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 Phelps, Ryan 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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