Michael Phelps‘ world record in his signature event was emphatically wiped away by 19-year-old Hungarian Kristof Milak at the world championships in Gwangju, South Korea on Wednesday.
Milak clocked 1:50.73, taking .78 off Phelps’ mark from the 2009 World Championships, where since-banned high-tech swimsuits contributed to a bevy of fast times.
“As frustrated as I am to see that record go down, I couldn’t be happier to see how he did it,” Phelps said after watching the race online, according to The New York Times. “That kid’s last 100m was incredible. He put together a great 200 fly from start to finish.”
Phelps held the world record since 2001, his streak of 18 years the longest for one men’s event in swimming history, according to Olympic historians Bill Mallon and Hilary Evans.
Milak was a backstroker until age 14, but even when he devoted to the butterfly, he focused on the 100m because he lacked strength. Milak broke out in 2018 by lowering his 200m personal best to 1:52.71, the sixth-fastest time in history behind four from Phelps and one from countryman Laszlo Cseh.
“I tried to switch off everything, and I tried not to think of swimming at all before the race,” he said. “It’s a tremendous honor to set such a great record.”
Phelps won eight combined Olympic and world titles in the 200m fly, the event where he made his Olympic debut in 2000 (placing fifth).
Phelps broke his first of 39 world records across all events in the 200m fly in March 2001 at a meet where he listened to “Perfect Gentleman” by Wyclef Jean on a CD player on repeat before races. At 15, Phelps was the youngest man to break a world record.
He won his first world title in the 200m fly, later in 2001, and lowered the world record eight times overall.
Phelps, who retired after his record 28th Olympic medal in Rio and has brushed off comeback questions for the last three years, still owns world records in the 100m butterfly and 400m individual medley.
Milak became the first man to break a Phelps world record since Milorad Cavic took the 100m fly mark at the 2009 Worlds, where Phelps snatched the record back the following day.
Also Wednesday, Caeleb Dressel‘s bid for a Phelps-record-breaking eight golds at a single worlds may have ended as Australia edged the U.S. by .02 in the mixed-gender 4x100m medley. Dressel made up a 7.21-second deficit on the third leg, the butterfly, because two women and two men were scattered across the four spots for each team. But Australian Cate Campbell made up a 1.25-second deficit on Simone Manuel on anchor.
Dressel matched Phelps’ record seven golds at a single worlds two years ago with the help of two mixed-gender relays that weren’t on the program in Phelps’ heyday. Dressel can still get to seven as he’s expected to race in five more finals this week, but to reach eight, he must be added to the men’s 4x200m free, which he was not part of in 2017.
Controversial Chinese Sun Yang was sixth in the 800m freestyle, a final that went off without an American for the first time in 12 years. Italian Gregorio Paltrinieri, the Olympic 1500m champion, prevailed by 2.01 seconds in 7:39.27.
Sun won the 800m in 2011, 2013 and 2015 but has in recent years shifted toward the 200m and 400m frees, which he won earlier this week and faced podium protests from Australian and British medalists. The 800m marked the last individual event for Sun at this meet.
Italian Federica Pellegrini earned her fourth world title in the 200m free and her eight straight medal dating to 2005. Pellegrini, a 30-year-old who next year will be older than any individual female Olympic swimming champion, surged past 18-year-old Australian Ariarne Titmus in the last 50 meters to win by .44 in 1:54.22.
Two years ago, Pellegrini handed Katie Ledecky her first major international final loss in any individual event. Ledecky, plus medal contenders Emma McKeon of Australia and Taylor Ruck of Canada, withdrew before Tuesday’s 200m free heats, with Ledecky and McKeon citing illness. Ledecky was still under the weather on Wednesday, dampening her hopes of starting her last two events of the meet — Thursday’s 4x200m free and the 800m free Friday and Saturday.
Brit Adam Peaty completed a sweep of the 50m and 100m breaststrokes for a third straight worlds, clocking 26.06 seconds. Peaty owns the seven fastest times in history in the non-Olympic event, including the world record of 25.95.
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