After the manic to and fro of last year, 2023 was a return to normality in the swimming calendar, with a summer world championships the sole focus. That championships also served as a reminder that Britain has become rather good at winning medals at global meets, but as is now tradition, we must pick the best of the bunch, so in the 24th annual edition, here are the pullbuoy swimmers of the year for 2023.
Male Swimmer of the Year: Matt Richards
Put simply, in 2023 Matt Richards was the man. A world title over 200m freestyle in Fukuoka and key contributions to gold in the 4×200 freestyle relay and bronze in the mixed 4×100 freestyle were the precursor to another 200m free title and relay gold and silver at the European short course championships in December.
Along the way he rode his luck, relying on Duncan Scott’s withdrawal from the 100 free to get his shot at worlds, but he paid back that bit of good fortune with three consecutive British Records as he moved the mark down to 47.45 and narrowly missed the podium. That improvement along with the medals are all evidence that his decision to step out of the British performance system and to forge his own path at Millfield is paying dividends.
Richards remains a vital cog in the British relay machine as Paris looms and his likely showdown with David Popvici promises to be a highlight of the meet. He’s got to get there first though, and world champion or not, there’s fireworks to come first at trials with numerous rivals lining up to knock him off his perch. But that’s for the future, for now 2023 was his year and in securing swimmer of the year honours, he completes a full house of individual pullbuoy awards, having been named as breakthrough swimmer in 2021 and young swimmer of the year in 2019.
Female Swimmer of the year: Lauren Cox
This was a category that ebbed and flowed right to the end of the year with a number of women in the frame. In the end it came down to the first individual global medal won by a British woman since 2016, secure by Lauren Cox with a superbly executed 50m backstroke as the deciding factor. Demonstrating exemplary skills that matched, or in some cases bettered, her more illustrious peers Cox put together two technically excellent swims in the semi and final of that event to secure a trip to the podium.
It may not have been in the Olympic event, but there was progress there too, with a maiden 100m backstroke trip under 60s in 59.79 at the Sette Colli meet, matched not once, but twice in Fukuoka. She will know better than anyone that there is another step to take if she wants to continue her journey in Paris, with a returning Kathleen Dawson showing some spark at European Short Course and Medi Harris remaining consistently quick, but 2023 is a successful springboard to work from.
An honourable mention is due here for a reinvigorated Abbie Wood who looked much more like the breakout swimmer we saw in 2020 as she took double European Short course gold.
Performance of the Year: Ben Proud
A dive, 15m underwater, breakout, turn, 15m underwater again and a surge to the finish and all without a single breath being taken. It was a race that gave us 20.18 seconds of almost pure perfection and gave Ben Proud gold at the European Short Course Championships in the second fastest time ever. Such was the dominance of the performance, Proud made a world class field look pedestrian, coming home over half a second and almost a body length ahead of his nearest competitor. The only suitable response, a simple “wow!”
Was his finish a touch long, costing the 0.02s that would have seen the swim set a world record? Only he will know, but one thing is sure, with this performance Proud has marked himself back as a contender for the top of the podium in Paris and, while there is plenty of time for things to change, maybe the only man who can challenge a resurgent Cam McEvoy. Until that showdown we can but marvel at a swim that was a thing of beauty.
Race of the year: Men’s 200 freestyle, Fukuoka 2023
This was seen as a racing certainty for David Popovici, with most commentators speaking more about whether he could break the world record than whether he would win gold. Pre meet discussion with Britain’s contenders was also focussed about how they needed to race him with Tom Dean telling the pullbuoy podcast that he intended to try and stay with the Romanian as much as possible to halfway and then bank on a strong finish to get himself past.
Well for Dean and Matt Richards, that plan was swiftly out of the window as Popovici took off like a shot from the gun and had a sizeable lead at halfway. Where the British tactics were spot on though, was finishing strongly; as Popovici faded badly in the home stretch the two British swimmers were doing the exact opposite, timing their surges to perfection in a blanket finish that could have seen one of 5 men take the gold. In the end it was Richards who got the touch, with Dean pushed out to silver by a fingernail, in a race of epic proportions.
Breakthrough Swimmer of the Year: Ollie Morgan
Even though British Swimming has been searching for a male backstroker for the medley relay for several years there can’t have been many observers who were looking at the Birmingham University programme for the swimmer who might fill that role. Step forward Ollie Morgan who came, if not from nowhere, certainly out of left field at April’s trials to secure a backstroke clean sweep, hacking over a second from his 100m best time in the process.
Fast forward to the world championships and the newly minted best time was duly reduced by another half a second with a string of 53 point swims moved him closer to the 52’s, finishing the week with a 53.25 blast in the final of the medley relay. This was not someone feeling their way into international competition but instead a performance suggestive of a swimmer comfortable in the elite arena.
Is there more to come? It’s become a very competitive event of late, but whatever happens in 2024, Morgan can look back on a breakthrough year with some considerable pride.
Young Swimmer of the Year: Amelie Blocksidge
Quite the year for 14 year old Amelie Blocksidge who was thrust into the swimming limelight with a string of eye catching performances across the season. She kicked things off by winning the British 1500m title on her 14th birthday itself, before rewriting a host of British Age group records, including taking down Sarah Hardcastle’s SC 1500m record and moving herself up to 2nd all time in the British rankings for that event, behind only new British Record Holder, Fleur Lewis.
And that wasn’t all – there were medals to go with the records including silver in the 1500m freestyle at the European Junior Championships, where she was only denied by senior European medallist from 2022 Merve Tuncel of Turkey, and gold over 5km in the equivalent open water event.
Will Paris come too soon? The nomination standard of 16:01.95 looks tough and there will be a fair old scrap with Lewis and maybe one or two others to contend with, but as Kevin Renshaw told us earlier in 2023, things can change quickly in the distance realm, so don’t count her out just yet.
Banner image: Patrick B. Kraemer/LEN