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2016 MALE BREAKOUT SWIMMER OF THE YEAR: MASATO SAKAI
Before this summer, Japan’s Masato Sakai had finished just off the podium at each of his international meets. He first started representing Japan at the senior level at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships, where he took 4th in the 200 fly. He then went on to compete at the 2015 World Championships, where he finished 4th again in the event, just .14 shy of making the podium.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, however, Sakai would not be left off the podium again. He set himself up for redemption on the biggest stage after taking 2nd in the 200 fly at Japanese Olympic Trials. In Rio, he made it to the Olympic final of the 200 fly, which was loaded with defending Olympic champ Chad Le Clos, World Champion Laszlo Cseh, and World Record holder Michael Phelps. At the 150-mark, it looked to some as if Sakai was out of the race after turning in 6th, but Sakai blasted a 29.67 on the final 50 to run down the field. He charged past every swimmer with the exception of Phelps, making his first ever international medal at the senior level an Olympic silver.
In no particular order
- Townley Haas, USA- As a freshman at the University of Texas, Haas was a 2-time champion at the 2016 NCAA Championships. He dropped over 5 seconds from his 500 free time throughout the season, lowering it to a 4:09.00. His 200 free was even more impressive, as he set a new American Record to win the NCAA title in 1:30.49. Before his freshman season, he had never been faster than 1:35.19. Haas went on to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics in the 200 free, 400 free, and 800 free relay. He walked away from Rio as an Olympic gold medalist, having posted the fastest split of the field in the 800 free relay. He also picked up a 5th place finish in the individual 200 free.
- Max Litchfield, GBR- Litchfield was named the 2016 Sportsman of the Year at the British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS) awards banquet after blasting a meet record in the 400 IM at the 2016 BUCS Championships. Just a couple of months later, Litchfield earned his first Olympic bid after winning his first national title with his swim in the 400 IM at the British Championships, knocking 8 seconds off the time he had posted at the BUCS meet. In Rio, Litchfield made it to the Olympic final of the 400 IM. He was in 7th place after the first 200 meters, but made a big push on the breaststroke leg to move into 4th and finish just off the podium. His success continued into the short course season, as he set a new British Record in the 400 IM to take silver at the 2016 FINA Short Course World Championships earlier this month.
- Tamas Kenderesi, HUN- A young Kenderesi looked like he had a bright future in front of him after he won the 200 fly at European Juniors and the Youth Olympics in 2014. In 2015, however, he had to withdraw from the World Championships after contracting mononucleosis, as he was advised by his doctors to miss the meet. A year later at the Rio Olympics, 19-year-old Kenderesi finally had his medal moment at the senior level. In the 200 fly final, he used a strong back half to pick up the Olympic bronze, finishing just .26 behind Phelps and .22 behind Sakai.