17-year-old Viktoria Zeynep Gunes has made herself a strong candidate – if not the front-runner – for the honor of top female swimmer at the 2015 FINA World Junior Championships.
But she’s also lifting her new swimming nation to heights it’s never seen before. In four days in Singapore, Gunes has won Turkey’s first three long course world-level swimming medals of all-time.
Gunes has only been competing for Turkey since 2014, and the story of how she wound up in a Turkish swim cap is a wild one.
A child swimming prodigy in Ukraine, Gunes competed under the name Viktoria Solnceva, setting Ukranian records in the 100 and 200 breaststrokes by age 15 – national records she still holds.
But when Russia controversially invaded the Ukraine in 2014, Solnceva and her family quickly packed up their lives and fled to Turkey, changing their name to Gunes in the process.
(HaberTurk.com chronicles the Solnceva/Gunes family’s journey in Turkish here. You can also find a Bulgarian piece on Gunes, then competing as Solnceva, and her youth success in Ukraine here.)
Viktoria quickly caught on with the swimming federation in her new homeland, and has brought Turkey to an unprecedented level of world swimming.
Prior to 2015, Turkey had never won a long course swimming medal on the world stage. The only world-level swimming medal in the country’s history is a 2000 bronze medal from short course worlds, won by Derya Buyukuncu in the 100 back.
But in just a week, Gunes has piled up three Junior World Champs gold medals for her new nation, with at least one more medal likely to follow later this week.
Gunes won the 50 breast early in the meet, then completed a tough double on day 4, winning gold in the 100 breast and 200 IM in the same finals session with just three events in between.
That 200 IM was a new Junior World Championships meet record, and the 100 breast nearly broke a record of its own, held by now-world record-holder Ruta Meilutyte.
On Sunday, she’ll go for a sweep of gold medals in all three distances of her stroke, something that has never been done in Junior World Championships history. Already the junior world record-holder in the 200 breast, Gunes should have a very real shot to do just that.
But as big as this week is in terms of breakthroughs for Turkey, Gunes offers hope of a Turkish arrival on an even bigger stage.
Currently, Gunes ranks inside the top 11 in the world in all three of her events for the year: #6 in the 50, #11 in the 100 and #7 in the 200, before even swimming that final event at Junior Worlds.
For a young swimmer with the potential for big improvement ahead of her, those ranks don’t put a world medal at the senior level out of the question – whether at a future world championships, or perhaps even at next summer’s Rio Olympic Games.
For a young woman who’s had to deal with the uncertainty of political turmoil in her recent past, that’s a pretty bright-looking future.