The two weeks of the FINA World Aquatics Championships in Gwangju, Korea and its two distinct parts have concluded. The first week domination of China in diving and Russia in what is now known as “artistic swimming” gave way to a wild week of swimming, with most of the focus on the United States and Australia, with many other excellent performances by athletes from Canada, China, Great Britain, Hungary, South Africa and elsewhere.
The U.S. won the swimming medal count, with 27 total medals (14-8-5) ahead of Australia (19: 5-9-5) and Russia (16: 3-7-6). It was not as dominant a performance as in 2017, when the United States team was selected from a national championships meet just weeks before the Worlds. Instead, following recent tradition, the U.S. selection meet was the 2018 Nationals and the team roster was known for more than a year.
However, the 2019 Worlds in Gwangju were much more impactful on the American athletes who competed in them. Why? Because the Olympic Games are coming in 2020 and as we have heard before, “the World Championships aren’t important. The Olympics are important. Only people in swimming even know this event is even going on, and everybody else knows when the Olympics go on.”
And it is the coming of the Olympics that is going to change the lives of many athletes, and in particular, four swimmers who were the American stars in Gwangju: Caeleb Dressel, Simone Manuel, Regan Smith and Katie Ledecky. A look ahead:
● Caeleb Dressel (Freestyle and Butterfly sprinter)
Dressel was on the 2016 Olympic team and won two relay golds, and then won seven gold medals at the 2017 World Championships … and still very few people had ever heard of him.
He crashed his motorcycle a few weeks before the 2018 Nationals and almost couldn’t swim, which means he would have missed making the team.
In Gwangju, he sucked up medals and records like a whale swallows schools of plankton, winning the 50-100 m Frees, 50-100 m Butterflys and was on two gold-winning relays and two that won silver (and were passed on the anchor leg). He won eight medals, which no one had ever done before at a Worlds – he and Michael Phelps had both won seven – and smashed Phelps’s 2009 world mark in the 100 m Fly (49.50).
He set five American records by himself (in four different events) and was part of a world-record swim in the Mixed 4×100 m Freestyle.
With NBC’s promotion machine revving up for Tokyo, he is going to be much better known now. He has the tools to be popular: he is humble and speaks well and has a broad smile (and a giant tattoo which covers his entire left shoulder). He also has a laser focus on what comes next that will make his interviews at the Games pretty bland, but keep his performances great.
● Simone Manuel (Freestyle sprinter)
Manuel was the surprise co-winner of the Rio 100 m Freestyle and has since faded from the spotlight, outside of the swimming community. That will certainly change.
She was great in 2017, winning the 100 m Free again and taking a bronze in the 50 m Free, but did anyone outside of swimming care? In Gwangju, she came up golden in the 50 m Free and 100 m Free, both in shockers over Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom and Australian Cate Campbell, both heavy favorites. She also won two relay golds and three relay silvers for a total of seven medals.
Manuel has a higher profile than Dressel thanks to a lot of public-service work for USA Swimming and was seen endlessly in commercials during the World Championships. She makes an excellent presentation, speaks beautifully in interviews, but doesn’t have much to say, usually commenting that her performances are the result of a lot of hard training.
● Regan Smith (Backstroke)
The break-out star of the Worlds was this 17-year-old from North High School in Lakeville, Minnesota. She arrived as a star a year ahead of schedule, winning the Worlds gold in the 200 m Backstroke after setting the world record (2:03.35) in the semifinals and then not only swam a brilliant first leg on the world-record-setting women’s 4×100 m Medley, but set a 100 m Back world mark of 57.57, allowed only on lead-off legs in relays.
Now she will certainly be the favorite in the 100-200 m Backstrokes and on the women’s 4×100 Medley relay and possibly on the Mixed 4×100 m Medley, although tactics may dictate having a man swim that leg.
She showed significant poise in her brief NBC interviews from Gwangju, a big smile and a patient attitude. But the Olympic Games is a much larger stage then the World Championships.
● Katie Ledecky (distance Freestyler)
The amazing Ledecky was desperately ill in Korea, but no one knew that when she failed to hold the lead in the 400 m Free and lost on the final lap to Australia’s Ariarne Titmus. Ledecky dropped two events – spending time in a hospital – to recover, then came back and swam the fastest leg on the silver-winning U.S. 4×200 m team (1:54.61) and gutted out a win on the final lap of the 800 m Free.
This was a new side of Ledecky, no longer swimming all alone against the clock with no one near her, but struggling against her body to do what she wanted it to.
She told reporters after the 800 m Free win, “Each swim … is unique and has its own story. This one definitely has one that I’ll be telling for a while and I have a lot of stories from this week, stories that I didn’t want to have. It’s special to be able to pull out a swim like that – and just trust that I could do it.”
About the illness, she said “They’re pretty sure it was some kind of viral thing or other illness. I have a lot of different symptoms. Headaches, irregular pulse and elevated heart beat, abnormal rate heart, for me. Stomach bug, lack of sleep and insomnia. We spent seven hours in the hospital on Tuesday. Dr [Jim Lynch] was great. He stayed there with me the whole time at the hospital and went through a battery of tests.”
One of the most polished, articulate and approachable Olympic stars ever, Ledecky’s adventures in Gwangju have changed her story. Now she is on the “comeback” trail after “just” winning a gold and two silvers … instead of the possible five golds envisioned before the Worlds.
That’s a whole new narrative and one which will be played hard – regardless of what Ledecky’s view is on the subject – right through to the 2020 Olympic Trials in Omaha next June.
After the 2017 Worlds in Budapest (HUN), Dressel, Manuel and Ledecky went back to being swimmers in college, and Smith was starting high school. Now, they are on the verge of Olympic stardom (again), sharing time with the American gymnasts each day during the first week of the Tokyo Games. And they can look forward to:
● Endless requests for media interviews, not only from American media, but from outlets around the world;
● Endless requests for appearances, autographs, endorsements and – hopefully – sponsorships;
● A much higher public profile when they travel to competitions, or for training. Ledecky already gets this; Dressel, Manuel and especially Smith will get more of it than ever before.
Each will have to answer, in consultation with their coaches, family and friends, how they are going to handle this increased, non-swimming workload. It can be a real challenge.
In the nine months leading up to the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Carl Lewis faced similar issues. He had won the 100 m and the long jump, and anchored the U.S. 4×100 m relay to a world record at the 1983 IAAF World Championships in Finland and was favored to match Jesse Owens’ four golds from 1936 the following year.
Lewis worked with his coach, Tom Tellez, and manager, Joe Douglas, to try and minimize his distractions. He gave interviews, but only as part of his pre-planned schedule at meets. Same for public appearances, which were reduced as the 1984 season started.
Once the Olympic Trials and then the Games came, he was hardly seen. “People have no idea how hard it is to do what Carl is trying to do,” Tellez told me. “He needs rest as much or more than anything else. And he has to think about that first.”
In coordination with Douglas, Lewis gave one news conference prior to the Olympic Games, drawing the largest audience of any athlete at the Main Press Center. During the Games, he skipped the usual post-event media sessions after the preliminary rounds and gave very limited access until he finished his last individual event, the 200 m. Then he was happy to talk.
The program worked and Lewis won four golds. Many media weren’t happy, but Lewis is in the history books and they aren’t.
Time management, rest and calm will be keys for all four of these swimmers as the Olympic Trials, and possibly Tokyo, approach. It will be fascinating to see how each of them handles the pressure of an Olympic year now that much is expected.