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

Who is Italy’s greatest Olympian?

Alberto Tomba
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Italy ranks sixth on the total Olympic medal list, thanks in large part to its fencers. Italian fencers have won a leading 125 medals, more than double the nation’s total in any other sport. The Italians are known for their personalities, from La Bomba to the Cannibal, with six of their best detailed here …

Deborah Compagnoni
Alpine Skiing
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only Alpine skier to earn gold at three straight Olympics. Compagnoni overcame a broken knee as a junior racer and life-saving surgery to remove 27 inches of her intestine in 1990 to win the Albertville 1992 super-G by 1.8 seconds. It remains the largest margin of victory in the discipline for either gender since 1968. The following day, Compagnoni tore knee ligaments in the giant slalom. She returned to win the GS at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. Compagnoni ended her Olympic career with the biggest rout in a GS at a Winter Games, prevailing by 1.41 seconds in Nagano.

Klaus Dibiasi
Diving
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only diver to win the same individual event three times. The Austrian-born Dibiasi took platform silver in 1964 at age 17, then three straight golds through 1976. Dibiasi was coached by his father, who was 10th on platform at the 1936 Berlin Games. In his final Olympics, Dibiasi held off a 16-year-old Greg Louganis, who would go on to challenge, if not overtake, Dibiasi as the greatest male diver in history.

Eugenio Monti
Bobsled
Six Olympic Medals

Regarded by many as the greatest bobsled driver in history. Monti captured two silver medals in 1956, missed the 1960 Winter Games that didn’t include bobsled, then two bronzes in 1964 and a pair of golds at age 40 in 1968. On top of that, the nine-time world champion is remembered for an act of sportsmanship in 1964. In between runs, Monti lent a bolt off his own two-man sled to a British team whose sled was damaged. The Brits took gold, ahead of both Italian sleds.

Alberto Tomba
Alpine Skiing
Three Olympic Gold Medals

“La Bomba” dazzled by sweeping the giant slalom and slalom at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, after dubbing himself the “Messiah of Skiing“ beforehand. Known for his man-about-town ways, Tomba offered one of his gold medals to East German figure skater Katarina Witt should she fall short in her event. After Witt repeated as gold medalist, the story goes that Tomba showed up with a bouquet of roses and an autographed picture of himself, made out out to “Katerina.” “I used to have a wild time with three women until 5 a.m.,” Tomba once said. “Now I live it up with five women until 3 a.m,”

Valentina Vezzali
Fencing
Six Olympic Gold Medals

An 18-year-old Vezzali was an alternate for the 1992 Olympics, forced to watch on TV as the Italian women took team foil gold. Vezzali made the next five Olympics, winning medals in all nine of her events, including three straight individual titles, the last as a mom. Vezzali finished her career with nine total Olympic medals, 25 world championships medals, a flag bearer honor at the 2012 Opening Ceremony and as a member of Italy’s parliament.

Armin Zoeggeler
Luge
Six Olympic Medals

“The Cannibal” retired in 2014 as the first athlete to earn a medal in the same individual event at six straight Olympics. Zoeggeler earned silver and bronze medals in 1994 and 1998, then overtook German legend Georg Hackl for gold in 2002, followed by winning at home in Torino in 2006. He held on for bronze medals in 2010 and 2014, behind the new German luge star, Felix Loch, who would be coached by Hackl. Growing up on top of a steep hill, Zoeggeler began sledding at age 7 to catch the school bus at the bottom.

GREATEST OLYMPIANS: Germany | Liechtenstein | Japan

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Kurt Angle recalls devastation, exultation of Olympic wrestling gold medal

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Kurt Angle doesn’t remember much from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but he won’t forget that moment of deep emotional pain.

In the 100kg final, Angle and Iranian Abbas Jadidi were tied 1-1 after regulation and an overtime period.. Eight total minutes of wrestling. They also had the same number of passivity calls, forcing a judges’ decision to determine the gold medalist.

After deliberation, the referee stood between each wrestler in the middle of the mat. He held each’s wrist, ready to reveal the champion to the Georgia World Congress Center crowd — and to the athletes. Angle, now 51, has rarely watched video of the match. But he distinctly remembers, in his peripheral vision, Jadidi’s left arm rising.

“I thought I lost,” Angle said by phone this week. “So right away, I was like, s—, four more years.”

Turns out, the Iranian was raising his own arm. An instant later, the referee suppressed Jadidi. He lifted Angle’s right arm. The wrestler sobbed.

“I had so much emotion because I was devastated and then I was told that I won,” Angle said. “It was a very odd experience. I didn’t know how to handle it. It felt like my father died all over again. That’s how much grief I had. Then, all of a sudden, you won.”

Angle thought of two people immediately after he won, falling to his knees in prayer. First, his father, David, who died in a construction accident when Angle was 16. Second, the 1984 Olympic wrestling champion Dave Schultz, his coach who was murdered by John du Pont six months before the Games.

Angle went on to become one of the most famous U.S. gold medalists of the Atlanta Games, due largely to a two-decade career as a professional wrestler, including as a world heavyweight champion with the WWE.

It would have been different if the referee kept Jadidi’s arm in the air. Angle went into the Olympics knowing it would be his last competition, but only if he took gold. Anything less, and he would continue on, perhaps into his 30s and the 2000 Sydney Games. Despite everything Angle went through just to get to Atlanta.

In the year leading up to the Olympics, Angle lost Schultz, broke his neck at the U.S. Open and, five minutes before each match at the Olympic Trials, received 12 shots of novocaine to numb the pain long enough to advance to the next round. Angle later developed a painkiller addiction.

Angle, a Pennsylvania native, was part of the Foxcatcher club when du Pont shot and killed Schultz. Angle said he wasn’t consulted for the 2014 film “Foxcatcher,” but he thought it was well done save a few instances of dramatic license.

“Unfortunately, I hate to admit this, but if it weren’t for Team Foxcatcher, I probably wouldn’t have won my gold medal,” Angle said. “I probably wouldn’t have known Dave Schultz, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I did. It sucks because, to have to thank John du Pont for the ability of allowing me to pay me to wrestle full time and win a world championship [in 1995] and Olympic gold medal, that was huge, but he killed Dave Schultz. The club would have thrived to this day. It just sucks it turned out the way it did, because it made me the best wrestler in the world. Dave Schultz had a lot to do with that, but a lot of wrestlers that followed could have not had to worry about money and could have trained and competed.”

Angle shared his gold medal with, he estimated, thousands of people before housing it in a safe.

“The gold was wearing off,” Angle said. “One kid, I remember, I was at an elementary school, and he grabbed my medal by the ribbon and started twirling it around real fast. He let go of it, and it hit the wall. There’s a big dent in my gold medal. That was the last time I brought it to an elementary school.”

Angle announced in 2011, at age 42, that he was training to come back for the 2012 Olympic Trials. He never made it, calling it off with a knee injury.

“But I trained hard for it,” Angle said, noting he still kept up appearances with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. “I will tell you this, I wouldn’t have made the team. My goal was to place in the top three. I just missed the [thrill of] competition.”

It meant that Angle’s last match remained that Olympic final. His last moment as a freestyle wrestler having his arm raised.

“All I wanted to do was win a world championship and an Olympic gold medal, and I did them both,” Angle said, sobbing, just off the mat that night in Atlanta. “If I died tonight, I’d be the happiest man in the world.”

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