Women Rule the Worlds

Aug 3, 2015

With four world records in the first two days of competition, the World Champs in Kazan are all about the ladies… 

The script was already written before the first final in Kazan. This was going to be a story about the women. Or as Karen Crouse put it in Sunday’s New York Times, these world championships have “a decidedly female-centric marquee.” All the leading ladies are here. There’s Ledecky and Franklin, Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrum, the Aussie sprint sisters, Cate and Bronte Campbell, and of course a certain Hungarian ‘Iron Lady’… 48 hours into the meet, the most important competition in the lead-up to Rio, it’s the female swimmers of the world who have declared this event an eight-day ladies night.

As for the men: There’s no Phelps in Russia. He’s still serving his penance for that drunk driving arrest last fall. The world’s current best swimmer on earth – Japan’s Kosuke Hagino – is also absent. So is Australia’s “Missile”, James Magnussen, the two-time defending champion in the men’s 100 free. Those two are both injured. The stars who are present – Lochte, China’s Sun Yang, Great Britain’s newest breaststroke legend, Adam Peaty – these guys still have loads of star power, but there’s something distinctly second fiddle about the men’s competition. Not many world records are on call. Not many opportunities to gasp at standards shattered.

For the women, it’s been one eye-popper after the next. There was Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrum, lowering the world record in the 100 fly first in the semi-final, then once more in the final, with a 55.64. The way she swims this race is nothing less than Phelpsian – she takes it out with the field, then humiliates everyone coming home. In both her semi and final swims, her second 50 was a full second faster than her next fastest competitor in the field. Her back-to-back world records must have been particularly gratifying for an athlete who burst to prominence in 2009 at age 16, at the height of the silly super-suit era when every time came with an asterisk. Back then, young Sjostrum dropped at 56.0 in her 100 fly. A crazy-ass time at any age, but that was a time when times went out the window. Most of the personal bests from that era were never sniffed again, particularly among the women. Over the last six years, Sjostrum has remained among the best female swimmers on earth, but her best times remained out of reach in that nether-land of the Suits. Until now. Caps off to her.

Then there’s the Aussie Campbell sisters, Cate and Bronte. How’s this for sibling rivalry? You anchor your country’s gold-medal winning 4×100 free relay in championship record time, dropping a 52.22 on the end, and you’re the second best in your own family. See, Cate Campbell dove in over her little sister Bronte, who delivered a ridiculous 51.77 split on the third leg, which turned a tight battle with Russia and the U.S. into a rout.

Among the Americans, things have gotten off to a bit of a shaky start in Kazan. Not including the superhuman Katie Ledecky, of course. In the first women’s final of the meet, Ledecky cruised to gold in championship record time, slicing a few hundredths off of Italy’s Federica Pellegrini’s suit-aided time from back in ’09. When Ledecky dives in and doesn’t break a world record it’s become a bit of a buzz kill. She was eight-tenths shy of her 400 world mark from last summer.

The next morning she woke feeling rather calm and relaxed. There was just a prelims of the 1500 to coast through. Ledecky could make the final with her ankles bound with a leather strap – seriously. She set a quick pace, flipping at 4:06 and 8:15 through the 400 and 800 marks, and everyone yawned and waited for her to shut it down. Maybe she meant to, but Katie was feeling the flow today, so she thought, let’s just see where it goes. When she touched in 15:27.71 she turned and stuck out her tongue like a teenager just screwing around, having a bit of fun. Ledecky is a full lap – a 50-meter big pool lap! – better than the next fastest swimmer on earth in this event. We’ve officially arrived in Secretariat territory. Ledecky is in the midst of a career that is going to place women’s distance swimming into another orbit that won’t be reached again for decades.

Finishing up the women’s roll call of world records so far is Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu. In the 200 IM she shaved three one-hundredths off of perhaps the most absurd ‘suit record’ of that era – Arianna Kukors’ 2:06.15 from the ’09 Worlds in Rome. Anyone reading this knows my opinion of Hungary’s “Iron Lady”. That opinion remains unchanged, unwavering, and has been defended by world class counsel. Nonetheless, she just went 2:06.12 and she has never failed a drug test.

My critics will howl at a perceived double standard, crying out that I should be voicing the same suspicions of Sjostrum and Ledecky and any other woman who delivers a world record these days. Pointing fingers in other directions isn’t exactly a defense, but no matter. And no time for historical analysis of progressions and body type changes and other smoky aromas. Another column for another time perhaps.

For now, among the world’s greatest female swimmers, there is more to celebrate than condemn. Two days in, four world records, and surely more to come.

Your move, guys.