The U.S. team had a relatively disastrous showing at the 2015 World Championships in Kazan.
Yes, they finished atop the medal standings for the 7th consecutive time, but the addition of two new events (mixed relays added in 2015) was all that saved them from their lowest medal total since the stroke 50s were introduced in 2001.
The Australians were just one shy of their gold medal tally, which, at 8, was their lowest total since 1994 when the Chinese team reigned supreme amid a doping controversy.
Doubts heading into the 2016 Olympics were quickly silenced in Rio, as the Americans steamrolled their way to 16 gold and 33 total medals. Both numbers were head and shoulders above their 2015 World Championship totals, including doubling their gold count, with ten fewer events on the schedule.
The Olympic performance made the dominant American showing last week in Budapest no surprise, but looking at the difference between their 2015 and 2017 performances is quite remarkable.
The Americans set a new record with 38 total medals, surpassing their 1978 and 2007 marks of 36 (though the three can be considered equal with no mixed relays in ’78 and ’07). Their 18 gold medals ranks 3rd all-time, trailing their 20 from ’78 and ’07.
In 2015, they edged the Australians by just one gold and seven total medals, while 2017 saw them a staggering 14 gold medals ahead of Great Britain (4). In terms of total medals, their 38 trounced the next three highest teams who managed ten.
Where exactly were the improvements made from two years ago? In terms of gold medals, relays played a major role.
After three gold and six total medals in Kazan, they won seven of the eight in Budapest. Failing to final in the men’s 400 free and being 1.5 seconds outside of a medal in the women’s 400 medley just two years prior, they answered with golds medals in both, including an emphatic world record in the latter.
Individually, they went from a total of eleven medalists up to seventeen, but the biggest improvement came in terms of swimmers who won multiple individual medals.
Just four did so in 2015, led by Katie Ledecky‘s sweep of the 200 through 1500 freestyles, and Matt Grevers, Kevin Cordes and Missy Franklin all chipped in with two apiece.
In Budapest that number increased to ten, with 23 of their 30 individual medals coming from that group. Ledecky once again led the charge with four, while Caeleb Dressel had three golds and Grevers led a group of eight with two.
In terms of the specific strokes, they saw the biggest improvement in freestyle, with the emergence of Simone Manuel, Leah Smith and Dressel catapulting them from seven to twelve medals. Lilly King and Katie Meili led the charge for the breaststrokers as their total doubled to six, and the duo of Grevers and Ryan Murphy, along with Kathleen Baker and Jacob Pebley, improved the backstroke total by four medals up to seven.
Butterfly continues to be their weakest stroke in terms of medals (sounds weird, I know), going from just one in 2015 to two in 2017. However, Dressel’s gold in the men’s 100 was emphatic, and he’ll be a medal favorite in the sprints for a long time. Kelsi Worrell will also be a major player in the women’s sprint fly events for the foreseeable future, just getting things started with her bronze in the 100. The women’s 200 is still in a state of flux, as Hali Flickinger grows into the role previously assumed by Cammile Adams (who took silver in Kazan). The men’s 200 will work itself out soon enough, with many right on the cusp of medalling.
Chase Kalisz showed us the men’s IM events were in good hands despite the retirement of Michael Phelps and the absence of Ryan Lochte, while Madisyn Cox snagged a medal in the competitive women’s medley scene where Katinka Hosszu reigns supreme.
There are really two reasons why the U.S. team saw such a big turnaround from Kazan to Budapest. Number one, the qualification criteria.
The fact swimmers qualified for the 2015 World Championships in the summer of 2014 definitely played a role in their debacle, as it seemed to be a combination of not having the fastest available swimmers that year (many were faster at Nationals in San Antonio), and those competing perhaps being lulled into a bit of a false sense of security with no Trials meet to keep them on their toes. With the 2017 Trials taking place less than a month out from the Championships, all swimmers were forced to perform-or-die in Indianapolis in order to get to Budapest.
Another major reason is that it simply seems many of the swimmers on this 2017 team are just coming into their prime. The likes of Dressel, King, Manuel and Kalisz were all impressive last summer (heck, King and Manuel won individual golds), but really came into their own in Budapest and made some very big time improvements.
Though the qualification process will be the same for the 2019 Championships, don’t expect a repeat of Kazan. All swimmers and their coaches who qualify to swim in Gwangju next summer are well aware of what happened in 2015, and you’d expect they’ll be sure that they/their swimmers are ready when the time comes. Plus, this young, supremely talented core of the team doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Full steam ahead to 2020.