The mark of champions

Caeleb Dressel, Adam Peaty, Katie Ledecky, Sarah Sjostrom and Lilly King were the standout performers at the 2017 World Championships. It was indeed a tribute to their extraordinary willpower and unflagging focus.

On top of the world... Caeleb Remel Dressel of the United States on winning the men’s 100m butterfly final at the World Championships in Budapest. With a total of seven gold medals, he equalled Michael Phelps’ record achieved at the 2007 Melbourne World Championships.   -  Getty Images

After achieving all that he could in the swimming pool, Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, took it upon himself to race a great white shark (or so we thought). The American swimmer had won plenty of medals, rewritten multiple records, and bid adieu to the sport one last time at the Rio Olympics a year ago. His records and achievements seemed fit for adulation, not emulation. But compatriot Caeleb Dressel had his own plans to implement around the same time.

At the 2017 FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, Dressel erased multiple records and stamped his name alongside Phelps as the only swimmers to win seven titles in a World Championship. He had mixed relay events to increase his tally, but the performance was worthy of applause to say the least.

Adam Peaty of Great Britain is jubilant after winning the men’s 50m breaststroke in a world record time of 25.95s.   -  Getty Images

Dressel begs not to be compared to his idol or call him his successor. His feats, though, tell a different story. Only 20, the University of Florida student collected gold medals in the 50m and 100m freestyle events, 100m butterfly, 4x100m freestyle relay, 4x100m medley relay, 4x100m freestyle mixed relay and 4x100m medley mixed relay. It gave him a grand total of seven gold medals, a feat Phelps achieved at the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne. Dressel had another spectacular record to boast of: he became the first athlete to collect three gold medals in a day at the World Championships, and he did all that in a span of 98 minutes!

This couldn’t have happened solely because of the innovations in swimwear. It requires a lot more than a scientifically engineered piece of clothing; it requires loads of stamina and extraordinary willpower to go with an unwavering focus on the target.

Great Britain’s Adam Peaty, for his part, stunned everyone by rewriting the 50m breaststroke world record twice in a day — first in the heats and then in the semifinals. He went home with two gold medals and a silver, reaffirming his status as the sprint specialist.

Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom finished with two gold medals less than Katie Ledecky, who bagged five, but managed to break two world records in the process and earn herself the Best Female Swimmer award.

Katie Ledecky with the 800m freestyle gold medal. The American won five gold medals and a silver and yet said the Budapest Worlds was not her best meet.   -  AP

USA’s Lilly King (50m and 100m breaststroke) and Canada’s Kylie Masse (100m backstroke) added to the 11 world records that were established at the biggest swimming competition in the world after the Olympics. An additional 10 championship records were also set during the meet.

That records are broken is the norm in sport. But in swimming, records are set by the truckload at every major meet. Though scientific training may have contributed to this in good measure, the swimmers have also been aided by the overzealous swimwear manufacturers who constantly push the envelope in terms of innovation in design. The combination reached its zenith in 2009, with bodysuits made of polyurethane or other non-textile material helping the swimmers to break 43 world records at the Rome World Championships.

Research established that “full-body, technical suits were worn by all of the athletes who broke world records at the FINA championship meet (in 2009). These technical suits were able to reduce drag, improve buoyancy, and enhance body compression — all of which could separately or jointly account for improved performance.”

The world body (FINA) realised that the technology and design were beginning to supersede the athlete’s skill and banned non-textile swimsuits. Stricter fabric length restrictions were also enforced while doing away with full-body swimsuits from 2010.

In the immediate long course World Championship (2011), only two world records were broken. The subsequent years of the biennial championships saw six and 11 world marks being set. The latest championship also saw 11 records being rewritten.

“When the bodysuits were banned in 2010, the swimming field went back by 1-1.5 seconds in 100m. They were at least half a second slower. Swimmers are now training harder and getting stronger. Since they are again on a record-breaking spree, it shows they are doing much better than what they were doing during the bodysuit era,” said Sandeep Sejwal, the Incheon Asian Games bronze medallist.

Sarah Sjostrom exults after winning the women’s 50m freestyle. The Swede, who broke two world records in the meet, was adjudged the Best Female Swimmer.   -  AP

It has been seven years since the ban, but trust the swimwear giants like Speedo, who are also crucial to the sustenance of the aqua sport, to keep dishing out better performing suits while adhering to the regulations.

That, Sejwal agreed, has partly helped in the transformation of the swimmers. “It’s been a long time and technology is getting better and better. They are making better suits which are efficient and water repellent but not tampering with the natural buoyancy. It is definitely not helping as much as the old bodysuit,” said the national champion and multiple national record-holder in the breaststroke events.

However, according to Sejwal, it is not the technisuits that are helping the swimmers excel and break records these days. He attributes their successes to the vastly different training and recovery mechanisms that are in place now. “People are definitely getting stronger. They are trying out different things with their workouts instead of just training hard all the time. They are focusing on recovery and other aspects of fitness,” he said.

He explained: “If you see the U.S. team, they are working on the recovery now more than ever. They have a lot of recovering techniques like cryotherapy. An hour spent on that is equal to four hours of sleep. They are basically recovering four times faster. There have been a lot of cupping, needling and deep tissue massages that are helping them recover.”

The U.S. team finished with 18 gold and 38 medals overall, with Great Britain coming second with four gold and seven medals overall. “If you follow them (medal-winning swimmers) on Instagram or Facebook, you will see they are focusing on the recovery techniques. Everybody is using different kinds of methods to recover,” Sejwal said.

That probably explains how Dressel managed to win three back-to-back gold medals and Peaty came up with two of the fastest swims in a single day.

As of today, only four women’s world records, set in the pre-2009 era, stand, with the likes of Katinka Hosszu (she has eight records to her credit), Sarah Sjostrom, Katie Ledecky and Lilly King helping restore the balance between human excellence and technology. Though reports suggested an equal advantage for men and women during the bodysuit era, 14 of the men’s world records set during 2008-2009 still remain unconquered. But they are getting closer to the mark.

Only 20, Ledecky has already become the most successful female athlete at the world championships with 14 gold medals. She aimed for six gold medals to beat Missy Franklin’s record in a single championship, but had to ‘settle’ for five golds in the freestyle events (400m, 800m and 1500m, 4x100m and 4x200m) and a silver in the 200m freestyle, with world record holder Federica Pellegrini of Italy hitting the final mark first.

“Hasn’t been the best meet for me, but I’m still happy with my swims,” Ledecky told NBC of what was actually her best tournament in terms of medals haul.

After all, she didn’t set any records and experienced her first loss at the Worlds. Her becoming the most successful female athlete of all time was pretty much overshadowed by the drop in pace of her race wins. But Ledecky still belongs to the post-2009 era and still has three world records under her name.

Just in case you were wondering, India too featured in the list of 183 countries that participated in the World Championships. Sayani Ghosh, Madhu P.S., Sajan Prakash and Damini Gowda participated in the pool events. Their performances showed that India is still a long way from making a splash in the world.