BUDAPEST (Hungary) – The 19th FINA World Championships are underway! Artistic swimming’s preliminary rounds began on Friday, and hundreds of other aquatic athletes from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe have splashed down in Budapest to vie for a piece of the 5.72 million USD prize money awarded over the next 17 days.

Four months ago, none of this seemed possible. After the original 19th FINA World Championships were twice postponed (first, to avoid overlapping with the one-year postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, and again, in January 2022 when highly contagious Covid-19 variants extended the global health crisis), 2022 was shaping up to be a year without a major aquatic championship. Until Budapest stepped in.

Now, merely 130 days later, the 2017 host city is holding the championships again. At Friday’s opening press conference, FINA President Husain Al-Musallam said he expected these championships “show the world…that sport is back and sport brings hope to society.”

Several athletes echoed FINA President Al-Musallam’s message of hope, in different ways.

Florian Wellbrock, the reigning world champion and Olympic bronze medalist in the 1500m and the current world and Olympic champion in 10km open water swim said, “It’s not going to be easy to defend my two titles, but I’m excited to race.” For the past several months, the versatile 24-year-old German distance swimmer has been training alongside Mykhailo Romanchuk, who won two Olympic medals for Ukraine in Tokyo, including silver in the 1500m, behind Wellbrock.

“He’s a good friend,” Wellbrock said of Romanchuk. “Everybody knows about the situation in Ukraine, so I immediately invited him to train with my group [in Magdeburg, about 157km southwest of Berlin]. It was hard for him to focus on the sport with his family still in Ukraine. Still, we hope to see some good results here at the World Championships.”

Artistic swimmer Natalia Vega, 23, will be competing in her third FINA world championships and said the US team’s results will be vital. “Our ultimate goal is to get to the [2024] Olympics. This event is super-important because it will give us an idea of where we stand.” The US hasn’t qualified for the Olympic team event since 2008. “This will show us how close we are to achieving our goals.” Vega also pointed out that in Russia’s absence here, there will be a new world champion in the team event for the first time since 1998. “It will be exciting to see who wins,” she said, surmising that it may be China or Ukraine.

Japan’s Yui Ohashi, 26, the first Japanese woman to break 2:08 in the 200 IM five years ago in Budapest, went on to sweep Olympic gold in the women’s 200m and 400m IM in Tokyo last summer. She said she will try to upgrade her 2017 world silver in the 200 IM later this week, but remained modest.

“I’m so honoured to be here again,” Ohashi said. “I’m not sure if I can get gold. I look forward to compete in the finals here and I will do my best.”

Perhaps the biggest draw for the host country, however, will be in water polo.  Hungary’s men’s and women’s teams each earned bronze medals at the Tokyo Olympics. Rebecca Parkes, 27, said, “It was absolutely awesome to get that Olympic medal in Tokyo after such a long wait. It just gave us more motivation. We want a medal here too.”

Olympian Krisztian Manhercz, 25, was also part of the Hungarian men’s team that claimed world championship silver in Budapest in 2017, losing to Croatia in the final. Asked whether the team felt pressure, he said it was more like the weight of tradition. “Whenever we had big championships here at home, the men’s team was on the podium. I hope this year we go one better and claim the gold medal.”