Recapping the 2023 World Aquatics Championships
BY JULIA XIAO '24
This summer featured shocking athletic performances. No, I’m not talking about Messi leading the struggling Inner Miami to victory. Rather, I’m here to share the top takeaways from the 2023 World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Japan. From July 14th to 30th, 2,392 athletes from 195 nations competed in swimming, diving, artistic swimming, and water polo. In the end, without a comprehensive scoring system, the overall winner was unclear. Nevertheless, the USA won the most medals (44), four more than China, the second place. Meanwhile, China won the most golds (20), over Australia and the US. With breakouts and world records, the outcome of this competition was unexpected; leading into the 2024 Paris Olympics, this championship gives further long-term insight on what’s to come.
First, to review diving, China dominated. Within the thirteen total events, China achieved twelve gold, four silver, and three bronze medals. It was a surprise that China did not secure a gold medal in the men’s platform final on July 22nd since the last time China did not achieve gold in a diving event at Worlds was in 2017. Although the 37 gold medal winning streak ended, China remains the stable, predicted winner of diving in the future.
Moving on to swimming, ten World Records (WR) were broken. Breaking a WR is an incredible feat in and of itself, but for the sake of space, let’s cover the most historical ones. First, Michael Phelps now has no more world records left, as Léon Marchand of France beat his legendary 400-meter individual medley (IM) time. Breaking an IM record is especially challenging because an IM requires all four strokes: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle. Marchand’s swim was #10 on ESPN SportsCenter's top ten, meaning the swim reached mainstream audiences and not just swimming fans.
Four historical WR swims were all from women’s freestyle. In the women’s 200m freestyle, Australia's Mollie O’Callaghan swam 1:52.85 to break the previous WR from 2009, which was the longest-standing women’s WR. Two other remarkable swims from the Australian women’s side broke WRs in the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle relays. The 4x100m team beat the next-best team, the US, by nearly three seconds and dropped 1.99 seconds from the previous WR. In the 4x200m, Australia came in as the expected winner, lowering their self-held previous record by 1.79 seconds. Setting a new WR is already an impressive and rare accomplishment, but they broke the freestyle relay records by a huge margin. Last but not least, Sarah Sjöström of Sweden lowered her record in the 50m freestyle. Sjöström is the swimming GOAT in sprint events because of her long-term dominance in freestyle and butterfly; due to the impact of aging, she strategically decreased her repertoire at Worlds to conserve energy, and this decision paid off.
Besides the WR swims, there were many other noticeable achievements. For example, one interesting race was the men’s 100m breaststroke final; Qin Haiyang of China won by over one second, and three men tied for second place. Additionally, Qin is now the #2 100m breaststroker of all time. The reigning champion, Adam Peaty, has been leagues above everyone else, but due to injury and mental health issues in 2022-2023, he withdrew from Worlds. For the first time in four or five years, Peaty isn’t the undisputed favorite, so he will need to be at his best in the coming seasons.
How does the future bode for Team USA in the upcoming year? Perhaps this year’s phenomenon marks the beginning of the future for swimming and diving. Comparing the US’s population with the world population, the US is overrepresented in elite athletes. As societies develop and are able to invest more resources into athletics, young athletes have more opportunities. Therefore, this year’s results may signify the beginning of the rest of the world catching up to the US, until eventually, the country's population base determines its level of success. Nevertheless, although the US may be losing its lead in star athletes, there is still plenty of young, rising talent. Considering that the Domestic Worlds selection meet showcases elite competition, where even the non-selected swimmers swim times that would medal at the real Worlds competition, the US still has a promising future. However, an outlier to this “population theory” is Australia, since its population is fewer than many other countries, such as the US and Spain, but it is still a powerhouse due to its access to the coastline, a large fanbase, and talents who go professional.
For fans of the sport, watching the ups and downs of the competition are entertaining enough. However, a takeaway from the 2023 Worlds is that the competition needs a better viewer experience and outreach. Right now, becoming a fan is difficult for those who don’t already follow the sport, and most people don’t know about any competitions other than the Olympics. Ultimately, future competitions should advertise and provide easy access to viewership. Otherwise, such achievements at the Worlds will not receive their deserved attention, and swimming will only be mainstream in the US every four years during the Olympic cycle.