The start of pool competition at the 2023 World Aquatics Championships is just a handful of months away, with the world’s best swimmers ready to rumble in Fukuoka, Japan. For the host nation, however, taking the top spot on the podium carries extra significance, as these World Championships represent a qualifying opportunity for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
As was the case for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Japanese swimmers will gain automatic Olympic qualification if they win an individual gold medal at this year’s World Championships. That means the likes of Daiya Seto, Tomoru Honda and Reona Aoki could rest a little easier with a gold medal around their necks, knowing that they will have at least etched their names onto the Japanese roster for 2024 in the event in which they took the top prize.
At the 2019 World Championships, just Seto earned an automatic bid for Tokyo, having claimed world titles in both the 200m IM and 400m IM in Gwangju. Any swimmers who accomplish a similar feat in Fukuoka merely need to also compete at the 2024 Japan Championships in order to seal their roster spot.
With everyone bringing their A-game to Fukuoka, earning a spot on the podium, let alone a gold medal, is an enormously tough task. We’ll know more after April’s Japan Championships in terms of times and events the top tier of Japanese talent will produce. But for now, here are a few of the top contenders primed to make a run at Fukuoka gold and, in turn, a Paris 2024 bid.
28-year-old Seto already ranks among the top 5 performers in the world this season in both the 200m IM and 400m IM events.
In the former, he scored a mark of 1:56.72 from January’s Kosuke Kitajima Cup while in the latter he produced a time of 4:10.14 at December’s Japan Swim.
Seto is coming off of a successful 2022 where he captured his sixth straight short course world title in the 400m IM, becoming the first man ever to accomplish the feat.
Look for Seto to have challengers Carson Foster and Chase Kalisz of the United States, as well as Leon Marchand of France to be among those he’ll need to beat in Fukuoka. Domestic rival Tomoru Honda will also try to make his mark on the 400m IM, as well New Zealand’s Lewis Clareburt and Australian Olympic medalist Brendan Smith.
Aoki is still looking for her breakout meet and a home-based World Championships may just serve as her chance to land atop the podium.
The 28-year-old has been putting up some impressive 100m breaststroke times, currently ranked #2 in the world with her time of 1:06.11 from the Japan Open.
Aoki placed 5th in the 1breast in Budapest last year with a time of 1:06.38 but if she can propel herself into the 1:05 range she’ll be a viable podium candidate against reigning world champion Benedetta Pilato of Italy, resurging Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte sand ever-present American Lilly King.
It’s hard to picture anyone not named Kristof Milak of Hungary atop the men’s 200m fly podium, but reigning Olympic silver medalist Honda will do his best to give the current World Record holder a run for his money.
The 21-year-old fired off a new World Record in the short course format last year, producing a monster result of 1:46.85. He also logged a time of 1;52.70 over long course at December’s Japan Open to become the 4th fastest performer of all time.
He is the man to beat domestically at the Japan Swim, which doubles as the World Championships Trials, and his time there will give us a glimpse into the path he’s on to try to upset seemingly unstoppable Milak whose WR stands at a massive 1:50.34.
As mentioned above, Honda is also a key competitor in the men’s 400m IM, owning a lifetime best of 4:10.75.
The former 200m breast world record holder is appearing to be getting back to his old self.
The 25-year-old two-time World Championships bronze medalist missed out on the 2020 Olympic Games in his signature 2breast event but, after some time off, is getting into the realm of what we’re used to seeing from the Tsukumi native.
Right now he ranks as the top swimmer in the world in his pet event, tied with Japanese teammate Shoma Sato. Both men registered a time of 2:08.55 this past January.
Watanabe’s personal best and former WR stands at the 2:06.67 he logged in 2017. With Australia’s Zac Stubblety-Cook now owning the WR mark at a historic 2:05.95, Watanabe will need to be faster than ever to rival the Aussie for gold in Fukuoka this summer.
Still establishing herself among the senior international swimming set, 16-year-old Mio Narita has proved her mettle in the women’s IM events.
In 2022 the teen took gold in both the 200m and 400m IMs at the World Junior Championships as well as at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.
She held the World Junior Record in the girls’ 400m IM at a time of 4:36.71 for just a matter of hours before Canadian phenom Summer McIntosh dropped it to an eye-popping 4:29.01.
Whereas McIntosh could be taking on a number of events at this summer’s World Championships, including the 200m fly and 200m free, Narita is more of an IM specialist. Her narrow focus may come into play when the rounds of swims unfold in Fukuoka and Narita tries to wow the home crowd with a gold medal.
But there are plenty of would-be contenders ready to pounce in both IMs, including the reigning Olympic champion in each, Yui Ohashi, as well as Aussie Kayle McKeown and Americans Katie Grimes and Emma Weyant.
Not a fan of booking an Olympic ticket 12 months before the games….there is no guarantee you will be in the top two of your country by then, and it must affect your motivation….
How do we feel about the “but you need to hit X time 3 months out” system that some countries use? To ensure fitness?
Not a bad idea…. You need some indication that the athlete is still on track.