This article originally appeared in the 2022 Summer edition of SwimSwam Magazine. Subscribe here.
The European Aquatics Championships is the continental aquatics championship for Europe. It has been held since 1926, which makes it one of the most traditional aquatics meets in the world.
Several legendary European swimmers have made history over the years, and many of them have had their first step to greatness at the European Championships. Maybe some of them wouldn’t become world and Olympic champions if they hadn’t had their first moment of glory in continental territory. We’ll start with some of the greatest European swimmers in the last years.
Among the Greats
Sarah Sjostrom is one of the greatest swimmers of all time. She is the first Swedish woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming, by winning the 100m butterfly in 2016. No female swimmer has won more medals in individual events at World Aquatics Championships. In the last few years, she has set world records in several events: 50m, 100m, 200m freestyle, 50m and 100m butterfly.
She became a well-known face in 2009, when she won the 100m butterfly at the World Championships in Rome at 15 years of age in world record time, but she already had made her Olympic debut one year before that. And she had just won her first major title, at the 2008 European Championships in Eindhoven. In a spectacular race, the 14-year-old swimmer came from behind and defeated favorite Inge Dekker by 0.06 second — in fact, Sjostrom and sixth-place Martina Moravcova were only 0.30 second apart.
Interestingly, Moravcova was 32 years old back then. Sjostrom wasn’t even born when Moravcova raced her first Olympics, in 1992.
Since that day, Sjostrom has won more than 80 medals at international major meets, and it all started at a European Championships.
Another Olympic champion who won her first major title at that meet was Mireia Belmonte from Spain. The then 17-year-old used a phenomenal breaststroke leg to win the 200m IM in a championship record time. In the following years, she would become the first Spanish woman to win a gold medal in swimming at an Olympic Games (200m butterfly in 2016). As of today, she is widely considered to be the greatest Spanish swimmer of all time. She won Olympic medals in the 800m freestyle, 200m butterfly and 400m IM. But she had her first moment of glory at the 2008 European Championships in the 200m IM, which has been maybe her fourth or fifth best event.
Hungarian Kristof Milak has followed the traditional path: He first won the continental title, then the world title, then finally became an Olympic champion. In 2018, he already was a multiple European and world junior champion when he won his first major senior title at the 2018 Euros in Glasgow in the 200m butterfly. In 2019, he won the event in Gwangju at the World Championships. Two years later, he won the Olympic gold medal in Tokyo.
The other two great European swimmers in the last few years did not win their first major titles at the European Championships. Hungarian Katinka Hosszu became world champion in 2009, one year before she won her first European title. British Adam Peaty won the 100m breaststroke at the 2014 Commonwealth Games three weeks before becoming European champion in Berlin for the first time. But Peaty had his own “first time” at the 2014 Euros: he set his first-ever world record during the semifinal of the 50m breaststroke.
However, FINA didn’t ratify that record due to an administrative error involving Peaty’s doping test. British Swimming took out an appeal with the CAS, and, a year and a half later, FINA decided to ratify that swim. It was the first of Peaty’s 14 world records he has set in swimming (long and short course).
In the past, some legendary swimmers also had their first moment of glory at the European Championships. Russian Alexander Popov won the 100m freestyle in Athens, in 1991. It was a stepping-stone for what would come: Olympic gold medals in the 50m and 100m freestyle in 1992 and 1996 and a never-equaled dominance in the sprint events through the 1990s. Hungarian Krisztina Egerszegi, arguably one of the five greatest female swimmers of all time, won Olympic and world titles before becoming European champion. But her first world records were set at the 1991 European Championships, in the 100m and 200m backstroke — the latter one of the most legendary world records ever, which stood for more than 16 years.
As we see, the European Championships has been the perfect place for many stars to begin to shine. That’s why we should pay attention to what happens in Rome next August. Maybe we’ll see some athletes winning their first major titles and setting their first world records en route to becoming great swimmers, just like Sarah Sjostrom, Mireia Belmonte, Kristof Milak, Adam Peaty, Alex Popov, Krisztina Egerszegi …