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U.S. wins three golds to end swim worlds as duel in the pool rivalry resurfaces

Team USA dominate 4x100 medley relay to cap Worlds
The Team USA lineup of Regan Smith, Lilly King, Gretchen Walsh, and Kate Douglass win gold in the 4x100 medley relay to close out the 2023 FINA World Championships on a high note.

The U.S. earned three gold medals on the last day of the world swimming championships, capping an eight-day meet that rekindled an old rivalry.

Hunter Armstrong (50m backstroke), plus the U.S. men’s and women’s 4x100m medley relays prevailed in Fukuoka, Japan, on Sunday.

Olympic champion Bobby Finke was out-touched for 1500m freestyle gold by five hundredths by Tunisian Ahmed Hafnaoui as they swam the second- and third-best times in history.

Sarah Sjöström of Sweden won the 50m free in 23.62 seconds — one hundredth off her world record from the semifinals — for a record 21st individual world medal, breaking her tie with Michael Phelps. Also at this meet, Phelps saw his last individual world record broken by Frenchman Léon Marchand and had his record for individual golds broken by Katie Ledecky (16).


Canadian Summer McIntosh added the 400m individual medley to her 200m butterfly gold, completing that double for a second consecutive year. McIntosh, the 400m IM world record holder, swam the third-best time in history. Katie Grimes took silver, missing the American record by 29 hundredths.

The U.S. finished with the most total medals (38) for a 15th consecutive worlds dating to 1991. However, Australia outshined the U.S. in gold — 13 to 7 — the first nation to better the U.S. since 2001.

Which matters more — total medals or gold medals?

“The gold medals. That’s how I look at it,” Australia head coach Rohan Taylor said, according to Australian media. “For us, [former Australian coach] Don Talbot always said the only thing that mattered was gold. I was brought through the system that way. When you look at the World Aquatics medal table, it has the gold medals [first]. At an Olympics ... it’s golds. At the end of the day, it’s just a reflection of how well this team has performed. Let people decide what they want to decide. Internally, we’re really proud.”

The Americans’ seven golds were their fewest in 29 years, but they have a history of improving in Olympic years. U.S. men’s head coach Bob Bowman noted what happened two Olympic cycles ago. The U.S. won eight golds at the 2015 Worlds, then doubled it at the 2016 Olympics.

“If you historically look back on some of our world championships just prior to the Olympics, you’ll find that we’ve had similar results, and we bounce back to have some of our most successful Olympics,” Bowman said on Peacock. “You can look at several examples. So I’m very optimistic about it.”

Australia, which dueled the U.S. for swim supremacy in the 2000s, had its best world championships ever by medals.

The Aussies built to this since bottoming out with one gold medal at the 2017 World Championships.

Superstars developed including Ariarne Titmus (now 22 years old), Kaylee McKeown (also 22) and Mollie O’Callaghan (19).

Titmus, who broke the 400m free world record, and O’Callaghan, who broke the 200m free world record, are both coached by Dean Boxall in Brisbane. So are Shayna Jack and Brianna Throssell, who joined Titmus and O’Callaghan for a world record in the 4x200m free relay.

Titmus broke into tears in talking about Boxall.

“The best way to describe it is that each athlete is a door, and Dean has a bunch of keys, and he finds the key to unlock each door,” she told Australian media. “Every lock is different. I feel like he found my key very quickly, and he finds everyone else’s key to work with them differently to get the best out of them. I just feel very passionate about thanking our coach. I, personally, like most of us, have a very close relationship with him as my coach, as my friend and as a male figure in my life, and I will just be forever grateful to him for this. This will not be possible without him, and I think that’s why I owe it to him.”

The top Australian men from seven years ago, Kyle Chalmers and Cameron McEvoy, also resurfaced atop the podium this past week.

“It’s always satisfying standing on the podium and at times not have to listen to the American anthem and listen to our own,” Chalmers said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “It’s very proud when you get to see your Australian flag come up and stand with your teammates.”

The Australians won five golds at the 2019 Worlds and nine at the Tokyo Olympics. They dropped back down to six golds at last year’s worlds, in part because some stars prioritized the Commonwealth Games instead.

Now with 13, Australia is arguably the world’s best swimming nation for the first time since Phelps drove with a learner’s permit. Good timing going into an Olympic year.

The U.S. can be optimistic after winning 13 more total medals than Australia at worlds.

For the 2024 Olympics, the Americans could return Caeleb Dressel, who won three individual golds in Tokyo and four at the 2019 Worlds. Dressel withdrew during last year’s worlds on unspecified medical grounds and took a long break from swimming but as of last month was excitedly planning to get a full offseason of training in this fall and winter.

The U.S. also has young individual medalists including Regan Smith, Kate Douglass, Carson Foster (all 21) and Jack Alexy (20).

“We’re still here,” breaststroker Lilly King said. “Don’t count us out.”