Since the Duna Arena opened its doors in the Hungarian capital in early 2017, Budapest has quickly become one of the top global destinations for fast swimming, and it started with its inaugural international event in the 17th FINA World Championships 2017.
The global showcase of the world’s top aquatic talent will return to the Duna Arena in June 2022. A myriad of major swimming events have been held in the facility over the last five years, from the FINA World Championships, World Cups, and Junior World Championships, making the Duna Arena a reliable facility for fast and exciting swimming.
As the countdown to this summer’s FINA World Championships marches on, we look back at some of the most memorable races from the maiden voyage of the now-famous Duna Arena, continuing with the women’s 200 freestyle final from 2017.
The 200 free final seemed to be a done deal for the reigning Olympic champion Katie Ledecky, who had won the 2015 World title and the 2016 Olympic gold medal in the event. Her biggest challenger from the Olympics, Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom, was not entered in the 200 free for Budapest, giving the American some apparent breathing room for the World Championships. And when Ledecky turned in a 1:54.69 to lead the semifinalists just a few minutes after finishing the 1500m final earlier in the night, few foresaw anyone else standing on the gold medal dais hearing their national anthem.
But if anyone could do it, it might be Australia’s Emma McKeon, who had won bronze in Rio the summer before and was the Commonwealth Games champion in 2014. McKeon was the only other swimmer in the world in 2017 to have broken 1:55, and after splitting an impressive 52.2 in the 4x100 free relay on night one, if there was someone to bet on to beat the “unbeatable” Ledecky, it would be McKeon.
Also in the race was Italy’s Federica Pellegrini, who had held the world record for eight years and had been on every 200 free podium at the World Championships since 2005, including winning the World title in 2009 and 2011. After finishing fourth in Rio the previous year in her fourth straight Olympic final in that event, many were unsure if she would keep going, but here she was in yet another Worlds final. Pellegrini had won the second semi-final in Budapest with a season-best of 1:55.5, but was only an afterthought heading into the final with all the attention around Ledecky and McKeon, who were both at 1:54.
The largely Hungarian crowd was excited to cheer on its superhero - IM champ Katinka Hosszu, who had already won one gold in Budapest in the 200 IM two days prior, and with the aura already around Ledecky’s name, and the potential challengers in McKeon and Pellegrini, this race was one of the can’t-miss races of the meet four days in.
McKeon played to her strengths and took the race out under world record pace at 50m while keeping her lead at the halfway point with Ledecky and Hosszu in tow. The key for McKeon was to hold on to the lead on the third 50; nobody in the world had the closing speed like Ledecky, so if anyone was going to beat her, they needed to get out in front of her to force her out of her comfort zone.
And on the third 50 the strategy for McKeon looked to be paying off as Ledecky tried to press on the fifth 25, but the Aussie held her ground and had just a 0.01 lead on the final turn. As the field turned for home and scrambled to get on the podium, Russia’s Veronika Popova was making a big push and had drawn even with McKeon and Ledecky. After a national record in the semifinals, perhaps this was her moment to pull off a huge upset. But three lanes over from her was Pellegrini, who was charging and charging.
As the cameras switched to wide view, Pellegrini, already even with the leaders, was starting to pull away. It had been six years since she had been on the top step of the podium at the world level, and five years since someone had beaten Ledecky in a major race. Suddenly, it became a reality - Ledecky was off the gold medal platform, and Pellegrini became the three-time champ - touching in 1:54.73, while Ledecky and McKeon tied for silver at 1:55.18.
Pellegrini covered her eyes in disbelief, leapt to the lane line in excitement, and punched the water with both fists, perhaps letting out any frustrations she still had from finishing fourth in Rio. Upon exiting the pool, she gave the Budapest crowd a wave and a bow, and they reciprocated, aware of the significance of the moment.
Flash forward to 2022, and Pellegrini has moved on from the sport, having taken a position with the IOC Athletes Commission to give back to the sport. Ledecky and McKeon are coming off of two individual gold medals from Tokyo, with McKeon winning the 50 and 100 free, and Ledecky in the 800 and 1500. McKeon has since shied away from the individual 200, while Ledecky is still one of the formidable challengers in the event, but will have her hands full (pending official qualification) with Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, last year’s gold medal winner, and Hong Kong’s Siobhan Haughey, last year’s silver medalist.