2019 World Champs Preview: Sun Brings the Wins (& the Drama) In Men’s 400 Free

2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships

  • All sports: Friday, July 12 – Sunday, July 28, 2019
  • Pool swimming: Sunday, July 21 – Sunday, July 28, 2019
  • The Nambu University Municipal Aquatics Center, Gwangju, Korea
  • Meet site
  • FinaTV Live Stream
  • Live results

MEN’S 400M FREESTYLE

  • World Record: 3:40.07, Paul Biedermann (GER), 2009
  • World Championship Record: 3:40.07, Paul Biedermann (GER), 2009
  • World Junior Record: 3:44.60, Mack Horton (AUS), 2014
  • Defending World Champion: Sun Yang (CHN), 3:41.38

We’ll kick off our 2019 World Championships previews with the event that will hand out the first pool swimming medals of this year’s World Championships: the men’s 400 free.

This one doesn’t come without controversy. If China’s Sun Yang is the king of two things, it’s winning the 400 free and creating international drama… and only maybe in that order.

The latest example of the latter: Britain’s The Sunday Times reported in January that Sun had ‘abused’ drug testers in a kerfluffle over their doping control credentials and paperwork. The paper reported that Sun’s mother ultimately ordered the drug testers to destroy a vial of Sun’s blood. A FINA panel said it could never know what happened that night and refused to ban Sun, though WADA is still reportedly working to get the freestyler punished.

Long story short, Sun, 27, is still likely to be competing this summer, barring a major shakeup from the powers that be. That leads us to his historic 400 free prowess, which suggests he’s the heavy favorite to make it four-straight World titles in this event.

Sun won World Champs gold in 2013, 2015 and 2017. In between, he won Asian Games gold in 2014 and 2018. He started that whole streak with a 2012 Olympic gold in the 400. He’s got the fastest time in the world this season (3:42.75 on the FINA Champions Series) and also led the world ranks last year (3:41.94; no one else in the world was better than 3:43.7) and the year before (3:41.38; no one else was better than 3:43.3). The lone blemish on his record is a 2016 Olympic silver medal, and in that race, he was just .13 seconds from gold.

The only man to topple Sun in major competition over the past eight years was Australia’s Mack Hortonwho won that Rio Olympic gold in 3:41.55. The leadup to that race produced some fireworks, with Horton publicly calling Sun a “drug cheat” (the smashed vial was far from Sun’s first brush with anti-doping rules).

But the renewal of that rivalry is a little bit overshadowed by Horton’s 2019 struggles. The 23-year-old Horton had a rough go of it at Australia’s World Championship Trials, technically missing the team before being added to the roster anyway as a discretionary pick. (Specific events aren’t listed on Swimming Australia’s release, but Horton seems like a good bet for the 400 free, where he was second at Australian Trials).

That could be a dire omen for Horton, a signal of injury, illness or a dropoff in training. He’s only been 3:46.4 this season. On the other hand, it could be as simple as a badly-misjudged drop taper from an athlete not wanting to break training a month out of Worlds. Horton did go 3:43.76 last year (good for #2 in the world for the season), won Commonwealths and was second at Pan Pacs, so he’s still a strong medal contender, provided June was an aberration and not a trend.

The Sun/Horton battle raged at both the 2016 Olympics and 2017 World Championship, and Italy’s Gabriele Detti slid in for bronze at both meets. Detti lost most of his 2017-2018 season to a shoulder injury, but he looked to be back near 100% with a lifetime-best 3:43.36 at Italian Nationals in April. Detti is only 24 and looked like one of the faster-rising distance men in the world before his injury.

But if it’s momentum you’re talking about, the man to watch is Lithuania’s Danas RapsysThe 24-year-old was a youth standout in backstroke and more known for the 200 free early in his senior international career. But since early 2018, he’s cut his 400 free best from 3:53 to 3:43.36, hitting that time at the FINA Champions Series in Budapest. He sits tied with Detti for #2 in the world ranks and only appears to be getting better with each swim. With the retirement of Olympic champ Ruta Meilutyte, Lithuania needs a new face for its national swimming program; Rapsys is on the cusp of taking that mantle, especially if he can come up with a big medal in the first event of the 2019 World Championships.

Australia’s other likely contender is Jack McLoughlinwho won Pan Pacs gold last summer (3:44.20) and beat Horton at Australian Trials (3:44.34) this year. (19-year-old Elijah Winnington has also been 3:44 this year, but didn’t make the Worlds roster).

Last year was an odd down season in this event worldwide, with just three men going under 3:45 at any point in the season. (That was probably exacerbated by Detti’s absence). By contrast, five men have already broken 3:45 this season, with all of the major international meets still to come. That’s going to mean a lot of last year’s major medal-winners will need much-improved seasons to contend for a medal at Worlds. Mykhailo Romanchuk was the European champ for Ukraine last year, going 3:45.18. He’s had a good season, particularly in the 800 free, and could be a factor, though he’ll probably need a better drop than the four tenths he dropped from his lifetime-best last summer.

There was some talk of James Guy moving away from this event, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. The Brit was a finalist at the 2016 Olympics and 2017 Worlds, and also won bronze at Commonwealths last year in 3:45.3. On the other hand, he didn’t swim it at British Nationals and thus shouldn’t be eligible for entry there, though most countries can usually make exceptions to their selection rules wherever they want to.

Russia’s Aleksandr Krasnykh is a strong contender: he was 3:45 both this year and last. Austria’s Felix Auboeck was a Worlds finalist in 2017, but had a rough 2018 and wasn’t very good in the 500 yard freestyle this college season. The American men may have to scrape for a medal here: Zane Grothe was a 2017 Worlds finalist and a Pan Pacs bronze medalist last summer, but was off his best last summer, as were a lot of the top Americans. Some of that may have been the jet lag of a round-the-world trip to their main international meet – but Team USA will have to face that again this year, trading Tokyo (Pan Pacs last summer) for Gwangju (Worlds this summer). A return to his 3:44-low form from 2017 would make Grothe a true medal contender, though. Meanwhile Grant Shoults has only competed twice since last summer and has been far off his bests. Any potential roster replacements probably won’t be major medal threats, either.

There will be a few notable absences. The home crowd won’t get to see national icon Park Tae-hwan, who isn’t retired, but isn’t competing at Worlds this summer, either. He was 4th at Worlds in 2017. Australia’s David McKeon was a finalist in both 2016 and 2017, but bowed out of last summer’s major competitions with a shoulder injury.

TOP 8 PICKS:

Place Swimmer Country Season-Best Lifetime-Best
1 Sun Yang China 3:42.75 3:40.14
2 Gabriele Detti Italy 3:43.36 3:43.36
3 Danas Rapsys Lithuania 3:43.36 3:43.36
4 Mack Horton Australia 3:46.47 3:41.55
5 Jack McLoughlin Australia 3:44.34 3:44.20
6 Zane Grothe USA 3:48.27 3:44.43
7 Mykhailo Romanchuk Ukraine 3:47.08 3:45.18
8 Aleksandr Krasnykh Russia 3:45.55 3:45.55

Darkhorse: 21-year-old Florian Wellbrock is a rising distance star for Germany. He broke through for his first major international medals last summer taking European Champs gold in the 1500 and bronze in the 800. Wellbrock didn’t get to swim the 400 at that meet, but smashed his lifetime-best from a 3:47.1 to a 3:45.5 back in April. He’s listed on Germany’s roster in the 400, 800 and 1500 this year, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his rise continue across all three events, though he’s certainly a bigger factor in the distances.

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Confused

You have to give my man Felix some more respect

Swimmer

Not really related, but you all should keep an eye on the ASA summer league championships going on in Atlanta right now. Almost all of the top names in the state (Liam Bell, Ian Grum, Jack Aikins, etc…) will be competing. Bell led off his 200 free relay in a 20.30 yesterday in prelims. Finals is Saturday afternoon at Georgia Tech. I’m guessing this is the fastest summer league meet in the country.

Superfan

Sorry to disrespect but off topic and let me know when they are at Worlds and competing for a title like this article is about!

Coach Mike 1952

You are not disrespecting, just disagreeing,

Togger

By “not really” you mean “not at all”.

Kids are good swimmers, but the guys this article’s about could hold their 100 yard times for 500.

Wahooswimfan

Wouldn’t worry too much about Horton, He may have “only” been 3:46.4, but that’s #4 in the world so far and faster than any American has been this year. I suspect he will be in the race. It would be great to see an American finally get competitive (i.e. sub 3:44). We’ve seen a lot of breakthrough swims in the collegiate 500 the past few years, but no one has yet carried that over to long course. Townley Haas or Clark Smith seemed poised to do so, but they are not swimming that event this meet. Whatever happened to the tradition of Burton, Kinsella, Demont…

bear drinks beer

Horton is #8 in the world.

coachymccoachface

It’s interesting that for the American men the success in SCY has translated to the shorter event LCM. Great SCY 200 freestylers are good 100 free LCM and 500 swimmers great 200 LCM. I mean LCM is only, what, 11 percent longer? Guys who are 200/500 swimmers should be able to swim faster in the 400.

GrameziPT

Yards is a different sport mate

tea rex

I want to see Haas swim this like he did at NCAA’s. Out in 1:48, back in 1:56… 3:44 is medal-contending 😜

Ecoach

I’m surprised Haas hasn’t translated better to LCM. He has no turn to speak of. They definitely don’t help him.

Horninco

I think it is very curious that we’ve had this massive breakthrough the last 3 to 5 years in 200 freestyle time but not this pain breakthrough in the 500

And no breakthrough in the 200 have not translate to Longhorn other than TH swims the last three years

You have had a random Jack hunger for Andrew Salazar pop a 145 mid or low but nobody really breaking through to 144 or 143

swimMOR

Dawg what did you just try to say

Caleb

I think the takeaway is that the 500 records are not really all that impressive (compared to, say, the breakthrough records in the breastsroke and backstroke, or Dressel’s yards swims). They’re barely beating vanderKaay’s swims from more than a decade ago. Tom Dolan was 4:08 in the 90s, no? Grothe is a 3:44 man and went 4:07 in yards… Townley and Clark a second behind.. the next American who really takes off in LC – say, 3:41 – will break 4:05. Who will that be? No obvious candidate, but there’s pretty good depth in the 16-19 age group, from mid-distance on to the mile guys. If I had to pick the top 400 guy in 2-4 years, I’ll go with… Read more »

Shibly

Don’t count out Trey Freeman

Caleb

I wouldn’t count out anyone but he’s a little old to be dropping 8 seconds… I’d think more about high-schoolers like Rose or Walker.

Superfan

Is he going to Worlds?

PK Doesn't Like His Long Name

The 500 record has pretty well stagnated since Dolan in the mid 90s. Has any US swimmer ever been sub 3:44 *while* in college? No one has been sub 3:43. Once the US has a college athlete capable of a 3:41 or 3:40, we’ll see the 500 record drop down under 4:05.

Edit: Research!
PVK was 3:46 at 21, nothing faster until he was 23.
Dwyer was 3:46 at 23, nothing faster than 3:51 prior.
Jaeger was 3:44.8 at 22.
Klete appears to be the closest as his best time was 3:44.1 at 22.

So basically, no Americans have been anywhere near the worlds best in the 400 and in college at the same time since the mid 90s.

Skoorbnagol

Larsen Jensen was 3.42 for bronze in Beijing.
No ones broke 3.44 while in college.
400/800/1500 for US at another low in depth, NCAA ‘to blame’ everyone chases tha speed, under water power and short relays. Why do more and risk going 3.44 and not medal compared to chase some speed and go 48/1.46 and get a heat swim and Olympic / world medal.
Want to break 3.45? Do big volume

Sqimgod

Combination of factors. Young swimmers like the 200 more, way more fun race plus can make relays. Plus we have no good distance swimmers in general (good at 1500)

Ecoach

Don’t forget Shaw and then Goodell. Too bad that ended with Salnikov and Thorpe among others.

Dcswim

Most guys that do the 500 in hs will work on their 200 thru lifting and training better. If they can make an international 800 relay, they might have a shot at the 4×100. Also, the fact that there’s no D1 1000 at NCAAs might also be a factor (I can’t explain this, but it makes sense to me)

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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