Heroes, rivals, records: Tokyo swimming had it all
Without 23-time gold medalist Michael Phelps for the first time since the Atlanta Games in 1996, the United States' gold count slipped from 16 at London and Rio to 11 this time around.
TOKYO — If anyone feared that Olympic swimming would lose its luster without Michael Phelps in the pool, the Tokyo Games proved the sport can thrive even without the record-breaking American.
Every day of racing produced memorable performances and the spread of medal winners ensured there were celebrations around the world from Wollongong to Maidenhead and Capetown to Xuzhou.
Without 23-time gold medalist Phelps for the first time since the Atlanta Games in 1996, the United States' gold count slipped from 16 at London and Rio to 11 this time around.
The Americans still ended the meet on top of the swimming medal table with 30 in total — but they were pushed close by the Australian team who achieved their best ever haul of nine golds and 20 medals overall — eight of their titles won by their astonishing women's team.
Britain also enjoyed unprecedented success with four golds, including victory in the newest event on the program, the 4x100 mixed medley relay.
But while team success delights home fans and helps secure funding for future Games, it is the individual stars that drive the sport's prime-time Olympic popularity.
The U.S demands personalities and they certainly found a new one in sprinter Caeleb Dressel who won three individual golds and five overall.
An all-American action-hero, Dressel won the 50m and 100m speed double and the 100m butterfly.
"I'm proud of myself, I think I reached what my potential was here at these Games," he said.
"It was just really fun racing. I'll give myself a pat on the back and then I'll just put it away and move forward," he added.
American Katie Ledecky was the dominant woman in swimming at the 2016 Rio Games, where she won four golds, but this time she faced a real challenger in Australian Ariarne Titmus.
'The Duel in the Pool' between the pair generated real excitement with Titmus, dubbed 'The Terminator', taking Ledecky's crown in 200m and 400m freestyle. But Ledecky proved untouchable in the longer distances winning gold in the 800m and 1,500m.
All sports benefit from great rivalries but typical of the spirit of swimming, the competitiveness remained strictly sporting.
"If we happen to get side-by-side, we’re going to have great races and be fierce competitors. But I hope we always have a great respect for each other. It’s been an honor and a privilege to race her," Ledecky said of Titmus.
Another Australian, Emma McKeon, made history by becoming the first woman swimmer to win seven medals in a single Games — four of them gold, including the 50 and 100 speed double.
“This has most definitely been Emma McKeon’s meet. She has been dominant. She’s been brilliant. She’s been fantastic. And it has been a pleasure to watch," said former Australian Olympic great Ian Thorpe.
“She skips across the water in a way that we don’t often see. She’s quite slight in her physicality but the way that she’s able to move through the water is impressive."
Britain expected — and received — gold from Adam Peaty in the 100 breaststroke but Tom Dean produced a welcome surprise in the 200m freestyle where he won gold ahead of teammate Duncan Scott.
Scott ended up with three silvers and a gold as part of the 4x200 freestyle relay team while Peaty won a second gold as Britain won the inaugural mixed medley relay.
There were two golds for Africa — Tunisian Ahmed Hafnaoui's shocking win in the men's 400m freestyle and then Tatjana Schoenmaker of South Africa taking gold with a world record time in the women's 200m breaststroke.
Hosts Japan had two golds in the pool to cheer thanks to Yui Ohashi in the 200 and 400 individual medley while China picked up three golds.
It was a disappointing Games for continental Europe though with Hungarian Kristof Milak's victory in the 200 fly and Russian Evgeny Rylov's double in the backstroke the only glory.
Rylov's triumph in the 200 backstroke prompted the only discord of the week as American Ryan Murphy, who lost both of his crowns to the Russian, claimed the race was "probably not clean" but then, after Rylov protested, backed away from any suggestion his opponent had been engaged in doping.
That was a reminder of the issues that have plagued swimming in the past but in Tokyo, it was the very best of sport on display with entertaining, tight races, day-after-day, despite all the obstacles posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
All that was missing were the local fans, as Australia's Cate Campbell recognized.
"We see them waving to us from the bus, and for them to not be able to be in the stands and celebrate what have been a hugely successful Games is a huge sacrifice," she said.