged through the publicity mill,” he said in a press release. “We are concerned that the decisions have been approved without taking into account all factors into consideration, as these factors have not been properly nor fully ventilated. We wish to place on record that Caster Semenya has never engaged in any performance-enhancing activities and any enhanced testosterone levels are due solely to her genetic make-up.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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Olympic pairs champions take indefinite break

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Aljona Savchenko, the Olympic pairs champion with Bruno Massot, said they are taking an indefinite break from competition, according to German press agency DPA.

Savchenko and Massot will perform in ice shows next fall and winter, which could preclude them from competing in major events like the Grand Prix season (late October to early December) and the European Championships in January.

The German pair followed their title in PyeongChang with a world title last month, breaking a four-year-old world-record score and winning by the largest margin (20.31 points) in pairs at an Olympics or worlds since the 6.0 system was replaced 14 years ago.

Savchenko, 34 and a five-time Olympian, became the oldest Olympic pairs gold medalist. She then claimed her 11th world medal — tying the female record held by Norwegian singles legend Sonja Henie — and sixth world title — tying Soviet Alexander Zaitsev for second on the all-time pairs list, four behind Irina Rodnina.

The French-born Massot, 29, competed in his first Olympics in PyeongChang and earned his first world title. Savchenko’s previous five world titles came with now-retired Robin Szolkowy.

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