Australia’s Kaylee McKeown nearly set the first world record of the 2023 World Aquatics Swimming World Cup on Saturday evening in Athens, swimming a 57.63 in the 100m backstroke to give her own 57.45 record a scare. The time is the fifth fastest of McKeown’s career as only American Regan Smith has been faster (57.57 in 2019 which sat as the world record two years).

“I spoke with my coach before the race and we discussed the possibility of the (world) record, but my goal was just to swim faster,” McKeown said. “We are benefiting from the experience of back-to-back racing and that’s really why we are here.”

McKeown has not been beaten in a major international backstroke race over 100 meters since 2019 as she continues on this tear leading up to next year’s Olympics. Much has already been said about McKeown’s hat trick this summer, in which she was the first woman to win the 50m, 100m, and 200m of the same stroke at the same World Championships, and she seems to be chasing immortality as she looks to be unbeatable at the moment.

“We had two weeks off after the World Championships,” McKeown said on deck after the race. “It’s been a short little prep and I’m enjoying the challenge and challenging myself in racing.”

Image Source: Jo Kleindl/World Aquatics

Canada’s Kylie Masse, who won Olympic silver in the 100m and 200m in Tokyo, giving McKeown all she was worth in Japan then, was over two seconds away from McKeown on Saturday with a 1:00.10 for second place. Granted, no Olympic medals are being handed out here in Athens, but McKeown is head and shoulders above the rest of the world at the moment.

Currently, McKeown has 98.4 points as she holds a lead over Sarah Sjostrom (92.5 points) and China’s Zhang Yufei (90.9) with four days left of the World Cup - one more in Athens, and three next week in Budapest.

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Sjostrom got a big win over Zhang in the 50m butterfly on Saturday in Athens with a 24.97, the fourth fastest time in the world this year and the fastest-ever in a World Cup race. Zhang finished second at 25.31 as she has kept on pace with the overall standings. Sjostrom lowered her own World Cup record that she set last week at 25.06 as she swam her 18th time under 25 seconds, something that no other swimmer has yet to do.

“It’s amazing to have this world cup record,” Sjostrom said. “Every time I go under 25 it feels like a personal best for me. I am super happy about this race. I’m super excited to swim under 25 seconds. Both yesterday and today I felt really good in my morning swims. Yesterday I wasn’t able to improve that much in the event. There were a few technical details that I needed to correct. Today I felt that I did what I needed to do. I had a good breakout and a good finish. I trusted that I would get a lot of power without pushing too much water. I felt great today, it was really cool. I appreciated the Athens spectators tonight.”

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Fourth place right now overall is New Zealand’s Erika Fairweather (89.9) who was second in the 200m freestyle at 1:56.71 to Siobhan Haughey of Hong Kong, China at 1:55.03. The time for Haughey is a World Cup record, erasing her own mark set last week in Berlin at 1:55.10 as her consistency has landed her as one of the top swimmers on this European-based Swimming World Cup 2023 tour.

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“It was a pretty good race,” Haughey said. “I am happy that I swam faster than last week.  It’s pretty amazing that it's a new World Cup record. I know that we don’t swim long course in the World Cup all that often. It could have been a lot faster, but I will look at splits and know for sure. I was really focused on my turns and underwater and I felt I did pretty well on those. I could feel them coming up on me in the last 50 so I had to put my head down and go faster. Every week and every race is a little bit different and I know everyone is getting faster so I have to get faster as well.

The men’s race is currently led by South Africa’s Matthew Sates, who is looking to get the crown back that he won in 2021. Sates won two races on Saturday evening in the 200m butterfly and 200m IM. The 200m butterfly was perhaps his most impressive swim of the night, racing to a 1:55.44 to sit 19th in the world for 2023.

“I want to thank everyone here tonight for their support and also thank World Aquatics for organizing this great world cup event for the athletes,” Sates said.

“Last night’s race I fractured my wrist, so I wasn’t sure how I would swim. But it felt OK in warm-up and honestly I didn’t feel it in either race tonight. I’m really happy to come away winning both the 200 IM and the 200 fly tonight. With the current world cup scoring, you have to be strategic and that was part of my decision last night to scratch the 400 free in order to pick up the win in the 100 fly.”

Sates closed in a 29.46 on the last 50 meters to capture the win over Worlds finalist Richard Marton (1:56.60) of Hungary, who will look to get the win back in his home nation next week in Budapest.

Sates captured the 200m IM as well with a 1:58.86 thanks to his breaststroke prowess on the third 50 as he has collected 110.5 points through five days of the World Cup while American Michael Andrew is second at 108.4.

“I have been focusing on my breaststroke, it's one of my strengths,” Sates said. “My backstroke is a bit weaker than theirs. You win some and you lose some.”

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Andrew collected the win in the 50m backstroke at 24.79 and also was seventh in the 50m breaststroke.

“I am very happy with the swims tonight,” Andrew said. “It was really important for me to get a win tonight. It’s hectic. The points run up is really tight. I have been watching Matt Sates and he has been swimming really well, and he has been swimming very strategically. So, it makes for a very fun and challenging game. It adds to the thrill of just racing."

“We carry some momentum going into tomorrow with the 50 free and the 50 fly. I always love Budapest so I think we are on track to end it with a bang at the final stop.”

The World Cup points system is based on placing in the top eight (10 points for 1st place) and proximity to the world record. The faster the time the better, as these swimmers are racing in their first event of the season in preparation for next summer’s Olympics in Paris. Swimmers are scored on their best three events that they do during the weekend, so swimmers may race in more than three events but only their highest-scored three events are factored into their overall score.

China’s Qin Haiyang, who has remained undefeated despite racing the best breaststrokers in the world at the moment, won the 50m breaststroke at 26.52, collecting his fifth World Cup win of 2023. Qin, like the aforementioned McKeown, has been on a tear this year, thrashing the competition at the World Aquatics Championships, Summer Universiade, and the Asian Games, as he is now doing the same to the field in the World Cup.

“I am just trying to race with the best in the world and of course, I am happy when I can win my event,” Qin said. “I knew that they would challenge me, and I’m happy with the race. I just want to keep getting better.”

Qin won ahead of world record holder Adam Peaty, who collected his first top three finish in his home continent as he was second at 26.89 ahead of Worlds silver medallist Nic Fink (26.98).

Image Source: Giannis Emmanouilidis / / World Aquatics

“This is the first race that I can say, ‘I am getting back’ after two years,” Peaty said. “Finding the path is like a maze, I try something new, and it’s a dead end, try something new and another dead end. Try something new we got halfway down the maze. Today was halfway down the maze, but tomorrow might be another dead end. Being a mature athlete, one that has been in this sport for 18 years, it does take maturity.

“Swimming has been very good for me, and swimming has been good to me,” Peaty told World Aquatics. “Sometimes it can be tough for me, but I also take a lot of pleasure in swimming. World Aquatics has done an incredible job in organizing these events in Europe. If we can carry this passion around the world, the sport is in a very good place.”

Image Source: Giannis Emmanouilidis / / World Aquatics

Qin is currently in third overall with 97.2 points as he has the 200m breaststroke tomorrow.

Italy’s Thomas Ceccon is currently in the top four with 93.5 points as he won the 100m freestyle with a 48.36 as he was off his 47.97 swum last week in Berlin.

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Norway’s Henrik Christiansen set the World Cup record in the 800m freestyle at 7:51.92 to lower Gregorio Paltrinieri’s 7:56.96 from 2015. Greece was able to celebrate a top-three finish at home thanks to Dimitrios Markos’s efforts in finishing second at 7:58.16.

“It felt really great,” Christiansen said. “I was looking at the previous record and I thought it was within reach. I won the 1500m in the 2017 World Cup so this is my second world cup title. Whenever the crowd shows up I want to show my appreciation. They are here for me and that’s really the least I can do. I am only racing in Athens and then we are heading to altitude for training.

The USA’s Katie Grimes and Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte collected wins on Saturday as Grimes won the 400m IM (4:38.74) and Meilutyte won the 100m breaststroke (1:06.70).


Contributing: Gregory Eggert, World Aquatics Correspondent