5 Men’s Storylines to Watch As the Olympic Year Rapidly Approaches

David Popovici of Romania reacts after competing in the 100m Freestyle Men Heats during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 26th, 2023.

5 Men’s Storylines to Watch As the Olympic Year Rapidly Approaches

The 2023 World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka hit at a perfect moment in the Olympic cycle. In some races, the old guard is still hanging on. In others, a new generation is emerging. And in others still, even in the condensed three-year hop from Tokyo to Paris, some of the talents that have come to the fore since 2021 have had their first taste of adversity and are faced with the task of regrouping before their first big moment on the Olympic stage.

All of the moving pieces—and the absences from Fukuoka—make for intrigue in the finishing stretch toward Paris. Here are five big storylines to watch as the Olympic year beckons:

Can David Popovici Recover for Paris?

Let’s first stipulate that David Popovici did not have, per se, a bad meet at Worlds. It’s just that when you enter as the world record holder in the 100 free and the holder of the fastest textile time in the 200 free and fail to medal in either, that constitutes falling short of expectations.

Popovici was off in two races where any lack of form will be roundly punished. He went 1:44.90 in the 200, which was 6-tenths off gold and a half-second behind bronze medalist Hwang Sun-Woo in a field that is getting faster by the day. In the 100, he went 47.83, nearly a second off his world record and 4-tenths off the podium.

Popovici has ascended to such heights so early in his career on a pedigree of being an outstanding racer. He courted challenges at major and minor meets all through 2022. That may have come back to hurt him this year, with a lack of an incisive edge in his swims in Fukuoka perhaps attributable to a lighter training workload.

“I need to train better,” he said after the 200. “I need to train more, and most importantly, I need to be more consistent. That’s the glue that holds it all together.”

Popovici’s limited program is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, he has a narrow range of skills to train. On the other, it means his meet can be over in a flash with little time to recover on the fly. Both races are uncommonly deep, the 200 in particular, which means he has no easy path, and the state of Romanian swimming is such that Olympic-level relays are unlikely to materialize by Paris.

But on the bright side, there’s little evidence of male swimmers who reach their peak at age 18 (he turned 19 on Sept. 15) and never progress. In all likelihood, this meet will end up a blip on the radar, one that Popovici could use to his advantage if he lets it fuel him for the next year.

Can Anyone Challenge Leon Marchand?

In the individual medleys, you fear the answer is, “not for a while.”

Leon Marchand of France celebrates after winning the gold medal in the 200m Individual Medley Men Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 27th, 2023.

Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

His 4:02.50 in the 400 IM in Fukuoka should indicate that everyone else is swimming for silver, and the purity of his strokes in that format makes you almost wish there was an 800 IM for him to contest. He’s only going to get better in each stroke in the next year, and while the four-minute mark seems ludicrous to ponder…well, let us do it anyway.

The 200 IM is less of a given, but Leon Marchand has the speed to get there.

Perhaps the only thing that can stop Marchand is…Marchand. There’s a danger, even with a nine-day meet, of reaching too far. The 200 breast and 200 fly being on the same days in Paris would seem to create a clear either/or, especially if France makes it in the 800 free relay, which falls on the same night.

France’s best chance at a relay medal is probably the 400 medley, given the outstanding meet by Maxime Grousset and the stalwart backstroking of Yohann Ndoye-Brouard. Prelims and finals of that race are on separate days, and both would be the only swim for Marchand.

There’s also the question of pressure, of a home Olympics in which Marchand will be one of the country’s highest-profile athletes. Managing the non-swimming aspects of it all will be as much a challenge as anything.

Solving the Male Distance Jumble

The male distance events in Fukuoka were chaotic in the best possible ways. When you consider that the 200 was decided by 2-hundredths of a second…and the 400 by 2-hundredths as well…and the 1500 by 5-hundredths—fans were left pinching themselves at the abundance of thrilling races.

Ahmed Hafnaoui of Tunisia reacts after winning the gold medal in the 1500m Freestyle Men Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 30th, 2023.

Ahmed Hafnaoui: Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Two swimmers made the podium for each of the three longest races. Ahmed Hafnaoui won the 800 and 1500 after silver in the 400. Sam Short won the 400, took silver in the 800 and scrapped his way to bronze in the 1500. That left Bobby Finke, the reigning double Olympic champion, with silver in the 1500 and bronze in the 800.

The acceleration in three years’ time is monstrous. Hafnaoui won the 400 free in Tokyo in 3:43.36—that time wouldn’t have even made the podium in Fukuoka—from a group of young swimmers who have Paul Biedermann’s 2009 world record on high alert. Finke was 3.2 seconds faster in the 800 in Fukuoka than Tokyo, yet he slid from first to third. His Tokyo time, then an American record, would’ve been a distant sixth. Finke’s Tokyo time in the 1500 likewise would’ve been off the podium in Fukuoka, he and Hafnaoui nearly outrunning Sun Yang’s world record.

It’s not going to get any easier to medal. Daniel Wiffen, who set a European record in the 800 and didn’t even medal, and Lukas Martens are in their early 20s. The old guard of Florian Wellbrock, Mykhailo Romanchuk and Gregorio Paltrinieri should have at least one more trick up their sleeves. It’s going to be appointment viewing in Paris.

The Caeleb Dressel Question?

DRESSEL Caeleb USA 100m Freestyle Men Heats Swimming FINA 19th World Championships Budapest 2022 Budapest, Duna Arena 21/06/22 Photo Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

The absence of Kristof Milak in the 200 butterfly, as the reigning world record holder, was glaring. Caeleb Dressel’s absence in the 100 fly didn’t feel quite as profound. And certainly in sprint freestyle, where favorite status seems an illusion, it was even less pressing.

But the American quintuple gold medalist in Tokyo still represents a void—in the American relay program if nothing else. Dressel’s status affects where the medals in the 50 free, 100 free and 100 fly will go. Even if his seven golds at Worlds in 2017 and six in 2019 seem long ago, he’s still a contender in all three events in Paris.

Whether or not he ever cracks 50 seconds in the 100 fly again or 47 in the 100 free is a valid question. And with his long hiatus, a shifting of expectations is necessary. He may not be “Caeleb Dressel, World Beater” anymore. But at anywhere near full strength, he’s a medal contender and a game changer for the American relay program.

Perhaps that’s the pivot for him in Paris, more of an early-stage Jason Lezak who prioritizes the 100 fly and one freestyle event (semis of the 100 fly and the 50 free final are the same session in Paris, for instance). If Dressel is in Paris, he’ll shape the expectations for medals.

Will There Be Drama in the Strokes?

A year out from Paris and the situation in the men’s stroke events looks…settled?

Qin Haiyang appeared well-nigh unbeatable in all manner of breaststroke. Hubert Kos’ outstanding 200 back aside, Ryan Murphy enters the Olympic year as the man to beat in the 100 backstroke, even more so if the Russians don’t return to the fold. The 100 butterfly may be the only stroke race of intrigue, as even Marchand’s brilliance in the 200 fly is barely scratching within two seconds of Milak’s best.

There are swimmers asking questions of the front-runners: What does Thomas Ceccon look like in a meet without 50s? Is Marchand a bigger challenger to Qin in the 200 breast or Milak in the 200 fly? Can some of these young European swimmers make a jump? Is there an American out there (Carson Foster? Matt Fallon?) who can make the jump into the gold conversation?

But the favorite status in Paris in most of the events appears written in permanent ink.

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