The World Aquatics Swimming World Cup 2023 tour has shifted east to the city of Athens, host of the very first modern Olympics in 1896, while the swim meet is being held in the same facility used for water polo at the 2004 Summer Olympics. With such a fast start in Berlin last week, only one World Cup record was set on Friday evening in the Greek capital in which Australia’s Kaylee McKeown got within 0.04 of the 50m backstroke world record.

The Olympic champion scored a 27.02 to win the one-lap non-Olympic event to just miss Liu Xiang’s 26.98 from 2018 as the Australian now sits second all-time with her swim tonight. McKeown will take aim at that record next weekend in Budapest as she currently holds the global marks in both the 100m and 200m backstroke events, and no woman has ever held all three world records simultaneously.

“I wasn’t expecting that time, but I am always pleased to swim a personal best,” McKeown said. “It was really nice to come in and swim in such a great pool. Its my first time racing in Athens.I can’t predict future results, and I can only control what I can control.  This is the last real racing before Olympic Trials.”

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With this swim, McKeown holds the lead in the overall women’s World Cup rankings with 78.5 points as she currently leads China’s Zhang Yufei with 74 points, who won the 200m butterfly (2:06.73) on Friday. Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom is currently third with 73.2 points as she won the 50m freestyle (24.10) on the first day in Athens.

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“I am going to try to keep doing what I am doing,” Sjostrom said after the 50m freestyle. “I am happy with this race today and hopefully it will be even better next week.  It was a good race tonight. I was hoping to go a little faster than in Berlin, but I can’t force anything. It was the race of the day. I felt very strong after my morning swim. I expected to swim a little bit faster but sometimes it's the smallest things that can make a big difference.”

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“This morning I felt really tired and I wasn’t sure how I would perform tonight,” Zhang Yufei said after her 200m butterfly. “But when I got into the pool tonight, I felt better, and I knew that I would swim faster than this morning. I’m pleased with my result.”

Points are scored by position in finals, with ten points coming from first and eight points for second. The next bit of scoring is based on proximity to the existing world record, so the faster the better.

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China’s Qin Haiyang had the best swim of the day on the men’s side, swimming a 58.44 to win the 100m breaststroke over Worlds medalists like in Nic Fink (59.28) and Arno Kamminga (59.40) as Qin’s time was faster than anyone has been in the world this year except for two people - one of them being Fink.

“I am really happy because I won,” Qin said. “I am really tired but happy to have swum well and won. So for me my goals here are first to keep winning, and second to get more rest.”

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With one less final so far in Athens, Qin is not currently leading the overall standings, with that distinction going to USA’s Michael Andrew, who won the 50m freestyle on Friday at 21.96. Andrew also raced to second in the 100m butterfly in getting out-touched by South Africa’s Matthew Sates (51.82) as Andrew tied for second with Australia’s Cody Simpson (51.92) after the American was leading the race for about 98 meters. Sates was able to close and take the gold medal as he is currently fifth in the overall standings.

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“I knew these guys would take it out fast,” Sates said. “I am really happy with it. I scratched the 400 free in order to swim the 100 fly. It was a little bit of a risk for me but I am really happy that I did that. I knew it was going to come down to the last 10m. I just tried to get my hand on the way really fast. Thanks for the support in the stands and also for the family back home.”

Andrew currently has 89.7 points while Qin is second with 77.9 points

“A tough double for the evening,” Andrew said after the 50m freestyle. “I'm really happy to win tonight and to pick up some points. The crowd is incredible and the history of Athens is amazing. I think it was nice to get a tie in the fly, it could have gone much worse. I knew with a tight turnaround that I had to put that out of my mind, focus on the free and what I could control.  I have gotten better at focusing on what's in front of me.”

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Italy’s Thomas Ceccon currently sits third overall with 74.5 points, but he was unable to secure his second 200m backstroke win as he was out-raced by South Africa’s Pieter Coetze, who got the touch at 1:56.32. The time for Coetze puts him at number 12 in the world for 2023. Coetze, last year’s World Juniors champion, elected not to swim at Worlds this year in Japan but looks to be back on track to make a run at a podium finish next year as the 19-year-old is preparing for what will be his first Olympics if he is to qualify next year.

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“It was a great finish,” Coetze said. “There’s been a lot of training over the past year, we have been grinding away. There has not been a lot of racing.

“Last year I raced Thomas Ceccon and I know he is one of the best backstrokers in the world.  Everytime I race him I learn something from him, even when he beats me. It’s good for me. I love the fact that I won tonight in only my second World Cup.  These are some great guys in the pool swimming backstroke.”

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New Zealand’s Erika Fairweather and Lithuania’s Danas Rapsys are also within contention of the overall World Cup crown based off their 400m freestyle wins on Friday as Fairweather won the women’s race at 4:01.90, putting her fourth overall with 72.9 points.

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Fairweather’s time was just off her 4:01.09 from last week in Berlin as she was able to get a second straight win over Australia’s Lani Pallister (4:02.47).

“I'm super excited to race in Athens,” Fairweather said. “I could not be more happy.  I think we always come here looking for a race and Lani provides that every time. Giving her a run for her money is what I try to do. 

“To be honest we had a smaller amount of time to prepare for this event.  We had three days of racing in Berlin, travel and a bit of rest and now we are back into racing again. It is something that I haven’t done before so I am trying to adapt to that environment.”

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Rapsys also grabbed a win in the men’s 400m freestyle as he currently sits in fourth place overall with 73.7 points after a come-from-behind win at 3:48.64 over USA’s Kieran Smith (3:49.46).

“It was a little bit rougher than Berlin. I’m pretty happy with the time,” Rapsys said.

“I feel a bit tired from Berlin. We are trying to make a strategy for the 400 and I think we will be better in Budapest. I was waiting for the guys to make a move and I was ready for them. I knew that I was going to win.”

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Tes Schouten of the Netherlands collected a win in the 200m breaststroke at 2:23.23 as she set the World Cup record last week at 2:22.13. She got the win tonight over Australia’s Jenna Strauch (2:24.19) and Denmark’s Thea Blomsterberg (2:24.34).

“The racing doesn't feel as good as in Berlin so I just want to touch first,” Schouten said. “I did it, so I am happy with that. It always feels like a real battle. This was great. It was a bit harder. My goal was to finish first and I am really happy with that.  We just keep training in between events with no rest. In the end, it's not about a time, but often what place we finish it.”

Parting Shot from the First Night in Athens

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Contributing: Gregory Eggert, World Aquatics Correspondent