By Rod Gilmour
BUDAPEST (Reuters) – The world swimming championships will usher in a new era following the retirement of American great Michael Phelps when eight days of racing commence at Budapest’s Duna Arena on Sunday.
This will be the first global meeting since 1998 without either Phelps, holder of 23 Olympic gold medals and 26 world titles, or compatriot and six-time Olympic gold medalist Ryan Lochte who is ineligible to compete after a 10-month ban.
Although Phelps missed the 2013 and 2015 championships, it is his farewell after his final competitive race at the Rio Olympics which still resonates.
Phelps was the last to leave pool deck as he waved an emotional goodbye to a boisterous crowd after helping the U.S. to gold in the men’s 4×100 meters medley relay.
Nearly one year on, his departure has left a void as the sport searches for the next global star to take over the 32-year-old’s mantle.
A mixed medley relay, along with a men’s 800m and women’s 1500m freestyle races were last month added to the Tokyo 2020 program by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in a radical shake-up of the Games program.
However, if those changes were implemented to ensure gender parity across the sport, it is women’s elite swimmers who are likely to receive top billing in Budapest.
Following local favorite Katinka Hosszu’s trio of Olympic titles at last summer’s Olympics, an expectant nation will now be anticipating more bounty in the pool where she has been training for multiple individual tilts.
Following her Rio exploits, the self-billed ‘Iron Lady’ has entered six individual events across medley, backstroke, freestyle and butterfly. The 28-year-old is also bidding for a hat-trick of world titles in both the 200m and 400m individual medley.
Katie Ledecky of the United States is set to go one better.
Unbeaten at world championships, the American’s freestyle brilliance is set to continue in the Hungarian capital as she aims for a hat-trick of individual world titles in the 400m, 800m and 1500m.
Like Hosszu, she is entered into six events – and unless she scratches some races, the 20-year-old collegiate will undertake her most active schedule yet in a major meet.
Along with Hosszu and Ledecky, Swedish sprint star Sarah Sjostrom, 23, will be vying to win her first freestyle world title, having come to the fore with Olympic gold in the 100m butterfly, her signature event.
Top male swimmers to look out for in Budapest include Britain’s Olympic breaststroke champion Adam Peaty and South African Chad le Clos, who is aiming to put a disappointing Rio Games behind him after the defending champion finished outside of the medals in the 200m Olympic butterfly final.
Away from the pool, Julio Maglione will be seeking re-election at the helm of the sport’s international body, FINA, when a presidency vote is held on Saturday.
Maglione, 81, is considered favorite for a fourth term when he stands against Italy’s Paolo Barelli, the European Swimming Federation president.
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)