Gergely Csurka, FINA Media Committee Member (HUN)

The Olympics are traditionally sites of peak performances and one might think that the following year should witness some drop in the quality of the competitions. The great ones would need time to reboot the engines, room opens for newcomers and the disappointed ones would gear up for the next cycle and try to leave the bad taste behind. Still, the times of performances at the Games are supposed to be hard to match as they are set to crown a four-year cycle, reaching the highest speed, while the following season should be a kind of beginning, the start of a long journey, marked by good but not that outstanding efforts.

It wasn't the case in 2017, though.

If we compare the winning times recorded in Rio and in Budapest, the outcome is stunning, especially in the men's events. There are 13 Olympic distances and in 9 the world champion outperformed the Olympic winner! Among the women, the ratio is 6-7, here six events saw faster swims in Budapest, so the Worlds 'won' overall 15-11.

There is a good explanation on hand: in all but three cases (of the 15 when better times were clocked) we saw a changing of the guard, the Olympic gold medallist couldn't add the world crown, the hungry pretenders took over the reign and in doing so they managed to reach a higher gear. When the times were somewhat weaker than in Rio, in 8 out 11 events the Olympic champion went on to win in Budapest too. They were still a class apart but couldn't better themselves (see the probable reasons below). And we had only two Olympic winners who were able to improve in 2017 in clinching the same event.

Let's start with Rio-Budapest winners, especially because those who achieved this double can really be considered the greatest in present-day swimming, true rulers of their respective events.

The big three (men): Sun, Paltrinieri, Peaty

Among the men, Sun Yang (CHN, 200m free), Gregorio Paltrinieri (ITA, 1500m free) and Adam Peaty (GBR, 100m breast) were able to maintain their respective runs. In fact, they had arrived to Rio as the reigning world champions in these events, so it's actually a golden treble that they achieved (Kazan-Rio-Budapest). Sun is the only male who could improve in 2017 as he was way faster than at the Olympics (by almost 1.3sec). The medallists changed behind him, though. It's interesting that for the bronze it was enough to clock identical times (1:45.23, by Conor Dwyer in Rio and by Aleksandr Krasnykh in Budapest). Here it's worth mentioning that Sun also speeded up for the 400m in which he was defeated by Aussie Mack Horton in Rio: they switched positions at the Worlds since Sun was 0.3sec faster (3:41.38 v 3:41.68) while Horton slowed down (3:43.85 v 3:41.55).

Sun Yang (CHN), photo credit: Deepbluemedia

Paltrinieri and Peaty can look back on a four-year unbeaten streak in the long-course pool (at the majors) though, especially in the case of the Italian 30-lapper, the post-Olympic symptoms were visible. This means that after the big push to reach the highest heights at the Games, almost all the champions enjoyed a longer break. After that it's always a huge challenge to return to the hard work and get into the same if not better shape the king or queen had been in the previous year. These greats could still withstand the pressure coming from the hunters in 2017 but the margins got definitely narrower. To highlight this, Paltrinieri was defeated in the 800m free in Budapest (and he couldn't keep up with the others in the short-course meets, already in Windsor 2016 and later in Copenhagen 2017). He was still a cut above the rest in his favourite 1500m at the Worlds, though he came home some 1.2sec slower, while Mykhailo Romanchuk (UKR) pushed him pretty hard, staying much closer than anyone else in the previous years. The gap was cut to 1.29sec in Budapest, in contrast to what happened in Rio where Gregorio had built a winning margin of almost 4sec over runner-up Connor Jaeger (USA). (Romanchuk actually beat him in the European short-course championships in Copenhagen last December.)

Adam Peaty (GBR), photo credit: Deepbluemedia


As for Peaty, those symptoms were less visible if there were any at all. Though the 'red line' was quicker this time in the 100m breast (he missed his own global mark by 0.3sec) he was still winning convincingly, by 1.32sec, which was a comfortable gap in this event. In Rio, when he set a WR en route to the top of the podium, he had gained 1.56sec on the silver medallist. And in the non-Olympic 50 dash event he delivered his usual WR-beatings, first in the heats then in the semis and a third sub-26sec blast came in the final.

The big three (women): Ledecky, Hosszu, Sjostrom

In the women's field those who achieved the Kazan-Rio-Budapest treble are the icons of our sport, usually finishing top in the year-ending Best Swimmer award lists. Surely everyone has guessed the names: Katie Ledecky (USA), Katinka Hosszu (HUN) and Sarah Sjostrom (SWE).

Ledecky and Hosszu were hit by those symptoms, too. The times tell the story: both of them had produced world records in factory-like style in the previous years: Katie brought down the long-course marks of the 400-800-1500m almost routinely from 2014 through 2016 and always swam her own race, leaving the others far behind. While the scenario was still the same in the 400m and quite visibly in the 800m and 1500m in Budapest, her pace was slower than in Rio, by almost 8sec in the 800m, for instance. And this cost her the 200m title in Budapest, when she touched second (for the first time ever in a long-course major), behind Federica Pellegrini. The Italian diva clocked a time exactly 1sec weaker than Ledecky's winning effort at the 2016 Games but Katie's drop was even bigger (1:53.73 - 1:55.18).

Katie Ledecky (USA), photo credit: Deepbluemedia

Hosszu had a longer break after Rio, for the first time since she returned to the big stage as the 'Iron Lady' and began her conquest in the medley events (adding the backstroke later). In previous seasons she usually jumped into the World Cup series just days after the summer's big meet, and had some lighter relaxing spells. However, none of those breaks lasted weeks - quite famously she even practised during her honeymoon (deliberately choosing a resort with a 50m pool in the Seychelles Islands) and she traditionally posted workout pictures at Christmas time to demonstrate that she was about to gain advantage over her rivals as early as possible, even before the official start of the new season. She broke world records on the short-course circuit almost in a kind of massacre (by the end of 2016 she managed to achieve the truly unique feat of holding every short-course national record in Hungary, including breaststroke!). In 2015 she brought down her first-ever long-course world record, in the 200m IM, then completed her journey in Rio by adding the missing Olympic crowns to her treasury, the first came with a world record again in the 400m IM. Then she enjoyed a break for a couple of weeks and the restart wasn't so easy. Though she captured an unprecedented seven titles at the FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) in Windsor, she wasn't close to any of her best times (five of those were WRs), just as had been the case during the World Cup series.

Katinka Hosszu (HUN), photo credit: Deepbluemedia

But that also mirrored how high she had flown over the years and, even if she was a bit far from her prime, her rivals couldn't match her in the IM events: she won both the 200m and 400m with ease for the third time in a row at the Worlds. And even if she wasn't as sharp as she once was, all credit goes to her as she was able to come up with her best-ever medal tally at the long-course Worlds, two gold, a silver and a bronze, much to the delight of the home crowd. When she was on the rise, she had to settle for three-medal hauls in Rome 2009 (1-0-2), Barcelona 2013 (2-0-1) and Kazan 2015 (2-0-1). She went on to break a short-course world record soon afterwards (in the 100m IM in August), though the symptoms took their toll as she was beaten in a medley event for the first time since 2014 - just as three years ago, she fell to Spain's Mireia Belmonte who also took away her world record.

By the way, Belmonte also belongs to the circle of the Rio-Budapest champions. She won her first-ever long-course title in the Duna Arena in the 200m fly, though she also produced a bit of a weaker time. In fact, this was one of the few races where the winning time (2:05.26) was below the effort required to make the podium in Rio (Hoshi came third in 2:05.20 in 2016).

Sarah Sjostrom (SWE), photo credit: Deepbluemedia


Sjostrom belongs to a different category. While the Swede did something similar in her trademark event (100m fly) to what Hosszu and Ledecky accomplished in their own specialities, she was just 0.05sec shy of her Rio world record and she really showed something special in the freestyle. She found a new gear and mastered the sprint events too. She came second in the 100m free but that was a bit of a strange race as she had begun the World Championships by smashing the world record in the opening leg of the 4x100m free relay, so it was a surprise that Olympic gold medallist Simone Manuel could hit the wall first - though the American just reinforced the good old rule: at big meets it's winning that counts, not the time. Sjostrom didn't commit the same mistake in the 50m free - she broke the world record in the semis, then won the final with a slightly slower time. And she also did some damage to the short-course freestyle world records in the World Cup, setting new marks in the 50m, 100m (twice) and 200m in the initial legs.


The full length article is available in the latest issue of the FINA Magazine