Britain’s swimmers kick off their world championships campaign in Gwangju tomorrow, looking to maintain a run of success over the past few years that has seen them garner impressive hauls of medals at every level. But in this pre-Olympic year the competition will be as tough as it gets outside the Games themselves and there will be many questions to be answered over eight days of competition; here are a few.
He’s been Britain’s medal machine for the past five years, winning almost every long course title possible since he burst onto the scene at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. In the 100m his dominance at last year’s European Championships, where he set yet another world record in controversial circumstances, suggests he will still have more than enough to remain on the top step of the podium, but it’s not so clear cut in the 50m event. That was where he finally appeared human in 2018, being pipped by Cameron van de Burgh in the Commonwealth Games and the margins have gotten even tighter since.
Peaty finds himself in the unusual position of heading into the meet not at the top of the rankings, in fact he’s not even second. His season’s best of 26.49 has been bettered this year by Brazilians Felipe Lima and Joao Gomes Jr, leaving him languishing (relatively speaking) in third place. If you were a betting man you would probably still back Peaty, but the odds would be longer than they perhaps would have been for years. One thing is for sure, when the battle is on, the world record could be in danger.
Beyond Peaty, Britain took two world titles in Budapest and the winners of those will both be in South Korea to defend them. Ben Proud has been ripping up the pool of late, but not so much in he 50 butterfly, the event he defends his title in. That’s not to say he has been slow, but the event has moved on a bit since he topped the podium and he enters this competition ranked 6th in the world. A medal is not out of the question, but his better chance probably comes in the the 50m freestyle. Proud has been seriously rapid here, posting a scorching 21.11 last year, the fastest ever seen in textile. His showdown with the defending champ Caeleb Dressel promises to be one of the highlights of the meet.
The other defender is the men’s 4 x 200m freestyle team who are chasing a three-peat of world titles. All signs are good with Duncan Scott on top form at trials and James Guy set to reprise his relay superhero role. They will likely be joined by Tom Dean and Calum Jarvis but Cameron Kurle may have something to say – he, like Jarvis, is in Korea for relays only and a heat swim may allow him to force his way into the final reckoning. It won’t be easy though; the US and Russia will be strong as always, while Australia have been making moves too, but that gold medal remains tantalisingly possible. Don’t miss that final.
Unusually Britain has a full complement of relays entered, including both the men and women in the 4 x 100m free and the mixed equivalent – events that have recently passed off without any GB representation. It may be that they don’t actually swim, but it could be that Bill Furniss and Chris Spice want to qualify teams for Tokyo (the top 12 here make it to the Olympics) and the overall team selection supports that – on the men’s side Scott Mclay, Kurle and Jarvis are relay only swimmers and a swim in the 4×1 would allow give James Guy a chance of an early hit out given he has dropped the 400m freestyle.
It’s rather less clear who might fill out a women’s sprint relay beyond Freya Anderson and Anna Hopkin, but the mixed version could see a finals chance. However, regardless of podium potential, it will be good to see more teams swimming, so it’s to be hoped they all do get that chance.
In Budapest the women’s team didn’t return a single podium finish, which was an unusual turn of events in recent GB history. They will want to reverse that this time of course, with several chances to do so. Alys Thomas will want to return to her world leading 200m butterfly form of 2018 and if she does so then a medal is a strong possibility, while the first day gives Siobhan Marie O’Connor, who remains one of the best medley swimmers in the world, the chance to show she is back on track after a difficult couple of seasons. Evergreen Georgia Davies will also fancy her chances over 50m backstroke, but beyond that trio it’s hard to see where medals may come from and it may be more about setting up Olympic campaigns.
2015 saw Peaty cement his global credentials and James Guy announce himself on the world stage. 2017 gave Ben Proud the chance to do the same. Could 2019 be the year for Duncan Scott? It sounds slightly odd to say that about a swimmer with a hatful of international medals, but this could be the year for Scott to do the business individually on the global stage, the 200m freestyle perhaps his best bet of doing so.
But who else might be the breakout stars this time? There are a number of new names on the team sheet but it’s hard to predict from that bunch who might step up at this level. Amongst more familiar names, do watch out for Tom Dean in the 200IM, Freya Anderson in the 200 free and James Wilby in the breaststroke events. Wilby is perhaps the most likely to raise himself up after a stellar 2018 and this is the perfect chance for him to demonstrate he is a force to be reckoned with for 2020.