The last eight men’s winners of Swimming World‘s World Swimmer of the Year are active, now that Sun Yang is back from suspension and Michael Phelps out of retirement.
Sun, Phelps and Ryan Lochte combined to win every World Swimmer of the Year title since 2006 — five for Phelps, two for Lochte and one for Sun (last year).
It’s not out of the question that Sun, Phelps and Lochte could go head to head to head in the same final in the distant future, based on separate meets this week in China and Charlotte, where Sun and Phelps were both slated for the 200m freestyle.
The 200m free was the famous “Race of the Century” event at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. It was a decade ago that Ian Thorpe, Pieter van den Hoogenband, Phelps and Grant Hackett raced together. That quartet combined to win 12 straight Swimmer of the Year titles from 1998 through 2009 (though Thorpe and Phelps owned 10 of the 12).
But back to Sun.
The 22-year-old returned in strong form Monday from a suspension dating to November, winning the 200m free at the Chinese National Championships by more than 1.5 seconds.
Sun, 22, clocked 1:46.04 in Qingdao, China. The Olympic 400m and 1500m free champion is returning to competition after he was suspended following a car accident in which he drove without a license in November. It was reported he had foot surgery in January.
“My aerobic training has not yet [kicked in],” Sun said Monday, according to SwimVortex.com. “I hope to get better and better after I’ve had a longer period of time to train.”
Comparing early season times can be dangerous, but note that Lochte won the 200m free at the Mesa Grand Prix in 1:49.48 on April 25. Lochte finished fourth in the 200m free at the 2012 Olympics and 2013 World Championships and is currently the top rival to Sun as the world’s best swimmer.
France’s Yannick Agnel, who trains with Phelps in Baltimore, is the reigning Olympic and world 200m free champion. Australian Cameron McEvoy owns the fastest time of 2014, 1:45.46.
Sun, who is better in longer distances, won silver in the 200m free at the 2012 Olympics in a national record 1:44.93. He did not swim the 200m free at the 2013 World Championships, where he swept the 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles.
He did, however, anchor China’s 4x200m free relay team that won bronze. Sun’s split — 1:43.16 — was the second-fastest in history and 1.82 seconds better than the other 31 swimmers, including Lochte and Agnel.
So, when could we see Sun, Phelps and Lochte in the same race? Perhaps the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia in August, if Lochte and Phelps opt for the 200m free and make the U.S. team, certainly bigger concerns for Phelps than Lochte.
A problem for Sun is the Pan Pacific Championships schedule, which calls for both the 200m free and 1500m free finals on the first night. And who knows if Sun will even enter the meet, given China sent just four swimmers (Sun not among them) to the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships.