Fukuoka 2023, Euro Recap Day 3: Matt Richards Has Arrived

2023 WORLD AQUATICS CHAMPIONSHIPS

In his first ever individual Worlds final, Matt Richards struck gold. The 20-year-old Welshman led a 1-2 finish for Great Britain, as he and Tom Dean both tracked down David Popovici in the closing 50 meters of the race. With 10 meters left, both Brits (and Hwang Sunwoo) had solidly passed the young Romanian star and at the touch it was Richards who got his hand on the wall to claim gold in a new personal best of 1:44.30.

So, how did he do it?

Two years ago at the Tokyo Olympics, Richards swam the third leg of Great Britain’s winning 4×200 freestyle relay. Richards split 1:45.01, helping the squad to a new European record of 6:58.58 that just missed the long standing world record of 6:58.55 by three-hundredths. That relay helped solidify the British men as having one of the deepest groups of 200 freestylers we’ve seen in quite some time.

Matthew Richards (photo: Jack Spitser)

That depth means that it’s been a challenge for Richards to earn an individual berth in this event. Richards got a shot last year in Budapest when Duncan Scott withdrew from the meet due to COVID-19. He finished 30th, far from advancing to the semifinals with a 1:48.74. Following 2022 Worlds, he was off his bests at Commonwealth Games and European Championships.

As well as managing the busy schedule that Brits who competed in all three meets had last summer, Richards also made a coaching change. Since 2022 Worlds, he’s been training under Ryan Livingstone with the Millfield Performance Squad.

That move began to pay off for him in the fall of 2022, when he hit three personal bests (21.54/46.58/1:43.76 in the SCM 50/100/200 free) at a regional championship meet. Richards swam nine races in two days at that meet, but he told SwimSwam after the meet that the busy schedule had a purpose.

“We were heavily focussing on delivering new technical improvements under pressure and fatigue. We deliberately did a pretty hectic schedule with the aim of putting my body under as much stress and pressure as possible to really challenge the new technical improvements.”

Back in long-course, he saw even more improvements at the British Championships in April 2023. There, he beat out his relay teammates Dean, Scott, and James Guy in the 200 free with a personal best and new Welsh record of 1:44.83. It wasn’t just the 200 freestyle though.

Richards came into the meet with bests of 22.38, 48.23, and 1:45.77 in the 50/100/200 freestyle. He lowered all three of those marks, becoming the first person ever to go sub-22 in the 50 free (21.98), sub-48 in the 100 free (47.72), and sub-1:45 in the 200 free.

“I’m really happy with that,” Richards said after his 200 freestyle win. “There are still lots of things to move on and improve on, I probably didn’t push it on enough in that middle 100m. The plan was to race the race at the end of the day, there was probably a slightly faster time than that, I felt I had a bit more in the tank at the end which is promising for the summer.”

He proved that he was on form at Worlds in prelims of the 4×100 freestyle relay, splitting a tantalizing 46.89. That was the fastest split in the field, but he didn’t get a chance to show what he could do in the final, as Great Britain was disqualified for a false start.

He’s shown us now though. His 1:44.30 improved his best and his Welsh record by over half a second.

Split Comparison, Richards 2023 Worlds vs. British Champs

2023 Worlds Final 2023 British Champs Final
50 24.23 24.53
100 50.83 (26.60) 51.11 (26.58)
150 1:17.77 (26.94) 1:18.35 (27.24)
200 1:44.30 (26.53) 1:44.83 (26.48)

It’s his third 50 that really stands out as the difference maker in Fukuoka, as he was able to keep himself sub-27 seconds. He was tied for second at the first 50 of the Worlds final, but had fallen back to fourth at the 100. That third 50 pulled him up to third with just 50 meters remaining, giving him all the room he needed.

The importance of that third 50, and the middle 100 in general, is underscored by the way Dean swam the race. The 2020 Olympic champion was running fifth until the final 50, when he tore home in a field best 26.42. He and Richards were essentially stroke-for-stroke as they came into the wall, and while you can put Dean winning silver on his finish, perhaps if he’d started to make his move through the field earlier, he wouldn’t have had to battle with Richards for the win.

“I am pretty tired, to be honest. But I am over the moon, it was a hell of a race,” said Richards after his swim. “It was probably one of the most stacked 200m fields in a very long time. I don’t know how many 1:44’s there were, but that is a really really strong field. It is amazing to come away with first and second place for Great Britain again, just like in Tokyo, and a year out from Paris. I could not tell at all where I stood in the last 50m. It is just up to the clock at that point. I am just really happy that we managed to get that done tonight. Hopefully it is the first of many.”

Quick Hits

Ruta Meilutyte is Back on Top

Ruta Meilutyte, courtesy of Fabio Cetti

10 years after she won 100 breast gold at 2013 Worlds, Ruta Meilutyte once again heard her national anthem play as she stood on the top step of the podium. The time between now and then hasn’t been easy for Meilutyte. However, she returned to the sport quietly in the winter of 2021 and she hasn’t looked back since.

Last summer saw Meilutyte earn two medals on the Worlds stage. First, she won bronze in this event, then followed up with gold in the 50 breast. She repeated those medals at European Championships in Rome. In the fall, she turned to short course meters on the World Cup tour. She swept the 50 and 100 breast at all three stops, earning fifth in the women’s overall standings.

Here in Fukuoka, she’s shown that she still has more to give in long-course. She flirted with the world record line in both prelims and finals, swimming 1:04.67 in prelims and 1:04.62 in finals. Those are the 8th and 9th fastest performances of all-time, and her finals performance is the fastest she’s swum since 2013.

After the race, the main thing that she expressed was gratitude. “I am super grateful for that race…thanks to my mom and dad and everyone else, I am very grateful. I am just enjoying it, and counting my blessings.”

The Shockers

There were two big European misses on day 3. First, Florian Wellbrock missed the 800 free final. He finished 9th in 7:45.87, missing out on a second swim by just seven-hundredths. It’s a surprise because the German was a favorite for a medal, especially coming off the double golds he won last week in the 5k and 10k open water races.

The defending silver medalist missing the final is a surprise, but it likely has less to do with his form and more to do with the fact that this was one of the fastest 800 free prelims we’ve ever seen. For context, last year it took a 7:47.46 to make the final, 1.66 seconds slower than what it took today. In Budapest, Wellbrock swam 7:44.80 in prelims and qualified second.

Wellbrock swam in heat three and finished fifth behind Sam Short, Ahmed Hafnaoui, Lukas Märtensand Guilherme Costa. He probably knew that put him in trouble, as there was one heat remaining and some of his main competitors had yet to race. He still has the 1500 free this week, so we’ll whether this was him misjudging or of he’s off his typical form in the pool.

David Popovici, courtesy of Fabio Cetti

Perhaps the bigger shock was David Popovici missing the medals in the men’s 200 freestyle. At just 18-years-old, Popovici owns the fastest textile swim in the history of the event (1:42.97). He was the defending world champion, and won this race every time he swam it last summer.

The Romanian jumped on the race from the start, flipping at the 100 under his own personal best pace. Trouble struck on the final 50, where he simply ran out of gas. He had the slowest closing split in the field (28.12), allowing Richards, Dean and Hwang Sunwoo to pass him.

CBC’s on-deck reporter Devin Heroux reported via his Twitter that Popovici needed a chair to conduct an interview after his race, and didn’t move from it for several minutes afterward–pouring cold water over his head. In a post-race interview, Popovici said “it felt awful, but that means we can improve something and that is a good thing, because if you have the absolute perfect race and you have nothing else to improve, you know that you’ve basically reached the top, the limit, you can do nothing better from there on, and so I’m glad it happened now and i’m sure it has a meaning that i’m going to learn from it.”

His comments echo those that swirled around Summer McIntosh after she missed the 400 free podium on Day 1. As the stars of the sport get younger, it’s important to remember that these are just teenagers and there’s bound to be some growing pains. Hardly anybody wins all the time, and nobody is unbeatable. These are important lessons for these swimmers to learn now heading into the Olympic year, so they can bring the takeaways to Paris.

Other Continental and National Records

  • On the way to a finals berth, Daniel Wiffen lowered his own Irish record in the 800 free. He swam 7:43.81 to snag the fourth seed, bettering the 7:44.45 he swam at the Stockholm Open.
  • Ieva Maluka took down her second Latvian record of the meet. This time Maluka, who trains at ASU, swam 2:00.94 in prelims of the women’s 200 free, bettering her old record of 2:01.15
  • Laure Manaudou‘s records continue to fall. One day after Pauline Mahieu took down her 100 back French record, Anastasiia Kirpichnikova broke her 1500 free record. Kirpichnikova swam a 15:48.53 in the 1500 free final, bringing the record under 16 minutes for the first time as Manaudou’s mark had stood at 16:03.01 since 2006.
  • Iceland’s Snæfríður Jórunnardóttir lowered her own national record in the 200 free heats. The 22-year-old clocked 1:58.14, breaking the record of 1:58.91 she’d swum in June 2023.
  • Arbidel González crushed the men’s 200 fly Spanish record. In the heats, he blazed a 1:54.99, bettering the old record–which had stood since 2016–by nearly two seconds.

European Medal Table Thru Day 3

Nation Total Medals Gold Silver Bronze
Italy 5 1 4
France 2 1 1
Great Britain 2 1 1
Lithuania 1 1
Netherlands 1 1
Portugal 1 1
Germany 1 1

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Jalen T
7 months ago

If GB wasn’t DQ’s usa men would have 0 relay medals

Wow
Reply to  Jalen T
7 months ago

Gosh, we got a real Einstein here. It’s not like there’s only been one men’s relay so far…

Last edited 7 months ago by Wow
Sub13
7 months ago

So psyched for GB after some bad luck earlier in the meet. 4×200 is looking DANGEROUS

Troyy
Reply to  Sub13
7 months ago

We need to send a spy to see what they’re doing with their 100/200 freestyle men.

Phichael Melps
Reply to  Sub13
7 months ago

People are gonna downvote me like hell, but I honestly reckon there’s a possibility they could get down to 6:57.00 or thereabouts on the 4×200.

Adding up the finals times of Dean and Richards, along with the times of Scott and Guy from trials gives 7:00.37

Richards 1:44.30
Dean 1:44.32
Guy: 145.85
Scott 1:45.90

You can probably deduct .5 from 3 of those legs for relay takeovers, and then at least another .5 from each of Scott and Guy for improvement since trials+taper. That would give 6:57.87 WR and I think that’s being conservative with the drops they will make.

If you add up their flat start PBs you get 6:57.92 WR even without deducting takeover… Read more »

Troyy
Reply to  Phichael Melps
7 months ago

The last one would stand for a long time.

Dee
Reply to  Sub13
7 months ago

We are having an odd meet – Plenty of good swims so far (Richards, Dean, Morgan, Anderson, Peters, Proud, Harris did well to final etc), but the two DQs on day 1 have overshadowed it a bit.

snailSpace
7 months ago

I think Padar’s 1:56.55 in the 200 free semis is an EJR.

Joel
7 months ago

Is Richards the swimmer that people were criticising for changing clubs to be near his girlfriend?

Dee
Reply to  Joel
7 months ago

His soon to be wife, yes – She is competing for GB in the 200 fly this week.

Someone accused him of training with kids so he could “beat up on them” in training, if I recall correctly. Aged beautifully.

Joel
Reply to  Dee
7 months ago

Ha! Love it when they are proven so wrong.

Scuncan Dott v2
7 months ago

Those scm results from Matt Richards at the end of 2022 are wrong.

Zippo
7 months ago

In Fukuoka 2023, Euro Day 3,
Matt Richards shone with glee.
In the men’s 200 free,
A triumph for him to see,
With talent and personal best, a victory!

Billy
7 months ago

Does Ruta Meilutyte train in Lithuania? When she won Olympic Gold in 2012, she was training in Great Britain. just curious….

Admin
Reply to  Billy
7 months ago

I believe she’s been training in Lithuania since her comeback.

Andrew
7 months ago

British commentators were mad funny commenting that Britain was going to go 1-2 and it actually happened

Richards is the best pound for pound swimmer on the men’s side rn, dude is tiny and moves crazy through the water

Billy
Reply to  Andrew
7 months ago

I read that Matt is 6’2″ and weighs 187 pounds. That’s tiny?

Admin
Reply to  Billy
7 months ago

Yeah I think what Andrew is describing is more that he’s “cut” relative to some other guys, not “tiny” per se. Even for a sprinter, Richards seems pretty “cut”.

About Sophie Kaufman

Sophie Kaufman

Sophie grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, which means yes, she does root for the Bruins, but try not to hold that against her. At 9, she joined her local club team because her best friend convinced her it would be fun. Shoulder surgery ended her competitive swimming days long ago, …

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