After a slow start to the world swimming championships in Gwangju, South Korea, the U.S. team has stormed back with a dizzying run of world championships and world records.
Caeleb Dressel took three gold medals in less than two hours Saturday, bringing his total for the week to six world titles and keeping alive his chances of matching his seven-gold tally from the 2017 world championships. Dressel’s final race of the evening was the mixed 4x100m freestyle relay, where Simone Manuel also picked up another world title — and a world record.
Dressel repeated his 2017 feat of three golds in one night, something Michael Phelps never attempted at an Olympics or worlds.
“It was not easy in ’17, and it was not easy this year,” said Dressel, who joined Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Katie Ledecky as the only swimmers to earn four individual titles at a single worlds. “I don’t want it to be easy.”
Regan Smith — who, like Dressel, set a world record in a semifinal race Friday — won her first world title at age 17.
Ledecky allied from a week of illness and a substantial deficit in the 800m freestyle to add an emphatic win to her trophy case.
READ: Ledecky rallies after difficult week to win 800m free
Swedish star Sarah Sjoestroem kicked off the evening with her third straight 50m butterfly title, her first gold after a silver and two bronze medals this week. She also won four medals in 2017 and can match her record of five from 2015.
Then Dressel hit the pool for the 50m freestyle and set a championship and American record of 21.04 seconds. Brazil’s Bruno Fratus and Greece’s Kristian Gkolomeev tied for second 0.41 seconds behind, an eternity in such a short race.
Dressel was up again 34 minutes later in the 100m butterfly, in which he broke Phelps’ world record in Friday’s semifinal. His time of 49.66 seconds was just shy of his new record of 49.50 but a comfortable 1.17 seconds ahead of Russia’s Andrei Minakov.
South Africa’s Chad le Clos, a longtime Phelps rival, took bronze just ahead of 19-year-old Hungarian Kristof Milak, who broke Phelps’ record in the 200m butterfly on Wednesday.
Next up was Smith, who broke through in the international swimming scene with authority on Friday with a world record of 2:03.35 in the 200m backstroke semifinals on Friday. In the final, she was nearly a second ahead of her new world record at the halfway mark (59.45 seconds, a time that would have taken sixth in the 100m backstroke here) before cruising home in 2:03.69, a solid 2.57 seconds ahead of Australia’s Kaylee McKeown.
Smith has one more year at Lakeville North (Minn.) High School before beginning her college career at Stanford. She is not entered in any other individual events but could be selected for the medley relay.
“I didn’t want to put pressure on myself to try to break (the world record) two nights in a row,” Smith said. “Just to get close to that again was awesome, so I’m really happy.”
Then Ledecky, the world’s most dominant freestyle swimmer in the 2010s, shook off a week of illness that forced her out of a couple of races and rallied with a furious sprint in the final lap to take gold in the 800m freestyle, in which she has taken every world and Olympic title from the 2012 Olympics onwards.
Dressel returned for a third swim in the leadoff leg of the mixed 4x100m freestyle relay, staking the U.S. team to a narrow lead of 0.03 seconds over Australia. Zach Apple pushed that lead out to nearly a second, and Mallory Comerford stayed in front despite a charge from Emma McKeon.
Then it was up to Manuel, who defended her world title in the 100m freestyle earlier in the week and qualified for the 50m free final with a strong semifinal earlier in the evening. She extended the lead slightly at the turn and finished 0.57 seconds in front.
The overall time of 3:19.40 pared 0.20 seconds off the previous world record, set by the U.S. team in 2017.
Earlier this week, Dressel took gold in the 100m freestyle, the 50m butterfly and the men’s 4x100m freestyle. He can equal his 2017 total of seven golds in the men’s 4×100 medley relay on Sunday.
In the first final of the evening, Sjoestroem won the 50m butterfly over Dutch veteran Ranomi Kromowidjojo, who took silver for the second straight world championship. Egypt’s Farida Osman edged out American Kelsi Dahlia by 0.01 seconds to take bronze. Dahlia tied the American record with a time of 25.48.
Like Dressel, Sjoestroem has a busy schedule here. She was back in the pool barely 20 minutes later, posting the fastest time in the 50m freestyle semifinals. Manuel qualified fourth, while fellow American Abbey Weitzeil did not qualify.
Lilly King, who won her second straight 100m breaststroke world title earlier in the week, rebounded from her disqualification in the 200m breaststroke to post the fastest time in the semifinals of the 50m breaststroke, another event in which she is the defending champion. King finished in 29.84, with Russian rival Yuliya Efimova winning the other semi in 30.12.
Ryan Murphy qualified for the 50m backstroke final, taking second in his semifinal behind Russia’s Evgeny Rylov, who took gold ahead of Murphy in the 200m backstroke.
Michael Andrew finished sixth in the 50m freestyle and returned an hour later to earn the rare distinction of qualifying for the final in all four 50m disciplines, qualifying seventh in the backstroke. He finished fourth in the butterfly final and seventh in the breaststroke.
Dressel has one event left Sunday, the men’s 4x100m medley relay. He’s accomplished everything he could have hoped for individually in Gwangju with four American records and a world record. It will only raise the hype going into the Tokyo Olympics, where if all goes right at trials he will in at least six events and perhaps a Phelpsian eight.
“I’ll be ready for it next year,” said Dressel, who burned out from the sport as the world’s top prep swimmer five years ago and struggled with the increased demands of turning pro last year. “I’ve never been one to buy into all the hype. It’s really just between me, myself and my coach getting ready for next year.”
OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.
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