Some of the biggest stars in U.S. swimming, both veteran and newly crowned, were on display during the seventh day of pool swimming at the FINA World Championships Saturday in Gwangju, South Korea.
Teenager Regan Smith followed up her world-record setting performance in the women’s 200-meter backstroke semifinal by winning gold in her first-ever world championship individual final, Caeleb Dressel went two-for-two in individual events and added a relay title, and Katie Ledecky fought her heart out to defend her title and become a four-time world champion in the 800-meter freestyle on the penultimate day of racing in South Korea.
For Ledecky, the race closed out perhaps the most challenging week of her career. The five-time Olympic champion pulled out of two individual events due to illness after taking silver in the 400-meter freestyle last Sunday. She returned to competition on Thursday, helping the 4x200-meter freestyle team win silver, but the 800-meter was just her second individual final of the world championships.
Ledecky went out strong in her signature event, but midway through the race Italy’s Simona Quadarella was closing in on her. Quadarella took the lead but Ledecky kept herself in striking distance. However, Ledecky exploded off the wall for the final lap to finish 1.41 seconds ahead of the Italian in 8:13.58. Quadarella finished in 8:14.99, and Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, who denied Ledecky a fourth straight world title in the 400 earlier in the week, won the bronze in 8:15.70
Ledecky has now won the past four world and past two Olympic titles in the 800.
Smith, at just 17 years old the youngest member of the U.S. swimming team in Gwangju, stunned the world Friday when she swam a 2:03.35 in the women’s 200-meter backstroke, becoming the first woman to break 2:04 and eclipsing the previous record still held by six-time Olympic medalist Missy Franklin. Smith was close to breaking the record yet again in the final, crushing the field with a time of 2:03.69, making her the clear favorite heading into the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Silver medalist Kaylee McKeown of Australia was nearly three seconds behind Smith with a time of 2:06.26, followed by Canada’s Kylie Masse, who won bronze in 2:06.62.
Dressel, meanwhile, continued his amazing run at these world championships winning a trio of gold medals and bringing his total to six gold and one silver medal in Gwangju.
He started Saturday with gold in the 50-meter freestyle, where he lowered his American record with a time of 21.04 seconds. It was the fifth time Dressel set a new U.S. record at these world championships, in addition to setting a new world record in the semifinals of the 100-meter butterfly on Friday. Brazil’s Bruno Fratus and Greece’s Kristian Gkolomeev finished in a tie for second at 21.45 seconds.
Less than 35 minutes later Dressel was touching the wall first yet again for world championship gold medal No. 5 this week and No. 12 overall, this time in the 100-meter butterfly. His time of 49.66 seconds in the final was a bit shy of his new world record of 49.50 but was well ahead of Russia’s Andrey Minakov, who won silver in 50.83 seconds, and South Africa’s Chad Le Clos, who took bronze in 51.16.
Still not done, though, Dressel won his third gold medal of the night along with Zach Apple, Mallory Comerford and Simone Manuel in the mixed 4x100-meter freestyle, which is not an Olympic event. The U.S. team set a new world record time of 3:19.40 in beating Australia and France for the title.
As the competition wraps up on Sunday, Dressel has a chance to win a seventh world title for the second time. Prior to Dressel doing so in 2017, only Michel Phelps in 2007 had achieved that mark. Dressel, who is expected to swim in the 4x100 medley on Sunday, also won two Olympic gold medals in 2016.
With 11 gold medals so far, Team USA has more than twice the next best country. Team USA also leads the total medal standings with 22.