How The Tide Has Turned In World-Class Waters
As one season comes to a close on the cusp of a World Junior Championships that will send us the spray of the next wave, SwimVortex.com reflects on events at the 15th FINA World Championships in Barcelona. John Lohn hands out grades to the top nations, while Craig Lord considers the shifting tiding of world swimming, including movement in national-team strength Barcelona 2003 to Barcelona 2013 as an interim glance at our Swim League of Nations for the current season. The picture will not be complete until the year turns to 2014 but there’s no denying the seismic shifts that have already taken place.
The first post-Olympic year in four cycles without Michael Phelps. Perhaps the US would feel the loss of their man with the Midas touch? Well, yes and no: yes in the same sense that we all missed him (how could you not) beyond any loss of medals in the mix for the US but no in terms of any impact on America’s status as the very clear world No 1 in the pool.
Delve a little below the surface and the US men’s team did miss Phelps, the balance of power in the USA’s dominance held by the women this time round in Barcelona in equal measure to the dominance of US men 10 years ago in the Catalan capital, when Phelps made his first truly big impact in world waters a year before his first assault on the Spitzean seven-gold standard that he would eventually crack in 2008.
If you consider that Ryan Lochte and Matt Grevers were the only two Americans to account for solo gold, then clearly the gap left by Phelps was as noticeable as you would have expected it to be. Also in the realms of expectation are the clear signs of a tradition being honoured. What the US has done more successfully than its opponents have in almost every Olympic cycle you care to recall (though not all) is to get ready to roll out the next wave regardless of the loss of a Burton, a Spitz, a Montgomery, a Biondi, a Meyer, a Caulkins, a Meagher, an Evans … and even a Phelps.
Another few strokes and Chase Kalisz, from the same North Baltimore stable, would have galloped deeper into history. But it was the day of Daiya Seto (JPN) – photo Aniko Kovacs. The story will develop, the US dominance of the medals table in Barcelona leaving room for improvement, particularly among the men.
Team strength can mask localised weakness: 13 golds in 29 medals, another runaway victory for the aquatic superpower but the US aims for more than Grevers and Lochte as their sole solo winners. On the women’s side, Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky accounted for the US solo title tally – and what a mighty one it was, especially when you add in a pioneering achievement: all women’s relays painted in Stars and Stripes for the first time at on world champs.
In the midst of the US tally is the secret of American success: strength across the board. Of the 22 nations to place swimmers on the podium, nine relied on one swimmer, four relied on 2 swimmers and two nations relied on 3 swimmers. Even China with its oft-cited mega-population relied on 2 men and 4 women to win its solo-event medals. The count for the US: 10 men and 6 women made the podium for individual events. And the way the US looks at it? Plenty of room for improvement: no gold in men’s backstroke, no medals on breaststroke or Olympic butterfly events; no titles among women in breaststroke, butterfly and medley. Compare those ‘gaps’ to the gaps of others and the leading force in the pool is in fine fettle.
Thumbs up, thumbs down
Behind the USA, China a distant second with a total of five golds in nine medals, France third and Australia fourth on gold count, with three titles in 13 medals overall, for a slightly better feel-good factor a year after it won 1 gold from 10 medals from the Olympic programme that has eight fewer events.
Strip away medals for a moment and you get a quick glimpse of the strength of nations, the USA celebrating 58 places in finals, compared with Australia, 28; Japan, 24; China, 22; France, 18; Great Britain 17; Hungary, 16; Russia, 15; Spain, 13; Brazil, 12; Italy, 12; Canada, 11; Germany, 10; Sweden, 9; Denmark, 8; South Africa, 7; Netherlands, 7; New Zealand, 5; Ukraine, 5; Poland, 3; Lithuania, 2; Belarus 2; Czech Republic, 2; Faroe Islands, 2; Israel, 2; Slovenia, 2; Venezuela, 2; Finland, 1; Trinidad and Tobago, 1; Belgium, 1; Chile, 1; Egypt, 1; Tunisia, 1.
A fine picture for the likes of France [photo, Fabien Gilot, by Aniko Kovacs], Hungary and Denmark – though each of those nations has some glaring weaknesses – the contribution of French women and all the more so Danish men was paltry to say the least: French women, just 5 places in finals; Danis men, no places; Hungarian men six places in finals.
China, meanwhile, had a mixed bag of results as it prepares for the National Games in October, an event that is the most important event for the Chinese in terms of its potential to deliver big prize money and hefty funding for programs across the nation. Sun Yang did much to mask a post-London slowdown.
There was cold comfort for the likes of Britain and Germany: a year after Britain claims three medals at a home Olympic Games and Germany came away from a Games empty handed for the first time since 1932, both nations took home just one medal each. It is as if each of those nations starts out again on a self-improvement quest with act passing Olympic cycle. Expect the picture to change at the European Championships in Berlin next year but Kazan 2015 will be the true test.
Read John Lohn‘s grades for men and women, leaves your own grades in our comments section and consider the shift in team strength in our interim part-count for the Swim League of Nations (World Champs): some big shifts in fortunes for teams between 2003 and 2013 – all based on a count of 12 points for a gold; 7 for silver, 5 for bronze, 3 for other places in the final; and 1 for those placing 9th to 16th:
- In 2003, the US men noticed up 178, the women 142; in 2013 it was the reverse, the women on 178, the men on 154
- Australia remains No 2 on this count, her men slipping below a much-improved France, her women up to No 2 from 3 as Germany collapses
- Gone from the top 10 2003 to 2013 are Germany, Ukraine, Italy and the Netherlands among men – and Great Britain, Japan and Ukraine (Yana Klochkova) among womb
- The men’s prize for Bolters of the Decade goes to China, a nation that has leap-frogged at last 12 nations to get to No 5 this season (and that on a relatively weak meet, Sun Yang apart)
- Silver in the league of male bolters goes to Brazil, while South Africa and Hungary have moved into the top 10.
- The women’s prize for Bolters of the Decade goes to Denmark in terms if new entries into the top 10 over a 10-year period
- Closest to Denmark’s prize are Spain and Hungary, while Russian and Sweden have stepped up, as have Canada’s women after a long wait.
- Germany takes the wooden spoon for the biggest fall in fortunes
- And Britain is to some extent paying a price for not having listened well enough to the core messages of Bill Sweetenham’s revolution; expect a return to the best of all of that under coach Bill Furniss’s new watch if the man is allowed to run the performance ship, lock, stock and barrel.
Nations do not consider continental counts but the USA DQ in the medley relay in the last men’s race of the Barcelona 2013 championships swung the balance in favour of Europe, five golds to four, while American women pipped Europeans 9 golds to 8, adding up to 13 golds apiece for Europe and North America as the dominant continents of world swimming. Asia came next with 6 titles, half of the count down to the man of the championships, Sun Yang (CHN), winner of the 400, 800 and 1500m freestyle and owner of the fastest 200m freestyle relay split in history as he brought his nation’s 4x200m freestyle quartet him to bronze.
Sun [photo: Aniko Kovacs] and Ye Shiwen, China’s two double Olympic champions of 2012, war part of a continuation of odd results from China. Sun was said to had had an off-season, disruption to his program accounting for slower times from 400 to 1500m. Study Sun closely and what you saw was a man who toyed with the opposition, doing just enough to be at the helm with a 100 or so to go before sprinting away to gold in a way that suggested that he had a great dal in reserve. The 200m in the relay was where we saw what he is truly capable of: 2.4sec faster over four laps than he was at London 2012 at the height of his powers. Extraordinary.
Ye was also extraordinary once more – though in the opposite direction. Over 200m medley, 3sec out; over 400m medley, 10sec out. She is 17. In London, she was classed with the likes of Ruta Meilutyte (LTU) and Katie Ledecky (USA) in the club of bolter teens. The thing with breakthrough 15- and 16-year-olds is that they bounce: a year later, Meilutyte and Ledecky moved their careers and pace on to the next level to confirm that their Games results were the start of pioneering careers. Ye, in contrast, looks spent. She had no explanation; she looked exhausted, technically poor and was clearly struggling. She was a girl very far away from the athlete who clocked 58-plus coming home in a 400m medley at the pace of her male counterparts for Olympic gold in 2012. Perhaps we will see a different side to her at the National Games.
If she was among individuals who looked very different season, there were some longer term trends in train. Rome 2009, at the height of the suits crisis, is just four years gone and marked a time when the US women’s team failed to win a single title on backstroke or freestyle (and butterfly for that matter, too). How different the US women’s team looks today. At the Palau San Jordi, Missy Franklin claimed an historic six golds while Katie Ledecky, with four gold meals in four events, was one of two teenagers who each established a brace of world records, alongside Britain-based Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte.
Franklin’s six of the best unfolded the 100 and 200m backstroke, the 200m freestyle, and all three relays, victory for the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle and 4x100m medley marking the first time in world-championship history that American women have claimed a sweep of all three relays, the 4x200m having been introduced in 1986. Franklin became the first woman to win six golds, surpassing the five-title achievements of American Tracy Caulkins (USA) and Australian Libby Trickett (2007). The all-gender record remains with Phelps: seven golds at Melbourne 2007.
And even then, she was not best woman. FINA’s top prize went to Ledecky. The 16-year-old Bethesda schoolgirl set pioneering standards for gold in the 400, 800 and 1500m freestyle and joined Franklin and teammates for the 4x200m crown. If Ledecky’s first race on day 1 set the ton as the first sub-4min swim over 400m freestyle by a woman in a textile suit, then a 15:36.86 demolition of the world record in a boiling 1500m freestyle battle with Lotte Friis (DEN) and an 8:13.86 follow-up in the 800m after another thrilling tussle with the same opponent, put beyond doubt the name on the “Swimmer of the Meet” trophy.
Ledecky has said she now wants to test herself over 200m, which would put her on a collision course with Franklin at the 2015 world championships in Kazan, Russia, before the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The healthy rivalry in the US women’s ranks will only serve to make the US stronger. The same can be said on the men’s side, the generation of Ryan Lochte already under fire from the likes of Chase Kalisz, Conor Dwyer and Connor Jaeger.
Ledecky accounted for two of the four world records, all others falling in the women’s breaststroke events, none of the new standards set in finals.
The first hint of a breaststroke bonanza came in the heats of the 100m when Olympic champion Meilutyte [photo: Patrick Kraemer] clocked 1:04.52 to fall just 0.07sec shy of the world record held by American Jessica Hardy from a time of shiny suits. In the semi-finals, the Lithuanian based in Plymouth cracked the mark with a 1:04.35 blast and a day later claimed gold just 0.07sec shy of her new standard. Meilutye’s coach Jon Rudd suggested that a sub-1:04 is on when his charge can crack 34 coming him. A work in progress but for now that 1:04.35 was arguably the record of the meet (see below). The pattern of world-record in semis and gold for the new holder looked like repeating itself in the 200m when Rikke Moeller Pedersen ended a 57-year world-record drought for Denmark when she stopped the clock at 2:19.11 – but Yuilya Efimova (RUS) was close, on 2:19.85 in the same semi for membership of the elite sub-2:20 club in a summer of rest for Olympic champion Rebecca Soni (USA).
In the 200m final, Efimova [photo: Aniko Kovaks] struck back for gold ahead of Pedersen’s whose world mark survived. Buoyed by events, the Russian returned to the fray the next morning and shaved 0.02sec off the world record in the 50m, leaving the standard at 29.78 while racing in a lane next to the previous holder, Trojan training partner Hardy. Later that day, both got a wake-up call with Meilutyte delivered the dash to a new era: 29.48, the fourth women’s breaststroke world record of the championships. Efimova then defeated the second standard-setter in semis of the week, 29.52 to 29.59 over Meilutyte in the final. On both occasions, Efimova won because the world-record holders could not repeat the superior performances they delivered in semis. The Russian who because she was the better racer at the right moment.
Suited For Success
Those six world records sat at the helm of a clear gap between men and women. That six world records fell to women and none to men and that women also accounted for 10 of the 12 world textile-suit bests is no coincidence. Suits are now checked and must comply with parameters designed to cut out buoyancy and other aids to performance. Even so, it appears to be the case that the current suit cut women remains more helpful to women. The men have returned to a pre-2000 cut of suit: and long may that remain, for men ned only race men (even in mixed relays, for no man will truly be racing a woman, he will simply be leaving the opposite gender behind as you would expect or catching up and overtaking, sometimes falling shy).
Mixed quartets or not – Vive la différence. Part of the wider appeal of men’s swimming is the physical attributes of the protagonists. Events in Barcelona served to reinforce the need to be true to the nature of things: men have chests and don’t need to cover up, their sport all the purer and more aesthetic for it.
A few fun prizes
Race of the Championships
Katie Ledecky (USA) and Lotte Friis (DEN), the swiftest pace-maker in history, swam through a time warp on the way to a sensational 15:36.53 world record and 15:38.88 European record silver to take women’s world-title 1500m freestyle into a new era. Friis was also inside the previous world mark, held at 15:42.54 by Kate Ziegler (USA) since 2007.
Through a Timewarp:
- It was August 1973 when Stephen Holland (AUS) became the first man inside 15:40 with a world record of 15:37.80.
- At the 100m, Ledecky on 58.75, Friis on 59.15, they raced at the 100m world-record pace of Shane Gould in 1971
- At the 200m mark, Ledecky a touch ahead, they raced at the 200m world-record pace of Kornelia Ender in 1975-76
- At the 400m mark, Friis now ahead by a touch, they raced at the 400m world-record pace of Janet Evans in 1987
- At the 800m mark, Friis still a touch ahead, they raced inside the 800m world title pace of Olympic champ Rebecca Adlington in 2011
Coach of the Champs trophy – jointly awarded to:
- Todd Schmitz for Missy Franklin
- Bruce Gemmell for Katie Ledecky, and
- Gregg Troy for Ryan Lochte – seven weeks to shake off a dodgy season (the reserve drawn from long years of work)
- Simon Cusack for Cate Campbell
- Brant Best for James Magnussen
Heartening History Award:
Denmark has its first World Record holder since Ragnhild Hveger lost the 400m free standard to Australia’s Lorraine Crapp after almost 19 years on the books on August 25 1956. Rikke Moeller Pedersen delivered the good news for the Danes in the form of a stunning lesson in technique and pace on her way to the a 2:19.11 global mark in the first semi-final of the 200m breaststroke at the Palau San Jordi. Coached by Australian Shannon Rollason, Pedersen then took silver in the final but remained world-record holder. She had long promised a breakthrough. When Pedersen won the Årets Fund (a Danish sports prize) in 2009, she was presented with the statuette originally given to Inge Sørensen when she claimed the 1936 Olympic title: it had been the special request of Sørensen that the prize pass to another breaststroker. Nyborg’s Hveger, meanwhile accounts for the greatest swim career lost to war: at 15, Hveger took a surprise silver over 400m freestyle at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, just 1.1sec behind Dutch distance ace Rie Mastenbroek; among the 42 world records she established was a 2:21.7 in the 200m freestyle that would survive 20 years, from 1938 until the emergence of Dawn Fraser in 1956. Suspended by Denmark after WWII because she had taught swimming at a German naval college, Hveger was eventually reinstated but had retired in 1945 and missed the Olympic Games of London 1948. However, in 1952 – with her 1940 400m world record still in place – she made a comeback and finished fifth over eight laps in Helsinki. She was 32. Her finest competitive tally was a three-gold-medal haul (100m, 400m and 4x100m freestyle) at the 1938 European Championships in London. Hveger passed away nine days shy of her 91st birthday in 2011.
The Racer Award
Yuliya Efimova (RUS): had Ruta Meilutye and Rikke Pedersen stuck to their best, thy may well have won but the Russian proved to be the better racer, the competitor with the sharper claws when it came down to it.
The Sticking With It Prize
In the summer in which she turned 16, Sarah Sjostrom (SWE) became a world champion, her victory in the 100m butterfly at Rome 2009 coinciding with the farcical falling of 43 world records in eight days. Sjostrom [photo: LaPresse/arena] was one of those who held a global standard that reflected the use of non-textile bodysuits. A time of great frustration followed for Sjostrom: a trio of fourth-place finishes at Shanghai 2011 and fourth place in the 100m butterfly at London 2012 former part of a tale of near misses. Gold in the 100 ‘fly final in 56.53 at the Palau San Jordi prompted what sounded like a Viking war cry from the champion. “It’s crazy. I can’t believe it,” Sjostrom said. “It’s the most important time in my swimming career. This is hard to believe. I didn’t do my best time, but it’s the first one with this (kind of) suit.” Her best swim ever.
Trend of the season – Race ’til You Win Or Drop
Katinka Hosszu (HUN) has not been alone in racing world-class times many times over in a season this past year or two. Australian sprinters Cate Campbell and James Magnussen, for example, have both set records for the fastest string of 100m times in any one year in history in 2013. The jury is still out on whether the trend will grow, for each Hosszu [photo: Aniko Kovacs], Campbell and Magnussen an example over the past several seasons of another swimmer who raced less, especially at close to top speed but came out winning when it counted.
Even so, it looks likely that testing form in varied conditions at top pelt is becoming more common as the world responds to the need to replicate the toughening up process inherent in the US college system, grand prix circuits and the self-imposed regimes of the likes of Hosszu, who explained hear reasoning to SwimVortex at the end of a post-Barcelona assault on standards in the little pool on World Cup tour.
Rikke Pedersen – a model of flow in the stroke that can tip from very right to very wrong with frightening ease.
And 0.01sec behind, if that: Cate Campbell and a spectacular surge into s streamlined stroke that sets up a role-model sprint momentum.
Record Of The Meet
Tough to top Katie Ledecky’s two and Pedersen’s pace but the edge goes to Ruta Meilutyte [photo: Aniko Kovacs]: 1:04.35 took down a full-on 100% shiny suit standard in a sprint event. Technique, poise, power from block into stroke and throughout the semi was truly impressive, especially in one so young. The physical is at play but just as strong is the mental state of a schoolgirl who is having the time of her life. Expect more to come from Lithuania’s Britain-based pioneer as she heads into World Juniors in Dubai.
Scary Screamer Of The Meet
A tricky one. In the red corner, Sun Yang, with a cry that would surely have had psychologists watching on the telly dashing off for their case studies, pencil and notebook at the ready; in the blue corner, Cesar Cielo, who leapt on the lane line and did his best impression of something that climbed out of the ground in Lord of the Rings. Pent up emotion was put on show by both men. When watching Sun [photo: Aniko Kovacs] and a reaction that was at times disturbing, thought turns to the journey of the man since he was 6 and bound for a the selection pool and sports school. If Sun has had a turbulent year of trouble with his long-term coach in China over commitment and his relationship with a air hostess, there was much more depth to his outpouring of emotion in Barcelona.
Cielo [photo: Aniko Kovacs], too, has had a turbulent time, not just with operations, rehab and recovery but with his relationship with much of the rest of the Brazil team, according to some national reports that suggest the fallout from the break-up of Cielo’s training squad back home was the start of poor relationships between teammates. If true, then there is some bonding and healing to be had ahead if the 2016 host nation is to step up. Among men, the picture is solid enough but hard to see how Brazil could expect to make the podium at a home Games among women in the pool on the basis of 2013. Meanwhile, Cielo’s followed up his lane-line antics with another classic watershed on the podium.
The Screamer Cup: Sun might just have it, by the breadth of a wild look.
Barcelona and all at FINA and working with the international federation and the organisers in the Catalan capital behind the scenes and round the clock: great job.
The Time Trophy
Omega – live timing – a fab facility we now tai for granted. Time for the IOC to allow its timing partner to keep Olympic swimming results alongside the rest of the history of the biggest moments in the sport.
Things to Improve
The most important is the need to provide the most even race environment possible. If doping is the killer of all sport, then the suits crisis showed us the devastating effects of straying from on of FINA’s founding principles: standardisation. In Barcelona, two things stood out in terms of imbalance in the race environment, one obvious the other not (at least in terms of a meaningful explanation as yet).
In open water, the consequences of a free for all round-the-buoys boxing bout that was not kept in check, as promised, by officials, were on clear show. The TV slo-mo highlighted the problem: too many swimmers fighting for too little space at act buoy. It was brutal and there were moments were the term “swimming” was more relative than real. Keri-Anne Payne was right to speak out. She advocates a tapered start to races to avoid bunching, while others advocate more genuine open-water conditions that do not require so many buoys and giant-pool environments. Payne’s proposal sounds sensible to me and FINA would do well to get in touch and talk it through with those who have to take the plunge and face the fight.
The mystery of splits in the temporary pool remains unexplained, Myrtha responding to suggestions that the pool circulation system must have been at play. What is now missing is an official set of figures that show what the filtration and circulation system was doing during racing, if only to answers suspicions that some split patterns could only have be caused by external influence.
And then there is doping … still a problem in all sports, swimming included.
Feel free to suggest your own awards in our comments section and leave some grades on John’s assessment of nations – men and women.
For a full recap of all the action, heats, semis and final by final, visit The Barcelona Backsplash – All 8 Days In One Pool.
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