It took up until the very last individual event of the 2015 European Games for Israel to earn a gold medal in swimming, but sprinter Ziv Kalontrov made it worth the wait.
The 18-year-old led the men’s 50 free the entire way, qualifying first out of heats, leading the semifinals and finally blowing out the field to win the final and make give Israel it’s first swimming gold of the Games.
Maybe more importantly, Kalontrov became the fastest man in Israeli swimming history, finally getting under a national record he’d flirted with on multiple occasions.
In heats, he was within a tenth, going 22.62 (the old record was 22.54). In the semifinals, he had to push hard just to drop a hundredth, going 22.61.
But in the final, Kalontrov came alive, blasting a half-second off his earlier swims to not just break the record, but shatter it. Kalontrov was 22.16.
He beat the field by a wide margin too, with runner-up Giovanni Izzo of Italy going 22.51. That’s sweet redemption for Kalontrov, who missed a medal in the 100 free by just two tenths of a second.
It’s also a great sign for Israeli swimming as a whole, as that nation is starting to catch the “sprint fever” that is showing up internationally.
Israel is a nation without a really storied sprint freestyle legacy. Their old national record wouldn’t have even sniffed a finals swim at World Championships or the Olympics. But suddenly, the speed is showing up for Israel, with a junior swimming pushing the national record right down near the 21-second range.
That mirrors what we’ve seen in several other swimming nations. Most notable are Japan and China, each of which seemed to be building a great all-around swimming roster with a glaring hole in sprint freestyle.
Japan’s record books have been rewritten in the sprints as of late, with Shinri Shioura setting the 50 record and Katsumi Nakamura the 100 for the men. On the women’s side, Miki Uchida is a rising star who is the fastest Japanese swimmer in history. For his part, Shioura took things even one step further, taking down the Asian record in the 50 last spring with his 21.88.
China counters with Ning Zetao, who is the new Asian record-holder in the 100 at 47.65, and is also a sub-22 in the 50. Then there are Youth Olympic Games stars Yu Hexin and Shen Duo, junior-aged swimmers looking to take Chinese sprinting to a whole new level in the years ahead.
Israel now has a similar threat in Kalontrov. With the impact a freestyler can have on every major relay, getting a true top-tier sprinter is one of the highest priorities for any swimming nation. After these European Games, Israel can rest easy that they have a young swimmer with potential to be just that.