Swimmers look to make their mark
GWANGJU, South Korea, July 16, (Agencies): After 10 kilometers of open-water swimming in the sea, world championship organizers needed a photo finish to determine the winner of the Olympic qualifier on Tuesday.
Florian Wellbrock of Germany edged France’s Marc-Antoine Olivier by two-tenths of a second to take the gold medal. The 21-year-old Wellbrock finished in 1 hour, 47 minutes, 55.90 seconds, shading Olivier at the finish.
Another German swimmer, Rob Muffels, earned bronze in 1:47.57.40.
Wellbrock and Olivier were locked in a two-man race for the gold medal in a final 200-meter sprint to the finish line. The group in close pursuit included Muffels, who used his experience to emerge from that tight bunch to finish third.
Wellbrock was the race and pace leader for much of the event. The few times that he was not leading he was in the top three and dropped back to sixth only briefly to conserve his energy for the final sprint.
“I believe that working together with Rob and also training at altitude helped both of us,” Wellbrock said. “I admit that it’s a big and also a hard step to be on the podium next year in Tokyo, but with hard work it may be possible.”
Wellbrock said he plans to also swim in two pool events at Tokyo, including the 1,500-meter race.
Hungarian swimmer Kristof Rasovszky, who won the 5-kilometer race on Saturday, was fourth in 1:47.59.50 and American Jordan Wilimovsky, who won silver at the last world titles, was fifth in a time of 1:48.01.00.
The top 10 finishers in the race earned spots for their countries in next year’s 10-kilometer race at the Tokyo Olympics.
Defending world and Olympic champion Ferry Weertman of The Netherlands faded to seventh, six seconds behind Wellbrock, but will still have a chance to defend a title next year in Tokyo.
The open water races continue Wednesday with the women’s 5-kilometer race, followed by the 5-kilometer team relay on Thursday and the 25-kilometer races for men and women on Friday. All are non-Olympic events.
The slogan for this month’s world aquatics championships in South Korea is “Dive into Peace” but geopolitics will be the last thing on swimmers minds as they plunge into the Gwangju pool looking to lay down a marker ahead of the 2020 Olympics.
A total of 42 swimming gold medals will be up for grabs at the biennial championships, a platform which catapulted future Olympic great Michael Phelps onto the global stage as a 15-year-old in 2001.
While Phelps has long since hung up his goggles, American swimming looks no less dominant with freestyle queen Katie Ledecky and sprint powerhouse Caeleb Dressel spearheading the US roster for the July 21-28 meet.
Ledecky, who is looking to add to her haul of 14 gold medals, is the world record holder in the 400, 800 and 1,500 and will compete in all three events, plus the 200.
How the five-times Olympic champion handles that punishing schedule will be a good indicator of her chances of sweeping all four at next year’s Tokyo Games, which has added the 1,500 to the programme.
Even if the 22-year-old struggles to peak in all four it is highly unlikely she will drop the 1,500 since she holds nine of the 10 fastest times ever swam in the event.
If she is to be beaten in Gwangju, however, the 200 is where it might happen.
Australian Ariarne Titmus has emerged as a real threat with the fastest time of the year (1:54.30) with compatriot Emma McKeon close to that mark at last month’s Australian trials.
Swede Sarah Sjostrom and Italian Federica Pellegrini have also swam faster than Ledecky in the 200 this year.
Sjostrom has won her preferred event, the 100 butterfly, at four previous world championships and victory next week would make her the first female swimmer to win the same event five times.
Hungarian Katinka Hosszu could also collect her fifth win in the 400 individual medley on the final day of the championships.
For 2020 Olympics hosts Japan, gold medals may be in short supply.
Rikako Ikee, who became the first swimmer to win six gold medals at an Asian Games last August, will be absent as the 19-year-old battles leukaemia, while Rio Olympics 400 individual medley gold medallist Kosuke Hagino is taking time off to get in the right physical and mental shape for 2020.
A decade after Phelps won seven gold medals at the 2007 championships, Dressel repeated that record feat in Budapest and the American heads into the worlds in solid form for the 50 and 100 freestyle and butterfly.
The Florida native will not have it all his own way, though, with Australia’s Kyle Chalmers leading the way in the 100 free this year while Brazil’s Nicholas Santos has been setting the times to beat in the 50 fly.
Santos was originally left off Brazil’s roster as his event is not on the Olympic programme but organisers FINA issued the 39-year-old with a special invitation to compete in Korea.