To the emotional rescue of a twilight zone swim championships

GWANGJU, South Korea — If ever there was an event that suffered from an Olympic hangover, these 18th FINA world aquatics championships would be right up there on the list of leading candidates. Indeed, a longtime FINA official called these the championships from the twilight zone.

Some 17 months after the hugely successful, and bitterly cold, PyeongChang Olympics in South Korea’s northeastern mountains, the action shifted to Gwangju, in the heat and humidity of this nation’s southwest corner and, as it turned out, virtually non-stop rain and the many biting insects that thrive in such conditions. Strike that. These championships went down to the percussive beat of seemingly endless thunderstorms. There was lightning, too, as immediately before the women’s water polo final, won by the United States over Spain.

They tried to sell this event as a peacemaker: “Dive into Peace,” read the white-on-turquoise slogans plastered all over the venues and, indeed, around town, a nod not just to events on the peninsula but, as virtually everyone in South Korea knows, the events of May 1980, when a democracy uprising climaxed in a bloody battle between the military and locals, the victims now honored in an expansive national cemetery near town.

Instead of peace, however, a balcony in a packed nightclub near the athletes’ village collapsed early on the morning of July 27, killing two Koreans and injuring at least nine athletes, including four American water polo players.

Meanwhile, inside the venues, athletes from Australia and Britain staged medals-stand protests, purportedly over doping matters tied to the Chinese swimmer Sun Yang. Attendance proved spotty at best; it would be charitable to say there were even hundreds of people on some days at the diving events that opened the meet’s 17-day run. The transport system often proved, in a word, unreliable. Even the internet — and South Korea is known for its robust internet — didn’t work, and why?

Katie Ledecky after Saturday night’s 800 free // Getty Images

Katie Ledecky after Saturday night’s 800 free // Getty Images

It was thus left to Katie Ledecky, on the meet’s next-to-last night, to save these championships.

In one swim, Katie Ledecky offered up the emotional rescue — the stuff, the inspiration — that, truly, makes Olympic sport different from everything else. 

Sick all week, racing on fumes and maybe on the force of her considerable will, saying afterward that she had gotten only five hours’ sleep, had been nauseous that morning on the pool deck and had thought “for a minute” about pulling out, Ledecky fell behind just past halfway through the race but then, in the final 50 meters, somehow dug deep to remind one and all that she is, in every way, a champion, winning the 800-meter freestyle, in 8:13.58.

She had been beaten in the 400, then pulled out of the 1500 and 200 free. She spent seven hours Tuesday at the hospital. “It’s special to be able to pull out something like that, and just trust that I could do it,” she would say late Saturday.

Ledecky is crazy special, and so is Caeleb Dressel. 

He left here with eight medals, one more than he got in the 2017 FINA worlds in Budapest, which, let’s be real, were hailed then as the gold standard in how to put on a world championships and, in comparison to Gwangju, look even better now. FINA took action here to award Budapest the 2027 worlds and Kazan — site of the 2015 championships — the 2025 event, and critics barely noticed that a major event is going back to Russia, so apparently FINA calculated correctly that the furor over the doping scandal tied to the 2014 Winter Games has, by now, significantly muted.

With Dressel, though, it isn’t just medals. It’s times. And comparisons. He broke a Michael Phelps record that many thought might stand for a long while yet — 49.82 in the 100 fly, set in the circus that was the 2009 world championships in Rome. Dressel went 49.5, and in the semifinals no less. He went 49.66 to win in the finals.   

Rowdy Gaines, the NBC analyst and 1984 100 free Olympic gold medalist, had fun with Dressel’s 49.5 time. He noted that 49.5 in the fly was faster than he — Rowdy — went to win the 100 free in Los Angeles in 1984: 49.8.

Dressel swam Sunday in the medley relay, ripping off a 49.28 split, fastest in history, beating his 49.33 from the mixed-gender medley earlier this week and the 49.72 from — who else — Phelps in — when else — 2009. 

For all that, Great Britain won the race, in 3:28.1, Duncan Scott, one of the medals-stand protesters earlier in the week, racing to a last-leg 46.14 freestyle 100. For those who remember how Jason Lezak saved the Americans, and Phelps, in the 4x1 free relay in 2008: Lezak’s leg was 46.06. The Americans, with Nathan Adrian, who among other achievements anchored the medley to gold at Rio in 2016, finished second, 35-hundredths back, Adrian swimming his 100 free in a more-than-respectable 47.6.

About those eight Dressel medals: he finished with six golds and two silvers. Eight is the most anyone has ever won at a world championships; Phelps won eight, all gold, at the Beijing 2008 Games; before the comparisons get too crazed, the program at a world championships and an Olympics is markedly different; at an Olympics, for instance, there is no 50 fly, and in Tokyo there will be only one mixed-gender relay, so penciling Dressel in for eight golds next summer makes for apples and oranges.

Four swimmers have won seven golds across a FINA worlds: Dressel (2017), Phelps (2011, 2007) Michael Klim (1998) and Matt Biondi (1986).

Meantime, another Phelps record from 2009 thought to be way out of reach also proved not: 1:51.51 in the 100 fly. Hungary’s 19-year-old Kristof Milak went 1:50.73 in Wednesday night’s final. Phelps, who had held and lowered the 200 fly record since 2001, told the New York Times that he had been watching online and said, referring to Milak, “He put together a great 200 fly from start to finish.” 

Dressel and Ledecky — assuming she is, as she said, healthy — figure to lead the U.S. swim team into next year’s Tokyo Olympics. 

She for the first time here has seen vulnerability and challengers, in particular Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, who won the 400. 

His key challenge is going to be coping with the intense spotlight that awaits and figuring out exactly how many events — caveat: yes, of course, he must qualify through the Trials, like everyone — he might swim at the Games. Six? Seven? 

For all their brilliance, it must be acknowledged that perhaps the real grace note to these championships came from a new talent and a familiar friend.

At the London 2012 Olympic Games, Missy Franklin set the world record in the women’s 200 backstroke, 2:04.06. 

Regan Smith winning the 200 back // Getty Imges

Regan Smith winning the 200 back // Getty Imges

Here in Friday’s semifinals, Regan Smith, 17, of Lakeville, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul, crushed that mark, going 2:03.35.

In Saturday’s final, Smith flirted with the world record again but came up just shy, touching in 2:03.69. She won the race by 2.57 seconds over Kaylee McKeown of Australia. 

“To go 2:03 two nights in a row,” Smith told reporters after the final, “I was super-, super-stoked.”

Franklin is now 24. Her competitive swim days are over. She and her fiance, Hayes Johnson, who swam at Texas, are due to be married in September. From 2019, she can look back at 2012 and see — her 17-year-old self.

Most of you casual swim fans — see you at the U.S. Trials, back in Omaha, and then in Tokyo. 

Until then: keep in mind that Missy Franklin has always — always — had the touch for knowing what to say. Here is what she said on Twitter after 17-year-old Regan Smith went 2:03 and change, and if ever the swim world needed an attitude adjustment amid the 2019 Gwangju championships, there is always — always — Missy Franklin: