Just two days in to the first-ever European Games, one Russian swimmer is on the verge of a complete stroke domination.
16-year-old Maria Astashkina is already proving herself to be the meet’s best all-around breaststroker, and her semifinal swim in the 200 breast might expand that title to being one of the best junior breaststrokers in the world.
With just four sessions of swimming in the books so far, Astashkina is already over halfway to a sweep of the breaststroke events in Baku. She swam three times on day 1, qualifying first in the morning heats of the 50 breast, then winning her semifinal early in the evening session and finally winning the final at the end of that session, just about 90 minutes later.
Day 2 was equally challenging and equally successful, with Astashkina winning her heat of the 200 breast, then blowing away the competition in the semifinals with a new lifetime-best.
That most recent 200 breast will be Astashkina’s signature swim of the meet so far. She was 2:23.88, cutting more than a full second off the fastest time she has on record, a 2:25.07 from last year’s European Championships.
A drop that big puts the youngster hot on the trail of the Junior World Record as well. The time to beat is 2:23.12 from Viktoriya Solnceva of Ukraine. That’s one of the last few “benchmark” times left on FINA’s Junior World Records – when the international swimming federation began tracking junior world marks last year, they used the winning times from the 2013 Junior World Championships as “benchmark” times, with the first person to surpass the time taking over the official Junior World Record.
Astashkina has one more shot to break the record in Baku, though she was actually a little slower in finals of the 50 compared to semis. Still, at just 16 years old, Astashkina has just about 18 months of eligibility towards Junior World Records left, and she’s well within range to get that record at some point in her career.
If she can drop just a tenth or so, she’ll enter the top 10 in our World Rankings:
She’s also on pace to sweep the breaststrokes in Baku, which would leave her officially undefeated in European Games breaststroking events. Astashkina is no stranger to dominating multiple breaststroking distances at a meet like this; she swept the 50, 100 and 200 at last summer’s European Junior Championships as well.
The torrid pace the youngster is setting across all three distances makes her appear an ideal heir apparent to current Russian breaststroking legend Yulia Efimova. Efimova, like her younger countrywoman, is the rare breaststroker who can dominate from 50 to 200, and has been lighting it up in her return to competition this year. Efimova is only 23, hardly old for a competitive swimmer, but the timing works great for Russia as Astashkina will likely be entering her early-20s prime just as Efimova is leaving it, providing Russia some continuity in their dominance of the breaststroking events.
Of course, Astashkina could surpass her older teammate in popularity and world respect if she can do the one major thing Efimova hasn’t been able to: keep her drug testing record perfect. Efimova took a big public image hit when she earned an 18-month doping ban that expired this spring, even if her punishment from FINA didn’t hold her out of a single World Championships. Fair or unfair, Astashkina, like nearly all Russian swimmers at the moment, will face harsher scrutiny from fans – all the motivation for her to keep her dominance (and public image) clean from doping violations.