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The often contentious USA vs. Australia rivalry in swimming got a new chapter on Friday evening in Melbourne due to a technical error at the start of the men’s 50m backstroke final.
The eight athletes in the field took their marks. Then, in addition to the customary single beep signalling the start of the race, there were three additional longer beeps.
The video below, courtesy of World Aquatics, shows the timing system malfunction.
Three of the finalists—Marek Ulrich, Dylan Carter, and Lorenzo Mora—pulled up after the start, visibly confused. There was no mid-pool rope to drop though, so the other five athletes swam the entire race.
Isaac Cooper, Australia’s breakout performer of the meet, lowered the world junior record that he set in the semifinals. He clocked 22.49, touching the wall first ahead of the competitors who swam the race, including 100 backstroke champion Ryan Murphy.
After the initial race, World Aquatics announced that the timing error would result in the event being re-swum.
“After speaking with all the competing athletes and team officials from the competing countries, it was unanimously agreed that the competition would be re-swum at 21:10 (AEDT) tonight, December 16, 2022.”
— World Aquatics (@WorldAquatics) December 16, 2022
That time change put the re-swim directly after the men’s 100m IM final, giving the swimmers about 45 minutes of recovery time. The schedule change also meant that instead of swimming the 50 back final and then the 50 freestyle semifinal, Carter had to do the opposite.
Below is video of the re-swum final:
With the chaotic nature of the session, it’s unsurprising that the times were a bit slower than we expected them to be. Murphy earned gold, swimming 22.64 and adding another gold medal to his Melbourne collection. His winning time was slower than what Cooper swam during the initial race.
The 18-year-old Cooper was not able to match the speed of his first swim, touching in 22.73 for silver. Poland’s Kacper Stokowski earned bronze just a hundredth behind the Australian. Additionally, Cooper’s 22.49 will not count as a new world junior record.
After the race, Murphy spoke about his conflicting emotions on the race.
“I talked to him real quick after the race but I’m going to make sure to talk to him and just let him know that in my mind he won that race,” said the 27-year-old American. “It’s definitely a mix of emotions. That’s certainly the first time I’ve experienced something like that.”
He went on, saying that “from [his] perspective it’s a little bit disappointing the way that it shook out. I feel for Isaac…going for your first individual world title. I think that’s huge and an incredible accomplishment. What I would tell him is he’s 18. He’s got a bright career ahead of him. He’s a great talent and he’s going to have a lot of opportunities. Obviously, it’s disappointing the way this one shook out but I think he’s going to have a lot of world titles in his name come the end of his career.”
Cooper has already had a setback this year when he was sent home from the Australian team’s Commonwealth Games training camp after he was caught overusing prescription medication. He voiced his frustration with the way the malfunction was handled after the race.
“I definitely didn’t want to do another one,” he said, which conflicts with World Aquatics’ statement that the decision was unanimous.
“I’ve gone through so many low points and all I want to do is be able to stand on top. Every time I get close, I get knocked back again. At the end of the day, I’ve never seen that happen before and it’s a shame I had to be in that situation but the gold medal isn’t mine. [An apology] doesn’t change what happened. It’s nothing I did that’s wrong. I did what I was supposed to do. I came here and raced. If there’s a technical problem, that’s FINA’s problem, not mine. It affects me and everyone.”
He also gave insight into his decision to keep swimming after the system error.
“I heard a second horn and I thought, I’m here at Worlds, I’m not going to stop in case everyone else keeps going. The reality is normally there is a rope at 15 [meters] that will drop to stop the swimmer. That didn’t happen here.”
Echoing his message that “this is the first step back up” after being sent home prior to the Commonwealth Games, Cooper went on to say in Melbourne that “if I can come back from this I know I will be a better person and athlete.”
“Hopefully I can set an example around sportsmanship. I called my coach and he was crying, which made me cry even more. I definitely rest easy knowing my time was the fastest.”
This is the second controversy of the year in the men’s 50 backstroke. At this summer’s Long Course World Championships in Budapest, gold medalist Justin Ress was initially disqualified for an infraction on his finish. After the medal ceremony where Hunter Armstrong was awarded gold, the result was overturned and the gold medal went back to Ress.