Adam Peaty

Phelps and the shark or, like, a great swim meet?

Phelps and the shark or, like, a great swim meet?

BUDAPEST — Did you know, my 18-year-old daughter said to me over FaceTime, she in California, me here in Budapest at the FINA world swim championships, that Michael Phelps raced a shark?

Did you also know, she went on, that it wasn’t really a real shark? And Michael had a monofin? And Michael went 38.1 seconds and the shark 36.1 seconds? He was close!

So, I said to the darling daughter, now that you have told me everything about Michael and, as it were, the ultimate example of jumping the shark, what can you tell me about what’s going on here? Because, I said, this is a great meet.

To switch animal gears, or something, here was her response: crickets.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the existential dilemma of Olympic sport in 2017.

The way it is, and has to be

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OMAHA — So many clichés: Time waits for no one. To everything there is a season. Don’t be glad it’s over — smile because it happened. Perhaps there is wisdom to be found in all of these aphorisms. But at the U.S. swim Trials, sayings make for little, if any, consolation when the hard truth makes itself plain. When world-class swimmers and even better people, the likes of Matt Grevers, come up just short.

As a general rule, the math at the swim Trials is blunt but eminently fair: first two in any event go to the Games. At the track Trials, it’s top three. Swimming — only two.

Everyone else — thanks but, well, sorry.

Grevers took third in his best event, the men’s 100 backstroke.

As he said Thursday, “There’s no room for me.”

This is also the way it is, and has to be. The Trials are rough that way.

Matt Grevers before a heat in the 100 backstroke // Getty Images

Consider Missy Franklin. Seventh in the women’s 100 back — out. Second in the 200 free — in. Eleventh after Thursday's semis of the 100 free — out, not even in Friday's final.

“My 100’s just — that speed just doesn’t feel like it’s quite there this meet,” Franklin said Thursday evening. “No idea why. It’s super-disappointing but, you know, I really feel like my endurance is there so it gives me a lot of hope for my [200] back,” with prelims in that event getting underway Friday.

Josh Prenot won the men’s 200 breaststroke Thursday evening, in an American-record 2:07.17, the best time in that event in the world in 2016. Earlier in the week, he had finished third in the 100 breast.

“Yeah,” he said after that 200, “I mean this is my last [Trials] race, my last chance to make the team. I didn’t feel like waiting another four years, so the pressure was on.”

Three guys in that 200 breast went 2:08.14 or better — Prenot, Kevin Cordes and Will Licon. Only four guys in the world have gone that fast this year.

Licon, third, missed out by 14-hundredths of a second.

When you win, it's all good. You maybe even earn the right to try stand-up comedy.

Prenot said, “So it’s pretty cool to see the progression,” the uptick in American breaststroking,  following that up with an indirect reference to British standout Adam Peaty, “I guess we’re becoming more like England, where we’re pretty good at breaststroking and pretty bad at soccer.”

Josh Prenot, left, and Kevin Cordes at the 200 breaststroke victory ceremony // Getty Images

Prenot, left, and Cordes // Getty Images

Lilly King just finished her freshman year at Indiana. She won the women’s 100 breaststroke earlier in the meet and on Thursday put up the fastest time in the 200 breast semifinals. She observed, “It’s sad to see those faces go in so many events — but nice to see new faces come up.”

Absolutely true all around.

Which doesn’t make it any easier for Grevers, or the many people who have come to appreciate him, and others, who for years have been mainstays on the U.S. team but won’t be going to Rio.

Or maybe still will — time will tell.

Tyler Clary won gold in the London in the men’s 200 backstroke. Here, he finished seventh in the 200 free. On Thursday, in the semifinals of the 200 back, he put up the third-best time. The final is Friday.

“At this point,” Clary said Thursday evening, “every swim that I get now I’m treating it like my last swing, because it certainly could be, and swimming has given me a whole different perspective.”

Tyler Clary swimming the 200 back // Getty Images

In London four years ago, Grevers won the 100 back.

All in, across the 2012 and 2008 Games, he has six Olympic medals, four gold, two silver.

He has seven long-course world championships medals. Two came at last summer's world championships in Kazan, Russia.

Here on Tuesday, in the 100 back Trials, Ryan Murphy won, in 52.26 seconds. David Plummer took second, two-hundredths behind.

Grevers touched third, in 52.76, a half-second back of Murphy.

In the 100 free, Grevers managed 15th in the semifinals. The top eight go on to the final, which Nathan Adrian, the London 2012 champ, won Thursday in 47.72.

In that 100 free, another great guy, Anthony Ervin, made the team — and this is the caveat to the top-two rule. Top four in certain events make the relays. Time apparently does wait for some people: the 35-year-old Ervin took fourth.

“If we’re not here to inspire the next generation,” Ervin told the crowd at Century Link arena, “I don’t know what we’re doing.”

Left to right: Nathan Adrian, Caeleb Dressel, Ryan Held, Anthony Ervin, 1-2-3-4 in the men's 100 free

In the 200 back prelims Thursday morning, Grevers put up the 14th-best time. That qualified him for Thursday night’s semifinals. But recognizing it was hardly his best event, he scratched out. Murphy posted the top semi time, 1:55.04.

Murphy, who turns 21 Saturday, said after the 100 back:

“Well, I mean, my heart goes out to Matt.

Ryan Murphy at the 100 back victory ceremony // Getty Images

"He's a super-nice guy. I have a great relationship with Matt. He was born in Chicago, I was born in Chicago, so I feel like we kinda got that Midwestern-upbringing connection, and he's been someone I've gotten along with really well, and he's definitely been a role model of mine and someone I've looked up to. So it was super-cool to be in the race with him, just as it is any other time.

“You know, it just turned out in my favor tonight."

After Tuesday’s 100 back final, Grevers stuck around Century Link arena to sign autographs. For, like, more than an hour.

He was amazed, he would say in remarks published Thursday at the Washington Post website, at the affection fans had for him, and he for them.

“Feeling the love from these fans … I actually feel more loved than ever, and I’m really high again. It was awesome. They were all so thankful and happy. I don’t know if people feel that much love in one night. And I didn’t even do well. That was pretty awesome, [to] get that sort of feeling even after you think you’re disappointing people.”

No one needs to cry for Matt Grevers.

Just, like the fans here the other night, appreciate him.

Grevers is 31. His wife, Annie, herself a standout American swimmer, is pregnant.

The two became a social media sensation when, in February 2012, he proposed to her at the end of a meet in Missouri — while he was on the medals stand.

Grevers — who has been training for the past several years in Arizona — is from Lake Forest, Illinois, north of Chicago. He is without question the best swimmer to have ever come out of Northwestern. A 2007 graduate, he served as grand marshal of the school’s 2008 Homecoming parade.

There are all kinds of stories about what a class act Grevers is.

Here’s one:

At the 2013 world championships in Barcelona, the U.S. men appeared to have won gold in the 4x100 medley relay.  A historical note: the U.S. men have dominated the medley since the 1976 Montreal Games.

But wait.

The Americans would be disqualified when the electronic timer caught Cordes -- the new guy on the relay, with the likes of Grevers, Adrian and Ryan Lochte -- jumping precisely one-hundredth of a second too soon. Cordes was doing the breaststroke leg; he swam just after Grevers, who pulled the backstroke segment.

Yes, it was Cordes who got tagged. But, afterward, it was Grevers who stood up and held himself accountable.

“It’s as much my fault or more than Kevin’s,” he said. “The guy coming in is usually the one responsible.”

Here, Cordes has been a standout in the breaststroke events, winning the 100 breast and taking second in the 200, behind Prenot.

"The sport of swimming is unforgiving," Grevers said Thursday. "There's not too many ways to make a livelihood in swimming unless you're pretty much on the Olympic team."

He also said, "There's always that battle: When do you step away? On top? Where would I feel satisfied? I feel very satisfied. I didn't bomb or anything."

Indeed. As he said in the very next breath: "I got third."

 

U.S. Kazan 2015 mantra: 'are defeats necessary?'

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KAZAN, Russia — David Plummer is a championship backstroker. Here, he served as a captain of the U.S. team. Two years ago, at the world championships in Barcelona, Plummer earned silver in the 100 back. Here, though, he managed only a ninth-place finish, not even good enough to make the finals, ultimately won by Australia’s Mitchell Larkin. As the 2015 world championships drew Sunday to a close, Plummer turned to Twitter, and some philosophy from the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho:

“I ask myself: are defeats necessary? Well, necessary or not, they happen…

“The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.

“Only when we overcome [our trials] do we understand why they were there.”

David Plummer in the heats of the 50 backstroke // Getty Images

The quest for understanding begins now.

These 2015 Kazan world championships marked arguably the American team’s poorest performance in the history of the world championships, dating to 1973.

When all was said and done, the U.S. ended up with 23 medals, eight gold.

The American team’s weakest world championships performance, before this one: 1994, in Rome, with 21 medals, four gold.

Take out the two medals in the mixed relays, both new events (gold in the 4x100 free Saturday, silver in the 4x1 medley Wednesday) and the total drops to 21.

Those figures stand in stark contrast to the 2013 total: 29 overall, 13 gold.

Compare, too, to recent years: 29 and 16 at Shanghai 2011, 22 and 10 in 2009 (Rome again), at the height of the plastic-suit craziness.

The only Americans to win individual gold: Katie Ledecky (four), Ryan Lochte (one). That’s it. The other winners: that mixed relay, the women's 4x200 free relay (anchored by Ledecky), the men's medley.

The question heading toward a different set of Trials, next summer in Omaha, a few weeks before the Aug. 5 start of the Rio Games, is whether what happened here amounts to aberration or the confluence of potent trends that mean the United States’ long-established role at the top of the swimming world is at significant risk.

— It’s indisputable that, owing to the worldwide import of Michael Phelps, world-class swimming has gotten better and, more so, better in more places. Argentina won its first-ever medal here. So, too, Singapore. Akram Ahmed of Egypt took fourth in the men’s 1500 Sunday night. A record 189 nations competed in Kazan, up from 177 at Barcelona 2013.

— The Australians are back, and in a big way. The Aussies won one gold in swimming at the London 2012 Games, three in Barcelona. Here, seven gold, 16 overall.

— The Brits emerged as a force, in particular 200 free champ James May and breaststroke god Adam Peaty. Their final tally: five gold, nine overall.

— The Chinese have both talent and depth, with 13 medals overall, five gold, including Ning Zetao's victory in the 100; he is the first Asian to win swimming's male heavyweight fight.

Ning’s victory made things a little crazy on the internet in China. The Wall Street Journal reported that a CCTV host wrote on his verified account that Ning “is the husband in everyone’s dream.”

Never mind that Ning is just 22.

The same host, referring to the social media-app WeChat, “All women went crazy overnight, and pictures of all angles of his abdominal muscles swept my WeChat moments.”

By mid-day Friday, more than 100,000 web users had posted selfies with the hashtag “Ning Zetao’s Girlfriend.”

“We call handsome boys little fresh meat,” a Weibo user wrote. “But for special ones like Ning, he should be called little fresh fish.”

As for the Americans, and first the bright spots:

— Ledecky raced into the history books, winning five gold medals, the 200, 400, 800 and 1500, and that 4x200 free relay.

In all, Kazan 2015 featured 12 world records. Ledecky set three of them.

For the next year, she will be the face of the American team, which is lovely, because she not only wins, she wins with great class.

On Saturday, after her final race, the 800 free, which she won in world-record time, Ledecky met with the press, then as she was walking away from a media clutch, she met up with a gaggle of red-shirted volunteers who squealed in happiness that she would take a picture with them.

Unaware that three reporters were lingering behind, Ledecky said to the volunteers, “Thanks for all the great work you do.”

Ledecky and Kerri Walsh Jennings, the beach volleyball star, are in this way always gracious and polite to seemingly everyone they meet. Maybe it’s something about Stanford, which is where Walsh Jennings went and Ledecky is due to attend.

— Phelps, assuming he sticks to his vow to keep doing the hard work that swimming absolutely demands, figures to race for gold in at least three events next summer, the 100 and 200 flys and the 200 individual medley.

Swimming this week in San Antonio, at the U.S. nationals, Phelps won the 100 fly in 50.45, the 200 in 1:52.94. Both times would have won here.

More pointedly, both victories came amid some smack-talk from the likes of Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh, winner in Kazan of the 200 fly, and South Africa’s Chad le Clos, winner here of the 100 fly.

Le Clos won Saturday in 50.56, then declared Phelps hadn’t gone that fast in years.

Oops — just hours later in San Antonio, here came that 50.45, Phelps' fastest-time ever in the event in a textile suit.

Le Clos also said here, referring to Phelps, “I’m just very happy that he’s back to his good form so he can’t come out and say, ‘Oh, I haven’t been training,’ or all that rubbish that he’s been talking. Next year is going to be Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier.”

Cseh won Wednesday in 1:53.48. Of Phelps’ 1:52.94 in San Antonio, the fastest time by any swimmer since Phelps himself in 2009, Cseh said, “It’s quite good but it doesn’t matter because I won the world championship.”

Gentlemen, we are not here to tell you what to say, or not, but history has shown repeatedly that if Phelps puts in his training blocks, you mess with fire when you blow this kind of smoke.

Ask the likes of Ian Thorpe, Ian Crocker and, famously, Milorad Cavic.

When Phelps has someone he can — in his mind — target, it has not gone well, swim-wise, for said target.

“The comments were interesting,” Phelps said Saturday in San Antonio. “It just fuels me. If you want to do it, go for it. I welcome it.”

— Lochte's victory in the 200 IM made for his fourth world championship gold in a row in the event.

At the same time, he finished fourth in the 200 free, same as in 2013 and 2012.

Lochte is for sure Mr. Reliable on the relays, where the American performance here — without Lochte or Nathan Adrian, the U.S. men failed to qualify for the 4x1 finals — showed just how valuable he is.

Here is the challenge for Lochte in the 200 IM come the U.S. Trials in Omaha and, presumably, Rio:

Phelps.

At an Olympics, the 200 IM traditionally comes on the same night as the 200 back, and thus it will be in Rio, on Thursday, Aug. 11. At previous Games, Lochte has opted to try to pull off that grueling double. In London, he took third in the 200 back, then silver — behind Phelps — in the 200 IM.

-- Connor Jaeger broke the 11-year-old American record in the 1500 on Sunday night, going 14:41.2. Larsen Jensen had gone 14:45.29 at the 2004 Athens Games.

Now for some question marks:

— This U.S. 2015 team was picked a year ago. Was that a good plan? No Caitlin Leverenz, Allison Schmitt, Jack Conger or others who might have made a difference.

— The U.S. sprinting program, excluding Adrian, needs someone to step up, and big time. No one did here.

— Tyler Clary had won a medal of some sort at the 2009, 2011 and 2013 worlds; he is the 2012 London 200 back gold medalist. Here? No medals.

-- Jaeger: That 14:41.2 earned him silver, 1.53 seconds behind Gregorio Paltrinieri of Italy, in 14:39.67. China's Sun Yang, the world record-holder and pre-race favorite, did not swim, saying he felt a heart problem -- literally his heart, not his desire to race -- before the call to the blocks. Jaeger's other Kazan races: fourth, 400 free; fourth, 800 free.

— The relays: That the U.S. men missed out on the finals of the 4x1 free is, in a word, inexcusable. The men’s 4x2 free relay finished second, the first time since 2004 the Americans had not won at a worlds or Olympics (the British took first, with Guy making up a 1.63-second deficit and then some, touching 42-hundredths ahead of Michael Weiss).

In 2001, the U.S. men won no relays. That had been the only time ever at worlds history there had been no U.S. men’s relay gold.

Thus the stakes were high for Sunday night’s medley, the Americans opting to lead off not with Matt Grevers — gold medalist in the 100 back at London 2012 and Barcelona 2013, silver medalist in the event at Beijing 2008 — but with Ryan Murphy, who threw out a 52.18 in the mixed medley relay heats.

The thinking? Larkin won the 100 back in 52.40. Murphy’s 52.18 made for the fourth-fastest time ever in the event.

Larkin kept the Americans close, third, with a 53.05; Larkin turned the race over with the Aussies in first, in 52.41. On the third leg, butterfly, Tom Shields put the Americans in first; Adrian held on to bring the Americans home to gold in 3:29.93.

Adrian's free split: 47.41.

The split for Australia's Cameron McEvoy, who was closing: 46.6.

— Dana Vollmer is back in training. She won the women’s 100 fly in London. Can she, now a new mom, make it all the way back to the top of the world stage?

— Missy Franklin? Ohmigod, she did not win every single thing she entered. What?!

Franklin did, for instance, come through, and in a big way, in that mixed 4x1 free relay, anchoring the team to victory and a world record.

As Franklin heads back home to Colorado, however, it’s clear that Ledecky is now the 200 free boss, so there’s that.

For another, Franklin was clearly not her best self here. She faded significantly on the last lap of Saturday’s 200 backstroke, a race she has owned for years. Summoned to swim the backstroke leg of the women's medley Sunday night, she managed 59.81, fifth; the Americans would end up fourth.

Franklin’s longtime coach, Todd Schmitz, told the Denver Post a few weeks ago that he has had to “rekindle” in her “the same kind of fire that I used to see.”

Franklin said Saturday she was “proud” of what she had done here, given the work she had put in over the past two months; she said she looked forward to seeing the results of a full year of going at it hard.

Plummer, meanwhile, has been chasing Rio since missing out on London 2012 by 12-hundredths of a second.

His ninth-place Monday in the 100 came while he was, literally, sick. “Have been battling a stomach bug, but I can't make any excuses,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “I have to find a way to be faster.”

On Sunday, in the 50 back, a non-Olympic event, Plummer finished eighth, of eight, in 24.95. Camille Lacourt of France won, in 24.23; Grevers took second, in 24.61.

Maybe, then, time for another quote that Plummer once cited, this one on his Facebook page, from “The Boys in the Boat,” the story of the University of Washington rowing crew that won gold at the 1936 Berlin Games:

"The trick would be to find which few of them had the potential for raw power, the nearly superhuman stamina, the indomitable willpower, and the intellectual capacity necessary to master the details of technique."

The deadline in this instance is already marked on swim calendars: the first day of the U.S. Trials in Omaha. It's Sunday, June 26, 2016.

 

Thrilled just to be at a great show

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KAZAN, Russia — The best female swimmers in the world cover 50 meters, swimming the backstroke, in about 27 seconds. Fatema Abdulmohsen Ahmed Almahme, a 16-year-old from Bahrain, did it in 40.4 in the first-round heats here Wednesday morning. She was last in a field of 52. Afterward, she was thrilled.

“It’s the biggest achievement,” she said, “because I have only been swimming for one year. I never thought about making it here.”

If it’s indisputable that the track and field world championships mark the coming together of the entire world, with athletes from 214 nations, let it be said that Kazan 2015 boasts swimmers from 189. That's up from 177 at the last edition of the swim world championships, in Barcelona in 2013.

Senegal? Mongolia? Tajikistan? Here.

Kosovo? Ethiopia? Laos? Here.

Papua New Guinea? Nicaragua? Namibia? Yep.

Giordan Harris of the Marshall Islands after his 100 free swim

Swimming’s diversity outreach — what in Olympic circles is called “universality” — is but a key facet of how all water sports have grown in popularity around the world. With exactly one year to go until the Aug. 5, 2016, start of the Rio Olympics, the water has never been more popular and never enjoyed so many opportunities.

Owing in measure to Michael Phelps, "aquatics," as the sport with its many disciples is known, has now — along with gymnastics — joined track and field in what the International Olympic Committee considers an “A” sport in terms of revenue, the top of the Olympic ladder.

Almost everyone everywhere can walk or run. Swimming, synchro, diving and water polo are obviously more problematic. FINA, swimming’s international governing body, has made concerted efforts in recent years to innovate, to make being in and around the water far more interesting and entertaining — lessons that play out in the experience not just of being in but at the meet.

These are lessons that world-class track and field, among other sports, could stand to learn.

Two years ago, for instance, FINA introduced the high-dive event, its take on action sports. It proved a huge success and now stands at the forefront of any serious discussion about additions to the Olympic program.

Miguel Garcia of Colombia competing in  the high dive // Getty Images

There are events for men and women; the men jump off a 88-foot tower, the height of a nine-story building, the women off one just a little lower. It's mandatory to enter the water feet-first -- head-first might, literally, kill you.

In Wednesday's men's final at the Kazanka River, Britain's Gary Hunt won gold. One of his dives: back three somersaults with four twists.

Tuesday's women's final saw American Rachelle Simpson -- who won the high-dive World Cup here a year ago -- take first place.

Rachelle Simpson in the women's high dive finals // Getty Images

FINA has also introduced mixed relays, men and women swimming together. That produced two world records in short order Wednesday morning -- first the Russian team, moments later the Americans. At night, the British team won, in 3:41.71, yet another world record.

Halfway through these championships, there have been 10 swimming world records. In Barcelona two years ago, just six.

Thailand's Kasipat Chograthin in the mixed relays // Getty Images

In the pool Wednesday night, Katie Ledecky added to her amazing run, winning the 200 free in 1:55.16. Italy's Federica Pellegrini took second, American Missy Franklin third.

Ledecky had already won the 400 and 1500; in the 1500, she set two world records, one in the prelims, another in the finals.

The 800, later this week, would appear to be a lock. Understand what Ledecky is doing: not since the great Australian Shane Gould in the 1970s has there been a female swimmer with the range, versatility, power -- and in-pool remorselessness, swimming with zero fear -- that Ledecky is showing here.

Britain's Adam Peaty claimed the 50 breaststroke. He became the first man ever to win the 50 and 100 breaststrokes at a worlds.

China's Sun Yang took the 800 free -- zero surprise, his third straight 800 worlds title. Earlier in the meet, he won the 400 and took second in the 200.

For spectators, Kazan 2015 has featured DJs before the evening sessions whose job it it to amp things up; cheerleaders; mascots (of course, in this instance snow leopards Itil and Alsu); and a “Boss Cam,” the Russian version of a Kiss Cam.

Outside Kazan Arena, the soccer stadium that for the run of the championships features a competition and training pool, there is what’s called “FINA Park,” with food, souvenirs and, pretty much every night, live music. The idea is to turn a swim meet into an experience with your friends or family; FINA Park has been jammed; crowds swarmed the gates just before noon Wednesday, waiting for the park to open.

The athletes — at least those who swim in the evening semifinals and finals — get individually introduced after walking from the plastic chairs in the call room through a dark hall and then out into the noise and light. It's the swimming version of coming in from the baseball bullpen.

It makes for drama and, of course, helps tell the crowd who to root for.

Even for those whose moment in the spotlight is in the morning prelims, it’s all good.

Qatar’s Noah Al-Khulaifi finished last in the men’s 200 fly prelims, at 2:26.71; it was a long way from there up the ranking list to Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh, who recorded the top qualifying time, 1:53.53, and would go on Wednesday night to win the finals over South Africa's Chad le Clos. No matter. Noah, a teen-ager who had felt sick on the plane trip in from Moscow to Kazan, was adopted as a crowd favorite, including an American contingent led by the U.S. standout Conor Dwyer’s parents, Pat and Jeanne.

For 20-year-old Mark Hoare of the African nation of Swaziland, finishing at 59.62 in the 100 free prelims — in 106th place, more than 11 seconds behind the top qualifier, China’s Ning Zelao, at 48.11 — couldn’t have been better.

“It’s an experience unlike any other,” he said. “It’s a great experience meeting the other athletes. And FINA has made us all feel equal.”

He said of his moment under the lights, “I was thinking who at home is watching me. They had better be watching me!”

These championships indisputably underscore the increasingly global reach of swimming. Consider the start lists for the first two heats (of seven) of the men’s 100 backstroke -- not freestyle, the most basic stroke, but the even more technically demanding backstroke.

Heat 1: Lebanon, Kenya, Nicaragua, Uganda, Bangladesh, Qatar, Myanmar, Bahrain, Jordan and the Cook Islands.

Heat 2: Botswana, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Mexico, Macedonia, Jamaica, Morocco, Namibia, the United Arab Emirates and the Dominican Republic.

There is, of course, the matter of swimming. And it is hard to swim 100 meters — two laps of the pool.

Ethiopia’s Robel Kiros Habte, at 1:04.41, finished 115th — out of 115 swimmers — in the 100 free prelims. “The last 50 meters was much too hard for me,” he said.

Then again, he vowed to stick with it: “I want to be famous.”

Giordon Harris of the Marshall Islands finished 99th, in 57.75. This was his third FINA worlds, after Barcelona 2013 and Shanghai 2011. He also competed in the London 2012 Games, in the 50 free, placing 46th.

“This is all I look forward to, all I train for,” he said. “I get to see people I idolize, or I have on posters,” ticking off Brazil’s Cesar Cielho and American Ryan Lochte. “These are the people I see on YouTube. Here I get to swim in the same pool, ride the same bus. It’s a dream come true.”

The Marshall Islands is a remote place, out in the Pacific Ocean, roughly 2,100 miles southwest of Honolulu.

Harris, 22, hails from an atoll called Ebeye. To swim in a pool, he has to go to another island, Kwajalein, 35 miles away, where there’s a U.S. army base. He’s allowed in to the pool, which he said is the only one in the country, three days a week. “Other than that,” he said, “I swim in a lagoon.”

In Bahrain, 16-year-old Fatema said, it’s a struggle still for young women to swim competitively: “Not many know about it.”

When she goes home, she will be in 11th grade. Here, she said, “I learned many things. I have to learn from the best to one day be like them.”

Of fear, failure and world-record brilliance

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KAZAN, Russia — Bobbing in the warmup pool before the start of Tuesday night’s finals, a black-and-red swim cap bore this declaration: “Your own worst enemy is your fear.”

For years and years, swimmers from other nations — even if they didn’t want to admit it and would never say so in public — feared the mighty U.S. swim team. This 2015 world championships is only three days old, and there is plenty of racing to go, but one thing, more than anything, is already clear: the fear is gone.

The rest of the world has for sure caught up to the United States.

Indeed, swimmers from other countries have proven themselves better than the Americans, and in a number of disciplines, a dramatic trend that has emerged as the No. 1 story at Kazan 2015, and could hold significant consequence for next year’s Rio 2016 Olympics.

On Monday, the U.S. went medal-less in three finals.

On Tuesday, American swimmers came up empty in the men’s 200 freestyle — Ryan Lochte, fourth — and the women’s 100 backstroke — Missy Franklin, fifth, and Kathleen Baker, eighth.

Katie Ledecky with her 1500 free gold medal // Getty Images

The Americans did salvage one non-Katie Ledecky medal — Matt Grevers’ third-place in the men’s 100 backstroke. Grevers had been the defending champion in the 100 back from Barcelona 2013 and the London 2012 Games.

His bronze marked the first medal of the meet for U.S. men.

The 18-year-old Ledecky has stamped herself at these championships as the No. 1 swimmer in the world. Zero question. Every race is a chance at a world record.

On Tuesday night, Ledecky demolished the world record in the 1500 free final that she herself had set in the prelims the day before.

Monday: 15:27.71.

Tuesday: 15:25.48, 2.23 seconds faster. She won the race by more than 14 seconds over Lauren Boyle of New Zealand, 15:40.14.

That made for her ninth world record — in the 1500, 800 or 400 — since 2013. Ninth!

Ledecky’s stats verge on the outrageous.

Her time Tuesday is a full 24-plus seconds under the qualifying mark for U.S. men for the 2016 Olympic Trials, 15:49.99. A Belgian journalist, Philippe Vande Weyer, who knows the Olympic scene well, said on his Twitter feed that Ledecky’s time Tuesday would have won the Belgian men’s championships by 52 seconds.

Some 29 minutes after the 1500 final, Ledecky was back into the water for a punishing double, bidding to qualify for Wednesday night’s 200 free final. Eighth at 100, seventh at 150, she raced the last 50 meters hard, finishing third in her heat for the sixth-best time over the two semis, 1:56.76.

Franklin advanced as well, with the second-best time, 1:56.37.

Missy Franklin, left, and Katie Ledecky at the close of the 200 free semis // Getty Images

Of the 1500, Ledecky said afterward, she thought during the race about both her grandfathers, both passed away, mindful that her two grandmothers were “watching carefully” back home: “I thought about my grandpas at one point in the race, and dug deep.”

Before the 200, she said, her “legs kind of felt like jello,” surprising because, as she said, “I barely kicked in the mile,” what swimmers call the 1500.

Jello, for those intrigued by what someone with Ledecky’s cool uses for fuel, had not been on the menu beforehand. At noon, she’d had pesto pasta, rice, green beans and some bread. At 2:45, more pasta: “I always have pasta before a final.”

In the 200, she said, “I dove in and my arms felt really really sore and my legs felt better than my arms, so I knew I had to kick. I toughed my way through that race and I couldn’t be more pleased with how that went.”

She also said of her brutal double and world-record 1500 swim, “I wasn’t afraid to fail.”

The U.S. medal count after three days: four, two gold, two bronze.

Ledecky has both golds: the 1500 and 400, which she won Sunday in setting a meet (but not world) record. The bronze medals: Grevers and the women’s 4x100 relay team.

Great Britain and Australia lead the medals count, each with five.

Britain’s emergence offers emphatic proof of how the world has changed. At the Barcelona 2013 worlds, the British won one medal, a bronze.

You have to go back to 1986, and the days of Communism, to find a swim worlds in which the U.S. did not win the overall medal count. That year, the East Germans won, with 30; the Americans came in second, with 24.

There is zero doubt that over the decades the U.S. has been the dominant power in world championships swimming. Coming into Kazan 2015, the U.S. had won the most medals (and by far), with 418; Australia had 152. Same goes for the gold-medal count: U.S. 231, Australia 58.

The Americans’ real edge has come in world championship years the year before an Olympics. See, for instance, 2011 Shanghai (29 medals, 16 gold); 2007 Melbourne (36 medals, 20 gold, as Michael Phelps geared up for Beijing 2008); Barcelona 2003 (28 overall, 11 gold).

Phelps is not in Kazan as part of the fallout from his drunk-driving case.

Meanwhile, evidence of how much better the rest of the world has become was all around Tuesday:

— Seven world records have already been set at Kazan 2015, bettering the mark set by the end of  Barcelona two years ago, where there were six. Ledecky has two; the rest of the world, five.

— Before Tuesday, no female swimmer from New Zealand had ever won a gold or silver at the worlds in any event. Boyle and Zoe Baker had been the only women from New Zealand to win a worlds medal — bronze, five in all. Boyle’s silver in the 1500 made for a first.

— In Tuesday morning’s prelims of the men’s 50 breaststroke, South Africa’s Cameron Van Der Burgh broke the world record. At night, Britain’s Adam Peaty — in the first of two semifinals — lowered it again, down to 26.42.

American Kevin Cordes set an American record in the semis, 26.76. Peaty, in the next lane, went a full three-tenths faster over a mere 50 meters.

Peaty, afterward: "The morning swim was easy, and I knew this was just the 50-meter race, not my main event," the 100, which he has already won here, "so I didn’t have any pressure. This made this semi also really easy for me."

— The top three in the men’s 200 free: James Guy of Britain, 1:45.14; China’s Sun Yang, 1:45.20; Germany’s Paul Biedermann, 1:45.38.

The men's 200 free podium: Paul Biedermann (Germany) left; James Guy (Britain), center; Sun Yang (China), right

Guy’s victory not only denied Sun the chance for a four-peat: the 400 (which Sun won on Sunday), as well as the 800 and 1500, in which he is a strong favorite.

The win also established Guy as one of the middle-distance favorites for 2016. He took second, behind Sun, on Sunday in the 400.

Guy is 19 years old, and will now hold forever the distinction of being the first British male ever to win a worlds freestyle title. He said of winning, “I’ve never thought I could reach that -- beyond making the final. With so many great swimmers around, Chad [le Clos] ... Ryan, Sun who are my idols … My tactics were just swim my own race, concentrate on myself and that worked.”

For his part, Lochte’s fourth matched the fourths he registered in the 200 from Barcelona 2013 worlds as well as the London 2012 Olympics in the 200 free. He said afterward he just needed to train harder.

— Grevers' third-place Tuesday, in 52.66, came in a tight race. He finished behind Mitchell Larkin of Australia, 52.40, and Camille Lacourt of France, 52.48.

Grevers, after: “I’m very surprised I lost the back half of that. That’s not how I train. I train to finish. I don’t train to die. I practice living, not dying. So dying there was very disappointing.”

— Franklin is the gold medalist in the 100 back at London 2012 and Barcelona 2013 (as well as gold medalist in the 200 free two years ago). On Tuesday night’s in the 100 back, she managed 59.4, more than a second behind winner Emily Seebohm of Australia, 58.26. Second, another Australian, Madison Wilson. Third, Denmark’s Mie Oe Nielsen. Fourth, China’s Fu Yuanhui.

Franklin said, “I have literally done everything I could have possibly done the past two months to be prepared for this meet. No excuses. I was at 59.4 and that’s obviously where I am right now.”

— Here was the field for the women’s 100 breaststroke final: Italy, Japan, Jamaica, Russia, Lithuania, China, Sweden and Iceland. Jamaica! Iceland!

Russia’s Yulia Efimova won the race, in 1:05.66, and Kazan Arena rocked hard a few minutes later as the crowd sang the national anthem.

It’s well-known in swim circles that Efimova trained in Los Angeles, at USC. Iceland’s Hrafnhildur Luthersdottir trained in Florida, at Gainesville.

This sort of thing has been going on for years and years, and it’s not going to change, nor should it — athletes from all over the world coming to the United States for opportunity.

At the same time, a variety of factors might explain why the Americans find themselves looking up at the end of races and not finding the familiar “1” next to the red, white and blue:

— Phelps isn’t here. He’s not only the best swimmer in U.S. history but had emerged in recent years as a genuine team leader.

— The Americans have long had a disdain for non-Olympic events such as the 50 sprints (everything but free: fly, breast, back) and new events such as mixed relays. The conversation should be had, and soon, about whether that focus deserves intense review.

Outside of Nathan Adrian, it’s hard to pick anyone in the U.S. sprint program who seems like a sure lock for a medal, men or women.

— The U.S. team for Kazan 2015 was picked a year ago. There were athletes who raced at the recent Pan-American Games in Toronto who should have been here, and vice-versa.

Such a selection policy deserves, again, review.

— And, perhaps most of all, there’s the fear factor. Or, better, the lack of it.

Tyler Clary, the 200 backstroke gold medalist from London 2012, finished 12th in the 200 fly semifinals Tuesday, an event in which one American — Tom Shields, eighth — qualified for the finals.

For years, Phelps ruled the 200 fly. Now, until proven otherwise, le Clos is the man. The South African turned in a solid second-place effort in Tuesday’s semis, behind Hungarian veteran Laszlo Cheh.

Clary said after the race that, big picture, Kazan 2015 ought to be considered a “rehearsal” for Rio 2016, that results here “ought to be taken with a grain of salt.”

He said, “Regardless of what the medal counts might look like, and we’re not having the most excellent meet Team USA has ever had … at the end of the day, all that matters is how we do next summer.”

Asked if the rest of the world had caught up with the Americans, Clary said, “I can agree with that.”

The next question — did swimmers from everywhere else no long fear the mighty Americans?

“It’s not my place,” he said, “to comment on the psyche of other swimmers. Maybe, maybe not.” He paused. “They certainly don’t swim like it.”

No Michael Phelps but Katie Ledecky is so good

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KAZAN, Russia — No Michael Phelps but when you have Katie Ledecky, you get records. So maybe the only ones happier than Ledecky after she set a world championships record Sunday night in the 400-meter freestyle was, well, everyone who  wondered, exactly, what this meet would be like without Phelps, the one and only. All sports need big stars, and in the absence of Phelps, beyond doubt the biggest name in swim history, Ledecky showed Sunday — again — why she is one of the most gifted, truly thrilling athletes in the Olympic scene.

Moreover, and perhaps just in time for a world turned too-skeptical about Olympic sports because of story after story of athletes caught using performance-enhancing drugs, track and field again engulfed over the weekend in a potentially wide-ranging scandal, with Katie Ledecky there’s never a doping worry. Take it to the bank: she is 110 percent racing clean.

Ledecky raced to victory in 3:59.13, breaking the world championships record by two-hundredths of a second. Her time, the third-fastest ever, was just a beat or two shy of her own world record, 3:58.37.

Katie Ledecky with her 400 free gold // Getty Images

Her race marked the much-anticipated highlight of the first of eight nights of racing from Kazan 2015. Also Sunday night:

— In the semifinals of the women’s 100 butterfly, Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom did set a world-record, going 55.74, breaking the mark of 55.98 that American Dana Vollmer set at the London 2012 Olympics.

— In the second semifinal of the men’s 50 breaststroke, Britain’s Adam Peaty also set a championship mark, 58.18, just moments after South Africa’s Cameron van der Burgh had set the mark at 58.49 in semifinal one. Peaty holds the world record, 57.92, set in April at the British nationals.

— In the men’s 400 free, China’s Sun Yang — who last year served a three-month doping ban — reclaimed his place on the world stage, winning emphatically in 3:42.58. After touching first, he bellowed in exultation and wagged his index finger to remind one and all who, in men’s distance, is No. 1.

At the 2013 worlds in Barcelona, Sun won the 400, 800 and 1500 frees.

For swim geeks, this freaky note: Sun’s time was precisely the same, to the second, that Ian Thorpe hit to win the 400 free at the 2003 world championships.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Sun first played it supremely cool:

“First of all, I would like to offer congratulations to my country. They just won the bid for 2022. I would like to take this opportunity to promote these Olympic Games and to jog attention from media worldwide.”

Then, asked about his doping matter, he delivered a mini-soliloquy — but only after asking first what country the journalist asking the question was from (Switzerland).

Sun Yang leaves no doubt: he is No. 1 in the 400 // Getty Images

“I don’t understand,” he said, “why the media pays this much attention to this. The world always thinks that whenever a Chinese athlete gets a good result, we have used some drugs. For Chinese athletes, we are training very hard, as are athletes in other countries.

“There is absolutely no doubt that … doping cases are happening in other countries as well, for example the Australia team. But I don’t understand why the media pay so much attention and over-promote this story. I think,” he said, “it’s a lack of respect.”

A moment later, he added, “I hope media all over the world can have a fair attitude toward Chinese athletes. Don’t treat us as the enemy. Treat us fairly.”

— As Sunday night’s racing wound to a close, the Australian women’s 4x100 relay team — no allegation of anything amiss — set another championship mark, winning big in 3:31.48, 24-hundredths under the old mark, set by the Netherlands at the 2009 Rome championships. Here the Dutch took second, in 3:33.67. The Americans, with Missy Franklin swimming leadoff, took third, in 3:34.61.

As for Phelps, with 22 Olympic medals, 18 gold:

You think the U.S. effort missed him Sunday? The U.S. men’s 4x100 relay team — a perennial medal contender in an event that is for Phelps virtually a crusade for red, white and blue pride, one in which he typically swims lead-off — finished 11th in Sunday morning’s prelims, in 3:16.01, nowhere near good enough to make the top-eight for the nighttime finals.

That marked the first time, dating to 1973, the American men missed the world championship final of a 4x100 free. Indeed, with one exception, 2001 in Fukuoka, Japan, the Americans had made the 4x100 podium; in that 2001 race, the Americans  finished third but ended up getting disqualified for using a swimmer whose name was not on the entry list.

Meanwhile, the Australian men also got shut out; the Aussies finished 13th in Sunday’s qualifying, at 3:16.34.

So another first: Kazan 2015 made for the first worlds at which neither the Americans nor Australians would medal in the men’s 4x100 relay.

To underscore the import of Sunday’s subpar relay performance and the challenge ahead for the U.S. men’s 4x100 relay:

Taking out the 2001 DQ: that 3:16.01 made for the slowest by a U.S. 4x100 relay team at a world championships since 1998, 3:16.69.

It ought to be abundantly clear now to USA Swimming officials that there needs to be, for the relay, this strategy: an A team, the one that swims in the night finals, and an A-minus squad for the morning prelims, the one that at least gets you top-eight. In addition, there needs to be A-plus training and preparation — qualities that clearly were not Sunday in evidence.

Relying on anything else — you need four guys who can swim 48 seconds, consistently — simply won’t do, given the way the rest of the world has caught up.

Consider the eight teams in Sunday’s final: Poland, Japan, Italy, Russia, Brazil, France, Canada and China.

France won, just as in London 2012 and Barcelona 2013, here in 3:10.74. Russia, pushed by a screaming home crowd, grabbed second, in 3:11.19. Italy took third, in 3:12.53, its first 4x100 worlds medal since 2007.

It's like Christmas in August for the third-place  Italian relay team: Luca Dotto, Marco Orsi, Michele Santucci and Filippo Magnini // Getty Images

Moreover, the wisdom of keeping Phelps home seriously has to — once again — be questioned. He has done his out-of-the-pool time, part of the deal sparked by his drunk-driving suspension. The value of not having him here, months later and after he has undergone weeks of isolation and reflection that seem life-changing, is — what? Particularly when Phelps, given his import in world-class relays, will be swimming this very same week at the U.S. championships in San Antonio?

Where is the logic? How does not having Phelps here further serve him? Or U.S. interests, swim and Olympic?

There had been great hopes from many in influential swim circles that Phelps and USA Swimming would be able to find a way to get him here to Kazan 2015. Again, all sports need stars. It’s that elemental. And he assuredly would have loved to have been here. In the midst of his self-proclaimed retirement, he sat out the 2013 worlds, in Barcelona — though he was there, at the meet, texting in real time to longtime coach Bob Bowman thoughts on the U.S. relay 4x100 relay as it finished second.

No compromise could be reached, however.

The good news for the Americans: 11th is good enough to make the Rio 2016 relay line-up (top 12).

The not good: U.S. prospects for the 2016 Games in the 4x100 relay can now best be described as a — in a word — situation.

Without Phelps, it was always clear coming into Kazan that expectations would fall on Ledecky, Franklin and Ryan Lochte to command the spotlight for the U.S. team.

Every time Ledecky swims, the world record is at risk, and in races where such marks had been standards for many years, in particular the 400, 800 and 1500. She is due to swim the 200 free here as well.

For anyone else, this would be crazy talk; a world-record possibility in every swim.

Ledecky, though, is so crazy good that she turns races that are something like four, eight or 14 minutes long into incredible theater.

With Ledecky on the blocks, it’s not whether she’s going to win. She’s a near lock to win. The issue now is by how much, and will there be a meet or world record?

In Sunday morning’s prelims, she flirted with the world record through 200 meters, then eased off, treating the final 200 like a training swim. She touched first in her heat in the prelim in 4:01.73, the morning’s fastest time. Jessica Ashwood of Australia turned in the morning’s second-best: it was 2.74 seconds behind Ledecky.

Going into Sunday night, the 400 world record stood at 3:58.37. Ledecky set that mark last Aug. 23, at the Pan Pacific championships in Gold Coast, Australia. Before that, the world record had stood at 3:58.86; Ledecky did that at the U.S. championships just 14 days beforehand.

In case the numbers all get to be too much: last year, Ledecky set the world record, then lowered it again by about a half-second, all within two weeks.

Some more big-picture context:

Camille Muffat of France won the 400 at the London 2012 Olympics. Muffat was among 10 people killed in a helicopter crash in March in Argentina; her death lent additional poignancy to Sunday’s race.

Before Ledecky went off last year, the 400 mark had stood for five years — Federica Pellegrini, 3:59.15, at the Rome 2009 championships, the first women’s 400 sub-4 swim in history. Before that, it had been lowered only five times in the years since Janet Evans went 4:03.85 in September, 1988, at the Seoul Olympics.

Ledecky won the 800 at London 2012.

In Barcelona in 2013, she won the 400, 800 and 1500. She and Sun were named female and male athletes of the meet.

At last year’s Pan Pacs, she won four freestyle events — 200, 400, 800 and 1500 — and added gold in the 4x200 relay.

That’s one way to measure her progression, how ridiculously good she has become.

Here’s another:

Her 400 prelim times at major meets over the past three years: Barcelona, 4:03.05. PanPacs: 4:03.09. Kazan: 4:01.73.

Or how about this:

Going into Sunday's race, of the all-time top-10 performances in the 400, Ledecky held six of them, including five of the top six. All five are under 4 minutes.

On Sunday night, she put herself in position for another world mark. She was a second under world record pace at 200 meters, 18-hundredths under at 300.

On the seventh lap, she slipped just a little bit — 31-flat, her only lap in 31. Coming home, she reached out for a 29.57, good enough for that world championships record, just shy of the world mark.

Ashwood finished third, at 4:03.34. Sharon Van Rouwendaal of the Netherlands took second, in 4:03.02.

It’s a testament to Ledecky’s excellence that when she “only” breaks the world championships record but not the world record itself, she gets asked if she’s disappointed — and if it’s annoying or, in its way, flattering to be asked if she gets disappointed.

“It is very flattering,” she said late Sunday. “You know, it’s a great honor for me that you expect or hope for a world record each time I swim. Because, I guess, that’s based on what I have done in the past.

“That is a pretty neat thing for me. I won’t get annoyed at any of you. You keep doing what you do and I will keep doing what I do.”

Which is race super-fast — 3:59.13, Ledecky said, is “a swim I can be really happy with.”