Tokyo 2020 Olympic Swimming Previews: The 1:44s Have Arrived In Men’s 200 Free

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2020 TOKYO SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

MEN’S 200 Freestyle

  • World Record: Paul Biedermann (GER) – 1:42.00 (2009)
  • Olympic Record: Michael Phelps (USA) – 1:42.96 (2008)
  • World Junior Record: Hwang Sun Woo (KOR) – 1:44.96 (2021)
  • 2016 Olympic Champion: Sun Yang (CHN) – 1:44.65

After an extended lull in the mid-2010s, 1:44s have come fast and furious over the last three months in the men’s 200 freestyle, with six swimmers now entering the event at the Tokyo Games having been under the threshold at least once in their career.

After an incredible five men went sub-1:45 in the 2011 World Championship final, the event slowly but surely fell off as the years passed. Yannick Agnel produced the fastest textile swim ever at the 2012 Olympics in 1:43.14, and won Worlds the following year in 1:44.20, but afterwards, swims in the 1:44s came few and far between.

18 swimmers have been under 1:45 a total of 54 times in history, but between 2014 and 2020, it was only done nine times. Between April and May of 2021, it was done more than half of that—five times.

This sudden raising of the bar has set the stage for an epic race in Tokyo.

2019 Worlds Finalists

Among the top contenders, three of 2021’s 1:44-goers picked up a medal in the event at the 2019 World Championships—even with the absence of 2016 Olympic champion and two-time reigning world champion Sun Yang.

Sun not being in the field is certainly a game-changer, just like the 400 free, but the evolution this event has seen in the first half of 2021 would make him far from a sure thing to medal if he was competing. In the 400, he would probably be the favorite for gold.

It feels like Duncan Scott is the man to beat coming in, as the Scottish stalwart has continued his improvement across a variety of events and comes in as not only the #1 swimmer in the world this season, but also the only man in the field to have cracked 1:45 more than once.

Duncan Scott (left) and Tom Dean at the 2021 European Championships. Photo: Giorgio Scala/Deepbluemedia/Insidefoto

Scott was fourth at the 2017 Worlds and then tied for bronze in 2019, but led off the British 800 free relay in Gwangju with a British Record of 1:44.91, which was .02 faster than Sun’s winning time in the individual race.

The 24-year-old then followed up a standout short course season in the International Swimming League—which included becoming the fourth-fastest man of all-time in the SCM 200 free—by toppling his National Record at the British Olympic Trials in 1:44.47, giving him the top seed coming into the Games.

Not to be overshadowed, fellow Brit Tom Dean placed second to Scott in 1:44.58, ranking him second in the world this year. More on him down below.

Also making their way to the podium in Gwangju was Japan’s Katsuhiro Matsumoto and Russia’s Martin Malyutin.

Matsumoto won silver behind Sun in 1:45.22, and has re-lowered his Japanese Record twice in 2021, culminating with a 1:44.65 at their National Trials in April.

Malyutin is notorious for his ability to come home faster than anyone else on the last 50, and that shined through in a big way at the European Championships in April, overtaking Scott and Dean to win the 200 free in 1:44.79.

Danas Rapsys. Photo: Giorgio Scala/Deepbluemedia/Insidefoto

The swimmer that owns the fastest best time in the field is Danas Rapsys, who is also the field’s only swimmer that has broken 1:45 but didn’t do so in 2021.

Rapsys scorched a 1:44.38 in August 2019 on the FINA World Cup circuit, a redemption swim of sorts after touching first in the World Championship final before being disqualified for a false start. (For what it’s worth, Rapsys’ pre-DQ time was 1:44.69.)

The Lithuanian has several 1:45-low swims to his name as well, but his fastest showing since the beginning of 2020 was the 1:45.72 he produced at the Euros to place fourth.

The Newcomers

Three of the six-fastest men in the world this season have really burst onto the scene in the event this year. Leading that trio is the recently-turned 21-year-old Dean, whose 1:44.5 in April was truly a breakthrough performance.

Dean split 1:46.10 on Great Britain’s 800 free relay at the 2019 Worlds with a takeover, and entered 2020 with a flat-start best of 1:46.86. In the last 18 months he’s been faster than that nine times, eight of them coming this year. It’s still worth noting he’s only been under 1:46 twice, but those two swims came in the biggest moments (Olympic Trials final, Euro final).

In two short years Dean has gone from relay contributor to bonafide gold medal contender. He may get a little overshadowed by Scott coming in, but make no mistake about it, he’s coming.

HWANG Sunwoo, 2021 Korean Olympic Trials

Hwang Sun-woo. Photo: Jinho Lee

The 1:44 swim that caught everyone off guard the most this year came from South Korean Hwang Sun-woo, as the 18-year-old took out the World Junior Record in a scintillating 1:44.96 back in May. Hwang actually held the previous WJR at 1:45.92, set in November 2020, which shows his incredible rise in such a short amount of time. While Dean was splitting 1:46.1 on Great Britain’s relay in Gwangju, Hwang was there too—the then-16-year-old produced a 1:49.78 relay split.

And then the sixth-ranked swimmer in the world this year is none other than David Popovici. Popovici had been making headlines all year for his standout performances at just 16 years of age, but he took things to a whole new level at the European Junior Championships in early July, breaking the World Junior Record in the 100 free in a time of 47.30, which also ranked him #1 in the world for 2020-21.

In the 200, the Romanian posted a time of 1:45.26 in the semi-finals, just off of Hwang’s WJR, before winning the final in 1:45.95 (shortly after a 50 free semi).

David Popovici. Photo: Andrea Masini/Deepbluemedia/Insidefoto

If we can say that Dean and Hwang have shown rapid improvement of late, there isn’t really a proper way of describing what Popovici has done. From May to June to July he jumped from 1:48.3 to 1:46.1 to 1:45.2. What does he have in store for us in Tokyo?

Given how effortless he looks in the water, the sky is limit in the future. And he’s got the confidence to match his ability. But even just looking ahead to next week, based on the way he looked in that semi-final swim in Rome, a 1:44 is certainly possible. All eyes will be on him in what could be an epic 100 free final with Caeleb Dressel, Kyle Chalmers and the other big dogs. But in the 200? He’ll be coming in with no pressure. And he might just win it all.

QUICK LOOK: HOW THE TOP SEEDS SPLIT THE RACE

One thing that’s intriguing about the way the 200 free final will pan out is how the top contenders will split the race. In all of his 200 free wins, Sun Yang would stay near the front of the field through the 150 and then take off coming home. Chances are the winner won’t do that this time around.

Five of the six-fastest men in the world this season took their swims out in 50.74 or faster, led by Scott who scorched a 50.25 opening 100. Matsumoto, Popovici, Hwang, they’re all pretty aggressive on the front-half. Dean was no doubt pushed by Scott to go out hard in their Trials duel, but he flipped in 50.57 and produced the best swim of his career by far.

We’ll almost certainly see a blistering opening half of the race from these guys, no playing around, and it’s going to come down to who can hold on the best.

Malyutin is the only 1:44 this year that wasn’t out in 50-point, as he was 51.28 before using a 26-low final 50. He’ll have a chance if he’s within striking distance at the 150 turn.

And if we look at the way Rapsys has swum this event, he’s taken it out fast (24.03) and come home fast (26.04) on different occasions, but his optimal way of swimming it is finding that happy medium. He split 50.99/53.39 when he swam his best time, so if he can use his easy speed to stay with the leaders early and then lean on that closing speed at the end, he’ll give himself a chance.

OTHERS IN THE MIX

The men that have the best chance to shake things up in this event are Americans Kieran Smith and Townley Haas, Australia’s Elijah Winnington and Thomas Neill, and Russia’s Ivan Girev.

All five have been 1:45 this year, and Haas holds the quickest PB among them at 1:45.03 from 2017. The University of Texas grad was fifth in this event at the 2016 Olympics, and has a propensity to swim well in high-pressure situations. He’s been very up-and-down over the last quad, including missing the final at the 2019 World Championships, but if he’s at his best he’s in the medal conversation.

Smith and Winnington will both be coming off of the 400 free, which could give them some positive or negative momentum coming in, depending on what happens there. With more speed, Smith seems to be more of a natural 200 swimmer, and his 1:45.29 from U.S. Trials makes him a threat to get in the final.

Neill out-touched Alexander Graham by .01 for third at Australian Trials, and then Kyle Chalmers dropped the event, giving Neill an individual spot. The 19-year-old swam all the way up to the 1500 at those Trials, placing third, so he’s got great endurance. He’ll be able to run down some of the guys in the semis that go out too hard, giving him an outside shot at the final.

Girev found his footing after a few off-years by clocking 1:45.49 in April at the Russian Olympic Trials, but hasn’t show enough consistency to be considered someone likely to final.

TOP 8 PREDICTIONS

Place Swimmer Country Best Time Since 2016 Olympics
1 Duncan Scott Great Britain 1:44.47
2 Tom Dean Great Britain 1:44.58
3 Katsuhiro Matsumoto Japan 1:44.65
4 David Popovici Romania 1:45.26
5 Danas Rapsys Lithuania 1:44.38
6 Hwang Sun-woo South Korea 1:44.96
7 Martin Malyutin Russia 1:44.79
8 Kieran Smith United States 1:45.29

Dark Horse: Antonio Djakovic, Switzerland – The 18-year-old produced the two fastest swims of his career at the European Championships less than two months ago, finishing with a 1:46.10 to take sixth in the final. Djakovic came into 2021 having never broken 1:47, but has now done so four times. He looks poised to hit 1:45, which will put him on the cusp of a spot in the Olympic final.

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Austinpoolboy
11 months ago

Are we sleeping on Haas?
1) Rapsys
2) Scott
3) Haas

Drama King
11 months ago

Gold – Duncan Scott – 1.44.18
Silver – Katsuhiro Matsumoto – 1.44.31
Bronze – Martin Malyutin – 1.44.49

4. Tom Dean – 1.44.65
5. Hwang Sun Woo – 1.44.81
6. David Popovici – 1.44.96
7. Danas Rapsys – 1.45.21
8. Kieran Smith – 1.45.38

Dark Horse – Elijah Winnington

Brownish
Reply to  Drama King
11 months ago

Rapsys.

Sub13
11 months ago

How is it that Australia are the (slight) favourites to win the 200 relay but have no swimmers in the top 8, over UK who have the predicted top 2?

Robbos
Reply to  Sub13
11 months ago

I think you will find that Australia has more depth, with Chalmers & Horton maybe gives them a little more class, but I would say Britain are favourites as they too have depth but more class with not just 2 in the top 8, they have the top 2.
As a betting man, no I’m not, it would be Team GB first, of course my heart says Australia.

Troyy
Reply to  Sub13
11 months ago

Gb should be favourite for sure.

Wethorn
11 months ago

I love all the love for Dean! Go Harvard!

; )

Joel
11 months ago

Why can’t I read all the comments on this article? It keeps looping back

Casas 100 back gold in Fukuoka
Reply to  Joel
11 months ago

Same here.

Lex Soft
11 months ago

Unfortunately I cannot pick Popovici in the Pick’em Contest, because his name is not included in the option list. Therefore I pick Hwang Sunwoo, the other teenager to be on the podium.

swimfan210_
11 months ago

On paper, I think Dean should win this over Scott, though it isn’t a two-man race. Dean had COVID twice and was out of the water 3 weeks at a time and could be dangerous with a solid training block (recent results look promising), and he is young and improving. He could be really dangerous here and go 1:44-low or faster, but Scott is more experienced and has the fastest time in the world.
Matsumoto is a solid pick for bronze and I picked Rapsys for 4th assuming he is on. I think Popovici has a 1:44 in him after the 1:45 low in semis. The 200 free is his first event of the Olympics (he will be fresh)… Read more »

Casas 100 back gold in Fukuoka
11 months ago

If Malyutin makes the final, he’ll finish higher than 7th. He can run down anyone who’s within his reach at 150.

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James swam five years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in 2018, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 2019 he completed his graduate degree in sports journalism. Prior to going to Laurentian, James swam …

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