Caeleb Dressel didn’t match his seven-gold tally of 2017 but became the first swimmer to take eight medals in one world championship meet as the U.S. men took silver in the 4x100m medley relay, the last men’s race of the world championships in Gwangju, South Korea.
The U.S. women capped their late surge in the championships with individual golds for Lilly King and Simone Manuel, followed by an emphatic world-record swim in the 4x100m medley relay in which breakout star Regan Smith set the tone in the backstroke before handing off to King, Kelsi Dahlia and Manuel.
The Sunday successes added to a late rally for a U.S. team that ran away with the overall medal count as usual but suffered a series of setbacks earlier in the week, including an illness than wiped out much of Katie Ledecky‘s week as well as some puzzling performances in a handful of events that are typically U.S. strongholds.
The Americans finished with 27 medals and 14 golds, down from their haul of 38 medals and 18 golds in 2017. Australia was second in the medal standings with 19 medals and five golds.
Dressel wound up with six gold medals: 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, 50m butterfly, 100m butterfly, men’s 4x100m freestyle and the mixed 4×100 freestyle. He took silver in both medley relays — the men’s 4x100m and the mixed 4x100m. The 50m butterfly and the mixed 4x100m freestyle are not on the Olympic program.
In 2017, Dressel missed out on the medals in the 50m butterfly but took gold in all four relays in addition to his other three individual medals.
The women’s relay opened with Smith, a high school student from Minnesota who’ll start college at Stanford after the Olympics next year. The 17-year-old swimmer broke out on the international scene earlier in the week with a world record in the 200m backstroke semifinals and followed up with a convincing win in the final. She lived up to expectations in the relay with a world-record backstroke leg of 57.57 seconds.
“There’s nothing better than diving in with a body-length lead already,” King said.
King extended the lead to nearly three seconds. Dahlia, a 100m butterfly bronze medalist in 2017 under her maiden name of Kelsi Worrell, kept the lead around the same margin while Canada passed Australia to move into second place.
The only questions left on the freestyle leg were whether Australia’s Cate Campbell could surge past Canadian star Penny Oleksiak for silver and whether Manuel could wrap up keep the U.S. women under world record pace. The answer on both counts was yes, with Manuel swimming a leg of 51.86 seconds for a final time of 3:50.40, more than a second off the record the U.S. women set in 2017.
“To start off with a world record from Regan, I think that really pumped us all up,” Manuel said.
Olivia Smoliga swam in the heats for the medley relay to earn her third medal and second gold of the meet.
Dressel did all he could in the men’s relay, pulling the U.S. team from fourth to first with the fastest butterfly time (49.28) by more than a second in his last race of a busy week.
Ryan Murphy, who was fourth in the 50m backstroke earlier in the evening, stayed close to Russian multimedalist Evgeny Rylov, and breaststroke specialist Andrew Wilson handed off in fourth place amid a tightly bunch lead group.
Dressel handed off to Nathan Adrian, a much-decorated freestyle veteran who has rebounded from treatment for testicular cancer earlier this year and anchored the winning 4x100m freestyle relay earlier this week. Adrian held off the charge from Russia, but Duncan Scott, the subject of an angry outburst from China’s Sun Yang at a medal ceremony earlier in the week, posted the second-fastest freestyle split of all time to give Great Britain the gold.
Earlier Sunday, Manuel inched past a loaded field in the 50m freestyle to win in 24.05 seconds, 0.02 seconds ahead of Swedish star Sarah Sjoestroem and 0.06 ahead of Australia’s Cate Campbell. Denmark’s Pernille Blume finished within 0.07 seconds of Manuel but missed out on the podium.
The medalists were the same, albeit with Campbell and Sjoestroem reversed, as they were in the 100m freestyle earlier in the week, when Manuel won from all the way out in Lane 1 after a slow time in the semifinals.
In the first women’s final of the evening, King won her final showdown with Russian Yuliya Efimova in the 50m breaststroke. King, who holds the world record of 29.40, finished in 29.84, barely outtouching 14-year-old Italian Benedetta Pilato, (30.00) who burst into tears as King reached over to congratulate her. Efimova was third in 30.15.
“The girls next to me really gave me a good race,” King said.
Like Manuel, King also won the 100m race in her discipline. King also won both events in the 2017 world championships and won the 100m in the 2016 Olympics but was denied a shot at a breakthrough in the 200m after being disqualified in the preliminary heats.
Jay Litherland took a surprising silver in the men’s 400m individual medley, in which top American Chase Kalisz failed to qualify two years after setting the championship record in the event. Litherland, a bronze medalist in the 4x200m freestyle relay in 2017, was 3.34 seconds behind Japanese favorite Daiya Seto heading into the freestyle leg but closed to within 0.27 seconds at the finish.
“I can’t explain it,” Litherland said. “That was a fun race.”
In the first final of the evening, South Africa’s Zane Waddell, who swims at the University of Alabama and won an NCAA title this year in the men’s 4x50m medley relay, stunned the Russian and American favorites in a tightly bunched finish in the men’s 50m backstroke.
Waddell finished in 24.43, just ahead of Evgeny Rylov (24.49) and world record-holder Kliment Kolesnikov (24.51).
Murphy (24.53, fourth) won the 100m and 200m backstroke in the 2016 Olympics but has never claimed an individual world title. He took silver and bronze in 2017 and then silver in the 200m backstroke earlier this week.
Michael Andrew (24.58, fifth) has the unusual distinction of qualifying for the final in every 50m race of the week, though he was unable to crack the podium in any final.
“What was nice about not hitting every mark was the motivation it gives me going into Tokyo,” Andrew said.
Germany’s Florian Wellbrock won the men’s 1,500m freestyle in 14:36.54. No U.S. swimmers qualified for the final.
Hungary’s “Iron Lady,” 30-year-old Katinka Hosszu completed a quadruple-double, winning the 400m individual medley title for the fourth straight time after doing the same in the 200m medley earlier in the week. U.S. swimmer Ally McHugh was sixth.
Hosszu also swept the medleys in the 2016 Olympics and won the 400m race back in 2009.
Other swimmers with large medal hauls in the championships included Australia’s Campbell (two individual medals, three from relays) and Ariarne Titmus (three individual, one relay), Russia’s Rylov (three individual, two relay) and Efimova (three individual), Great Britain’s Adam Peaty (two individual, two relay), and Canada’s Kylie Masse and Sydney Pickrem (two individual and one relay each).
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