Many had been knocking on the door of the men’s 100m backstroke world record in the last six years. Ryan Murphy’s 51.85 had stood as the global mark since the last day of the Rio 2016 Olympics, but many had posed threats of taking it down, with eight men going 52.20 or faster, including three under 52 seconds in that six-year window.

On June 20, 2022, Italy’s Thomas Ceccon finally broke that world record at the 19th FINA World Championships in Budapest with a 51.60. And it was his reaction - a seemingly satisfied, hardly cracked smile on the 21-year-old’s unshaved face, that became more famous than the swim itself.

“The smirk on my face was stressing complacency and pride. I thought I could have done even better,” Ceccon told FINA in a recent interview.

“I carefully planned my preparation for the race and I reached a good level of concentration. It was not really a surprise because I knew it would take really hard work.”

It was one of the fastest 100m backstroke fields ever assembled, with all three medalists breaking 52 seconds - a world record from Ceccon ahead of the two Americans, Murphy (51.97) and 50m back world record holder Hunter Armstrong (51.98). A relatively surprising result after the gold and silver medalists from the Olympics - Russians Evgeny Rylov and Kliment Kolesnikov were not present at the Championships.

It can hardly be considered a breakout swim for Ceccon, who was the 2019 world juniors champion in the same event and had just missed the podium at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics with a fourth-place finish. Ceccon left his first Olympics with two medals in relays, but the sting of that near-miss in the individual 100m backstroke fueled him to what we saw from him in 2022 - not only a global title in Budapest, but also a continental title at a home European Championships in Rome.

“I love what I do and when the result comes, the sense of improvement gives me motivation to improve on my past performance, and the disappointment in Tokyo was hard to swallow but I really grew up as a racer (at the Olympics),” Ceccon said.

“Swimming in my first Olympics in Tokyo, I was 20. I (was) very young but I (did) very good races in relays and backstroke, and this year, with a world record, was just training with older years and hard work, hard swim, and hard gym. The result (at the World Championships) was just training.”

Relay Magic

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Ceccon has been the face of a rapidly improving Italian men’s national team that has been a global force in all three relays. Historically, the Italians have been strongest in longer events, with names like Massi Rosolino and Novella Calligaris standing out as the trailblazers for the nation. But in recent years, the Italians have seen tremendous improvements in the sprint events - most notably Ceccon’s world record in the 100m backstroke this year, as well as Nicolo Martinenghi’s world title in the 100m breaststroke in Budapest.

Together, those two paved the way for Italy’s first-ever relay gold medal at a World Championships with a win in the 4x100 medley relay on the final day in Budapest. It was Ceccon, Martinenghi, Olympic 200m butterfly bronze medalist Federico Burdisso, as well as 100m freestyle FINA World Short Course champion Alessandro Miressi who made history for the Italian team to open up a new era for swimming in the nation.

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On the women’s side, teenage breaststroker Benedetta Pilato became the 100m breaststroke world champion in 2022, while Simona Quadarella won 800m freestyle bronze.

The secret lies in the Italian ability to combine our passion with hard work,” Ceccon said of the Italian team. “We always feel a part of the team even when training separated. We have a strong emotional connection with our coaches and when we meet after the race, it is immediately evident. We are a team because we train with the team in mind.”

The Italians have long been a strong nation in the sport of swimming - Olympic champions Gregorio Paltrinieri and Federica Pellegrini have been the faces of the team as of late. Italy having good swimmers is not an uncommon sight, but it came as a surprise to find out they hadn’t won a relay gold medal at a Worlds or Olympics, so for the men’s medley relay to do what they did - it’s huge.

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The time for the quartet in Budapest was 3:27.51, which tied the European record that the British set one year earlier at the Olympics to win silver behind the world record-setting Americans. They each live and train in separate locations, but when it mattered the most, they came together as a team. And their gold medal in Budapest only strengthened them.

“The relays are really fun and are a great challenge for me,” Ceccon said. “It is really about the team and our team shares a very strong bond. We formed an unbreakable bond thanks to the emotion we shared together. We really feel a part of the team when training separately and every time we meet up for the race, or training comes, the understanding is immediately thanks to this bond.”

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Nearly two months later, Ceccon reunited with Martinenghi and Miressi, with Matteo Rivolta replacing Burdisso on butterfly, to win the 4x100 medley European title in a 3:28.46 by four full seconds over the silver medal winning French team to give the Italian crowd in Rome a lot to cheer about.

With this core group of Ceccon (age 21), Martinenghi (23), Burdisso (21), and Miressi (24), they are in a good position to challenge the likes of the United States and Great Britain at next year’s World Championships in Japan and at the 2024 Olympics in France, where an exciting showdown between the three is building.

The Americans were without butterfly world record holder Caeleb Dressel in Budapest, while the Brits were without breaststroke world record holder Adam Peaty, and established freestyler Duncan Scott, who should strengthen their teams to be able to challenge for the throne back from the Italians as world’s best in that relay. The United States won at the Tokyo 2020 Games while the British won at the 2019 FINA World Championships.

It’s a task that is not lost on Ceccon.

“USA and Great Britain are very strong teams. This year, our relay beat everyone, but I think the next World Championships, there is strong competition…I love my guys. Martinenghi I (have) known when training together as of 2017, and I’ve known Federico and Alessandro since 2019. This is a strong team and happy to race with all of them.

“The relays, we will see next year and in Paris. I try to do my best and my friends, the same.”

Current Focus: FINA Swimming World Cups

Before Ceccon tackles next year’s FINA World Championships, his attention shifts to this week’s FINA Swimming World Cup, where he will race in all three stops in Berlin, Toronto, and Indianapolis. After a short two-week break after August’s European Championships, Ceccon will make his season debut in short course meters, where he is hoping to put up some fast times.

“Personally, I find short course very fun and challenging,” Ceccon said. “The long course on the other hand is the serious course because of World Champs and Olympics.

“My (100) backstroke in short course is not very good - I have 50.2. I think we can go under 50 for sure.”

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Ceccon will have a large event load during the three World Cup stops, as his prowess in sprint fly, back, and free, will also see him race the 100 and 200 IM events. He finds value in racing and training for many different events, rather than only focusing on a select few.

He trains in Verona with coach Alberto Burlina, where Ceccon “likes having no one in training.” Coming up over the next three weeks, he will see some of the best swimmers in the world, and in a sport like swimming that is measured entirely on who touches first and second, the opportunity to race so often is what is the most exciting to Ceccon about this upcoming trip.

“I always like to do a lot of meets and races in preparation after the World Championships to possibly measure myself with the best swimmers in the world - it is very important to me,” Ceccon said. “It is an invitation to train even harder and a way to see where I am with my preparation.”

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At the end of the year, he will finish his busy 2022 with the Short Course World Championships in Melbourne, Australia. Last year, he raced in Abu Dhabi where he won four medals, including an individual bronze in the 100 IM and three medals in relays.

Although many will be expecting him to potentially chase the world record in the 100 backstroke, which currently stands at 48.33 by USA’s Coleman Stewart, Ceccon isn’t entirely focused on results at the FINA Swimming World Cup. Preparation and execution are often the analyzed factors at meets like these where swimmers are more focused on using these meets to see where they are in training rather than to see their fully optimized performances.

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Surely world records are possible and within reach, but it’s not the main objective. And Ceccon will be racing a lot, ideally every single day during the three stops to improve himself in as many areas as he can. Short course, in his own words, is the more fun course, and if his results at the FINA Swimming World Cup are anything similar to what he did this summer, then the audience will be in for plenty of thrilling times as well.