2023 World Aquatics Championships
- July 23 to 30, 2023
- Fukuoka, Japan
- Marine Messe Fukuoka
- LCM (50m)
- Meet Central
BY THE NUMBERS — Women’s 200 Individual Medley
- World Record: Katinka Hosszu, Hungary — 2:06.12 (2015)
- World Junior Record: Summer McIntosh — 2:06.89 (2023)
- Championship Record: Katinka Hosszu, Hungary — 2:06.12 (2015)
- 2022 World Champion: Alex Walsh, United States — 2:07.13 (2022)
The 200 IM is not a race for the weak.
With a 50 of each stroke being involved in the event, explosive speed is needed. But it’s also a 200-meter-long race, requiring endurance. A swimmer must be proficient in all four strokes in order to succeed—if they start lagging behind too much in a certain portion of their race, they are done for. Because of all these factors, the women’s side of the 200 IM is now dominated by four of the most versatile swimmers in the world: Canadian Summer McIntosh, Australian Kaylee McKeown, and American swimmers Alex Walsh and Kate Douglass. And they have taken the event to heights that it is never seen before.
Over the last two years, the womens’ 200 IM has evolved rapidly. Less than two years ago, a time of 2:08.52 won Olympic gold in the event. Now, 2:07.19 is the fourth-ranked time in the world. With all four top contenders in this race being young and on the rise, it’s only a matter of time before they start knocking on the door of Katinka Hosszu‘s world record set eight years ago. Their best times are only separated by 0.3 seconds, which means that this 200 IM World Championships race could be anyone’s race.
Because of how close the top contenders are to each others’ best times and are all amongst the fastest of all-time in the event, we’re going to do this preview a little differently. Instead of just introducing them, we will break down all four of them in detail, listing their strengths and weaknesses before making our final pick.
Note: This preview assumes that all four contenders will end up swimming this event in Fukuoka, which isn’t guaranteed since McKeown and McIntosh both have schedule conflicts.
Let’s start off with McIntosh, the top seed and the (slight) favorite to win. She’s the only one in the field with an entry time under 2:07, having gone her best time of 2:06.89 at Canadian Trials this year. At 16 years old, she’s the youngest in the field by a significant margin, which logically gives her the greatest potential to drop time. She’s been on a meteoric rise, first going 2:08.70 to reset the World Junior record (and beat McKeown) at the Commonwealth Games last August before improving nearly two seconds in five months. Her splits on fly, back, and free are absolutely ridiculous, being faster than those of McKeown, Walsh, and Douglass. If she was able to borrow one of their breaststroke splits, she’d be dominating this event like Hosszu did back then.
But “borrowing splits” isn’t really how this whole thing works, so let’s talk a little bit about that breaststroke. While everyone else in the “big four” is splitting 37.0 or faster, McIntosh’s best split is 38.57, which signifies a blaring weakness in her race. Though, it’s also a part of her race where she’s improved significantly—she had split 39.11 back at the Commonwealth Games. Regardless, what we’re trying to say is that she’s likely going to be in third or fourth place at the 150-meter mark (if she isn’t, then she’s probably winning this whole thing). McIntosh is a known closer, but being expected to run down two or three swimmers (especially Douglass and McKeown, who are also great closers) in 30 seconds will always be a tall task. And if the lead her competitors have on her is too much, then she could be in trouble.
McIntosh will also have raced the most compared to her competitors prior to the start of the event. While Douglass has a 4×100 free relay and McKeown has the 100 back prelims and semifinals prior to the 200 IM, McIntosh is slotted to race the 400 free prelims and finals on day one, with the finals of the race being in the same session of the 200 IM semi-finals. With 800 meters already under her belt, she’s coming into the race more worn out than everyone else. That being said, it hasn’t seemed to affect her as much in the past—after all, she did swim her 200 IM personal best just a day after breaking the world record in the 400 free (though, this time around she’ll have to deal with a more competitive prelims round as well as semi-finals).
Douglass (the 2nd seed) is already the queen of the 200 IM in short course yards and meters, but the final crown jewel of a long course title might just be the most important—and most difficult—one to claim. Even though she broke the NCAA record by nearly two seconds in yards and won the short course world title by a similar margin, she won’t have it this easy in the big pool, where she’ll have to fight to make her way to the top. However, she is a top contender. After dropping from a best time of 2:09.04 to a 2:07.09 at Nationals, she’s now just 0.2 seconds behind McIntosh’s best.
If there’s one thing to know about Douglass is that she’s a great racer who knows how to get her hand on the wall first. At the 2021 U.S. Olympic trials, she was trailing Madisyn Cox by 0.81 seconds at the 150-meter mark, but then fought until the very finish to out-touch her by 0.02 seconds at the end to make her first Olympic team. She did the same thing in Tokyo to claim a bronze medal, going neck-and-neck with Abbie Wood after Wood was leading the 150, and then beating her for third by 0.09 seconds. Even at Nationals recently, she was trailing Walsh after breaststroke but then beat her with her closing speed. The verdict from all of her past races is that if she’s in a tight situation, she can be relied on to get the job done.
While she’s not as fast as McIntosh, Douglass has phenomenal fly and free splits, as well as arguably the best breaststroke in the field. But her issue is backstroke—which is probably a bigger weakness than McIntosh’s breaststroke. A big reason why she’s so good in the short course 200 IM is that she’s got great underwaters to help her not lag too far behind in the backstroke portion of her race, but that help isn’t going to be present as much in long course. She’s most likely going to be behind at least Walsh and McIntosh at the halfway mark, and the rest of her race is going to be an uphill battle. If she wants to win, she’s going to have to make up significant ground in her breaststroke (especially against Walsh, who is also a great breaststroker) and hold off McIntosh at the finish.
Another concern for Douglass is that after dropping two seconds at Nationals, will she have more to give in three weeks’ time? With how competitive the domestic field is in her events, she likely had to be all-in for Nationals in order to qualify. Just replicating her entry time would be impressive enough, let alone bettering it.
A year ago, Walsh easily won the 200 IM world title in a time of 2:07.13, leading from start to finish and not having anyone within 1.44 seconds of her. However, with the field getting significantly faster in just a year, there’s a good chance that she could replicate her best time and finish off the podium.
In order for Walsh to win, she’ll need to pull off something that that’s easier said than done: holding on at the finish. The weakest part of her race is the finish, which means there’s a good chance that she’s going to be leading with 50 meters left to go. She’s been in this situation quite a few times and has had varying degrees of success—at Olympic Trials, she was able to hold on to win, but at the Olympics, Yui Ohashi beat her out for gold. This time around, she needs to build a considerable lead on the first 150 if she wants to maintain it down the homestretch (especially on breaststroke, where Douglass is a threat), or produce a closing split around the 30.5 range (which she has done in the past, but never in her best races). Last year, she was already leading by a good amount which gave her plenty of room to “die” at the end, but this year she’ll be in a much more difficult situation.
One of the biggest advantages that Walsh has is that she will be the freshest out of all her rivals. She’s the only one amongst the top four seeds that does not have any races prior to her 200 IM, which allows her to manage prelims and semi-finals in a smoother manner and gives her more energy for finals. Her time of 2:07.89 from Nationals showed that she wasn’t in the utmost top form at that meet, so out of all the top contenders, she also has the most room to drop from her season-best time.
Out of the top four, McKeown (the 4th seed) is probably the most unpredictable. The reigning Worlds silver medalist came into 2023 with a best time of 2:08.16, but then dropped nearly a second this year to set a best time of 2:07.19. She’s not the fastest in the field in any of her strokes, but she doesn’t really have a super weak part of her race either. Sure, she’s got the worst opening speed, but the gap she has with the other three on fly is nowhere near as gap that Douglass has with everyone on back or that gap that McIntosh has on breast. There also doesn’t seem to be a definitive part of the race where she’s likely to be leading (maybe at the halfway mark, if she somehow outpaces Walsh and McIntosh significantly on backstroke), so this event feels a lot less scripted for her than it is for everyone else. In other words, if she’s going to pull out a win, it’s going to be in an unexpected way.
The one part of McKeown’s race that continues to be confusing is her backstroke split. She’s gotten progressively better in that portion of her race, but it still feels weird the world record holder in the 100 and 200 back has a 200 IM backstroke leg that’s slower than McIntosh’s—even though backstroke is only McIntosh’s third-best stroke. To add to the confusion, Regan Smith, McKeown’s primary backstroke rival, can split as fast as 31.2 on backstroke (that being said, Smith *does* have a personal best that’s a second slower than McKeown’s). So it always feels like McKeown can be significantly faster on her backstroke leg, and even though she’s getting better at it, she’s barely scratched the surface of her potential.
Another thing to consider with McKeown is that she has a 100 back semi-final before the 200 IM final, with the two races only being separated by the mens’ 200 free. She’s dropped races to avoid doubles both at the Olympics and 2022 Worlds (where she dropped the 100 back last-minute to focus on the 200 IM), so it will be interesting to see how she navigates a double this year—if she ends up going through with it.
Now that we’ve broken down the top few candidates, what now? With how close McIntosh, Douglass, Walsh, and McKeown are to each other, it’s so hard to predict who comes out on top, let alone the exact order that they finish in. We ultimately decided on picking McIntosh as the winner, as it feels hard to bet against the best swimmer in the world right now. Considering that she’s handled a 200 fly/200 free double at Worlds and a 400 free/100 free double at the Commonwealth Games, the 400 free final/200 IM semi-final feels doable for her, especially given her age. Her splits in three out of the four are better than everyone else and continue to get faster, and it feels like one bad breaststroke leg won’t be enough to hold her opponents off.
Our pick for silver is McKeown, who is incredibly well-rounded and has so much potential to be better on backstroke. Then we’ve got Douglass in the bronze position—we’re a little skeptical of how her trials-to-Worlds turnaround will go, but she always seems to get the job done and land on the podium. In 4th is Walsh based on her current form (which isn’t bad, but it’s not lights-out like the form of her competitors), but it’s never a good idea to count out the defending champ. And even though we *had* to make picks for the sake of this preview, this race is such a toss-up—there’s a very good chance 1st to 4th place could be in the opposite order that we predicted. But regardless of what will happen, what’s for certain is that women’s 200 IM could be the best two minutes of these World Championships, and the finish will be picturesque.
Take a look at what this race could look like based on the best times of the top four seeds:
Although it may feel that way, the women’s 200 IM isn’t exactly a four-woman race—there’s plenty of women that deserve to be talked about and *probably* would have been in contention to medal in past years, but likely don’t have a shot this year with how crowded it is at the top.
If there’s anyone that’s going to disrupt the top four, it’s 5th seed Yu Yiting. At Chinese Nationals this May, she blasted a personal best time of 2:08.29, dropping over a second from the 2:09.57 she swam to take 5th at the Olympics. We aren’t super high on her clawing her way into the top four just because Chinese swimmers have a history of swimming their fastest at domestic meets, but at just 17 years old, the sky is the limit for her. In addition, if anyone in the top four is significantly off their game, she could sneak on the podium.
Another young swimmer with a lot of potential is Marrit Steenbergen of the Netherlands. Since 2022, she’s been quietly forming herself into a multi-event threat, becoming one of the best in the world in the sprint freestyles and the IMs. After just missing out on the finals of the event last year (though her prelims time of 2:10.60 would have made it in), she’s improved to a best time of 2:09.16, which slots her as the 6th overall seed. We’re picking her to finish high in this race because of her recent results at the 2022 European and Short Course World Championships, where she was able to swim fast at the right time and get on the podium in individual events.
Reigning European Champion Anastasia Gorbenko of Israel placed fifth at Worlds last year, but she failed to break 2:10 in 2022 after doing so at the 2021 Olympics. She saw a resurgence this year, setting a best time of 2:09.28 to come in as the 7th seed. Canadian swimmer Sydney Pickrem also had a career resurgence, matching her four-year-old best time of 2:08.61 at Canadian Nationals this year. She’s one of the few veterans in this very young field and once was able to contend for a medal with her time (she took bronze in 2019), but this year she might have to be on the outside looking in. However, just making the final would be a great way to bounce back—she placed 11th in semis last year and missed out.
The British duo of Katie Shanahan and Abbie Wood finished 1-2 at their Nationals meet with times of 2:09.40 and 2:09.46 respectively, and are entered as the 10th and 11th seeds. While Wood has had plenty of international experience, having finished fourth at the Tokyo Olympics, the 18-year-old Shanahan is a rookie. Although Shanahan has medalled at the Commonwealth Games and European Championships before, Fukuoka will be her first Worlds/Olympics, so it will be interesting to see how she does up against the rest of the World.
19-year-old Jenna Forrester will also make her international debut in the 200 IM in Fukuoka. Last year at Worlds she only raced the 400 IM, but she will add the 200 IM to her lineup after a strong 2:09.29 from Australian Nationals that has her as the 9th seed. Look for defending European bronze medalist Sara Franceschi to be in the mix as well after her 2:09.30 from Italian Nationals. Her swim was her first personal best in the event since 2021.
With eleven different women having been under 2:10 this year, it looks like going 2:09-point might not even be enough to final anymore. Buckle up, because this event looks like it’s going to be faster than ever from top to bottom.
Note that these picks have been updated since McIntosh dropped the event from her program and Pickrem withdrew from Worlds.
|Rank||Swimmer||Personal Best||Season Best|
|1||Kaylee McKeown (AUS)||2:07.19||2:07.19|
|2||Kate Douglass (USA)||2:07.09||2:07.09|
|3||Alex Walsh (USA)||2:07.13||2:07.89|
|4||Yu Yiting (CHN)||2:08.29||2:08.29|
|5||Marrit Steenbergen (NED)||2:09.16||2:09.16|
|6||Katie Shanahan (GBR)||2:09.40||2:09.40|
|7||Jenna Forrester (AUS)||2:09.29||2:09.29|
|8||Anastasia Gorbenko (ISR)||2:09.28||2:09.28|
Dark Horse: Mio Narita, Japan — The 16-year-old Narita didn’t get the chance to represent Japan at the World Championships last year, but did damage at Junior Pan Pacs when she swept the IM titles. Her best time of 2:10.91 only ranks her 19th in the world for 2023, but she could do damage in her home pool like her teammate Yui Ohashi did two years ago during the Olympics.