Swimmers at worlds pay tribute to Japanese star with leukemia

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GWANGJU, South Korea (AP) — After receiving their medals, all three world swimming championships 100m butterfly medalists gathered on the top podium spot and raised their palms to the crowd, displaying a message to ailing 19-year-old Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee.

“Rikako never give up” it read, with hearts decorating their palms. Swedish silver medalist Sarah Sjostrom came up with the idea and was joined by surprise Canadian gold medalist Maggie MacNeil, a rising sophomore at Michigan, and Australian bronze medalist Emma McKeon.

Ikee, Japanese’s best female swimmer, announced in February that she has leukemia.

She was the world junior champion in the 100m fly and had the fastest time in the world last year. She is aiming to return in time to compete in the Tokyo Olympics.

“We’re hoping this will show that we’re supporting her and we’re here if she needs anything,” MacNeil said.

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For Caeleb Dressel, eight gold medals in play after winning the one that got away

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When Caeleb Dressel won seven gold medals at the 2017 World Championships, the outlier was the 50m butterfly, where he was fourth. Dressel, after a difficult 2018 in and out of the pool, won the 50m fly on Monday, putting a record eight gold medals in play this week.

Dressel dominated in the non-Olympic event 22.35 seconds, the second-fastest time in history and an American record. The margin of victory was vast for a one-length race — .35 of a second.

“I’m not here to count medals,” Dressel said. “I’m going to wake up tomorrow and forget about this.”

Dressel now has two golds in his first two events after leading off the U.S. 4x100m freestyle on Sunday in Gwangju, South Korea. He is a defending world champion in six remaining events — 50m and 100m freestyle (perhaps his biggest question mark against Rio gold medalist Kyle Chalmers) and the 100m butterfly, plus three more relays. He could be on the 4x200m free, too, giving him nine events.

Two of those relays are mixed-gender events that weren’t on the program when Michael Phelps set records of seven golds at the 2007 World Championships and eight at the 2008 Olympics. Phelps has said he’s not a fan of mixed-gender relays, but in 2017 he refused to say that Dressel’s feat was anything less than his own.

“You can’t take anything away from winning seven gold medals, right?” Phelps said then. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a relay or an individual event.”

If Dressel had it his way, the tattooed Floridian would have zero fanfare accompanying his recent rise.

“Being in the spotlight is something that’s important in the sport. It is inevitable,” Dressel said last week. “But if it were up to me, it would just be me, [coach Gregg Troy], no media stuff and just trying to go best times, really.”

In 2014, he quit the sport for five months under the expectation of being the nation’s top prep swimmer. He ultimately decided to join the University of Florida team and rewrote the NCAA record book before his breakout 2017 Worlds. Turning pro in 2018 brought more off-deck commitments, and Dressel struggled in last summer’s two major meets, winning two of seven individual events.

“It might send you to those dark places every once in a while, but it will test yourself,” said Dressel, who had perhaps the most pressure-packed role of any U.S. swimmer in Rio, leading off the 4x100m free final in his very first Olympic splash. “I like that from the sport.”

Dressel keeps grounded with interests outside the sport. He plays the drums, has one chapter left of his third time reading “Zen in the Martial Arts” and plans to go on a cruise with other swimmers later this summer.

“I really only have one little block of vacation time a year, so I like to spend it with my boys,” he said. “During the meet, it can be tricky, you can get caught up in your thoughts. I try to hang out with people when I can. I don’t want to be alone too much.”

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Dressel gets Tuesday off. The headliner will be Katie Ledecky, slated for the 1500m freestyle final, followed about an hour later by a 200m free semifinal. Ledecky was relegated to silver in Sunday’s 400m free by 18-year-old Australian Ariarne Titmus, who is also in the 200m.

Also Tuesday, Lilly King will take on Russian rival Yuliya Efimova for the first of three events this week in the 100m breast, King’s trademark distance. The men’s 100m backstroke final features the last two Olympic champions, Americans Ryan Murphy and Matt Grevers.

In other events Monday, Brit Adam Peaty three-peated in the 100m breast, clocking 57.14 seconds one day after lowering his world record to 56.88 in the semifinals. Peaty, the 24-year-old Olympic champion, owns the 17 fastest times in history and is the only man to break not only 57 seconds, but also 58 seconds.

Peaty led a British one-two with James Wilby, who was 1.32 seconds back. China’s Yan Zibei grabbed bronze, while American Andrew Wilson was sixth.

Katinka Hosszu became the first woman to win four straight world titles in one event, taking the 200m individual medley in 2:07.53. Ye Shiwen, the eye-popping 2012 Olympic champion at age 16, took silver, 1.07 seconds behind. American Melanie Margalis was fourth, .21 behind bronze medalist Sydney Pickrem of Canada.

Canadian Maggie MacNeil, a rising Michigan sophomore, upset world-record holder Sarah Sjostrom in the 100m butterfly. MacNeil stormed past Sjostrom in the last 25 meters to win in 55.83, topping Sjostrom by .39. American Kelsi Dalhia was sixth, two years after taking bronze.

“[MacNeil] told me straight after, the first thing she said was, I look up to you very much,” Sjostrom said, who earned her first world title in 2009 at age 15.

Sjostrom owns the 10 fastest times in history and won the last three world titles and the Rio Olympics. MacNeil chopped .69 off her personal best, jumping from the 10th-fastest woman in history to No. 2 ahead of 2012 Olympic champion Dana Vollmer.

“I can’t really hold the last 50,” Sjostrom said. “I’m actually exhausted in the end. I’m absolutely surprised I went 56.22 with how I finished.”

NBC Olympic researchers Alex Azzi and Megan Soisson contributed to this report from Gwangju.

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Adam Peaty, Project 56 met, builds the biggest gap in swimming

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By the numbers, Adam Peaty, not Katie Ledecky, is the most dominant swimmer in history in a single Olympic event.

The British 24-year-old owns the 18 fastest 100m breaststroke times after winning his third straight world title on Monday in Gwangju, South Korea. Peaty came to worlds the lone man to break 58 seconds in the event.

Then in Sunday’s semifinals, he became the first man to break 57, lowering the world record, for the fifth time, to 56.88 and achieving the goal of what he called “Project 56.”

“There’s no word except incredible,” said Peaty, a Greek gods and history buff who after his 2016 Olympic title got several tattoos, including a lion and Poseidon on his left arm. “Obviously I’ve been chasing that for three years now, ever since I touched that board in Rio.”

Peaty is 2.42 percent faster than the second-fastest man in history (Belarusian Ilya Shymanovich, who has gone 58.29), using Shymanovic’s time as the base for the math.

That surpasses Ledecky’s 1.88 and 1.96 percent increases over the second-fastest women in the 800m and 1500m frees, respectively. One event on the world championships program has a larger gap, Sarah Sjostrom in the 50m butterfly (2.55 percent), but the 50m fly is not swum at the Olympics.

So Peaty has that to shoot for. (The biggest gap in track and field appears to be the 4.28 percent separating retired world-record holder Jan Zelezny from the world in the javelin).

In Monday’s final, Peaty expressed a bit of regret after clocking 57.14, even though no other man has ever come within a second of it.

“Ran out of a bit of steam on the back end, but I’m still learning a lot about the event,” he said. “That constant expectation I put on myself is a little bit disappointed in me, but I think that will fuel me for next year because I know how bad I want to go near 56.”

Peaty didn’t realize he could become an Olympian until watching the 2012 London Games at age 17.

He burst onto the scene two years later in an event where Great Britain had not earned an Olympic or world title since 1988, going from ranked No. 168 in the world in 2012, to No. 11 in 2013 to No. 1 in 2014 and breaking the world record for the first time in 2015.

“I’ve got a lot of learning to do, a lot of pacing to do,” Peaty said in Gwangju. “We’ve always said, do it once, do it twice, do it better.”

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