The last time this venue hosted the FINA World Championships, the athletes were coming off the Rio 2016 Olympics, and this year has a similar feel on the heels of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. With the delay of Tokyo due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these FINA World Championships are being a year later than originally intended in the quad.

In a normal Olympic quadrennium, the FINA World Championships are held the year before and after the Olympic Games, with the “regional” meets of the Pan Pacs, Europeans, Asian Games, and Commonwealth Games held in between, two years out from the Olympics. The “year-after” the FINA World Championships have served as an “encore” to the Olympics, while the “year-before” Worlds have served as a preview for the Olympics, while the “gap year” was a chance for many of the young talent to rise up and gain experience.

We’ve seen Olympic champions Adam Peaty and Ariarne Titmus take big leaps in their careers during the gap year in 2014 and in 2018. But with 2022 serving as both the “year-after Worlds” and the “gap year,” those storylines of the Olympic encore with the youth movement have molded together, with many of the next generation stepping forward on the first morning of swimming at the Duna Arena.

On Saturday, some new names appeared as medal favourites ahead of the first night off finals. In the women’s 200 IM, 16-year-old Leah Hayes of the United States is ranked second ahead of semifinals with 18-year-old Anastasia Gorbenko of Israel in third. In the men’s 400 free, the number one swimmer in the world, Lukas Martens of Germany, is in his first international final as the fourth seed at age 20.

In the men’s 400 IM, the top two seeds - Leon Marchand of France and Carson Foster of the United States, both competed in Budapest at the 2019 World Juniors. In the women’s 400 free, 15-year-old Summer McIntosh of Canada, and 20-year-old Lani Pallister of Australia look to be the next heir apparent to the now-former world record holder Katie Ledecky.

Now, many of these swimmers did race in Tokyo last year, but with that new experience from last year under their belts, the next logical step is a podium, something that is attainable for them as they do battle with a lot of the established veterans in the sport such as Chase Kalisz and Daiya Seto in the 400 IM, Katie Ledecky in the 400 free, and Katinka Hosszu and Yui Ohashi in the 200 IM.

The absence of the Russian team, as well as few of the Tokyo gold medalists due to injuries or mental health breaks, has certainly helped these young guns’ chances in getting to the podium, but that is just the nature of the game. When a big name like Adam Peaty or Ariarne Titmus or Maggie MacNeil withdraws from competing, there’s still going to be three medals handed out in each event, creating opportunities for the next generation to race on a big international stage.

With each FINA World Championships, there is a racing opportunity, no matter who is in the water. We’ve already seen a number of young, emerging talents step up in the pool on the first session, and perhaps the first night of finals will see a changing of the guard with a new champion, or perhaps an old veteran will keep their throne as the best in the world for one more year.