Pre-Olympic year often has the sense of a dress rehearsal as heads are turned towards the Games looming inexorably on the horizon. But that also means that, as well as medals to be won, there are markers to be laid down, challenges to be made and lessons to be learnt. Amongst it all there was some fantastic swimming from Britain’s swimmers, making the job of picking out the leading lights anything but straightforward. But here are the Pullbuoy swimmers of the year for 2019.
Let’s be honest, who else could it be? We have long run out of superlatives for the achievements of Adam Peaty and 2019 only served to exhaust the supply even further. A third successive world championships breaststroke double in the 50m and 100m was augmented by bronze in the mixed medley relay, a futher gold in the equivalent men’s race and of course that world record – but more of that anon.
Adam finished the year heading up London Roar’s challenge for the International Swimming League title – that may have fallen just short in the final, but as far as his individual hopes are concerned, a stellar 2019 has left his rivals in little doubt that he remains the man to beat in Tokyo.
We had seen the relay pedigree and the racer’s instincts of Freya Anderson in abundance in 2018 and we had cause to marvel at them again as she brought home Britain’s mixed medley relay to a bronze medal at the world championships. But this was the year we started to see Freya the individual performer come to the fore on the senior international stage. There was a maiden appearance in a world championship final in the 100m freestyle, along with a PB of 53.31 which moved her up to 3rd all time in GB, but it was in the little pool in Glasgow at the European Short Course Championships where she properly announced her arrival.
Gold in the 100m freestyle, in the second fastest GB performance all time, was swiftly followed by the same medal in the 200m freestyle in a new British Record. It would be easy to write these victories off as unimportant, that they were only short course and that they say little about what is to come in 2020. And while there may be an element of truth in that, that is to ignore the quality of the swimmers left in Freya’s wake; Federica Pellegrini, Femke Heemskerk and Beryl Gastaldello are no slouches and their defeats spoke volumes of the improved skills and confidence of the British lady. We can look forward to the new season with increasing optimism.
This was a breakthrough we’ve been waiting for. When Francesca Halsall retired Anna was the next fastest 50m freestyler in Britain and we watched and waited for the Ealing swimmer to step up into that gap. A year at Bath University saw some progress, but it was the move to train in the US at Arkansas with Neil Harper that saw a step change in her performances. She came into the British trials off a silver medal winning performance at the NCAA championships but it seemed she had fallen foul of Britain’s tough selection procedures and might not make it to the world championships. However wild cards were in fashion in 2019 and having been given the chance in Gwangju she grabbed it with both hands.
And how we sat up and took notice. A swim of 53.21 in the 100m freestyle heats made her the second fastest British woman all time and qualified her in third place. She repeated that trick in the 50m event, posting 24.34 in the semi finals to move again to second all time in GB and qualify for her first global final. There was more promise on show at the European Short Course Championships in Glasgow but equally signs that there is still room for improvement. That bodes well for Olympic year.
When Ilya Shymanovich posted a time of 58.29 in March 2019 to move to the second fastest performer all time in the 100m breaststroke, and narrowing the margin to the number 1 spot to a mere 1.19s, you can almost imagine Adam Peaty sitting down with his coach Mel Marshall in Loughborough and saying “OK, that’s close enough”.
We all knew it was coming, we just didn’t know when, but when Project 56 finally came to fruition that didn’t make it any less jaw dropping. It was 56.88 seconds of breaststroke genius, probably one of the greatest swims of all time, and with an astonishing margin over those in his wake. But whereas Adam had looked as surprised as the rest of us when he cracked 26s for 50m, his reaction here was simply one of satisfaction of a job done, the margin over the rest of the world opened back out to 1.41s, and all back as it should be.
It remains astonishing that Peaty has now broken 57 seconds when the rest of the word has yet to even properly threaten the 58 second barrier. That latter mark may be breached in Tokyo, but all indications remain that Peaty will still be in the far distance.
A new category for 2019 to reflect the fact that sometimes the greatest performances don’t produce the greatest races. Peaty’s 56.88 was astonishing but was not the best race you will ever see and there remains nothing to match the visceral thrill of a tight finish or comeback victory. The men’s medley team gave us both in Gwangju.
It all seemed to be going to the expected script. Luke Greenbank stepped up in the backstroke and Peaty gave his usual masterclass in the breaststroke, leaving James Guy to hang onto the coat tails of Caeleb Dressel on the fly leg. He did that well, touching third, only 0.1s behind Russia in second and sending Duncan Scott off on what we thought was a charge to win silver. After all he went in 1.11s behind the US quartet being anchored by one Nathan Adrian. It was all over bar the shouting we thought.
We thought wrong.
Scott hit the turn level with Russia and 0.3s closer to the US, but still it looked a done deal; we would back him to beat Vladimir Morozov over the second 50 but the US were home and hosed. And then Scott was closing on Adrian. And he was still closing. And then we thought actually he could do this. He drew level as the last 5m approached and got his hand to the wall first with his trademark straight armed finish, winning gold by 0.35s. The roar that left Scott was matched only by that emitted by a nation of swimming fans in Britain who could not believe what they had witnessed. The anchor split of 46.14 was the second fastest ever, bettered only by Jason Lezak in a shiny LZR, and had taken an incredible 1.56s out of the Americans. It was scarcely believable and reminded us all why we love sport.
In a country that hasn’t always been blessed with a plethora of sprint freestylers, the emergence of Matt Richards in 2019 has been great to see. When the Royal Wolverhampton School swimmer cracked 50s for the first time over 100m freesyle at the British Championships we nodded appreciatively. This was promise, but it didn’t really foretell what was to come later in the season.
At the European Junior Championships that PB was swiftly consigned to the dustbin in the heats, then rewritten again at 49.50 in the semis before a quite remarkable drop to 48.88 in the final to secure gold. A silver swiftly followed in the 200m event with a time of 1:47.23 – the 5th fastest by a Brit this year.
If that puts him into contention for the 4×200 freestyle relay in Tokyo, he’s also square in the fight for the 4×100 squad with Britain having qualified that team from world championships and looking increasingly like they may actually select it for the Olympics. Tellingly his time this year moves him ahead of Scott McLay, who swam so well in Korea, in the GB Rankings. With Lewis Burras having thrown down a 48.58 swim at the US Open seemingly out of nowhere, it looks like a mighty showdown is in prospect for that squad but don’t count out Richards from making the plane to Tokyo.