In one of the most stacked races of the entire World Cup circuit, China’s Zhang Yufei took down the entire podium from the World Aquatics Championships plus the world record holder Sarah Sjostrom as well as last year’s European champion Louise Hansson.

Zhang swam a 56.06 to set the World Cup record that Sjostrom set in 2018 at 56.46 as she swam faster than she did to win gold at the World Championships but two-tenths slower than her gold medal from the Asian Games. Zhang was able to finish ahead of Sjostrom, who snuck in for second (56.92) ahead of last year’s World champion Torri Huske (57.12). Sjostrom moved up to ninth in the world for 2023 as she did not race this event at the World Championships in July.

“I was really nervous,” Zhang said. “I don’t know how they do it. I am very pleased with the world cup record.”

Olympic champion Maggie Mac Neil (57.13) finished in fourth ahead of Sweden’s Hansson (57.86) in fifth as the athletes enjoyed the opportunity to have the world’s best in the same pool.

The swim for Zhang put her second in the overall World Cup standings as she is behind Australia's Kaylee McKeown, who won her sixth backstroke race of the two weekends, setting the World Cup record in the 200m backstroke at 2:06.02. The time for McKeown puts her in the top 10 in the World in performances for 2023 as she is going for three more triple crowns next week in all three backstroke distances.

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McKeown finished ahead of USA’s Katie Grimes (2:08.01), who also finished second in the 1500m freestyle to open the night’s competition at 16:08.81.

“That definitely hurt,” McKeown said on the deck to World Aquatics. “I didn't have a 1500 freestyle before this race like Katie Grimes did tonight so a lot of credit goes out to Katie for doing that double. I know I certainly couldn't do it. It's great to be racing in international events for  Australia in these World Cup events.”

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McKeown has 117.7 points through the first two weekends as she is ahead of Zhang (110.5) and Sjostrom (109.7).

“I was really happy with the 200 back,” McKeown said. “It's another opportunity to get up and race, under pressure, and do the best that I can. I just wanted to take it out a little bit harder and see if I could hold on. That didn't all that well for me but I am still really happy with the outcome.

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McKeown was also the overall points winner in Athens, receiving a $12,000 payday from World Aquatics.

“Absolutely this puts pressure on me for Budapest,” McKeown continued. “I have three important races in Budapest and perhaps there may be some cash rewards. It's always lovely to be recognized for some hard work. It's not very often, especially back home, that there are money incentives.”

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Sjostrom took second in two races on Sunday, taking second behind Zhang in the butterfly before returning to get second in the 100m freestyle at 53.32 behind Hong Kong, China’s Siobhan Haughey (52.55).

Haughey was off her 52.02 World Cup record from last week as she took down the world record holder and two World champions in Bronte (53.60) and Cate Campbell (53.88).

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“Honestly my legs are not feeling very good right now,” Haughey said. “I treat these races just like training and I just have to keep going and see what I can do. I like switching things up just a little bit so I am not so focused on the same events.  It allows me to avoid getting focused on the same event. My first event was only a 50 breaststroke which we sometimes swim at race pace in practice so that wasn’t too hard or tiring for me tonight. In the warm up I do both breaststroke and freestyle but mentally I always take it one event at a time. I am looking forward to swimming in Budapest.

Haughey will be going for her third straight win in the 100m freestyle next week as she has been on the road for three weeks, beginning with her stint at the Asian Games in Hangzhou at the end of September before tackling the World Cup in Berlin last week.

Haughey is currently third overall in the World Cup standings with 109.9 points, just ahead of Sjostrom’s 109.7.

The men’s race is currently led by China’s Qin Haiyang, who won his sixth breaststroke race with a 2:08.05 in the 200m. Qin is another swimmer who has been constantly racing this season, beginning with four gold medals at the World Championships in July, followed by big showings at the Summer Universiade and Asian Games in China.

“I am pleased to win all three (breaststroke) events in Athens, and it will be my goal in Budapest to win again,” Qin said. Qin also was the men’s overall points winner in Athens, receiving $12,000 prize from World Aquatics.

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Qin kept the momentum rolling Sunday, finishing 1-2 with teammate Dong Zhihao (2:09.18) and rising star Caspar Corbeau (2:09.35), who has been steadily improving this World Cup circuit.

“I am very proud to finish second place,” Dong said. “Chinese breaststroke swimmers are very fast and we will continue to swim towards our goals of winning.”

Qin currently has 116.7 points as he is ahead of Italy’s Thomas Ceccon with 112.8 and South Africa’s Matthew Sates with 110.5.

Ceccon took the 100m backstroke win with a 52.73 as the world record holder was off his 52.2 from last week. Ceccon certainly heard the noise from the Greek crowd as they were cheering on their favorite Apostolos Christou, who finished third at 53.61 behind another rising star in South Africa’s Pieter Coetze (53.49).

“Yes there's pressure on me, but a swim under 53 is not bad, it's not my best time,” Ceccon said. “I am happy with this result, racing against these big guys, swimming in front of a lot of fans. I am looking forward to racing in Budapest.  Of course, it's my pool because that’s where I set my world record.”

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Sates was second in the 400m IM in the first event of the night as he was beaten to wall by Japan’s Kaito Tabuchi, who won at 4:13.30 with Sates coming in second at 4:13.38. Tabuchi was 4:11 back in April as Japan has five swimmers ranked in the top 15 in the world this year with Tabuchi in 14th and fourth in his home nation.

“It was a very fast race but it was fun,” Tabuchi said. “I lost to Matt Sates in Berlin but swimming against him tonight made me stronger. I forgot to save energy for my finish in our previous race. Since Fukuoka I have been training very hard.  I was watching Matt tonight and ready for a strong finish. The Japanese have been strong in this event and I could not lose this race. I won and I am very happy.”

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USA’s Michael Andrew is also in contention for the World Cup win as he is fourth with 108.4 points. Andrew was third in the 50m butterfly final at 23.32 behind Egypt’s Abdelrahman Sameh (23.04) and Australia’s Isaac Cooper (23.19).

“I am really proud because this is the second medal for Egypt in the history of the World Cup,” Sameh said. “I am proud and honoured to follow my captain Marwan Elkamash who won last year at the Toronto World Cup. I didn't think I would win but God did his thing.

“It's been mentally tough for me this week. There were a lot of challenges for me but I am glad that this week paid off for me. I am really excited for Budapest. Yes I was racing against some big swimmers, but I am a big name too, you just don’t know about me yet.”

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Lithuania’s Danas Rapsys is in fifth overall with 107.1 points as he had a good showing in the 200m freestyle to win at 1:45.79. The time for Rapsys is just off his season best of 1:45.69 from April and off his World Cup record of 1:44.38 from 2019.

“I was holding my energy for the last 50,” Rapsys said. “I go out at a steady pace. I was holding for the last 50m. When I get to 75 metres I say to myself hold it, hold it, and I see everyone else watching me and then when it's time, I say bye bye and finish strong with my hand on the wall first. I get to rest tomorrow and the next day and then it’s time to swim even faster in Budapest.”

Australia’s Lani Pallister also set a World Cup record in the 1500m freestyle at 15:55.73, which is just off her 2023 best of 15:49 from July’s World Championships, which is a promising sign for the 21-year-old and former World Junior champion moving forward.

“It's been an incredible meet,” Pallister said. “I was tired yesterday. I may have had too much coffee yesterday and back fired. Three weeks in a row and back to back racing will prepare us for next year especially if I am lucky enough to qualify for Paris. You need to put yourself out there and test yourself. I have done minimal work, after a massive summer program. I wanted to see how close I would get to my best time. It gives me confidence that I am within 5 seconds of my shaved and tapered time. I am excited to go home after Budapest and get back into training.”

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Canada’s Sydney Pickrem also collected a win in the 200m IM (2:09.67) and Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte won the 50m breaststroke at 30.23.

Pickrem was set to represent Canada at the World Aquatics Championships this year in Fukuoka but scratched the meet for personal reasons.

“A few months ago I had crippling anxiety and depression and that kept me out of swimming and kept me from doing the things that I love,” Pickrem said. “I am happy to be here and trying to do the best I can every day. I enjoy racing with these girls and getting back to having fun.”

The World Aquatics Swimming World Cup 2023 tour will continue next week with the final stop in Budapest, Hungary.

Parting Shot


Contributing: Gregory Eggert, World Aquatics Correspondent