The pool at Barcelona’s Palau Sant Jordi witnessed the beginning of Michael Phelps’ hegemony of the sport during the 2003 World Championships, a reign that lasted a decade. When he won his final Olympic gold in London last year he left behind a transformed sport and a considerable set of skin-tight Speedos to fill.
On Friday in Barcelona a new era began in Montjuïc where today’s stars of the sport will share out the legacy of a colossus of swimming at the 2013 Fina World Championships, which run until August 4. Phelps’ legacy is a sport that has grown in popularity, sponsorship, and innovative training methods, with a more egalitarian power base: the USA, Australia, Russia and Germany have lost some ground to countries like China, Brazil and France. A new world order that will characterize these championships.
American Ryan Lochte is the most dynamic swimmer in the world at the moment, but the 28-year-old with 12 World and five Olympic golds will be pushed by rising stars Sun Yang, Yannick Agnel, Jeremy Stravius, Camille Lacourt, Kosuke Hagino and Chad le Clos. In the women’s half, Mireia Belmonte, Missy Franklin, Ye Shiwen, Camille Muffat, Ruta Meylutite and Kate Ledecky have revitalized competition.
Spain has also gained its place in the top tier with swimmers such as Erika Villaéjica, Melanie Costa, Mercedes Peris and Duane de Rocha achieving podium places to bolster the nation’s traditional feeding ground of the synchronized disciplines. But it could be said that the difference between irrelevance and importance is the responsibility of Belmonte.
The double Olympic silver medalist put Spanish swimming on the map last summer. The Badalona-born swimmer possesses a curious combination of pure physical talent and devotion to the pool; talents that combined with the ambition of her singular coach, Fred Vergnoux, have produced the most adventurous program of the 2013 Championships. Belmonte will compete in the 200m and 400m medleys, the 200m butterfly and the 400m, 800m and 1,500m freestyles, a punishing display of versatility and strength that few athletes can match.
The mere notion of testing her speed against Ye Shiwen in the sprints and her durability against Kate Ledecky in the distance races speaks volumes about the Spanish team’s determination to match the 11 medals it obtained in Rome in 2009.
“I’ll take inspiration from London,” Belmonte said.
Villaéjica is pushing herself no less than Belmonte, doubling up in the pool and in the open water. “I did it on London and I’ll do it again here,” the 29-year-old said. “I’m sure I can be up there.”
In London, the electric Ye won both medleys with such authority she broke the 400m world record, which led to some controversy over the methods of preparation used by the China team. Ledecky showed all the signs of being a genuine prodigy, having won Olympic gold by a country mile in the 800m freestyle at the age of 15.
Belmonte’s marathon six-event challenge has no equal, but Franklin comes pretty close. The figurehead of the USA women’s team will race in four individual events, having topped the times at the national trials in Indianapolis in the 100m and 200m freestyle and backstroke. Ledecky did the same in the 400m, 800m and 1,500m freestyle.
At 18 years of age, Franklin is already a double Olympic backstroke champion and she will also be required to pick up the slack left by the absence of Allison Schmitt in the relays.
Lochte will have to do the same for the USA, with Australia, France and Russia pushing for the medals as well. The Rochester, New York-born swimmer is the paradigm of professionalism in the sport. The 11-times Olympic medalist has extended his career and widened his appeal via modeling work for Ralph Lauren and his own reality television show. Lochte also won all his events at trials and no signs of slowing down as he attempts to maintain the inheritance handed him by Phelps.