Michael Phelps was in the house to see his final World Record fall to the hands of France’s Leon Marchand on the opening night of swimming finals at the World Aquatics Championships - Fukuoka 2023.
Men’s 400m Freestyle - Sam Short swims fastest 400m freestyle in 11 years
Australia’s Sam Short established himself as the real deal on Sunday evening to open up the swimming program of the 2023 World Aquatics Championship as he swam the fastest 400m freestyle since 2012 with a 3:40.68 in a great battle with the reigning Olympic champion Ahmed Hafnaoui of Tunisia. Hafnaoui won silver at 3:40.70.
Returning to the city where Ian Thorpe swam his second fastest time ever in 2001 at 3:40.17, the 3:40 barrier wasn’t expected to be challenged until Short was under world record pace through 350 meters in his heat this morning. Short, age 19, swam a 3:42 back in April to lead the world rankings, throwing down a time that put him in consideration to be the gold medal favorite come the end of the summer in his second World Championships.
Now Short, coached by Damien Jones has taken a serious challenge at Paul Biedermann’s world record, something that has remained virtually untouched since the 2012 Olympics.
Hafnaoui and Short got into a battle, flipping at 1:49 at the 200m mark, pressing the pace to get a big lead on Biedermann’s world record split as he was known for his blistering back end speed. It has been a long time since someone took out a 400m freestyle under 1:50 and looked in control, and at the 300m mark, both Short and Hafnaoui were over a second and a half under world record pace.
On the last 50, Hafnaoui took the lead as the Olympic champion looked to capture his first World title. But Short found something within himself, and although the magical 3:40 barrier that has been waiting to be burst since Thorpe swam 3:40 in 2000, the 3:40 club gained two new members - Short out-touched Hafnaoui 3:40.68 to 3:40.70. They now sit fourth and fifth all-time.
I’ve never made it to a World Championships final individually until this year, I knew I could go faster tonight. That challenge from Ahmed in that last 100m really brought me up to the task and I got there in the end. Stoked.
Hafnaoui’s time is also a new African record.
“Samuel just pushed me to do my best and to be the fifth fastest ever, and third in the new
Suit,” Hafnaoui said. “I'm just really happy with my performance. It’s going to push me now to work harder and train harder for the Olympic season next year.”
This is Australia’s seventh World title in the 400m freestyle as Short joins the likes of Kieren Perkins (1994), Ian Thorpe (1998, 2001, 2003), Grant Hackett (2005) and seventh place finisher Elijah Winnington (2022).
Germany’s Lukas Martens won his second straight medal in the event after taking silver last year, winning bronze in Fukuoka at 3:42.20.
“I think the race was really fast,” Martens said. “They exploded and I tried my best to get in front of them, but I’m still really satisfied with my result.”
Women’s 400m Freestyle - Ariarne Titmus throws down fastest time ever in race of the century
In one of the fastest fields ever assembled in which four women broke 4:00 in the same heat, Australia’s Ariarne Titmus snatched her world record back in the 400m freestyle, throwing down a blistering 3:55.38 in one of the most anticipated swimming races in 20 years.
The race lived up to the billing as it featured the three fastest performers in history in defending Olympic champion Titmus, Canada’s Summer McIntosh and USA’s Katie Ledecky. All three women have held the world record in the last two years, and all three women have shown to be at the top of their game leading into these World Championships, making this one of the hottest selling tickets in Japan.
Titmus figured to be itching to get her world record back after McIntosh broke it in April, as she was not present in Budapest last year when Ledecky won gold over the Canadian. The race had everything, and it delivered.
Titmus set the pace early, flipping at 1:56.94 at the 200m mark with McIntosh and Ledecky in tow. The pace was slower than the world record, but it played into Titmus’s hands. Usually Ledecky swims her best when she is dictating the pace, and at no point in the final was Ledecky in the lead, staying on Titmus’s feet the whole way. Usually McIntosh is at her best on the third 100, but she wasn’t able to pounce on it, and it was all Titmus after that.
The third 100 has been where the Aussie has made her move in year’s past, so when she flipped with the lead at the 200m and kept building, it was game over for the field, as Australia won its second gold medal of the night.
Probably my most satisfying win I can say, I feel like I didn’t have the most perfect preparation coming into this but it kind of all came together in the last couple of months and to swim like that and swim really free and fearless. I think it’s about trusting yourself. I mean I’ve got a ‘fearless’ tattoo on my foot so I can see that before I dive, I try to swim like that little girl I was first up against Katie (Ledecky). I was never afraid to take it to her. The only way to win is to take it out, to see who had the most fight, and who had the most gas left in the tank. I am happy that it worked.
McIntosh and Ledecky didn’t quite have the pop that they have had in their best swims. They could not keep up with Titmus, who took off on the last 100, splitting under 30 seconds on her final three 50s to finish her last 100 in 58.48.
I can’t really complain,” Ledecky said. “I thought Ariarne (Titmus) and Summer (McIntosh) would be fast and so I just want to kind of stay in contact. I felt like I did that. I took off. I lost contact. It wasn’t bad, my stroke feels good, I feel good in the water. I think all year my 800m felt better than my 400m, so it’s just maintaining how I am feeling this meet and I’m excited about the rest of my week.”
Ledecky won the silver at 3:58.73 as New Zealand’s Erika Fairweather became the fifth woman to break 4:00 to win her first major international medal with a 3:59.59.
“I think you could just see the world record coming,” Ledecky said. “Once a couple people do something, more people start doing it. It’s been a very fast year of swimming and it was kind of predictable that it will be a really fast field.”
Fairweather, age 19 and coached by Lars Humer, won two medals at the World Short Course Championships in December but won her first long course medal on Sunday.
“I am so stoked dropping below the four minute mark,” Fairweather said. “That was the goal for a while. I dropped to the four minute mark a couple of months ago, so to have this performance was pretty cool.
“I didn't expect to be in that position with Summer (McIntosh) in my sights. But I have a pretty strong last fifty. I think those three (Ariarne Titmus, Katie Ledecky and Summer McIntosh) are phenomenal swimmers and I knew that there was always going to be a massive battle there. To fly under the radar and to stay with them was good and kind of took the pressure off a little bit.”
McIntosh faded to fourth at 3:59.94, the first time someone broke 4:00 and finished off the podium.
Titmus, who is coached by Dean Boxall, is now the fourth woman to win the 400m freestyle twice at the World Championships, joining Ledecky (2013, 2015, 2017, 2022), Federica Pellegrini (2009, 2011), and Laure Manaudou (2005, 2007) as multi-winners. She also won Australia’s third 400m freestyle World title after Tracey Wickham won in 1978.
Men’s 400m IM - Leon Marchand takes down the biggest world record of them all
The 400m IM world record had been attached to Phelps’s name for the next 20 years, longer than any swimmer in history to hold a single record, recently taking the mantle from Mary T. Meagher, who held the 200m butterfly record from 1979 - 2000.
The 400m IM was also Phelps’s last individual world record of the five he set during his career, as his 4:03.84 from the 2008 Beijing Olympics stood as the oldest swimming world record on the books.
On Sunday evening in Fukuoka, the last world record of Phelps’s empire fell as Marchand’s 4:02.50 completely annihilated the record.
France’s Marchand had been building towards breaking this world record ever since he started training with coach Bob Bowman in September 2021 after finishing sixth at the Tokyo Olympics. Last year in Budapest, Marchand got closer to Phelps’s 4:03.84 than anyone has ever gotten before with his 4:04.28 last year and it seemed to be only a matter of time before Marchand got under the immortal world record.
Marchand was expected to get a big push from American Carson Foster, who raced alongside Marchand in the 2019 World Juniors final, as the American was toe to toe with the Frenchman the first 200 meters.
Marchand’s strength in the IM is his breaststroke, as he is the fastest man in the world this year in the 200m breaststroke and if he chooses to swim it this week in Fukuoka, he will be a gold medal favourite. When Marchand turned with the lead heading into breaststroke, the gold medal was locked up, and when he turned under world record pace by three seconds at 300 meters, the Marine Messe crowd rose.
Marchand split 58.22 on the freestyle leg, and came in with a 4:02.50. His profile for a home Olympics in Paris next year continues to grow.
I think I can handle the pressure pretty well right now, it’s not perfect, it can get better. I have one year to improve so I am just focusing on this week.
The Marine Messe crowd understood the significance of the moment and rose to their feet as USA’s Foster won his second straight silver at 4:06.56.
“It was pretty cool,” Foster said of swimming next to Marchand. “Obviously the goal is always to win and Leon's a great competitor. I'm lucky that I get to set my goals high, to try and win. Out there, being the closest person to history, was pretty cool getting a front row seat.”
Foster firmly believes he can go 4:03, which would break Phelps’s American record.
“I think I have it in me to be honest,” Foster said. “I think when the right swim hits, I can do it.”
Phelps was on hand to present the medals to Marchand, Foster, and Seto.
“He said he thinks I can finish better in freestyle,” Marchand said at his press conference with a laugh.
“That was really cool,” Foster said of meeting Phelps. “I told him he was my idol growing up. He was the one that kind of made me get into swimming. I remember 2008, I wasn't that into swimming, but my parents made us sit down and watch every race he swam. So that was my first time ever meeting him actually. So that was really cool.”
The scoreboard read 4:02.50 but Marchand believes this is only the beginning.
“I don’t think I realized (how fast it was) yet,” Marchand said. “I’ve been training very hard for it. My goal is to do better than this year. Last year 4:04 was a surprise for me and I’ve been working on my weakness. I got better and did my PB so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
The Marine Messe crowd also let out a roar when 29-year-old Daiya Seto won bronze at 4:09.41, Japan’s first swimming medal of the competition. It is also Seto’s fifth 400m IM medal at the long course World Championships.
“I’m glad that I got a medal, but at the same time it's frustrating that I couldn't achieve my goal of 4:02,” Seto said.
Women’s 4x100m Freestyle - Death, Taxes, Australia
For the third straight World Championships, the Australian women won gold in the 4x100m freestyle relay. No matter which four swimmers are wearing the green and gold, the Aussies are gold medal favorites it seems, having not lost at the World Championships since 2017.
On Sunday, the Australians put together their fastest relay ever - a 3:27.96 from the team of Mollie O’Callaghan (52.08), Shayna Jack (51.69), Meg Harris (52.29), and Emma McKeon (51.90) to take nearly two full seconds off the world record from Tokyo 2020.
“We had an amazing time,” Jack said. “I think that’s what you saw in the pool was just four girls having the best time of their life. It is Australia’s night, we’ve had a phenomenal night and we hope to continue through the meet.”
It is telling of the depth of the women’s 100m freestyle in the country that Jack had the fastest split and yet will not swim the individual 100m freestyle on Thursday morning, with O’Callaghan and McKeon carrying the flag.
“This night has been insane already,” Harris said. “Like you’ve seen amazing things. I think swimming is a team effort.”
The United States were somewhat expected to challenge the Australians, but finished with a distant silver at 3:31.93, less than a second off their national record. The team of Gretchen Walsh (54.06), Abbey Weitzeil (52.71), Olivia Smoliga (52.88), and Kate Douglass (52.28) finished second for the Americans’ third silver medal of the night.
China finished with a bronze at 3:32.40. The team of Cheng Yujie (53.39), Yang Junxuan (53.53), Wu Qingfeng (52.64), and Zhang Yufei (52.84) set a new Asian record for their first World Championships medal in this relay.
Men’s 4x100m Freestyle - Kyle Chalmers remains the relay anchor king
Fukuoka treated the Australians well at the 2001 World Aquatics Championships as the team won 13 gold medals. 22 years later, Fukuoka is proving to be just as good to the Australians, as the nation won its fourth gold medal on night one of swimming.
The team of Jack Cartwright (47.84), Flynn Southam (47.85), Kai Taylor (47.91), and Kyle Chalmers (46.56) swam a 3:10.16 to give the Australians their first men’s 4x100m freestyle gold medal since 2011.
“It's probably one of our proudest moments ever in Australian swimming history,” Chalmers said. “For us to be able to stand on top of the podium tonight - the first time since Shanghai in 2011. I've spent a lot of time with those guys that won in Shanghai and they talked so highly of that moment and that feeling. I think it was Matt Abood that was the anchor of that leg and I remember talking to him about him watching the race and his mouth drying out and the same thing happened to me tonight watching the race.
“We’ve got this amazing team coming through and I know that next year is going to be very special. Every time we race we want to win, especially in a relay, and we did that tonight.”
“It's absolutely crazy,” Taylor said. “I always believed that we could do something like this. I believed that we could pull out something like this. It's definitely been a very big rollercoaster for me over these past couple of weeks.”
The Italians fought for all they were worth, winning the silver at 3:10.49 with the team of Alessandro Miressi (47.54), Manuel Frigo (47.79), Lorenzo Zazzeri (48.13) and Thomas Ceccon (47.03) upgrading their bronze from last year.
The United States came in as the top seed and defending champions, but wound up with the bronze at 3:10.81 with the team of Ryan Held (48.16), Jack Alexy (47.56), Chris Guiliano (47.77), and Matt King (47.32).
“That was my first real finals race as part of ‘Team USA’,” King said. “It was a really crazy experience and I am just blessed to be here with these guys. I mean the Australians definitely put up a real fight, especially going up against Chalmers at the end there. I knew that was going to be a tough race. He destroyed me in the last 50m, but it was just a blast to be there with him. It’s a really cool experience to be here with these guys.”